If you're like me, the annual summer reading lists compiled by conservative luminaries can be just a little daunting. It's not that I don't intend to read a good share of the books they suggest; but just what does "summer reading" mean, anyway?
Sometimes when my body's on vacation, it's my mind that really needs the breather.
If your seasonal getaway is solitary and contemplative, that's one thing. My summer is made up of running around to travel baseball games and a trip or two with the family. I always take a stack of books, but anything that requires intense concentration is a nonstarter.
Now, I fully intend to make my way through the rest of Will and Ariel Durant's History of Civilization someday, but I doubt it will be while I'm on vacation. My favorite histories of the year so far are Michael Oren's Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East from 1776 to the Present; and Robert Kagan's Dangerous Nation, but I doubt I would have gotten as much out of them on the beach as I did in a more sober and serious setting. .
On the other hand, some demanding books can fit the leisure time bill. Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Infidel, the year's most important book, is a perfect read at any time of the year with its irresistible narrative drive. Ditto for two of last year's must-read nonfiction titles, Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower, a superb history of al Qaeda leading up to 9/11, and Nathan Philbrick's Mayflower, an instant classic of the Pilgrims. Both books, now paperbacks, are perfect companions at lakeside.
For the most part, though, when I'm juggling driving shifts, keeping an eye on the family at the beach and performing other fatherly vacation duties, my summer reads tend to be about distraction and filling the downtime, not feeding my brain. Something that will keep my eyes in the book at the beach and not on the… well, you get the idea.
So here's some mind candy that will help promote domestic tranquility by the seashore in these dog days of August, the dead tree equivalents of a summer movie blockbuster that actually lives up to the hype.
The Overlook by Michael Connelly — There is no longer any doubt that Michael Connelly is the king of American crime fiction. Though The Overlook (Little Brown, $21.99) may be merely an extended version of a serial he did for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, it's still good enough to make most of his colleagues turn green with envy.
In this fast-moving story, Connelly's maverick LAPD detective Harry Bosch is hunting a killer and missing radioactive material — not necessarily in that order. Bosch, who is notoriously impatient with the LAPD's bureaucracy, doesn't believe adding a Homeland Security layer on top of the FBI makes hot pursuit any hotter.
The Overlook features one of Connelly's better surprise endings, and as always, Bosch's thirst for justice and passion for protecting the innocent give the story its emotional oomph.
The Good Guy by Dean Koontz — Late in his newest white-knuckle chase thriller, Dean Koontz pays the ultimate left-handed compliment to American fighting men; by proposing that there is a level of valor that only the American soldier can achieve—and that even cynical killers are compelled to stand up and salute in awe.
To give you any more detail than that would give away far too much of the tricky plot of The Good Guy (Bantam, $27). Koontz begins his story with a variation on John Dahl's great film noir, Red Rock West, in which an ordinary guy in a bar is mistaken for a hitman hired to kill a beautiful woman.
Tim Carrier, a mason, was just looking for a quiet beer after a hard day's work, but he's not the kind of guy who says, "It's none of my business," when the innocent are at risk. Thus begins a violent, paranoid and romantic thriller in which a seemingly ordinary guy stands up to a sociopath whose shadowy backers have extraordinary resources.
The Good Guy is not one of the sci-fi/horror fables that made Koontz famous, but it's just as exciting and filled with his signature jabs at political correctness, leftist academics and a degraded popular culture as any of his more fanciful tales. It's also a useful reminder that after five years of war, heroes are walking among us in the most unassuming guises.
Bad Luck and Trouble by Lee Child — Speaking of ex-GIs, one of the most popular fictional American heroes of the last decade is the creation of a Brit -- Lee Child. Jack Reacher, a former member of an elite unit of MPs, is a cross between Mike Hammer and one of Louis L'Amour's drifting do-gooder gunfighters.
In Bad Luck and Trouble, (Delacorte, $26), the determined loner Reacher must reunite with his former squad to find out who is killing off their members. This is the third time Reacher has answered a call of duty since 9/11 with war on terror implications, and it may be Child's best thriller yet.
Child, who occasionally betrays his non-Yankee roots with side comments or detail mistakes that no American would make, commits nary a cultural misstep here. Bad Luck and Trouble gets the extended family of the U.S. Army just right-- unlike his misguidedly awful book, The Enemy.
It's a hoot to see Reacher acting as part of a team (its leader, of course), which is good luck for any reader who makes this an impulse purchase.
Safe and Sound by J.D. Rhodes — Just as good but not as well-known as Reacher is a new American hero, Jack Keller, a Gulf War vet and North Carolina bounty hunter, whose latest adventure is Safe and Sound (Minotaur, $23.95). Keller, whose tank crew was wiped out by friendly fire, is not as nostalgic about his Army days as Reacher, but he's no burned-out cynic, either.
Through his girlfriend, a former cop turned private detective, Keller gets involved in a custody case that involves an AWOL Delta Force operative and his missing daughter. The Army, of course, doesn't talk about Delta even when it's doing what it's supposed to. And when Keller meets the mom, she's not sure the kid isn't better off on the lam with dad, no matter what corners he may have cut.
But when the father is found tortured to death and two others in his squad go missing with the Army CID on their trail, Keller finds himself caught between dangerous men who made a mistake and vicious killers who want to hold them to it.
Some great Smokey Mountain settings add vivid detail to the story in which redemption is ultimately bought with a great deal of blood.
A Welcome Grave by Michael Koryta -- Another new mystery writer for whom the setting is as vivid as any character in the story is Michael Koryta, whose Cleveland neighborhoods hold as many secrets and as much menace as Dennis LeHane's Boston.
A Welcome Grave (Minotaur, $23.95) is this remarkable 25-year-old's third novel. While its plot of an elaborate frame-up of private eye hero Lincoln Perry may have more standard thriller elements than his previous works, his good guys ring emotionally true, and his sociopaths are casually scarier than the overblown villains of lesser thrillers. Koryta is a superb writer, and his ability to effortless mix his somewhat exotic killers with everyday Midwestern life make A Welcome Grave impossible to put down.
The Woods by Harlan Coben—Harlan Coben has made his reputation with thrillers about suburbanites with secrets — or at least secret enemies. His protagonists live ordinary lives far from the milieu of cops and killers, and a car chase is more likely to involve a minivan than a Ferrari.
In The Woods, (Dutton, $26.95) however, Coben's hero, Paul Copeland, is a prosecutor who is driven by survivor's guilt to pursue a career in justice because of a heinous crime that marred his teenaged years.
When a missing victim from a summer camp massacre shows up as a recent murder victim, Cope is given hope that another missing victim — his sister —may still be alive. He reunites with his former summer sweetheart in order to find the truth, which involves the '60s counterculture and Soviet agents—which may or may not include Cope's parents. Despite the more exotic background and less mundane job of his protagonist in The Woods Coben's themes of love, loss, guilt and redemption still ring true. Readers will be more than willing to lose themselves in The Woods.
Stalin's Ghost by Martin Cruz Smith -- Speaking of the Cold War, no novelist explores the scars of Communism on the Russian soul more thoroughly than Martin Cruz Smith in his series featuring Arkady Renko, which began in the 1980s with Gorky Park and spawned countless imitators.
Renko's latest case in Stalin's Ghost (Simon & Schuster, $26.95) deals more directly with the dark Soviet past than any of his previous books, and ranks with his best work. (see Lloyd Billingsley's Frontpage review here).
But we don't just read Smith's novels for his historical or sociological revelations, he's a top-flight thriller writer with a great sense of mordant wit. Where else will you get lines like, "Russians generally have two reliable reactions: beat a Jew and laugh at a hunchback."
Black Hats, by Patrick Culhane — While we're on the topic of history, any buffs on the subject of either Wyatt Earp or Al Capone -- I confess to being both -- will be unable to resist Black Hats (Morrow, $24.95) by Max Allan Collins, writing as Patrick Culhane.
Set in Prohibition-era New York, and filled with such historical figures as Bat Masterson and various New York gangsters and politicians, Collins imagines Wyatt, who has been working as an L.A. private investigator being hired by Big Nose Kate to look after the son she secretly bore Doc Holliday. John Jr. is running an NYC speakeasy and butting heads with an up-and-coming hood named Capone.
No revisionist junk about the Earps being just gangsters with badges here, Black Hats is great fun and historically accurate. The biggest mystery is why the publisher used pseudonym folderol. Max Allen Collins (Road to Perdition) has an established rep for this genre -- and his real identity is given on the back book flap, anyway. Don't think about why Morrow made this book harder for Collins' fans to find. Just be happy you did.
Deep Storm by Lincoln Child — No writers have been responsible for more sheer entertainment over the past 12 years than Lincoln Child and his partner Douglas Preston, either writing as a team or solo. Both shun PC cliches about the environment and native cultures in their sci-fi/horror adventures, many with archeological themes.
Deep Storm (Doubleday, $24.95) is a solo run for Child, about a mysterious object buried in the darkest depths of the Atlantic, and the secret government project to recover it. Derivative, yes, but you get the idea that Child watched The Abyss, and Sphere and said, This is how you should have done it." If so, he was right on.
Bermuda Schwartz by Bob Morris — If you're in the mood for a whacky Florida mystery but are bored by Carl Hiaasen's environmentalist sermons and liberal cliches, check out Bob Morris's series featuring ex-Dolphin linebacker, Zack Chasteen. Zack, a man with equal opportunity disdain for pomposity and stupidity-- and no hesitation to express it-- also has the distinction of being one of the few pro athletes to be imprisoned for something he did not do.
In Bermuda Schwartz, (Minotaur, $23.95), the discovery of a disfigured body on the beach draws Zack into the hunt for a piece of the One True Cross. But unlike The Da Vinci Code and its many imitators, Zack is drawn closer to faith, hope and especially love, not made more cynical by the search. This is Morris's best plot yet, but the more serious emotional and spiritual issues raised don't get in the way of a really fun mystery that is, among all these books, literally a beach read.