Baltimore and lots of beach reading

August 02, 1998|By James H. Bready | James H. Bready,sun staff

It takes bravado to give a book the one-word title "Baltimore," as Harrison Edward Livingstone has done in his welcome return to fiction (Conservatory Press, 467 pages, $27). No city novel can be all-embracing; here, the time span is 1958 to 1970 or so, and his Baltimore is largely white, young, juridical, amorous and bar-oriented. At times, "Baltimore" is almost an outdated guidebook; at others, via a figure named Harry Michaels, an autobiography.

Harry Livingstone, author and controversialist, has been on a 20-year, four-book side trip, scrutinizing the death of John F. Kennedy. But the Kerouac-school author of 1962's "David Johnson Passed Through Here" is still at bottom a Baltimore loyalist. In this book, 20 or more true-life Baltimoreans appear, playing themselves.

Such a theme can lapse into reportage, stronger on milieu than on character subtleties. Here, colorful set pieces on the Block, the Hunt Cup, a Colts game, the 1968 riots leave the gentry looking corrupt and card-boardy (sic); the booze-soaked artists and writers hanging out at (pre-French) Martick's ring truer. Another caution is detail -misspellings ("Adolph Hitler") and inaccuracies (on page 463, "even Spiro Agnew . . . went to jail.")

Yet Harry Livingstone, home from the many wars, is by now mellow. His sense of artistry is intact; his pacing, sure. Whatever else befalls, "Baltimore," with its lingering pauses by the bedsteads of Eros, could easily become a cult book.

Another placename, this time as title for a thriller? Indeed so, as Tom Croft of Rockville takes us to "Ocean City, M.D." (sic) (Palmer & Stewart, 258 pages, $10.95 softbound). How many copies, one wonders, are being read right now, under the beach umbrellas?

For Billy Lee, writer of the puff pieces that accompany ads in a low-grade local newspaper, life is mostly grunge. (Croft's portrayal of Ocean City in summer is far from sugary.) Then one day Lee, soliciting an ad, visits a nearby dog food plant. And his life speeds up; nay, it seems about to terminate.

From then on, no point in worrying about the unorthodox state abbreviation ("Ocean City, M.D." does have a medical subtext). In the whirl of events, a reader can only grab for the rollbar. Croft, a new author, is good at this sort of thing.

Two suspense novels use Japan as a backdrop. And the game in each is antiquities, treasured since the Shogun period. In Sujata Massey's "Zen Attitude" (Harper Paperbacks, 312 pages, $9.99), tansu or chest of drawers sets off deceit and turbulence. In Mantle Hood's "The Keepers" (Tale Spin Press, Box 2674, Ellicott City, 235 pages, $19.95), three thousand-year-old swords pass from right hand to wrong.

Massey's lead figure is again Rei Shimura, the winsome young Japanese-American who survived other villains in 1997's "The Salaryman's Wife." Hugh Glendinning, her handsome lawyer roommate, is now burdened with a worthless brother, Angus. Neither is near, during an outdoor Zen festival at the Buddhist temple city Kamakura, when whangggg! a steel arrow splits Rei's chair.

Hood's lead figure is Doug Carson - former Green Beret, now a Hawaii ranch owner and fast-draw champion. Two young women are at Doug's disposal: a blonde from Vassar, a brunette of local lineage; the islands are the stage for much of the rough-and-tumble. But the principals end up at Nara, a museum city where a modern-day samurai can impress Doug with the Four Principles, Four Vows and Six Banes of bushido.

Massey, whose byline used to be in newspapers, will please keep us posted on the fetching Rei. Hood, a prominent ethnomusicologist, should narrate more about Doug, the ambidextrous fast-firer.

The following are happily-ever-after paperbacks, with many an obstacle en route, many a peril, many an embrace:

"Private Lies" (Pinnacle, 284 pages, $4.99), by Robyn Amos of Gaithersburg. (Setting: D.C.; time: present.) Her paying job is to test husbands' and fiances' fidelity; he is the first man proof against her advances. So she falls for him. But someone has set out to liquidate her.

"Lord of Illusions" (Signet, 223 pages, $4.99), by Rita Boucher. (England; Napoleonic era.) With the captured emperor's freedom goal, a French widow joins an English milord's household. He and she are mages, people with the Gift; but even sorcery must yield to love.

"Laird of the Wind" (Penguin, 352 pages, $5.99), by Susan King of Damascus. (Scotland; 14th century.) She can see the future; he, an outlaw, strives to regain his good name. The nation (William Wallace, Robert the Bruce) is in jeopardy. But even the English cannot suppress love.

"Suddenly Daddy" (Steeple Hill, 249 pages, $4.50), by Loree Lough. (Here; the present.) He's an FBI special agent; she takes it hard that his safety is ever uncertain. Then he disappears, to go under cover on a drug-racket assignment, even as fatherhood looms.

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