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CL's hot weather book picks

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Summer reading can mean a variety of things to different people. Many busy readers wait till summer to catch up on past best sellers, while others insist on "beach books," which can be mind-candy or something challenging. In our list, we hand out suggestions for intelligent, leisurely reading, everything from mysteries to biographies, suitable for the beach, the mountains, or your own private staycation. Here are our picks, based on our own reading or that of trusted fellow book fanatics. Have a great summer.

HARDBACKS

The Secret Speech by Tom Rob Smith. Smith's stunning debut, Child 44, was one of the few mysteries ever long-listed for Britain's Man Booker Prize. This follow-up also features detective Leo Demidov, this time in 1956, after Krushchev leaks his "secret speech" denouncing Stalin's abuses. Demidov's problem is that, even though he has denounced his past, he is a former MGB officer and one of his former victims wants revenge.

Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde by Jeff Guinn. An enthralling look at the real-life Texan bandit pair behind the legends and movies. Their combination of crushing poverty and odd brand of narcissism led to a string of sordid robberies and murders, while the nation and the robbers themselves romanticized their exploits. A vivid portrait of America in a desperate time.

The Last Child by John Hart. Salisbury's John Hart has written a third thriller, following King of Lies and Down River. This one is about a detective and a 13-year-old boy in a small N.C. town, looking for the boy's missing twin sister, who was kidnapped at age 12. Early reviews have been very positive, nearly all praising Hart's gift for creating deep, believable characters.

The Yankee Years by Joe Torre and Tom Verducci. More than a biography, this excellent book relates Torre's tales of glory and woe as he wins pennants galore while rarely pleasing his psycho boss. Torre and Verducci give a clear-eyed, lively portrait of baseball as it's played, managed, and at times micro-managed today.

Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead. Whitehead, who has won a gazillion literary awards and was even short-listed for the Pulitzer, is still looking for a "breakout" book with the general public. Reviewers say this autobiographical, coming-of-age novel will probably be the one. The story takes place in 1985, when 15-year-old Benji Cooper spends the summer with his brother in their folks' summer home in Long Island's Sag Harbor, a popular summer residence for many of New York City's African-American professionals. Said to be loaded with pop culture references that bring the '80s to life, Sag Harbor looks like one of the season's most promising novels.

Who Is Mark Twain? by Mark Twain. A collection of previously unpublished writings by Twain, parts of the book seem thin, while others are classics that should have been unearthed long ago, particularly a story that could have been the prototype for Six Feet Under. Look for a previously unpublished, and hilarious, essay by Twain on his least favorite author, Jane Austen.

PAPERBACKS

Girls Like Us by Sheila Weller. Weller ties together the lives of female baby boomer singers Carole King, Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon in this energetic portrait of an era when feminism and music were many Americans' main concerns.

The Writing Class by Jincy Willett. A clever, captivating mystery about a once promising writer who now teaches writing workshops. There's a murder, her students are all suspects, and clues show up in their writing. Filled with funny digs at the pretensions of the writing life, The Writing Class is practically the epitome of an intelligent beach read.

Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives by Jim Sheeler. A very moving, yet unsentimental account of two years in the life of Maj. Steve Beck, an earnest, caring marine whose job was to notify families of their loved ones' deaths on the battlefields of Iraq. One of the last year's best, and most under-publicized, books.

The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon. An East European immigrant investigates the real-life 1908 murder of an alleged anarchist, and returns to Eastern Europe and its new, surreal gangster-soaked culture. A masterfully written, funny, chilling look at the connections between today's world and the past.

A Prayer for the Dying by Stewart O'Nan. A welcome re-release of a masterful 1999 novel by the author of Songs for the Missing. A Civil War veteran moves to a small town in Wisconsin, devotes himself to public service, and accidentally triggers a diphtheria epidemic. The resulting chaos and recriminations are reminiscent of Camus' The Plague, but in an American setting that allows O'Nan to create a portrait of a town in the post-Civil War era struggling to rebuild a sense of community.

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