Beach Reads > July 28, 2012

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Niceville by Carsten Stroud (Knopf). Almost 180 people have disappeared in the Southern town of Niceville since the late 1920s. Given that grim statistic, most residents would up and vamoose, but noooo. The latest to go missing is a young boy named Rainey Teague, who vanishes near a book store in the fraction of a second between two frames of surveillance video. That incident introduces investigator Nick Kavanagh and his wife, Kate, and sets up the complex structure of this Gothic thriller, which is part crime novel, part supernatural thriller. Don’t expect the book to follow any kind of orderly trajectory. It becomes a frankly confusing web of bizarre and occasionally violent episodes – there’s a bank robbery and a massacre of cops and reporters, along with some nonsense about a haunted mirror, along with so many plots and subplots that one can admire the marvelous writing while never becoming fully engaged with the characters. They appear onstage for a chapter or two, then bow out to give way to even more supporting players. Stick with Stroud and you’ll be rewarded with a satisfying end – but you have to be patient to get there. “Niceville” is the first novel in a trilogy, which may explain the excessive exposition. No novel should require a spread sheet to keep track of the story.

Fathermucker by Greg Olear (Harper). Olear takes a comic look at Mr. Mom in the character of Josh Lansky, a hapless stay-at-home dad grasping for success and validation in a world where the gender roles have been not only reversed but upended. Part I of this droll account – which spans one “two-star day” in Josh’s life – is titled “What to expect when you’re least expecting it” and follows the unsuccessful screenwriter as he attends play dates, chases low-paying freelance assignments, and catches up with quasi-friends on Facebook while battling the uneasy suspicion that wife Stacy – who is away on business in L.A. – may be cheating. Josh has two kids, including a 5-year-old with Asperger’s, and the novel is filled with the kind of busy nonevents that fill the lives of all parents, along with the harried dad’s hilarious nonstop inner chatter about the mundaneness of his life. Josh is endearingly insecure and marvelously idiosyncratic; in one episode, he ruminates on his “musophobia,” or fear of the mice that have invaded his home; why, he wonders, do mice always figure so prominently in children’s books? Why, he asks, do people say “quiet as a mouse” when the intruders make so much noise scrambling behind his walls? This book is sweet, smart and sardonic. You’ll recognize yourself, your friends or your spouse in its winning leading man.

Chocolate Covered Murder by Leslie Meier (Kensington Books). This is the latest in a long series of Lucy Stone mysteries – the 18th, to be precise – but you don’t have to know the character or her history to enjoy this antic romp with a twist of bloody mayhem. Stone is a reporter for the weekly Pennysaver newspaper in quaint Tinker’s Cove, Maine. She is irked to be assigned a puff piece on a new business, Chanticleer’s Chocolate, which has unseated old favorite Fern’s Fudge for the title of best chocolatier on the coast. But things are not as sweet as they seem in the candy business; when Chanticleer’s sexy proprietress turns up dead and dipped in rich milk chocolate, Lucy knows she is on to a real story. The novel has surprisingly dark themes – illegal drugs, illicit sex – but they are presented in such humorous context you’ll be hard pressed not to laugh.


Now for a golden oldie from a galaxy far away: Lost Moon by Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger. Here is the dramatic story of Apollo 13, the 1970 mission to the moon that was aborted after an equipment failure in space. When an explosion disabled the ship, NASA scientists and astronauts labored tirelessly for days to bring the three-man crew safely back to Earth, even as the craft hemorrhaged power and oxygen. Thankfully, this account, while somewhat technical, is also highly readable and breathtakingly suspenseful, even though the triumphant ending is well known. Lovell recreates the drama in the third person, but that allows him to take a broader overview of his own story; he also recounts his rise in the once mighty space program. If you’ve seen Ron Howard’s terrific movie based on this book, here’s the rest of the story, and it’s terrific.

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