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At 224 pages, Breath is a relatively short novel, at least for these days when literary doorstops are the rage (which is incomprehensible, since no one has much free time to read, but that's for another article). Author Tim Winton tells the story of Pikelet and Loonie, two Australian teenaged boys in the 1970s who want a more exciting life. They meet Sando, an old hippie/guru type, who takes them under his wing and tutors them in the intricacies of surfing. Their lives change, but they grow increasingly disillusioned with "normal" life outside of thrill-seeking. Things go awry after Sando pushes them to take on bigger and more dangerous waves, the friendship is strained, and relationships become as dangerous as any wave. Winton's writing is terse and muscular but also lyrical, particularly in his gorgeous descriptions of the experience of surfing. Too many books are called "coming of age" stories, but this one fits the bill, following the wrenching ups and downs that come with the move from childhood to adulthood. Highly recommended.

Today, not many Americans know much about Cuba other than Castro and cigars, which is understandable. The nearly 50-year-old U.S. trade blockade has kept Cuba -- only 90 miles from Florida, and once the most lavish tourist hotspot in the Caribbean -- nearly invisible to Americans, many of whose parents probably partied in Havana on their honeymoon. In the days before Castro overthrew Cuba's unbelievably corrupt Batista regime, the Mafia ran the most successful string of big-buck casinos, posh hotels and spectacular nightclubs ever seen in this hemisphere. How did they do it? For one thing, they paid dictator Fulgencio Batista nearly $10 million (in today's money) per week for the privilege. English's account of those years is a long overdue, well-crafted telling of a classic story of money, sex, corruption and politics, and it happened right on our backdoor step.

Now and then, a writer's reach outruns his or her grasp, but still manages to produce a work that's as interesting as a more tightly crafted effort. That's the situation readers will find in Martin Clark's The Legal Limit. Clark -- whose previous novels, The Many Aspects of Mobile Home Living and Plain Heathen Mischief, won critical accolades -- is a Virginia circuit court judge with a wicked sense of humor. Although there's humor to spare in The Legal Limit, it's also a serious take on the fine lines that run between the law and actual justice.

Mason Hunt, the product of a dismal, brutal Stuart, Va. household, and now a young law student, comes home to visit. He winds up caught in the out of control ways of his older brother Gates, whose life, and character, has gone to hell in a handbasket. One drunken evening, the two brothers are confronted by a violent redneck on a lonely back road. Gates commits a serious crime while resolving the conflict, and Mason helps him cover it up. That decision haunts him for over 20 years, through a series of mishaps, blackmail, and legal labyrinths. Clark is terrific in his descriptions of smalltown life and its inhabitants, but the novel winds up taking too much time in legal intricacies that slow the book to a near-crawl at times. The Legal Limit is still recommendable, if only for Clark's attempt to create something grand. He made a great try here, but didn't, I think, get to where he was aiming.

The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti (Dial Press, $15).

This startling, spellbinding debut novel also doubles as an adventure story about a one-handed orphan mixed up with a fantastical set of villains in 19th-century New England. The book is, to say the least, action-packed; it's also funny and oddly uplifting amid the violent squalor that permeates the story.

An immigrant from a violent, shattered East European country comes to Chicago and winds up investigating the real-life 1908 murder of an alleged anarchist. He then returns to Eastern Europe and its new, surreal gangster-soaked culture. Hemon, one of the leading lights of a growing group of East European émigré writers, has penned a masterfully written, funny, and chilling look at the connections between today's world and the past. His mixed approach to storytelling not only works, it also draws readers into life's ongoing battles among memory, truth and history, between self-discovery and self-delusion.

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  • On Saturday, Oct. 21, hundreds gathered at Camp North End on Statesville Avenue for Charlotte's first black alternative music festival. We captured some of the bands in action on stage, but mostly we surveyed the grounds as fans, families, vendors and more lounged around the sprawling, colorful Camp North End site. It was a great day of music, food, fun, and sweet, autumn sunshine. (Photos by Mark Kemp)
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