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Reading outside the dune 

A week's worth of great reads

Beach Read Rule of Thumb No. 1 is the literary equivalent of a Rolling Stones' riff: You can't always read what you want. Whatever backpack of books you bring to the beach, the book that guy or girl on the next deck over is reading is the book you'll really want. Happens all the time--you "like" your book, but your best friend is just going nuts over their book (and you're third in line to borrow it).

Rule of Thumb No. 2 is a survival tip: Take a book for each day you're on vacation. Gone for a week, do the math. You may not read them all, but you won't run out and you'll have lots to trade as your friends check out your stash (and heeding rule No. 1, they'll wish they had some of your great books!).

Here's a week's worth.

The Hot Kid
Elmore Leonard
Morrow, 320 pp., $25.95

Everything Elmore Leonard writes turns to gold. First on The Times bestseller list, then box office movie gold. And for good reason. He writes great dialogue, and his scenes are set so coolly they just beg for screen treatments.

Leonard dropped back to the Prohibition era to write this period piece: bank robbers losing it in the bank, Tommy guns and speaks, good girls gone bad, all kinds of "OK Corral" showdowns (E.L. knows the craft--he got his start writing B-grade westerns).

Carl Webster is the hot kid, a U.S. Marshall hunting bank robbers. He is slowly becoming a celebrity, profiled in the daily papers and True Detective. When he busts the bad guys he utters his big line: "If I have to pull my weapon I'll shoot to kill."

The Traveler
John Twelve Hawks
Random House, 464 pp., $24.95

Wow. This book is exciting! Vintage Don DeLillo, with deft nods to Neil Gaiman and Phillip Pullman. The Travelers live off the grid, leaving no traces to be tracked by the all-powerful Tabula. Everything in society is tracked by surveillance networks. (You'll never walk through an airport or any public area without first confirming exits and security cams.)

Maya Strand is a Harlequin warrior, strong with a sword, quick with her feet. In his debut novel Hawks pits Maya against the Vast Machine, dueling and hiding in Prague, Los Angeles, Arizona and New York. Car chases, prophets, rabid animals and a bit of phase-shifting make this book total escape reading. "Normal" life? You'll be a total paranoid reading this. You want enlightenment stories, secret societies and some serious evil? Climb on board this cosmic summer thriller.

New Stories from the South, 2005 Edition
Edited by Shannon Ravenel
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 328 pp., $13.95

Short stories rule on the dunes. They go great with short attention spans and breaks for iced tea and SPF redo's. The best annual anthology for our turf is Shannon Ravenel's annual collection. Not too Southern, never predictable, each harvest is unique. Jill McCorkle's intro is heartwarming and the stories chosen are engaging. Broadway darling Elizabeth Spencer contributes a sweet tale about affection across generations. (Best line: "He knew how to listen to older people in an attentive way.") Dennis Lehane rips your heart out with a father/son story with the first line "Your father picks you up from prison in a stolen Dodge Neon...."

Blackbird House
Alice Hoffman
Ballantine Books, 256 pp., $13.95

Any book by Alice Hoffman is the best beach book. Her closeness to mood and magic, the way her stories always ooze with nature and foreboding. Her latest, Blackbird House, just out in paperback, is beach-perfect, set on a farm on Cape Cod, where "weather is huge." A dozen interrelated stories tell the history of families living in the same house from 1700 to present. Hoffman is so in touch with the frailties and humor of the human spirit. A recent breast cancer survivor, she details loneliness, mother/daughter relationships, "accidents" and courage with a loving touch.

One Shot
Lee Child
Delacorte Press, 384 pp., $25.00

Go genre with this page-turner. Child's hero is Jack Reacher, an ex-military investigator. He's called in to help on a too-clean looking multiple homicide from a parking deck. Lots of clues, lots of forensics, the book flat out reads like a breaking CNN news crawl. Reacher is kind of private, kind of a mystery. (The Seattle Times calls him "the thinking reader's action hero.") He has that loner edginess when quizzing everyone, making for some great encounters on elevators, in speeding cars, on shooting ranges. The police arrest the wrong guy too quickly. The mayor wants a conviction fast. Reacher wants justice. But nothing comes easy in this present-day noir rouser.

Plastic Angel
Nerissa Nields
Orchard Books, 256 pp., $17.95

The beach book for your middle schooler. It's about the summer before high school, a romp between "almost famous" and "almost popular." It's about the whirl of two girls, one especially who just wants to play her guitar. As expected, some great mother/daughter moments ("Mom, your challenges are so pathetic!") and girl-bonding scenes give this book an immediate feel. What happens when the town's little angel writes her first song and makes her first best friend?

Two bonuses: Plastic Angel comes with a free two-song CD, and you can catch the author singing with her sister in their band The Nields this weekend at the Festival for the Eno!

The Ties That Bind: Bruce Springsteen, A to E to Z
Edited by Gary Gruff
Visible Ink, 600 pp., $24.95

Everything Bruce. What do you know? You know nothing!

This big book of Bruce is way, way too much fun if you're a fan. If not, well, get a Cold Play book or one about your iPod. The local Bruce-aholics over at Backstreets had a lot to do with it. But so did a frenzied journalistic army of information maniacs. This encyclopedia includes a list of every show (3/18/71, Deal Park, N. J. to 12/19/04, Asbury Park, N.J.) and a list of every live guest appearance (Steve Earle, Joan Baez, Jimmy Cliff, John Prine, Tom Petty, Jah Love...).

The book includes Bono's speech when he says, "He's not the boss, he's the owner!" I learned Bruce and I were in the audience at the same Who show in Asbury Park when they were the opening act for Herman's Hermits. There are 560 pages of entries, photos and lore, no fluff. But it's not everything, you know. Crank up your sandy beach radio for the rest.

One last thing: In Jersey, this book would be called the perfect shore read.

Contributing writer John Valentine can be reached at ajcg@acpub.duke.edu.

More by John Valentine

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