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Beach reads 

It's not just about sand and surf any more

You know how it is. You pack way too much stuff for the beach. I mean all you really need is a T-shirt, sunscreen, something to wear in the water and gallons of liquid. You'll pick up some cheap flip-flops there.

But reading material? You can never pack enough. It never fails that no matter which 10 or 12 books I take to the sand, what the guy in the nearby chair is reading looks way better than what I brought.

We want to make it easy for you, so we've compiled our beach read picks for summer '04. A beach read isn't an assignment, a library book, or even a book club book. They're special. So we've included our beach blanket ratings, one to five sandcastles, assessing their best-for-the-beach potential.

Digital Fortress, by Dan Brown, St. Martin's Press, $7.99
An old fashioned, page-turning thriller. Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code has owned the bestseller lists for nearly a year. An earlier book, Angels and Demons, is currently on both the hardback and paperback New York Times bestseller lists. With search technology and computer surveillance and security issues headlining today's news, it's no surprise Digital Fortress would be popular, too. Racing, twisting plots of mathematical codes, national defense, betrayal, romance, computer hacking and murder combine for a seductive summer selection. Thing is, Brown wrote this techo-mystery seven years ago, though it reads like it's set in 2006.

There's a stolen gold ring secretly engraved with a pass-key code, a brilliant, beautiful female lead cryptographer, jets landing all over the world at uncharted destinations and lots of threats to national security. You'll never trust e-mail again!

Time is always running out and the clock is always ticking in Brown's books. Will the girl get the guy, will the computer screen go blank, is he really who he says he is? What was that secret password again?

You get the idea, important questions!

Beach blanket rating: ****
A fat, low brow, easy traveling, 430-page, pocket size paperback. Though it sounds like it, it's not rocket science, just summer fun distraction.

When the Messenger is Hot, by Elizabeth Crane, Little Brown, $12.95
Just out in paperback, this book was a critic's favorite, from Entertainment Weekly to The New York Times. Think chick-lit meets The New Yorker, women with razor-sharp wit and a droll dating weariness; "Sex in the City" for people without TVs. This is Crane's first story collection, very urban and obsessively observant of that man-woman thing always going on.

Like bonus tracks on DVD's, many new trade paperbacks now include a dozen pages of added features, usually pretty lightweight stuff. Crane's extras, however, are wonderful: a great essay on influences that she wrote for an online magazine and a wild interview from The Chicago Tribune called "When the Writer is Hot."

Crane's women are cool, wary and clever. It's not that the men aren't, too, they're just, well, not as important to the plot. The girls move it right along, thank you very much.

Beach blanket rating: ****1/2
If you're carrying a Prada beach bag, can give directions to the nearest Starbucks and don't look married.

Condensed Knowledge: A Feast for Hungry Minds, by the Editors of mental_ floss magazine, HarperCollins Publishing, $14.95
Want to feel smart again?

Just a few years ago these guys were walking around Durham (bein' smart) brains exploding with ideas. Just out of Duke, they started the magazine mental_floss, got a national distribution deal and cornered the market on facts and trivia, from dorm room to board room, with regular gigs on "CNN Headline News."

If you like theories, explanations and history with an edge, Will Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudor are your guys. Who else would publish a special swimsuit issue featuring 15 geniuses, from Albert Einstein to Eleanor Roosevelt, ready to hit the surf?

Tight, witty not-your-everyday-term-paper essays dominate the book. Condensed Knowledge is divided into 15 subjects that allow you to become an expert in art history ("Scandals That Rocked Art" and "Greatest Sculptors of All Time") or literature ("Literary Works That Changed Everything" and "Writers Who Didn't Need No Degree") or philosophy ("Great Books That Won't Put You to Sleep" and "Behind the Philosophy: Bad Boys of Thought").

Bold "What's The Difference" and "Myths and Misconceptions" sidebars get you to the bottom of every academic field. Read this book and you can talk to anyone about anything, you Ivy League slacker, you!

Beach blanket rating: ***
Maybe not so great on the beach, but at the cocktail hour or after dinner, you will rule any conversation. As in, "Well, I just learned ..."

Ten Little Indians, by Sherman Alexie, Grove Atlantic, $13.00
Sherman Alexie kills. With words. He could be a stand-up comic, a spoken word hipster, a full time Hollywood screenwriter or an Indian lobbyist/provocateur.

Indians is a collection of great short stories, covering the usual Alexie terrain with his exquisite eye for detail and ear for dialogue. His heroes are ordinary, his settings everyday, his storytelling hypnotic.

Looking for themes and metaphors? Try basketball, a Chocolate Thunder vibrator, terrorism, white liberals, motherhood and self-esteem. Alexie weaves his plots around contemporary pop-culture references, the familiar landscapes of McDonalds and natural food grocery stores,

This book was a Publishers Weekly Book of the Year and especially on the West Coast appeared on a dozen best books of the year lists. Read the book, see the movies!

Beach blanket rating:****1/2
Would have been five, except you read it all in one afternoon. Plus, makes you anti-social, because all you want to do is keep reading.

Pattern Recognition, by William Gibson, Berkley, $14.00
Cayce Pollard predicts the buzz. She scouts clubs, the Web, Europe and the Lower East Side, tiny restaurants and sprawling airports. As a "coolhunter," she travels light and communicates spare, precise takes on events and fashions of the day. Her business is intelligence and sometimes it gets dangerous.

Author William Gibson invented cyberpunk. He plays with words, observing pop culture with humor and a curious, almost scientific eye. This is his first book set in the present. It moves quickly, with fresh tension on every page, as Pollard tracks underground video footage, bytes of which appear on the Internet at odd times.

Beach blanket rating: *****
Just out in paperback this spring, this book is peer-to-peer hot. This is the book you'll finish reading and be able to trade with your deck-mate for a pitcher of iced tea.

Shadowmancer, by G. P. Taylor, Putnam, $16.99
Beware of the Vicar Obadiah.

The publisher pushed up the domestic release of this young adult fantasy-thriller as the rest of the world clamored for copies. The first book out of England labeled, "the next Harry Potter," that really deserves that tag.

Demonic forces pit good against darkness, and God and his angels battle sorcerers who speak with the dead. Taylor weaves folklore and fear together like a master. And it's his first book; he published the original edition himself, selling them off the back of his motorcycle.

Beach blanket rating: *****
The perfect read-aloud for the whole family. Only in hardback, it will survive a bit of sand; a warning however: leave the lights on.

Disinformation Book of Lists, by Russ Kick, The Disinformation Company, $16.95

You've never seen a book like this. Kick is a digger, an investigative journalist who gets the weirdest stuff, and his thing is suppressed facts and subversive trivia. Chapter headings? How about these: "Feds and Spooks," "War and Peace," "Sex," "Religion," "Movies" and "Pulp Fiction." A total of 89 annotated, footnoted, eye-opening lists. (From "Seven CIA Plots to Kill Castro" to "Nineteen Profanely Named Bands").

Used to annoying the Bush administration, it was Russ Kick--using the Freedom of Information Act--who won recent release (and put them up on the Web) of the stark photographs of the flag-draped caskets of soldiers being returned from Iraq.

Beach Blanket rating: ****
Might be a little too real for a beach "escape," but unique and entertaining. Note: you probably won't find this book at the fishing pier tackle shop. EndBlock

  • It's not just about sand and surf any more

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