VLS Beach Blanket Books

On Comics, Thrillers, and the Bodily Arts

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from Caricature by Daniel Clowes

Summer Blonde
By Adrian Tomine
Drawn and Quarterly, 132 pp., $24.95

Henry James deemed "summer afternoon" the most beautiful phrase in the English language; comic-book artist Adrian Tomine makes a case for Summer Blonde, conjuring an even headier collision of sense and season. The cover sports a pouty babe in tank top; that the story in question is as much about a sociopathic stalker and a ménage-à-trois artiste as the titular fair-haired girl is a buried punchline of sorts. In these four immaculately rendered novellas (from Tomine's "Optic Nerve" series), the frisson lies in the way the airtight style bears the mess and the sadness of sex.

These SoCal characters languish under the sign of the noonday demon, their lives punctuated by purchases of quiet desperation that only make things worse. A developing borderline personality gets a self-help book from her well-meaning sister; a boy receives an unwanted C + C Music Factory album from his mother's suitor ("Look . . . just take the god damn tape, okay?" the man mutters); a sad-sack voyeur buys birthday cards he doesn't need for the proximity it affords to the comely cashier. Emotionally adroit, with expertly detonated Carveresque epiphanies and Pekarian silences, Summer Blondeis compulsive melancholy. —Ed Park


STAY
By Nicola Griffith
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 303 pp., $23.95
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Aud ("rhymes with shroud") Torvingen, the narrator of Nicola Griffith's compelling new thriller, Stay, is one scary, gorgeous creature. A six-foot, ice-eyed former cop and martial artist, the Norwegian-born Aud is in mourning for her lover, Julia, murdered at the end of Griffith's previous novel, The Blue Place. Aud channels her grief by restoring an ancient cabin in the Appalachians. She's living off the grid there when an old friend, Dornan, asks her to find his fiancée, Tammy, a business developer under the spell of charismatic pop psychologist and sociopath Geordie Karp, who "earns seven figures a year telling Nordstrom and Tiffany's and the Gap how wide to make the aisles."

But Geordie is no match for Aud, an avenging angel with the "face of a fox gone mad." Stay is a bracing, stylized thriller, but Griffith's real genius is in her portrayal of the brilliant, though damaged, Aud, who embodies the traits of the mythical Norse berserker; a woman who loses herself in the beauty and balletic control of pure violence yet seeks salvation through finding another of Geordie's victims. A finely nuanced, frightening plunge into the dark heart of an exceptional woman. —Elizabeth Hand

THE HAPPY HOOKER
By Xaviera Hollander
Regan Books, 298 pp., $13.95 paper
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Those of you who didn't sneak a peek at The Happy Hooker with your overly curious friends when you were 13 are in for a second coming-of-age. Xaviera Hollander's soft-porn memoir, first published in 1972, about her ascent from freewheeling Dutch secretary to merry New York City madam, has been re-released just in time to steam things up for summer—and to coincide with her latest offering, a memoir, Child No More. Sure, the anecdote about screwing a German shepherd has been cut, but who cares when there are countless orgies. In the book, Hollander candidly reveals her insatiable love for sex (she can't go without her "daily orgasm") through early tales of seducing hot boys while their moms and dads slept in the next room, recruiting female lovers at gay bars, and being the object of a gang bang by eight horny Italians.

As a "professional," she delves into the tricks of the trade (from bookkeeping to how different ethnicities, johns, and age groups like to fuck) with expertise and humor. She even recalls the many cops, pimps, con artists, blackmailers, and accompanying arrests and close calls that made staying in business tough. But it is Hollander's respect for the oldest profession and her joie de vivre that keep her always on top. —Grace Bastidas

ATONEMENT
By Ian McEwan
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 351 pp., $26
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On the sweltering day in 1935 when the first part of Ian McEwan's Atonementunfolds, a man remarks of his shoemakers, "They make a wooden thingy of your foot and keep it on a shelf forever." Predicting literary immortality is a fool's game, of course, but McEwan's latest novel has the inexorable logic and absolute tonal control of a classic. At the very least, it's diversion of the highest order, brimming with trysts and purloined letters, mysterious visitors and even more mysterious bruises. As the fateful day draws to a close, and myriad agendas overlap and interlock, McEwan perfects an atmosphere of impeccable menace and a word-enraptured style capable of deconstruction without tears. (The child's-eye breakdown of the word cunt is alone worth the price of admission.) Indeed, the parts that follow (which trace the repercussions of that summer day in surprising, richly imagined fashion) constitute an object lesson in what the novel—and only the novel—is still capable of. The reader closes Atonement feeling much as Briony, the author's stand-in, does upon completing one of her juvenile efforts: "The pages of a recently finished story seemed to vibrate in her hand with all the life they contained." —E.P.

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