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Summer Reading Extravaganza
By David Pitt

Welcome to our summer reading extravaganza. If you like to spend your vacation getting as far away from reality as possible, then you'll want to check out these novels.

Best Friends (Simon & Schuster, hardcover) is the new one from Thomas Berger, one of the quirkier novelists out there. It's the story of two men who've been pals since boyhood, but it's a surreal kind of friendship with its own brand of mutual affection and respect. When one of the pair grows ill, how far will the other go to keep him happy? And what strange demands will one friend make on another? Berger, whose novels are always about three yards away from normal, has once again crafted one that's fiercely off-center and splendidly entertaining.

Like Berger, Tom Robbins writes novels like no one else's, unconventional books with titles like Still Life with Woodpecker and Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas. His latest, Villa Incognito (Bantam, hardcover), is about missing-in-action soldiers, four generations of women from a certain family, a creature from Japanese folklore ... and, of course, love. It's impossible to describe a Robbins novel in a couple of sentences; I'd suggest you just read the thing. It's wonderful.

Also wonderful, and a tad on the weird side, is Christopher Moore's Fluke: Or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings (Wm. Morrow, hardcover). In the hands of someone less talented, this story about singing whales, government secrets, a historical conspiracy, and superbeings might seem like a mishmash. In Moore's hands, though, it all seems to make some sort of sense. Totally preposterous, of course, but you won't be able to say it didn't keep you glued to the page. Lots of laughs, too.

The Gift (Fourth Estate, hardcover), by David Flusfeder, makes a couple of demands on the reader. One is stylistic: the book is full of dialogue, but there are no quotation marks. Flusfeder doesn't use dashes to indicate a line of dialogue, either, the way a lot of writers do. This ordinarily wouldn't be a problem, but, since the novel is narrated in the first person, there are times when it's darned near impossible to tell what's dialogue and what's narration. I found this needlessly complicated, and it kept bringing me out of the story. The other demand is more subtle: the novel's narrator, Phillip, is quite disagreeable. Again, this wouldn't ordinarily be a problem, except that he's also so petty (he spends most of his time trying to one-up his friends in the gift-giving department) that it's difficult for us to have any real sympathy for him. Still, even with these challenges, the novel works -- like Phillip, it makes us like it in spite of itself. Its awkwardness, you might say, is its charm.

If you're in the mood for something a little more, shall we say, mainstream, check out All He Ever Wanted (Little, Brown, hardcover), by Anita Shreve. This story of love and betrayal spanning three decades may not be quite as good as, say, The Pilot's Wife, or The Last Time They Met, but it's genuinely moving and, as always, very well written.

I might as well confess now that I'm a big fan of Carol Shields. I tell you this so you'll understand that when I say her novel Unless (Vintage Canada, paperback) is terrific, tremendous, triumphant, you should probably remember that's coming from someone with a slight bias in the author's favour. But judge for yourself. The novel, about a woman in her mid-forties who has every reason to be happy until her eldest daughter turns up begging on a street corner, asks us to consider our own happiness, and whether it's really all we make it out to be. I think it's brilliant.

There aren't many men who write love stories, which, I think, goes a long way toward explaining the popularity of Nicholas Sparks (The Notebook, Message in a Bottle, A Walk to Remember, etc.). He's found himself a formula that works, and he sticks to it, with only slight variations. The Guardian (Warner, hardcover) is about a woman whose husband died four years ago, and she meets two men for whom she feels an attraction, but can she choose the right one? If you're a Sparks fan, you've read this story, or something very like it, before -- but, if you're a Sparks fan, you'll no doubt enjoy The Guardian, despite its familiarity. Sparks is a good writer with an eye for detail, and maybe it's just my natural churlishness that makes me wish he'd try something new for a change.

And then, on the other hand, there are writers who can work infinite variations within a formula, like Larry McMurtry. Although he's written love stories, and other contemporary fiction, he will, I think, be remembered as the guy who wrote all those magnificent Westerns, like Lonesome Dove, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize. The Wandering Hill (Simon & Schuster, hardcover) is the second volume in the Berrybender Narratives, carrying on the saga introduced in Sin Killer. It's an unusual saga: the Berrybenders, a family of British aristocrats, have for some reason chosen the American West as the place to set up a dynasty. Woefully uneducated about their adopted home, the Berrybenders, on their trek across America, have escapades that, as they're related by McMurtry, are the stuff of high adventure. A mixture of romance, danger, and humour that's McMurtry at his finest.

Speaking of historical novels, and I'm recommending this one mostly as a curiosity, there's The Jester (Little, Brown, hardcover), by James Patterson and Andrew Gross. Set a millennium ago, in Europe, it's the story of Hugh De Luc, who comes home after fighting in the First Crusade to discover that his wife has been kidnapped by some knights who are looking for a valuable relic. To save his wife, our hero must slip into the knights' castle in the guise of a lowly jester. It's an interesting premise, but the novel is clunky. Patterson's Alex Cross thrillers are (usually) finely polished, this novel reads like a first draft, something rushed into print before it's ready. Still, I'm a sucker for historical adventure, and I enjoyed the novel for its sheer audacity.

Of course, there's probably a reasonable explanation for The Jester's shortcomings: Patterson may have been hurrying to finish The Lake House (Little, Brown, hardcover), which follows The Jester's release by only a few months. The Lake House is the sequel to When the Wind Blows, a fantasy about a secret government experiment to breed flying children (I'm simplifying a little). It's better than The Jester, but it's still a far cry from the Cross novels that Patterson does so well. The premise is simple: the flying kids, freed from captivity in the first novel, are now living among us ... but their lives are about to be turned upside down when their leader, Max, senses danger on the horizon. They need to get back to the one place where they can be safe: the Lake House. But can they survive long enough to find sanctuary? I liked this one because I have an affection for thrillers based on utterly absurd premises, but, as with The Jester, I got the feeling Patterson wasn't trying as hard as he should have been.

Matchstick Men (Villard, hardcover), by Eric Garcia, is -- well, it's delightful. It's about these two con artists, see, and one of them is comfortable with the way things are going, but the other one keeps dreaming of the big score, and then the comfortable one's daughter shows up and wants to get in on the game, and soon nobody, not even the reader, knows exactly what's going on. Garcia, who's also written a couple of novels about dinosaur detectives (yes, you heard me), has a light touch, and the novel is just perfect. It's also, apparently, going to be a movie, but please, don't be one of those people who decides they'll just wait and see the book on the big screen, okay? Read the novel.

If you like stories set on the wrong side of the law, check out James Swain's Sucker Bet (Ballantine, hardcover). Tony Valentine is an ex-cop who makes his living spotting casino hustlers and showing casino owners how to tighten their security. When the head of security at a casino on an Indian reservation comes to him with a story about a blackjack player who's won 84 hands in a row, and an apparently-crooked dealer who's disappeared, Tony soon lands knee-deep in a very dangerous plot involving a gangster, a hooker, and a big con. A lot of fun.

Fans of high-testosterone thrillers will want to pick up Executive Power (Atria Books, hardcover), by Vince Flynn. While the publishers want you to think of Flynn the way you think of Clancy, or Ludlum, he's actually a much better writer than those bestseller factories. Executive Power is a political thriller. Mitch Rapp, a hotshot undercover CIA agent, has just come off a mission to keep Saddam Hussein from getting his hands on some nuclear weapons -- but, unfortunately, with success comes a problem: his cover has been blown, and now everyone in the world knows his name and his face. Which means, of course, that a lot of his enemies now know how to find him. He tries to keep himself protected, trading field duty for a desk at CIA headquarters, but when a mission in the Philippines goes wrong he has to go back into the field, and risk his life against a world full of people who'd like to see him dead. Sure, the novel's bigger than life and way over the top, but that's why I liked it -- that, and Flynn's skills as a storyteller. Where Clancy and Ludlum are boring, or just plain inept, Flynn is exhilarating.

Finally, for fans of legal thrillers -- what would summer reading be without a legal thriller? -- here are two new ones. Fatal Flaw (Wm. Morrow, hardcover), by William Lashner, keeps us off-kilter from the very beginning. Victor Carl is a high-profile attorney whose long-time friend has just found the body of his girlfriend in the house they shared. He asks Victor to represent him, and Victor -- but, for some inexplicable reason, Victor seems determined to make sure his client is convicted. What the heck is going on here, anyway? Fatal Flaw is extremely good: suspenseful, packed with plot twists and baffling questions, a novel that demands that you read it straight through without stopping.

After you've finished that one, try this one: The First Law (Dutton, hardcover), by John Lescroart. I've reviewed several of his novels over the years, and I've always maintained that Lescroart is a better writer than the far-more-popular John Grisham. This story of an accused murderer on the run, and the cop and lawyer whose reputations are stained by his disappearance, is excellent, one of Lescroart's best. It features Abe Glitsky, the San Francisco homicide detective, and Dismas Hardy, the personable defense attorney, a crime-solving team who've appeared in several of Lescroart's novels. It also features Lescroart's magnificent storytelling skills: his deft plotting, his complex character design, his sharp dialogue, his subtle exploration of big moral issues. I know Grisham's a bigger name, but, trust me, Lescroart's the better writer.

See you next time with more suggestions for summertime reading ...
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