Before you know it, Labor Day will be here and prime beach time will be null and void for 2011. If you haven't been and still want to go, you better hurry. Even if you've already gone coastal this summer, you'd probably love to sneak in a couple more days on the sand. We're here to help, with a pile of last-chance, current beach paperback picks. Nothing heavy, but all of them feature terrific writing, and each one's a guaranteed great vacation read — so dig in.
The Glass Rainbow by James Lee Burke (Pocket Star, $9.99). One of America's greatest crime novelists, James Lee Burke presents another in his Dave Robicheaux series. The Louisiana detective/deputy-sheriff and longtime friend Clete Purcel investigate the sadistic murders of two young women, while Dave contends with his adopted daughter's newfound fascination with a novelist who happens to be part of the notorious, Old South, Abelard clan. As usual, Burke's lyrical, lavish, three-dimensional portraits of the Louisiana bayou are breathtaking; the bad guys plumb the depths of humanity's darkest impulses; and the good guys are seriously flawed but heroic. Burke is always a prime beach reading choice, and this one's a classic.
Swamplandia! by Karen Russell (Vintage, $14.95). From one swampy area to another, our parade of beach books travels from the Lou'zana bayou to the Everglades. This spectacularly reviewed debut novel is about a fantastical, family-run tourist attraction in the Everglades where the big draw is the gator-wrestling mom. Things go awry, as one might expect from a family of gator wrestlers: One brother leaves to work for a new attraction, the World of Darkness; a sister disappears after falling in love with a ghost; customers dwindle. Thirteen-year-old Ava goes looking for her sister and winds up in the Underworld. Russell's writing is lavish but controlled, exuberant but fluid, filled with knowing, beautiful descriptions of the wonders of the Everglades in what turns out to be a primal swamp saga.
The Blood of Lorraine by Barbara Corrado Pope (Pegasus Crime, $15.95). Pope's second novel in her series about French magistrate Bernard Martin in the late 19th century (the first one was Cézanne's Quarry) is a wonderful example of an historical novel as crime thriller. It's set in 1894 during France's infamous Dreyfus Affair, when Capt. Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew, was tried on suspicion of sharing French military secrets with Germany. Anti-Semitism ruled the day during that period, and magistrate Martin is called to investigate two possibly related crimes: the murder of a 7-month-old boy whose parents claim he was killed by a Jew, and the bludgeoning to death of a prominent member of the local Jewish community. History comes alive, while Pope's evocation of prejudice's insidious invasion of every little corner of a nation's life is superb.
The Ipcress File and Funeral In Berlin by Len Deighton (Sterling reprints, $11.95). It's hard to believe that these icons of the modern spy novel have been out of print for years. Actually, considering today's publishing industry, it's not hard to believe, but you get the picture. Deighton's first two novels from the early 1960s, featuring a nameless British spy, rush with unstoppable energy, driven by crisp writing and a cool-as-a-cucumber attitude. The spy, later named Harry Palmer when Michael Caine played him in two fine films, is in the same vein as John LeCarre's The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, which came out a year later: the ordinary guy doing his thankless job, growing weary of it, but still stalwart when the outlines of a conspiracy start showing up. In The Ipcress File, the spy, or Harry, is sent on a supposedly clear-cut assignment to find a missing biochemist; all hell, of course, breaks loose. This is the book that forever changed the spy thriller genre. Why not discover it (or re-read it) while sitting under a beach umbrella? I suggest buying both books, as you'll want to read Funeral In Berlin, another masterpiece, after finishing Ipcress.