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

Seven Steps for Highly Effective Beach Readers

1. INHERIT incomprehensibly vast fortune from heretofore unknown eccentric spinster aunt.

2. INVEST said heaps of the green stuff in volatile biotech stock.

3. INCREASE initial investment sevenfold. (This may take a couple days.)

4. IMPRESS neighbors by snapping up all land between you and closest available waterfront. Fill area with sand.

5. IMBIBE scandalously colored cocktail.

6. REPEAT # 4.

7. INAUGURATE your newfound dominion by buying and reading all the titles below. And above all—relax! ED PARK


BROOKLYN NOIR
Edited by Tim McLoughlin
Akashic, 366 pp., $15.95
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The hard-boiled crime story's been looking like a $60 hooker at a statesman's ball. Fortunately, Brooklyn Noir's contributors are aware of their surroundings, literal and literary. Set in 19 different neighborhoods in the 718 (and . . . Galway?), the stories display equal parts pre-gentrification nostalgia (for mom-and-pop stores, defunct watering holes, the Dodgers) and self-awareness without the smug aftertaste. In Pete Hamill's "The Book Signing," an L.A.-based writer returns to his native Park Slope and, gratefully, discovers violence beneath its bourgeois exterior; Pearl Abraham exposes a neglected subgenre in "Hasidic Noir"; and Norman Kelley pegs gangsta rap as a latter-day incarnation of noir in his satirical "The Code." Be cool: This pulp's got enough juice to keep those margaritas coming. DARREN REIDY


NATASHA AND OTHER STORIES
By David Bezmozgis
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 147 pp., $18
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Summer lit tends to be about loss, though it's supposed to be the season of sweetness and sun. Enter the title story of Bezmozgis's promising debut. Natasha is a weary nymphet obliged to leave Russia when her mother marries the dumpy uncle of our stoned 16-year-old narrator, high on his first taste of philosophy and hash, both courtesy of his charismatic dealer. Bezmozgis's 1980s Toronto sounds a lot like America, a volatile mix of immigrants, ambition, kindness, and ice-cold greed. BENJAMIN STRONG


I, FATTY
By Jerry Stahl
Bloomsbury, 288 pp., $23.95
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In 1921, 300-pound vaudeville star Fatty Arbuckle was accused of raping a young starlet with a champagne bottle. There is something inherently rewarding, if not addictive, about watching the rich get dragged down to ankle level, and the Arbuckle scandal is often associated with the blossoming of the tabloid: Fatty became the first celebrity to provide the public with a decent view of his nosedive. I, Fatty,Jerry Stahl's first-person history of the actor, combines the juice of the tabloid story with Stahl's particular brand of drug-drenched self-effacement. That the "I" making the confessions happens to have earned his fame by jumping off roofs, walking into walls, and plunging his face into whipped-custard pies barely detracts from the drama of the actor's fall from grace. RACHEL AVIV


THE QUEEN OF THE SOUTH
By Arturo Pérez-Reverte
Translated by Andrew Hurley
Putnam, 448 pp., $25.95
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From its brilliant opening sentence, The Queen of the South grabs you by the throat and won't let go: Teresa Mendoza wakes up one morning to find that her drug-smuggling boyfriend has been murdered—and she's next. Pérez-Reverte's addictive thriller follows the Mexican twentysomething heroine as she eludes the Sinaloa cartel and international law enforcement in exotic locales, and as she metamorphoses into the contraband queenpin of the Mediterranean. The author, a journalist turned Spanish Royal Academician, also weaves in a parallel plot, that of an ex-reporter investigating Teresa's life story years later. Pérez-Reverte's prose hums with the music of Mexican narco-corridos, songs of tragic loves, lawless adventures, and deadly betrayals. JORGE MORALES


BIRDS OF A FEATHER
By Jacqueline Winspear
Soho, 311 pp., $25
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Not since P.D. James's Cordelia Gray has a female detective appeared quite as suitable as Jacqueline Winspear's smartly suited Maisie Dobbs. Set in inter-war London, Winspear's novels follow "M. Dobbs, Psychologist and Investigator," a onetime tweeny (with stints as a Cambridge student and battlefield nurse) who now runs a successful detection agency. Birds finds Maisie in pursuit of a wealthy businessman's missing daughter. Like her heroine, Winspear's prose is brisk and efficient, evincing little patience for frippery. Nevertheless, she does occasionally indulge in historical detail, discussing the fashion of the kick-pleated skirt or the five-step method for starting an MG motorcar. While Maisie may "work hard at her own isolation," she could develop quite a following. ALEXIS SOLOSKI


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illustration: Anthony Freda
THE RULE OF FOUR
By Ian Caldwell & Dustin Thomason
The Dial Press, 372 pp., $24
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Methadone for those in Da Vinci Code withdrawal, Caldwell and Thomason's The Rule of Four similarly teases eurekas from real-world enigmas. Instead of staring at the Mona Lisa, the puzzle-piercing Princetonians deconstruct the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a 500-year-old book dense with allegory, acrostics, and nightmare. Like Lev Grossman's Codex, Rule is as careful with language as it is in deploying lit-wonk thrills; it's also a near-anthropological look at some of Princeton's odder traditions (Nude Olympics, R.I.P.). Part of the fun is watching the treacherous text of the Hypnerotomachia ("the Struggle for Love in a Dream") yield to a singularly tantalizing solution; the secret pleasure here is the way the authors, lifelong friends, have imagined themselves into their novel, a rue-soaked tale of double lives and double meanings. E.P.


THE DOG FIGHTER
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.


BETTER HOMES AND HUSBANDS
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.


THE HOLLYWOOD DODO
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


THE GHOST WRITER
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


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illustration: Anthony Freda
THE BODY OF JONAH BOYD
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.


THE PARIS REVIEW BOOK FOR PLANES, TRAINS, ELEVATORS, AND WAITING ROOMS
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.


THE LONDON PIGEON WARS
By Patrick Neate
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 323 pp., $24
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As one of the titular birds of Patrick Neate's fetching third novel observes, the very term pigeonholing suggests humans "have no talent for a precise metaphor." Maybe, but that doesn't mean we won't try. Under a war waged in the skies by pigeon factions over a scrap of fried chicken, a group of thirtysomething Londoners struggle with aging, failing, and the attendant attempts to clarify thought and position. Is a poet's vow to stop writing at 30 "indisputable artistic integrity" or just "premature"? In a postmodern London of logos and logoi, such questions matter, driving careers, relationships, and a bank heist botched in equal measure. For pigeons at war, words begin and end with "fuck off." But even the birds suspect there's more, making them the true charmers, and heartbreakers, of Neate's novel: "Why should language linger when there's not one geez to gather my gregariousness, no coochie with whom to coo coyly, and not even a squib to squawk at?" P.F.


GOD SAVE THE MARK
By Donald E. Westlake
Forge/Otto Penzler Presents, 268 pp., $14.95
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Fred Fitch, the gullible narrator of Westlake's 1967 novel, receives 300 grand from an uncle he's never met—and then his problems really begin. Sniped at, seduced, and ceaselessly solicited, Fred wises up just enough to keep his life, not to mention his loot. A neighbor fishes for some Fitch funding to self-publish his neglected masterpiece, Veni Vidi Vici Through Air Power, a book that asks one burning question: What if Julius Caesar had had access to a couple of biplanes? Fred himself recalls—or foreshadows—Charles Portis's Dog of the South übernebbish, Ray Midge, prone as he is to wonderfully absurd digressions that you can't help but read aloud: "I wanted to call him Ralph, I really wanted to call him Ralph. I wanted to start my answer with Ralph and end my answer with Ralph and put Ralphs in here and there in the middle of the answer, and answer only in words which were anagrams of Ralph." E.P.


DRESS YOUR FAMILY IN CORDUROY AND DENIM
By David Sedaris
Little, Brown, 257 pp., $24.95
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Sedaris sells out auditoriums, but in his essays he remains an outsider—his family still considers him "the one most likely to set your house on fire." Their skepticism seems fair given his new collection, which might be called Dress Your Family (and All of Humanity) in the Ugliest Light Possible. His sometimes affectionate, usually dark insights might be troubling if they weren't so damn funny: Young David's encounter with oddball neighbors in "Us and Them" leaves him with a sharp, but fleeting, negative picture of himself. "Were this the only image in the world, you'd be forced to give it your full attention," he concludes, "but fortunately there were others." Fans will recognize these pieces from their magazine appearances, but the opportunity to reread them minus all the Nautica ads makes Dress worth tossing in your beach tote. MOLLIE WILSON

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