After promising a new summer reading recommendation every week, we conveniently left the laptop at home when we slipped away for a mid-summer vacation to the shore. We'll try to make up for it this week with three(!) recommendations.
Our excursion got us thinking about what exactly constitutes a "beach book." The term is often synonymous with trashy romance, formulaic thrillers from the grocery-store checkout line, and any other proud and mindless drivel. But perhaps that's unfair to the beach.
As discriminating readers, we seek a higher caliber of beach reading. The beach books we sampled over vacation fulfilled the tenants of good beach reading — fun, fast plots that allow you to easily pick up the storyline after the inevitable distractions from kids, traffic and scantily clad sunbathers, and also short enough to finish either on the beach or the car ride home — but also left an indelible mark in our imaginations that will always help define this particular vacation. (For instance, when we look at pictures of that trip to Florida several years ago, we still fondly recall the lewd parlor trick performed by the Victorian-era prostitute in Michel Faber's decidedly unbeachy, 800-page-plus opus The Crimson Petal and the White.)
First, we completed The Devil's Punchbowl by Greg Iles (pictured above), a book we'd begun on the mainland before his visit to Turnrow last week. Iles' novels are fast-paced best-sellers — he just debuted at #4 on the New York Times list — typical beach fare but for the fact that they're not your standard whodunnit or police procedural. In Iles' fiction, you'll find an upstanding character who is thrust into an ugly situation while the reader roots for him or her to get out. During his talk last week at Turnrow, he said he was fascinated in the capacity for evil that lurks in average people. He doesn't shy away from the uglier aspects of life, which tends to conflict some of his readers ("His head ain't right," one fan recently proclaimed) but always keeps them coming back for more.
In The Devil's Punchbowl, the upstanding character in question is Penn Cage, a former attorney and novelist who has turned up in few of Iles' previous books. Cage, now the disillusioned mayor of Natchez, becomes privy to some disturbing information about the practice of prostitution and dog-fighting within the town's burgeoning casino industry. When the casino heavies put the squeeze on Cage, the plot ratchets up.
There are plenty of thrills, disturbing situations, and page-turning action scenes, but readers have come to Iles in increasing numbers because his sensational plots are believable, he is a thoughtful storyteller, and his inspired heroes warrant dogged devotion. We were as intrigued by Penn Cage's journey as we were by the well-crafted suspense. And while Iles' audience grows with every book, local readers may be especially loyal because he has a unique gift for expressing a fondness for Mississippi, not through saccharine plot devices and familiar tropes, but by glaring through the lens of our real-life social problems and finding the underlying goodness. Order a signed copy here.
There are an equally twisted cast of characters in Rain Gods, the new novel by James Lee Burke. Actually, we must admit that, prior to this, we'd never read Burke, even though we've sold untold copies of his books and recommended him to customers based on widespread admiration for his work. In addition to the novel's intriguing plot, we chose the new book as our entry point to Burke because it strays outside his famous Dave Robicheaux series ... and because we just received a batch of signed first editions.
The hero is Hackberry Holland, an aging sheriff in a Texas border town, haunted by his past in a POW camp in Korea and given to sage pondering. He's seen it all and has little fear, which comes in handy when he must confront Jack Collins, a.k.a. the Preacher. Here we have two sides of the same coin, both men wise and disturbed in their own unique ways. Between the two poles of this story are a mass grave of machine-gunned Asian prostitutes, feuding strip club magnates, a double-crossing hitman, a fugitive Iraqi war veteran and his tough folk singer girlfriend, grim G-men, and a sexy deputy who wants a piece of her troubled superior, who is old enough to be her father.
We quickly learned what makes Burke such a perennial favorite. He's a craftsman and stylist from the old school who can set a scene and draw a vivid character with few words. He blesses his characters with fresh, punchy dialogue and doesn't mind letting them stray from the action to carry on a conversation over dinner or ruminate at the end of the day, and none of it trifling observation or wheel-spinning. There is a laid-back pace to this suspense that is perfectly suited for the desert setting.
Finally, we caught up with one of last summer's national favorites, now in paperback, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Scandinavian suspense is becoming quite popular these days, but this novel by Stieg Larsson is perhaps the most famous of recent imports.
Journalist Mikael Blomkvist is struggling to keep his life and career upright after a devastating libel case, which came with the likelihood of imprisonment. Left with few options, he plummets into a family mystery at the appointment of the head of one of Sweden's wealthiest scions. Blomkvist's search leads him through the underbelly of Swedish industrialism, accompanied by an unlikely ally, a young pierced and tattooed genius hacker named Lisbeth Slander. Together, the two delve into a remarkable mystery, with sophisticated and dangerous depths.
If the plot sounds familiar, rest assured this is not your average mystery. The craftsmanship is impeccable. Larsson is careful with his characters. Each is believable, intriguing and pertinent to the authentic story, which simmered in the beginning, enticing us into the investigation, then engulfed us before we knew it. There was no putting this one down until its thrilling conclusion.
Unfortunately, the author Larsson died after submitting this and two subsequent manuscripts, thus never having the opportunity to see his work reach its potential. Fortunately, American audiences will be treated to his second book, The Girl who Played with Fire, later this month. It may just be the perfect excuse for a return to the beach.