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Reviews: Summer reading, year-round pleasure

Books for the beach -- or anywhere

By Adam Dunn
Special to CNN

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NEW YORK (CNN) -- With long, logy days in the offing, summer is the perfect time to get into a good book. These works need not be full of empty, mindless calories or be paperweight-dull -- nor do they have to be expensive, given the many excellent works just out in paperback.

CNN offers a handful to keep you entertained.

"Dancer" by Colum McCann (Picador)

The critically-acclaimed "Dancer," a novelized version of the life of ballet superstar Rudolf Nureyev, whirls the reader from the battlefields of wartime Russia through the glitz of the Euro-American jet set of the 1960s and '70s and on to the sexual revolution and the ruthless onset of AIDS. McCann ("This Side of Brightness," "Songdogs") combined actual characters from Nureyev's past with those of his own invention, letting them tell the story in their own words (Nureyev's own voice is almost entirely absent from the book). This outside-in perspective has the effect of sharply enhancing the focus on its subject, at once emphasizing his achievements as an artist while illustrating his flaws as a person.

"Word Spy: The Word Lover's Guide to Modern Culture" by Paul McFedries (Broadway)

All languages are living things, and language lover McFedries (author of over 40 books as well as the creator of www.wordspy.com) charts the latest mutation of American vernacular in the digital age. The author notes the appearance of new terms in the press worldwide, such as torpedo: "an inept employee who quits to go to work for a rival company." This book is the spoken road map to guide you through the swamp of what passes for modern English.

"No Matter How Much You Promise to Cook or Pay the Rent You Blew It Cauze Bill Bailey Ain't Never Coming Home Again" by Edgardo Vega Yunque (Picador)

A "symphonic novel" that was hailed as a New York Times Notable Book of 2003, this mighty tome traces the history of a Puerto Rican-Irish family. At the crux of the massive but beautifully written story is the precocious Vidamia Farrell, the mixed offspring of a one-off between a neurotic nouveau-riche mother (who refers to her daughter as "the cleft product of her despair") and an Irish-American jazz pianist mauled physically and psychologically by his tour of duty in Vietnam. Yunque's fourth book is a glorious tapestry of intertwined lives in a changing New York as the 20th century winds down, and should strike chords in all readers who trace their family lineages from afar.

"The Book of Bunny Suicides: Little Fluffy Rabbits Who Just Don't Want to Live Any More" by Andy Riley (Plume)

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Comedic scribe Riley ("Robbie the Reindeer," "Smack the Pony," and the forthcoming Disney feature "Gnomeo and Juliet") has put together a delightful illustrated volume of creative self-destruction in the tradition of Jules Feiffer's "Sick, Sick, Sick." See the bunny make optimal self-negating use of helicopter rotors, jet turbines, windmill blades, fat guys in chairs, falling stalactites, common household toasters, and magnets strategically placed in front of cutlery stores. For the inner sadist in everyone.

"The Battle for Rome: The Germans, the Allies, the Partisans and the Pope, September 1943-June 1944 by Robert Katz (Simon & Schuster)

Author, journalist and screenwriter ("Death in Rome") Katz has lived in Italy for the better part of the last half-century, and has spent large portions of it becoming one of the foremost experts on what the Vatican exactly did and did not do during the German occupation of Italy during World War II. Drawing on a wealth of primary source data, Katz re-enacts the events of the 10 months of the Italian capital under Nazi rule. His method of grouping the huge cast of historical figures into four groups, headed by carefully selected protagonists (including a partisan couple who conceived a child under a tree during an Allied bombing raid) moves the mountain of thoroughly documented material along with the pace of a thriller.

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"Bangkok 8" by John Burdett (Vintage)

Last year's bestselling thriller featuring Thai drug gangs and Buddhist cops hits the paperback racks just in time for summer travel. The novel opens with the murder of a U.S. Marine in Bangkok via a trunkful of cobras. Also killed in the snake attack is a Thai policeman, whose partner (the Buddhist arhat, or saint) Sonchai Jitpleecheep, swears vengeance. Sonchai heads a ragged team of local cops and American FBI agents through the city's sewer of child prostitution, municipal corruption, and murderous drug wars, viewed through Sonchai's otherworldly lens (he routinely communes with ghosts and demons, while periodically bingeing on drugs and offering unsolicited fashion tips). The author (himself an English transplant to Hong Kong) is currently at work on a sequel.


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