Sunday, May 06, 2007

Paperbacks for the Beach: The Summer Reading List

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You know what? The past few weeks have been kind of a drag. Shootings at Virginia Tech, the steadily mounting body count in Iraq, Bush vetoing funding for the troops -- it's enough to get a columnist down. What I need is a trip to the beach.

Now, there are lots of great things about a beach trip. Sleeping late. Chowing down on seafood. But one of my favorite things about a jaunt to the coast is extended time to read.

I love kicking back in the sun on the beach, or in the shade on the deck, with a cold beer beside me and a good book in my hand. So for something a little more cheerful this week, I thought I'd share my recommendations for some good paperbacks to fit into the beach bag (and occasionally a hardcover to pick up once you get home).

Full disclosure time: Pretty much all the books referenced here are by friends of mine or people I've met out on the road promoting my own stuff. Don't let that worry you. They're still good. Hey, have I ever steered you wrong before?

When reading by the sea, what could be more fitting than a series of mysteries set in the Caribbean? Bob Morris' Bahamarama and Jamaica Me Dead are fast-paced and funny, with one of the most appealing protagonists around.

Zack Chasteen is an ex-Miami Dolphins linebacker who, as the first book opens, is getting out of federal prison where he's been doing time for a crime he didn't commit. Things take off from there, livened up by Zack's wry, wise-ass narration. Think "The Rockford Files" meets Jimmy Buffett. And when you get back, pick up Bob's latest hardcover, Bermuda Schwartz. (You think those titles are something; Bob swears his next one, set on a cruise ship, is titled Ship Happens.)

Kristy Kiernan's debut novel, Catching Genius, also has a (mostly) coastal setting, namely the Gulf Coast of Florida. Unlike the other books on this list, however, it's not a mystery or a thriller. In fact, this isn't my usual sort of book at all, meaning that no one gets shot, blown up, or dismembered. But despite such "flaws," this story of two sisters who grew apart when one was found to have a genius level IQ hooked me from the first chapter. Years later, as the estranged siblings return to prepare the family's beach house for sale, old hurts and painful memories come to the surface and finally boil over, with life-changing results.

Kiernan's loving description of coastal Florida reminds me at times of another one of my literary heroes, Pat Conroy, but her touch is lighter, more restrained. What really sets this book apart, though, are the characters. These people seem so real, you feel like you could go to the phone book and look up their numbers.

Moving away from the coast, and back in time, Tasha Alexander's And Only to Deceive is a murder mystery set in Victorian England and a must-read for lovers of historical mysteries. Alexander's heroine, Lady Emily Ashton, has one of the most unusual voices in the genre.

She admits in the first sentence of the book that she married, not for love, but to get away from her dragon of a mother. She initially saw the fact that her husband was a devoted big-game hunter who spent months away from home as an asset, since she'd have his money and his title without having to have the guy hanging around all the time and telling her what to do. But when he dies under mysterious circumstances, the inquisitive and independent-minded Emily begins finding out surprising things, not only about him but also about herself.

It's that journey that sets And Only to Deceive apart. And when you get back, the second book in the series, A Poisoned Season is out in hardcover, and I'm happy to say that Emily's further adventures are as fascinating as the first.

Last but not least, a man who, as they say, needs no introduction. Lee Child's The Hard Way is the 10th thriller featuring ex-military cop Jack Reacher, and it's definitely the best yet. Reacher is, purely and simply, a bad-ass. Tough as nails, merciless on bad guys, and totally fearless, he makes Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer look like a pansy.

But Child wisely manages to keeps the character from becoming a caricature. Reacher makes mistakes. He's also got a soft spot in his heart for damsels in distress and the people who have been screwed over (some in really gruesome ways) by the villain. Watching him set things right through all the plot twists and reversals of fortune is pure pleasure, every time. And when you get back, the new Reacher, Bad Luck and Trouble, will be out.

So, happy reading! Be sure to wear your sunscreen.

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