Sunday, May 20, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Cool reads for a hot beach

Seattle Times music critic

With June right around the corner, Beach Time is looming large on the horizon for us sun-starved Northwesterners. Last week, we offered up some stellar light fiction in the "chick lit" vein; this week, it's a more general compilation of books in a wider assortment of genres that still fit into that vague "beach reads" category: Books that are heavy enough to weigh down your beach towel, but not heavy enough to weigh down your spirits. We rate them here with one to four beach umbrellas — four being the best.

"Sparkles," by Louise Bagshawe (Plume, $14), Three umbrellas: British bestseller Louise Bagshawe scores with this glittery saga about an heiress to one of Europe's great jewelry firms. Mild-mannered Sophie Massot, whose charismatic husband, Pierre, left on a trip seven years previously and has never returned, is taking steps to have him declared dead, and surprise everyone around her by taking control of the moribund jewelry business. But has Pierre really expired? Bagshawe throws some surprising twists into a story full of glitz and glamour.

"The Year of Fog," by Michelle Richmond (Delacorte Press, $20), Four umbrellas: If you read this one at the beach, you're going to remain within arm's length of your youngsters. It's a harrowing, beautifully written story of a photographer and soon-to-be stepmom whose momentary lapse in attention results in the disappearance of her fiancé's little girl on a foggy beach in San Francisco. What happened to 6-year-old Emma? The answer, and its implications, will keep you on the edge of your beach chair.

"The Witch of Portobello," by Paulo Coelho (HarperCollins, $24.95), Three-and-a-half umbrellas: The Brazilian-born author of "The Alchemist" returns with this masterly novel about Athena, the illegitimate daughter of a Transylvanian gypsy adopted by well-to-do Lebanese parents. Athena sees prophetic visions, a gift that is both a blessing and a curse. Her story is told through a succession of narrators, beginning with the journalist who was enthralled by her, and including her mentor, her student and several others who find Athena a woman ahead of her time — and yet, after all this analysis and discussion, Athena remains mysterious to the very end.

"Obsession," by Karen Robards (G.P. Putnam's Sons, $24.95), Three umbrellas: Some of the developments in this creepily effective suspense novel may strike you as highly improbable, but the premise is a real gripper: Katherine, special assistant to the head of the CIA, is bound and gagged on the kitchen floor while masked gunmen search her house. When she regains consciousness, Katherine doesn't recognize herself in the mirror — her hair, her nails, even her too-slender body. What's going on? Can she trust the hunky doctor who shows up to help her, or is he one of the bad guys? You'll keep the pages turning to find out.

"McKettrick's Luck," by Linda Lael Miller (HQN Books, $7.99), Two-and-a-half umbrellas: The first in a series of three novels about the McKettrick family by local author Linda Lael Miller, this one is set in the Arizona hinterlands, where manly men wear cowboy boots and feel deep kinship with the land. Landowner Jesse McKettrick is incensed when Cheyenne Bridges approaches him with a scheme (forced upon her by her slimeball boss) to develop his property. Other things develop instead, having to do with "every position in the Kama Sutra."

"Secrets of a Former Fat Girl," by Lisa Delaney (Hudson Street Press, $21.95), Three-and-a-half umbrellas: This one is nonfiction, not a novel, but if you're like nearly everybody else on the beach, you are looking around for a swimsuit cover-up created by Omar the Tentmaker. Delaney, who lost 70 pounds, has kept them off for 20 years and wears a size 2, offers a bookful of realistic, smart and exquisitely funny tips for getting off the beach lounger and keeping the weight off for good. (Surprise: The first tip has nothing to do with anything you eat.)

"The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets," by Eva Rice (Plume, $14), Three umbrellas: The daughter of British lyricist Tim Rice (frequent collaborator with Andrew Lloyd Webber), Eva Rice visits 1950s London in this novel that has a faint tinge of an updated "Brideshead Revisited": upper-crust youngsters, a fabulous but decaying stately home, unsuitable love affairs, bad behavior and frequent dollops of enticing secrets amongst the glamorous and guilty, as they quaff champagne and nibble violet creams from Harrods.

"Julia's Chocolates," by Cathy Lamb (Kensington Books, $14), Three umbrellas: Oregon author Cathy Lamb has a zinger of an opening sentence for her debut novel: "I left my wedding dress hanging in a tree somewhere in North Dakota." The narrator, one Julia Bennett, has cast off the dress as she ran away from her snobby fiancé, whose favorite endearments are "Ferret Eyes" and "Cannonball Butt." She heads for Aunt Lydia, an eccentric of the deepest dye, to reconnect with what is important in life: a circle of colorful new buddies, and a whole lot of chocolate. We think Julia's onto something here.

"Right Before Your Eyes," by Ellen Shanman (Delta Trade Paperback, $12), Three umbrellas: In this hilariously witty debut novel, struggling playwright Liza Weiler feels sadly incompetent next to her two-Tony-winning, star-actress great-aunt Fran, whose aphorisms include, "Your ideal job should involve gin and being fawned over." Liza's ghastly New York office-temp job involves neither, but things start to pick up when she steps off a curb and sprains her ankle, which then swells to the approximate size of New Jersey. She meets hunky Dr. Tim, a hot off-Broadway playhouse starts looking at her new play and Lisa finally takes Aunt Fran's advice: "Just feel lucky and don't let go."

Melinda Bargreen:

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company


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