6 Guilt-Free Pleasures to Read at the Beach

WATER FOR ELEPHANTS SARA GRUEN JACOB JANKOWSKI has never had fantasies about joining the circus. But when his parents die suddenly, he freaks out, drops out of vet school, hops a freight train and winds up tending to the menagerie of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth, a third-rate Depression-era traveling circus. What goes on under the big top is nothing compared with the show backstage. In a sawdust-and-tinsel novel reminiscent of Robertson Davies, Jacob nurses giraffes, bunks with a surly dwarf, falls in love with a sexy horsewoman, gets life lessons from a singularly intelligent elephant and learns what to do when the band plays Stars and Stripes Forever: it’s circus code for disaster, so run like hell.FEEDING THE MONSTER SETH MNOOKIN NOT TO SPOIL IT or anything, but the 2004 Boston Red Sox had a pretty good year. Yup. Their first in a while. The surprise is what came before it: the youngest general manager in baseball looked at a bunch of underrated players (like power hitter David Ortiz), fussy eccentrics (Nomar Garciaparra, he of the glove-tugging ritual) and petulant superstars (Manny Ramirez) and saw champs. It’s both a Moneyball-style triumph of smart management over conventional wisdom and a redemptive story of athletic success as an expression of inner strength.

MOCKINGBIRD: A PORTRAIT OF HARPER LEE CHARLES J. SHIELDS IN 1956 A SHY but viper-tongued young Southerner sneaked into a literary agent’s office to drop off a manuscript. “I prayed for a quick death,” she said later, “and forgot about it.” But the world hasn’t forgotten Harper Lee or her novel To Kill a Mockingbird. The enigmatic, reclusive Lee, now 80, has never published another book and (like her idol, Jane Austen) has never married. She didn’t cooperate with this biography, which relies on early interviews and diligent research, but the glimpses we get are tantalizing, like her description of her collaboration with Truman Capote on In Cold Blood: “It was deep calling to deep.”

LOST AND FOUND CAROLYN PARKHURST SEVEN COUPLES on a high-stakes global treasure hunt–it’s the stuff of which crappy reality TV is made. But Parkhurst (The Dogs of Babel) has fashioned an entertaining, unexpectedly wise novel about contestants on an Amazing Race–esque show: a pair of devout Christians struggling with temptation, an estranged mom and daughter, high school sweethearts and two grownup, washed-up child stars. Her tender, witty prose catches things no camera could.

LEMONS NEVER LIE RICHARD STARK “GROFIELD opened the closet door and the wrestler smiled up at him with his slit throat.” Grofield is a summer-stock actor who moonlights as a usual-suspects-type contract criminal. He’s a thief, not a psycho-killer, so when an actual murderous nut job tries to hire him, he walks away. He should have run. Instead, Grofield winds up in this first-rate hard-boiled mystery by Richard Stark (also known to aficionados of the genre by his real name, Donald E. Westlake), which reads like Raymond Chandler with a dark literary whisper–as faint as the vermouth in a martini–of Cormac McCarthy.

THE RUINS SCOTT SMITH PLEASE, PLEASE let this be the most disturbing novel of the year. The Ruins is the tale of a bunch of American tourists on a boozy Mexican vacation that becomes a fever dream of grisly horror. Smith (A Simple Plan) writes with psychological acuity and real beauty, yet he doesn’t pull punches. To be more specific would just waste good dramatic tension. But seriously, it’s just awful what happens to these poor people.

From the Jul 24, 2006 issue of TIME magazine