Razor Girl

By Carl Hiaasen. (Alfred A. Knopf, 333 pages, $27.95.)

Carl Hiaasen's comic genius stems not only from his ability to invent crazy characters, but also from his ability to make art imitate life in South Florida. The inspiration for his latest novel, "Razor Girl," arose from the actual case of a woman who crashed into a car while simultaneously driving and shaving what a family newspaper will politely describe as her "bikini area."

Spurred by that insanity, Hiaasen runs wild in a hilarious tale of a sassy redhead extorting money by ramming unsuspecting motorists while feigning pantless personal grooming, a disgraced detective banished to the "roach patrol" as a health inspector, and a personal injury lawyer addicted to the erectile enhancing deodorant whose side effects are the subject of his latest lawsuit. Toss in a guy who steals sand to replenish beaches, a racist reality TV star with an unhinged redneck sycophant, various mobsters and Hollywood agents, and you have a narrative stew on which readers can happily binge.

Hiaasen's love-hate relationship with his stamping grounds plays out richly in his Miami Herald newspaper columns as well as his novels. There's plenty that he seems to despise in the greed, bigotry, violence, inanity and insanity that surround him. But you get the feeling he'd be bored anywhere else.

Hiaasen's books are always shot through with anti-heroes and comic nitwits. "Razor Girl" is a buckshot load of ne'er-do-wells. With equal facility, Hiaasen captures the culture of the Florida Keys and cable television, using his signature hyperbole. He nails dialogue from recalcitrant rednecks and greedy gangsters. Still, his greatest gift comes in offering just enough humanity in his most loathsome actors to keep black humor from sliding into cynicism.

Carl Hiaasen will be at Talking Volumes at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 21 at the Fitzgerald Theater, St. Paul. Tickets $25-$30 at the Fitz box office, or through etix at http://tinyurl.com/znotabo


Champagne Baby

By Laure Dugas. (Ballantine, 316 pages, $26.)

In many a light memoir or novel, an American moves to Europe and is transformed. "Champagne Baby" upends that theme — and lots of cultural assumptions. Laure Dugas, who comes from a French winemaking family, moves to New York for what's supposed to be a six-month job and finds herself surprised and smitten by America — "Blasphemous!" she says playfully.

Despite its bubbly title, her story is mature, thoughtful and well written. It's half memoir, half a delightful primer on wine aimed at people who know little about it and don't understand the fuss it inspires. Despite her heritage, Dugas doesn't know much about it at first, either, but she comes to deeply understand and love wine and wine culture.

Dugas is smart, feisty, frank and funny, and honest about her own misconceptions and mistakes. Her account of one job in a gleaming but dysfunctional office is both dismaying and hilarious. Her story is charming, and also rich in suspense — will she stay in America, or return to her homeland? Will she stay with, and marry, her longtime boyfriend, the charming Jules? It's worth finding out, and along the way, you'll find yourself taking notes from her tips and wisdom on wine.