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Review: Best books for summer reading

Some people swear by trashy books for vacation reading — utterly disposable and forgettable, just something to move your eyes across in the airport or at the beach.

Not me. I am firmly in the "so many books, so little time" camp, and I would add "so many good books." Yes, it's a busman's holiday for a book critic, but for me no vacation is complete without a couple of terrific reads.

So here are some suggestions for vacation reading that might turn out to be more memorable than the trip itself.

These books, all new or upcoming, are a mix: crime fiction and romance, historical fiction and domestic comedy, literary mystery and science fiction, even a couple of books that are about vacation trips. I hope at least one of them will sound intriguing enough to claim a spot in your e-reader or carry-on bag. Bon voyage, and happy reading!

Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) by John Waters is the tale of a trip that's almost certainly weirder than your vacation. But what would you expect from the writer-director of such bizarro cult films as Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble, as well as more mainstream fare like Hairspray?

The 66-year-old hitchhiked cross-country on Interstate 70, from his Baltimore home to his house in San Francisco. Before describing the actual trip, he writes two novellas. The Best That Could Happen begins with Waters getting a lift from a handsome pot farmer who hands him $5 million in cash to make another movie. The Worst That Could Happen is — well, this is John Waters. The worst is often disgusting and always outrageous and hilarious. The Real Thing is funny as well and surprisingly sweet, as he rides with a minister's wife, a judge, a disabled veteran and a young Republican politician Waters dubs the Corvette Kid — and becomes fast friends with. (Publication date June 3)

The Pink Suit (Little, Brown) by Nicole Mary Kelby, a former Sarasota resident whose last book was the lush historical romance White Truffles in Winter, is another novel that returns to the past. The suit of the title is the iconic rose-hued, Chanel-style ensemble that Jacqueline Kennedy wore on the day in 1963 that her husband died in Dallas, but this is not yet another fictional version of that assassination. Instead it focuses on Kate, a young Irish immigrant working as a seamstress at a chic New York boutique, where she helps to craft the suit. She never meets its owner, but their lives intertwine. Kelby's sharp eye for the details and implications of fashion and her sensuous prose complement the story. (Out now)

The Son (Knopf) by Jo Nesbo, whose 10 thrillers about self-destructive Oslo police inspector Harry Hole have been international bestsellers, is a standalone crime novel. A strange young man named Sonny Lofthus seems happy in a Norwegian prison, where he's known for his mysterious gift of healing touch, his heroin addiction and his father, a corrupt police officer who killed himself. Then one day Sonny hears a confession that changes everything, and his escape from the prison puts both an Oslo crime boss and sleazy officials on his trail. Nesbo's style is gritty and violent, but his storytelling is always propulsive, his characters intriguing. (Out now)

Song of the Shank (Graywolf Press) by Jeffery Renard Allen is a symphonic historical novel with a real-life figure at its center. Thomas Wiggins, called Blind Tom, was a 19th century musical prodigy, born a slave and probably an autistic savant, who performed for such luminaries as President James Buchanan and Mark Twain — but who has largely vanished from history.

Allen resurrects him vividly in this novel, in a rich style that recalls Ralph Ellison and William Faulkner. Around the mysterious Tom revolves a complex cast of characters, black and white, healers and exploiters, all struggling to navigate a culture roiling with change in the years before and after the Civil War. (June 17)

Authority (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) by Jeff Vandermeer is the second gripping novel in the Southern Reach trilogy by this Tallahassee author. The first, Annihilation, followed a trio of scientists on the 12th expedition (as disastrous as the first 11) into the mysterious Area X, a remote region closed to human entry for 30 years. Authority expands the story into the world of Control, the code name for the director of the secret agency that has been trying to discover information about Area X. The agency is in disarray after the events in Annihilation, but hidden notes, disturbing videos and frustrating interrogations may reveal to Control what really happened. The question is whether he really wants to know. (Out now)

All Day and a Night (Harper) by Alafair Burke is the fifth in her addictive series about hard-charging NYPD Detective Ellie Hatcher. This time, Ellie and her partner are tagged for a special investigation outside their usual Lower Manhattan turf when a psychotherapist is murdered in her Park Slope office. Suspicion falls on the woman's estranged husband, but the District Attorney's office gets an anonymous letter claiming an imprisoned serial killer was wrongly convicted, and this is the real killer's latest victim. The gruesome physical evidence — bones broken deliberately after the victim's death — echoes that serial killer's secret signature. Ellie races to sort out conflicting stories and deal with a defense lawyer with personal connections to the case before the killer strikes again. (June 10)

Fans of Burke's father, the mighty James Lee Burke, will want to keep an eye out for his next novel, "Wayfaring Stranger," out July 15.

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair (Penguin Originals) by Joel Dicker has been a sensational bestseller in Europe for its 28-year-old Swiss author. A clever, tightly plotted thriller with a comic edge, it begins when Marcus Goldman, a young man suffering writer's block after a successful first novel, goes to visit his mentor, the title character, in a small New Hampshire town. But his plans are derailed when Harry is suddenly implicated in a cold case, the disappearance 33 years before of a 15-year-old girl. As a media circus erupts, Marcus pursues the truth through the town's residents — and through Harry's books. (Tuesday)

Frog Music (Little, Brown) by Emma Donoghue is a novel set in boomtown San Francisco in 1876 and based on a historical event. The murder of Jenny Bonnet, a lively local character who made her living catching frogs for the restaurant trade and was frequently arrested for wearing men's clothing, was never solved. But Irish author Donoghue (Room) tackles the mystery as well as weaving an engaging tale of Jenny's friendship with another real person, erotic dancer and "soiled dove" Blanche Beunon. By turns funny, violent, sexy and shocking — especially in its depiction of "baby farms" — Frog Music is both an intriguing crime novel and a fascinating slice of America's past. (Out now)

Face Off (Simon and Schuster), edited by David Baldacci and written by 23 mystery authors, is an 11-story anthology curated by International Thriller Writers. Each story brings together two series characters working together (or maybe butting heads) to solve a crime. The book kicks off in fine fashion with Red Eye, written by two bestselling authors with Tampa Bay area connections: Michael Connelly and Dennis Lehane. Connelly's Los Angeles police Detective Harry Bosch is working a cold case that takes him to Boston. While sitting in his rental car conducting surveillance, Bosch notices another guy sitting in a car across the street, watching the same house. It's Lehane's private investigator Patrick Kenzie, of course, working a different case that leads to the same man. It's a witty but tense story that's true to both characters. Other pairings include Lee Child and Joseph Finder, Ian Rankin and Peter James, M.J. Rose and Lisa Gardner. (June 3)

The Vacationers (Riverhead Books) by Emma Straub is a slyly comic novel about a family vacation. Setting off for two weeks in a cottage in sunny Mallorca are New Yorkers Franny, a writer one of her children describes as "like Joan Didion, only with an appetite, or like Ruth Reichl, but with an attitude problem"; her husband, Jim, a recently unwillingly retired magazine editor; their teen daughter, Sylvia, who's itching to get out from under their wings and off to college; their grown son, Bobby, and his "albatross of a girlfriend"; and Franny's BFF, Charles, and his husband, Lawrence. What could go wrong, right? Straub (Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures) has a deft touch with domestic comedy and brings each of her characters, flawed but human, to life. (THURSDAY)

Review: Best books for summer reading 05/23/14 [Last modified: Friday, May 23, 2014 7:12pm]
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