Beach Reads

Sun Burnin', Page Turnin'

By Jasper Fforde
Penguin, 399 pp., $24.95
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illustration: Yoko Shimizu

In my recipe book Great British Dishes (yes, such an animal exists), there is a pudding I would attempt, did it not require such terrifying amounts of Golden Syrup. Until I work up the courage, Lost in a Good Book provides all the tooth-numbing sweetness of treacle tart, but likely proves considerably less sticky. This swirl of science fiction, crime novel, and English-major in-jokes follows the adventures of literary detective Thursday Next, last glimpsed in 2002's The Eyre Affair. Like the extra fricative in Fforde's name, the book does not stint on lagniappe. Thursday inhabits an overstuffed parallel 1985 in which 19th-century British novels enjoy totemic power and stratospheric Q ratings. While attempting to rescue her husband from chronological eradication, she must authenticate a copy of Shakespeare's Cardenio, protect her pet dodo, Pickwick, and survive the driving habits of Miss Havisham, on loan from Great Expectations. Piffle? Absolutely. Meta? Unbearably. Readable? Emphatically. —Alexis Soloski

By Michael Kun
MacAdam/Cage, 341 pp., $19.95
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This comic semi-epistolary novel, embracing office memos, job queries, florist cards, poetry, and, above all, plaintive letters to Heather Locklear, traces the path of Sid Straw, a middle-aged software salesman whose life collapses over the course of several anxiety-ridden months. This Baltimorean sad-sack begins the chronicle as a groveling, depressive Microserf whose life clearly peaked during his undergrad years at UCLA, where he was classmates but not quite pals with the future Melrose Place hottie. Grievously pass-agg and oblivious to his own unctuous neediness, Straw spills his guts to this virtual stranger before a series of disasters forces him to confront his essential aimlessness. If the book's skeletal structure sometimes seems as fleeting as a TV diva's season of fame, its air of droll desperation and sweetly uplifting finale are perfect for those sweltering days when tackling anything more substantial would bring up a sweat.—Mark Holcomb

By Barry Day and Tony Ring
Overlook, 300 pp., $19.95
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Comments might not be literature, as Gertie Stein averred, but one might think twice before choosing that War and Peace thingummy over this delectable compendium of quotes from Bertie Wooster's creator. Evelyn Waugh dubbed Wodehouse a master who could "produce on average three uniquely brilliant and entirely original similes to every page," and this companion volume to Overlook's laudable reprint project ups even that charmed quota, assembling a breezy bio from books, letters, interviews, and musicals. On the Bard: "Shakespeare's stuff was different from mine, but that is not to say it is inferior." On people with fishy aspects: "He looked like a halibut that has just been asked by another halibut to lend it a couple of quid till next Wednesday." Oh, I say! —E.P.

By Ross Thomas
Minotaur/St. Martin's, 338 pp., $13.95
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This crime mini-epic's two-pronged storyline brings political consultant Benjamin Dill back to his unnamed and beastly hot native city to solve the murder of his detective sister and try to nail a very bad ex-foreign op or two. Thomas, who died in 1996, hard-boils his sentences to perfection ("He stood, staring down, carefully remembering the lies he had told Spivey") and infuses the labyrinthine plot with hair-trigger violence; the noir can get downright lovely, as in this description of police at a funeral, reacting to a sniping: "Dozens of pistols . . . blossomed in big fists." As impressive as the pacing and the body count is the full-scale imagining of the municipal machinery—press, police, plutocrats—that roils in its own obscure greasings. Better get Thomas's newly reissued Out on a Rim while you're at it—I predict an addiction. —E.P.

By Sarah Smith
Atria, 337 pp., $24
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Inside this Elizabethan mystery hides a graduate thesis. Joe, the Shakespearean scholar and narrator, unearths a musty, conceivably forged letter that could prove lethal to his profession. It reads: "Those that are given out as the children of my brain are begot of his wit." Signed: William Shakespeare. In other words, I didn't write all those plays. What makes the book such a page-turner (especially for those readers who prefer gray, British days at school to sunshine by the pool) is that much here isn't fictional at all—as attested to by the 13-page bibliography. But disguised as fiction, Smith's mystery can court the academically unpopular thesis that Shakespeare the glover's son from Stratford is not Shakespeare the playwright at all. The ample evidence propping up this claim winds its way through arabesque regicide plots, intra-sibling espionage, the archives of the British Library, as well as the mad rush of construction in millennial London, and proves to be quite compelling—and even convincing. —Samantha Hunt

Free Press, 118 pp., $12.95
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As devotees of American lit and C-SPAN know, our current defense secretary is also one of our most gifted wordsmiths. Reinventing the briefing as poetry slam, D.H. Rumsfeld is an oral bard who stands in a tradition from Homer to hip-hop, a lineage of those impelled to transgress the boundaries of received language because "the standard words/Jangle in my head when I hear them." He ranges nimbly from Zen haiku ("I'm working my way/Over to figuring out/How I won't answer") to bleak Beckettry ("How does it end?/It ends,/That's all"). And in his troubling "The Unknown," Rumsfeld limns an epistemology of the mysterious qua mysterious: "[T]here are also unknown unknowns,/the ones we don't know we don't know." Faced with such enigmas, the poet feels like a "piece of meat," albeit an exquisitely "concepty" piece of meat. D.H. is a modern master—though he doesn't quite rise to the level of a Quayle. —Richard Polt

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