2009-06-24 / Arts & Entertainment News

This Summer's MUSTS

BY NANCY STETSON nstetson@floridaweekly.com

O K, IT'S SUMMER. Traditionally, time to hit all those books you've been meaning to read.

"War and Peace." "Finnegan's Wake." "Gravity's

Rainbow." "Crime and Punishment."

Yeah, right.

Who are you kidding?

Here's a look at some good beach reads for the summer. (Though any Southwest Floridian with half a brain or sense of self-preservation will be spending most of their time indoors, with the AC cranked on high.)

These books are entertaining reads, whether you're sweating on a beach or sitting in the comfort of a cool


Many are mysteries or thrillers, but penned by writers who care as much about the beauty of a sentence as they do the pace of the plot.

And the majority of them are debut novels, which gives us hope of more fun reading in the summers ahead.

>>"Still Water" by Nigel McCrery ($23.95, Pantheon Books)

Detective Chief Inspector Mark Lapslie is called back to work when a driver has a fatal accident: when the car veers off the road, it digs a deep gouge into the land, uncovering a

>>"Still Water" by Nigel McCrery ($23.95, Pantheon Books) >>"Still Water" by Nigel McCrery ($23.95, Pantheon Books) corpse.

Suffering from synaesthesia, a neurological condition that causes different tastes to fill his mouth when he hears sounds, Lapslie tries to discover who the killer is, while navigating a world that threatens to overwhelm him with unexpected, and not always pleasant, tastes.

The novel alternates chapters, following Lapslie, then an older woman who preys on rich, lonely, elderly women, poisoning them and taking on their identities.

"Still Waters" is a page-turner, with flashes of humor and humanity mixed among the corpses and killing. Novelist Nigel McCrery, a former police officer in England, is also the creator of the TV series "Silent Witness."

>>"The American Painter Emma Dial" by Samantha Peale ($24.95, W.W. Norton & Company)

I've been thinking about the novel "The American Painter Emma Dial" for more than a week now, and my thoughts and feelings keep shifting.

It's a debut novel, wellwritten. I liked Samatha Peale's sentences. But I have no empathy for the title character and actually wound up disliking her.

>>"The American Painter Emma Dial" by Samantha Peale ($24.95, W.W. Norton & Company) >>"The American Painter Emma Dial" by Samantha Peale ($24.95, W.W. Norton & Company) Emma Dial, a 31-year-old painter, works as the assistant to a very famous painter. She does more than "assist," she paints his paintings for him, from start to finish. He hasn't painted in years. (And novelist Samantha Peale is great at presenting this milieu, as she herself attended the School of the Art Institute and worked as a studio assistant to Jeff Koons.)

But Emma's also sleeping with her boss, who's married. He stops by whenever it's convenient for him, and she willingly accommodates him. She's given up everything for him, including creating her own paintings. Eventually (plot spoiler here) she starts sleeping with her boss's rival, an internationally known painter 23 years her senior. Because of his attention, she gathers the nerve to quit her job. She's star struck, and greatly attracted to his power and reputation. It seems more a calculated career move on her part than a relationship based on love and passion.

The book has an insider's knowledge of the art world and the marketing of art. And while it encourages the importance of finding your own creative path and staying true to yourself, Emma doesn't seem to do that. She just seems to think she can sleep her way to the top of the art world.

>> "No Survivors" by Tom Cain ($25.95, Viking) >> "No Survivors" by Tom Cain ($25.95, Viking) And who knows? Maybe she can.

>> "No Survivors" by Tom Cain ($25.95, Viking)

As the book jacket describes, protagonist Samuel Carver is a man trained to make bad things happen, whether it's a plane or car crash — and make it look like an accident. Think of a renegade James Bond, and you'll get a good idea of what Carver's like.

The novel — the second in the "Accident Man" series — opens with Carver in a sanitarium, just a shell of his former self, due to the physical and psychological torture he recently experienced. But then, his girlfriend goes missing and various people want to find the Russian suitcase nukes hidden around the world. That includes a religious fanatic who wants to personally start Armageddon, and a retired U.S .Army general who wants to use a nuke to draw attention to the dangers of radical Islamic terrorism.

>>"Beat the Reaper" by Josh Bazell ($24.99, Little, Brown and Company) >>"Beat the Reaper" by Josh Bazell ($24.99, Little, Brown and Company) Like a James Bond movie, the action hops around the globe, from Washington, D.C., to Russia to Kosovo to Norway to the French Riviera.

The writing is a cut above typical plot-driven books of this kind; novelist Tom Cain is the nom de plume of David Thomas, an award-winning British journalist.

>>"Beat the Reaper" by Josh Bazell ($24.99, Little, Brown and Company)

First thing: ignore the cover, which doesn't do justice to this wild and wooly story about Peter Brown, who's in the Federal Witness Protection Program. He used to kill people for the Mafia. Now,

he's saving lives as a doctor interning at Manhattan's worst hospital.

The novel opens with him being mugged. Reacting on instinct, he breaks the mugger's arm and nose and steals his gun. Then he drops him off in the ER.

Dr. Brown is a superbly wise-ass narrator: rude, crude, and totally irreverent. There's talk of the book being turned into a movie. I suspect it won't be half as good, because the narrator's voice, and his various footnotes and explanations, are a big part of what makes "Beat the Reaper" so much fun.

>>"The Little Giant of Aberdeen County" by Tiffany Baker ($24.99, Grand Central Publishing) >>"The Little Giant of Aberdeen County" by Tiffany Baker ($24.99, Grand Central Publishing) The novel not only contains shoot- 'em-up gore, but medical gore as well, including, among other things, an entire chapter describing stomach cancer surgery. (Author Josh Bazell has a BA in English literature and writing from Brown University and an MD from Columbia, which makes him the ideal person to write such a novel.)

Trouble starts when Dr. Brown runs into a wiseguy who's a patient at the hospital. He fears his cover is blown. Dr. Brown has to "beat the reaper" by keeping not only the mobster's death at bay, but his own.

An entertaining and whirlwind first novel.

>>"The Little Giant of Aberdeen County" by Tiffany Baker ($24.99, Grand Central Publishing)

"The Little Giant of Aberdeen County" has been called modern southern gothic and compared to John Irving's "Garp." If you enjoy films such as "Big Fish" and "The Princess Bride," this is your kind of book.

>>"Old City Hall" by Robert Rotenberg ($26, Farrar, Straus and Giroux)  >>"Old City Hall" by Robert Rotenberg ($26, Farrar, Straus and Giroux) Tiffany Baker has spun a fantastical tale about Truly Plaice, a giant living in smalltown America. When her mother was pregnant with her, people thought she must be carrying twins. The townspeople even place bets as to how big her baby would be. When Truly is born, the doctor declares her "ugly as sin and heavy as an ox."

Truly faces rejection and teasing everywhere she turns; her older sister, Serena Jane, is everything she's not: the most beautiful girl in town. As Truly says, "The reason the two of us were as opposite as sewage and spring water, I thought, was that pretty can't exist without ugly."

A stunning debut. Tiffany Baker has a way with words that makes you want to savor her sentences. I'll be curious to see what she writes next.

>>"Old City Hall" by Robert Rotenberg ($26, Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

When his morning newspaper is delivered to his luxury condo, Canada's leading talk-show host meets the deliveryman at the door and says, "I killed her." He's referring to

>>"Dream City" by Brendan Short ($22, MacAdam/Cage) >>"Dream City" by Brendan Short ($22, MacAdam/Cage) his wife in the bathtub — who is indeed, very dead. It's seems as if it's a slam-dunk case, especially with Brace's self-incriminating words, but then loose threads begin to unravel. And Brace refuses to talk with his lawyer, communicating only in writing.

Rotenberg 's a criminal lawyer who, according to the "note about the author' created, edited and published his own city magazine, T.O., The Magazine of Toronto, so he possesses a unique blend of knowing how lawyers work and a talent for stringing words together in interesting ways.

The novel traces the paths of the first cop on the scene, the homicide detective, the prosecuting attorney and the defending attorney. We follow this ensemble around as they slowly put the pieces together. And in this gripping debut novel, the hockey-mad city of Toronto is just as much a character as the flesh-and-blood people.

Other lawyers have written legal thrillers that have wound up on the Best Seller list, but "Old City Hall" has much more substance and literary weight. It's not just a page-turner, it's well-written. You want to simultaneously read quickly to discover what happens and read slowly to savor the writing. It's the type of legal thriller that would appeal to people who don't even care for the genre.

>>"Loser's Town" by Daniel Depp ($25, Simon & Schuster) >>"Loser's Town" by Daniel Depp ($25, Simon & Schuster) >>"Dream City" by Brendan Short ($22, MacAdam/Cage)

The cover of this debut literary novel features a square-jawed hero, complete with fedora and trench coat, a la Dick Tracy; the inside features a young boy, Michael, who experiences the

world as such a terrifying place that he finds refuge in the weekly Sunday comics and in Big Little Books.

The Big Little Books have heroes he looks up to: Flash Gordon, Dick Tracy, Buck Rogers, Mike Steele. Michael wishes they would come to his rescue, or that he could be like them. His father, a failed boxer, does dirty work for a local gangster, and his mother dies when he's only seven.

Michael grapples with childhood, then, as an adult, struggles in a world that's no kinder than the one he grew up in. He finds refuge by hunting down the Big Little Books of his childhood, combing the streets and suburbs of Chicago.

Skilled novelist Brendan Short juxtaposes the world of pop culture heroes and the Century of Progress with the bleakness and despair of day-to-day living.

>>"Loser's Town" by Daniel Depp ($25, Simon & Schuster)

You have to love a book that starts out with one lowlife asking another, "How many dead bodies have you seen?" The man thinks, then responds, "You mean, like, in a funeral home, or just laying around?"

A loser's town was what the late Robert Mitchum called Hollywood. "You can make it here if you can't make it anywhere else," he said.

And yes, "Loser's Town" is a novel about Hollywood — a behind-the-scenes look. It's not the glamorous side, it's turning over the rock and seeing what slithers and skitters out. This is a debut novel by a man who knows Hollywood; Daniel Depp is a screenwriter (and yes, half-brother to that famous actor.) Some will try to guess who he's based his characters on, but in his author's note, he claims that, "Any resemblance in this book to people living or dead is purely coincidental and will merely be taken by the author as a tribute to his genius."

"Loser's Town" features David Spandau, a private investigator, rodeo rider and former Hollywood stunt man. The premise of the book is a little shaky — Spandau is hired to protect an actor being blackmailed by a small-time gangster who wants him to star in a script he's written, but the writing is horrible.

This is a funny, seedy novel about low-lifes, wannabes, actors, and everyone else drawn to Hollywood. And the cover refers to it as "A David Spandau novel," which means that there are more to come.

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