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VLS Beach Reads: Detectives, drugs, denim, and an unusually high number of birds

By Marc Bojanowski
William Morrow, 291 pp., $ 23.95
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This is the most violent book you'll read this summer: lips pull free of faces, bones splinter, a "bloody flap of muscle" falls to the floor; for Bojanowski's narrator, violence is his sole relation to, and measure of, the world. Raised on stories of men who fought beasts with teeth "sharp as obsidian shards," our unnamed protagonist clears a gory path to glory—hanging a puppy, knifing the husband of a would-be lover—to Canción where he enters into "the fighting of dogs," falls in love, and trades loyalties with a ruthless entrepreneur. Bojanowski's given him a unique patois, a tentative, unrefined English that often breaks out into rough poetry, giving new meaning to metaphorical violence: "The red of hibiscus in that sweet smelling night the red of a bloodstained bedsheet." If you make it to Baja, remember: Always bet on the dog. D.R.

illustration: Anthony Freda

By Valerie Ann Leff
St. Martin's, 259 pp., $23.95
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Leff’s debut has all the elements of an Austenian novel of manners: weighty revelations that "being rich is expensive," overt mapping of class lines (a maid "with humongous breasts" unknowingly feeds caviar to the cat), and long, aggressive displays of wealth (a man who thinks he’s an asshole who can afford to be an asshole because he comes from a long line of assholes who run the country). Better Homes focuses on one block of real estate-980 Park Avenue, between 83rd and 84th. The tenants are surpisingly likable; by the end, they're not only hobnobbing in each other’s apartments, but have scrambled into position for the customary Victorian denouement: a constellation of couplings and the transfer of a large hunk of property. R.A.

By Geoff Nicholson
Simon & Schuster, 323 pp., $23
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It's a bird-eat-bird world, even if the creature in question has been extinct for 400 years. Nicholson's Tinseltown satire successfully resurrects our flightless, hook-beaked, gray-feathered friend as an eccentric inspiration for both the movie-besotted characters and their equally cinephilic creator. When a British doctor travels to L.A. with his starstruck daughter, he crosses paths with an aspiring director on a mission to helm a costume drama about a royal physician's quest for the elusive bird. Various narrative threads move fluidly between past and present, Old World and New. Appropriately for a novel set in the movie world, Dodo can easily be distilled to a ludicrously incestuous pitch: It's The Player meets The Hours, with distinct shades of The Limey. DAVID NG

By John Harwood
Harcourt, 369 pp., $25
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Harwood's debut novel, a ghost story in the Victorian tradition, has more words than you want before its payoff—a mark of the species, and good news if you're keen on the Jamesian mode of suppression. The narrator, a small-town Australian boy named Gerard, apparently is: His uncovering of a generations-old family crime, prompted by his great-grandmother's supernatural tales and the encouragement of his English orphan "penfriend" Alice, is decades in the making. By the end, Gerard even has e-mail. But The Ghost Writer adeptly exploits its pitch, playing games with much of the genre's stock, from mild sexual prurience/prudery ("You really don't like dead women, do you, Gerard?") to a perfectly timed summons of Turn of the Screw's creepily melodic "Where, my pet, is Miss Jessel?" PHYLLIS FONG

illustration: Anthony Freda
By David Leavitt
Bloomsbury, 215 pp., $23.95
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Leavitt's latest isn't a murder mystery, as its anagrammatic title suggests, but it holds plenty of secrets. At its center, aptly, is a secretary, who insinuates herself into the lives of her boss/lover and his family. Leavitt combines some of his familiar characters and themes—the domineering, dying mother; the sensitive prodigy who grows up to be a mediocre talent; the artist who takes credit for another's work—to create an irresistible book unlike any he's written before. Its biggest secrets remain unrevealed, but here's one: Leavitt lifted the two implausible devices that set the plot in motion—the faculty housing that can be owned but not inherited, the writer who never makes copies of his work in progress—from his own stranger-than-fiction life. J.M.

Picador, 386 pp., $15
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Conceived as a refuge from the "contagion of real time," this anthology is arranged by how many minutes it takes to read each piece: short stories for subways, longer stories for trains, and poems for elevators (presumably only those in high-rises). The editors, likely reeling from the emotional range of last year's Paris Review Book of Heartbreak, Madness, Sex, Love, Betrayal . . . , make no attempt to evenly divvy up subjects (resulting, oddly, in lots of stories about dead children). Most of the pieces share a grunt of disdain toward the book's buzz-concept: real time, i.e., loss, aging, and death. Richard Powers writes in the intro that good literature holds the reader in "a place time can't reach." If so, then nearly all of these selections have succeeded, whether or not they've done so within the designated time limits. R.A.

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