Murder, intrigue, and a slew of life's challenges fill these midsummer reads.
The Fourth Hand
By John Irving
Random House, $26.95

Irving’s typical character is orphaned or abandoned, yet retains a certain sweetness. Passive in the face of life’s outrages, he is more often done to than doing.

So it is with Patrick Wallingford. Orphaned as a college student, divorced, perpetually seduced by women, he has drifted into a
career as a television newsman for a sleazy, blood-and-gore cable channel. While he’s covering a story at an Indian circus, a lion bites his hand off.

A young, childless woman from Wisconsin offers her husband’s hand as a replacement, and when the man conveniently — and accidentally — dies, Wallingford becomes, for a time, the happy owner of a new hand.

But this hand comes with strings attached. One of them is the donor’s widow, and her desire for a child. And the hand seems to have a will of its own. All this is bizarrely funny, particularly in the novel’s first half. The second half gets down to serious business — love and responsibility and the possibilities for change from an unexpected direction.

– Bill Marvel
The Proving Ground
By G. Bruce Knecht
Little, Brown and Company, $24.95

The Sydney-to-Hobart ocean race of 1998 ended in disaster, with only 43 of the boats that entered the race finishing. Some never made it to land at all, and several sailors drowned. This disaster was to the world of sailing what the Everest catastrophe was to mountain climbing, and G. Bruce Knecht’s The Proving Ground aims to be its Into Thin Air. Knecht has written a tight narrative that focuses on three boats and only a few sailors, primarily Larry Ellison of Oracle, one of the wealthiest men in the world and, probably, the most driven and competitive. Ellison had moments, as his boat was climbing the face of a 40-foot wave and then falling back into the trough, when he was certain he wouldn’t survive the race.

Knecht has reported and researched the race and its aftermath thoroughly, and readers will want to stay with the account to the finish line.

– Geoffrey Norman
Word Freak
By Stefan Fatsis,
Houghton Mifflin, $25

More than a million Scrabble sets are sold every year. Rare is the family that hasn’t played a friendly game or two over the kitchen table.

Then there are the 2,300 or so hard- core players who give up what the rest of us call a life for the world of tournament Scrabble. Played at this level, Scrabble is as different from the kitchen-table game as an NFL shootout is from a backyard scrimmage.

The author knows his way around the board. A Wall Street Journal sportswriter who set out to cover Scrabble’s freaks and geeks, Fatsis ended up becoming one.

It’s a Damon Runyon bunch: a vitamin-popping, sometime stand-up comedian; “G.I.” Joel, the one-time bank teller with the rumbling stomach; Marlon from Baltimore, black, brilliant, and angry.
Midway, the author asks himself, Does Scrabble make its players weird, or are weird people drawn to the game? No matter. Ultimately, this is a book about excellence and the high cost of achieving it. –
Point Deception
By Marcia Muller
Mysterious Press, $23.95

Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone mystery series has gathered a large and faithful following. Point Deception is something of a departure for her, but a successful one.

The action begins with a female motorist stranded on California’s coast road, not far from a place called Point Deception. Two passersby offer to send help, but don’t; nobody else bothers to stop. The woman’s body is found several hours later, floating in the Pacific.

This is not the town’s first experience with murder. Thirteen years earlier, two families were slaughtered in the canyon where they were living out their countercultural ideals — and cooking up a little meth on the side. These two seemingly unrelated murders are slowly and tantalizingly joined by one of the original investigators of the canyon slaughter and an Eastern journalist with his own demons. The result is a mystery where the story is as satisfying as the crime is compelling. – G.N.

By Bill Marvel and Geoffrey Norman Marvel is a senior features writer for The Dallas Morning News. Norman is the author of nine novels and several nonfiction books.