THRILLER

By Mark Mills

CRITIC'S CHOICE

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A Cambridge grad who lives in London, Mills wrote the script for this year's film The Reckoning, and his cinematic sensibility informs this atmospheric thriller set in the 1940s. His story is meticulously researched, and it shows: Focusing on a time when the fishing hamlets of the Hamptons were becoming getaways for moneyed New Yorkers, the author creates characters and a setting so vivid that it's easy to picture them on the big screen. Included in his cast: businessmen who commit felonies, lovers whose passion crosses class lines and a blue-collar protagonist who's a rugged Harrison Ford type. As the tale begins, Conrad Labarde, a shell-shocked World War II veteran who makes a living fishing the waters off Southampton and Montauk, N.Y., nets a body identified as Lillian Wallace, a beauty who was a member of one of Long Island's most powerful families. An accidental drowning? It seems so in the beginning, but—like all good beach reads—this one offers surprises: As Labarde discovers, the socialite was harboring a dreadful secret. Mills skillfully intertwines the stories of Lillian's powerful clan attempting to cover up her murder, Labarde's searching for the killer and wealthy interlopers claiming the placid Hamptons to present an evocative tale of love and murder in America's legendary summer playground.

THRILLER

By Abigail Vona

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When the author—the daughter of wealthy, dysfunctionally divorced parents—was 15, she was a wild child who acted out by drinking, dating a drug dealer, running away from home and slicking Vaseline on the stairs to trip her stepmom. Sent to a Tennessee rehab institution when she thought she was heading off to summer camp, she eventually spent 328 days in hellish lock-down among anorexics, prostitutes and other lost souls.

Now, at 19, Vona is the author of Bad Girl, a compelling memoir that's remarkable on several levels. First, because she suffers from severe dyslexia and crafted her story by dictating it. And more importantly, because it offers a raw, revealing look at the world of rehab.

Interspersing her tart narrative with notes from her shrinks, Vona documents her odyssey as she delivers scathing portraits of the head cases around her. Smart and willful, she's a strangely sympathetic character—one whose appeal is based on her bravery, as well as on the vulnerability that led her down such a dangerous road in the first place.

NON-FICTION

A Biography of Mary Nisbet, Countess of Elgin
By Susan Nagel

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Visitors admiring the Elgin Marbles at the British Museum may not know the story of their acquisition—or of the captivating woman who played a role in spiriting the friezes out of Athens. But now Susan Nagel's Mistress of the Elgin Marbles recounts the dramatic life of Mary Nisbet, the Countess of Elgin. Born to a wealthy Scottish family in 1778, the beautiful aristocrat wed Lord Elgin at 21 and became the star of the diplomatic community when he was named ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. The countess visited harems, consorted with royalty and financed the removal of the gorgeous marbles from the Parthenon—only to fall from grace because of a torrid affair and a divorce. While Nagel underplays the notion that transferring one of the world's greatest art treasures amounted to cultural plunder, her book is a lively and welcome account of a charismatic woman.

BIOGRAPHY

By Richard Bausch

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Haunting and beautifully crafted, these three short novels about troubled relationships showcase Bausch's skill at eliciting readers' compassion even as he cuts to the heart of his characters' worst foibles. In "Requisite Kindness," a mother's death prompts her son to examine his own mistreatment of women. The widower at the center of "Rare & Endangered Species" puzzles over his wife's suicide while recalling "how it can feel like starvation to be intimate with someone you can't really reach." And "Spirits," about lies and temptations in academia, leaves you wanting more. There is no higher compliment.

NOVELLASBetter Off

Eric Brende, 43, has been exploring life "off the grid" since 1992, when, as an MIT grad student studying technology and society, he moved to an Amish-like community with his bride and lived for 18 months on a farm with kerosene lamps and horse-drawn plow. In Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology, he chronicles their experiments in low-tech living.

WHY PULL THE PLUG? I'm not trying to make the case that technology is evil; I wanted to ascertain how much—or how little—is needed. Devices like cars, TVs and computers take away something we need—exercise, social interaction, mental challenge—and give us something we don't, like the cost of maintenance and fuel.

WHAT DID YOUR WIFE THINK? At first, Mary [a former accountant, now a stay-at-home mom] was negative: I was proposing working a farm with our bare hands. But it brought us much closer.

WHAT DID YOU MISS WHEN YOU WENT COLD TURKEY? A refrigerator. Handy for keeping leftovers when it's 90°.

HOW DOES YOUR'FAMILY LIVE NOW? My emphasis is to minimize the automated devices, which leaves us with things that don't interfere that much. In our home in St. Louis we have electricity, partly because houses today are designed for electrical lights. We have a half-size refrigerator. And a gas range. A 1983 Honda Accord that we use when we can't walk or bike. We have a phone and a radio, but not a TV, computer or DVD player. We use kerosene lights at night after our three kids go to bed and we want to read or play backgammon. And we home-school our children.

DO THE KIDS COMPLAIN ABOUT BEING DIFFERENT? Occasionally. But Hans [11], Anna [8] and Evan [6] are so much happier because they can entertain themselves. They're constantly creating forts and playing dress-up.

HOW DO YOU SUPPORT YOURSELF? I drive a pedal-powered rickshaw taxi downtown and I have a soap-making business. And I'm a musician, so I play an occasional gig.

  • Contributors:
  • Lynn Andriani,
  • Andrea L. Sachs,
  • Francine Prose,
  • Annette Gallagher Weisman.