The Perfect Summer Beach Read

The Perfect Beach Read—a phrase readers often see on the covers of paperback novels. But what exactly is a beach read? And what if I prefer a lake or the mountains or the forest for my summer vacation? Does it make a difference?

I thought I’d ask my fellow Miss Demeanors:  

  • What is a perfect beach read to you—or should we rephrase that to say the perfect book to take on vacation?
  • What qualities do you look for and what are you reading this summer? We’d love some recommendations.

Connie Berry: I’ll start. What I look for in a vacation book is the same thing I look for all the time—a great story told well with a satisfying conclusion. After scaring myself silly one summer when I was alone in our cottage in the woods, I don’t ever read horror or really dark police procedurals. This summer so far, I would highly recommend:

  • The Locked Room, a Ruth Galloway book by Elly Griffiths. I never thought I’d like a mystery with Covid written into the plot. But then I thought I didn’t like first-person, present-tense narration, either, and Elly Griffiths has changed my opinion on both counts. This was a page-turner.
  •  A Catalogue of Catastrophe, the latest in the Chronicles of St. Mary’s series by Jodi Taylor. Taylor always delivers a rollicking tale with a heavy dose of British wit—exactly my cup of tea. If you haven’t discovered this series, I recommend starting at the beginning with Just One Damned Thing After Another.
  • The Small Hand, a standalone by Susan Hill. Susan Hill’s tales of suspense rank right up there with the best of them. If you like novels written in the Gothic tradition, you’ll love this one.
  •  A Change of Circumstance, the latest in the Simon Serrailler series, also by Susan Hill. This is a British police procedural, seamlessly plotted and beautifully written. I can’t imagine why more people don’t know Susan Hill or why the BBC hasn’t made the series into a TV drama.
  • Smallbone Deceased by Michael Gilbert (a Golden Age classic). Author Michael Gilbert set his novel in the chambers of Horniman, Birley, and Craine. After the death of the firm’s senior partner, a hermetically sealed deed box is opened, revealing the corpse of Marcus Smallbone, a co-trustee with the late Mr. Horniman of the valuable Ichbod Trust. A terrific read.

Susan Breen: In the most literal sense, I think of a beach read as a book that I won’t mind getting sandy. So that tends to mean a paperback I’ve picked up at a library sale. Beyond that, I’ll read anything. However I do spend a lot of time planning out what to read on an airplane. For that, I need something that will grab my attention, and one of my most satisfying plane reads was Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale. It was one of those experiences where I started reading it and the next thing I knew I was in London. 

Connie: Great recommendation! On long flights, I always try to fly overnight and get some sleep, but if I ever fly during the daytime, I’ll keep The Nightingale in mind!

C. Michele Dorsey: I’ve been told I write “beach reads.” I don’t take it as a slight. I’ve read some of the best books of all time on a beach. The beach is the perfect place to read. There is usually a salty breeze, quiet, and a comfy place to sit or lie. When you need an occasional break, jumping into the water gives you a chance to process what you’ve been reading. ‘Beach reads” need not be a literal term. Reading in a hammock, on a sailboat, on a porch, all accomplish the same sense of bliss. 

This summer, I’m honored to be the writer in residence at Jules Besch Stationers in Truro, MA. (Sharing a photo proudly) My books are featured as “beach reads” and prominently and artistically displayed by the owner. I smile, picturing my books on the beaches of Cape Cod. 

Connie: Congratulations, Michele! No slight at all to be called a “beach read.” 

Alexia Gordon: The phrase “beach read,” sadly, has negative connotations. I think this is unfair. There is nothing wrong with escapism. Everyday life is hard, worse for some than others. If one chooses to take a fictional break from the gloom and doom and injustice of the “real” world, so what? That’s a healthy response. So, to me, a beach read is a book (paper, electronic, or audio) that lets the reader put cares and worries and fears aside for a little while. It doesn’t require philosophizing about the meaning of life or grappling with existential threats or confronting existential dread. A beach read doesn’t necessarily require in-depth emotional investment. Beach reading should be a pleasurable diversion, preferably one that helps the reader forget for a moment that unpleasantness lurks in the background. It doesn’t have to be “happy” (I say that because romance novels are often classified as beach reads and they, traditionally, have happy endings.) For me, an escapist read is one where the justice so often denied in real life is meted out to some *&%^!%@ who truly deserves it. Yes, you can read revenge fiction on the beach. Or in the mountains or city or your armchair or wherever. I think “vacation read” is a better if less evocative term.

I haven’t built a “beach” read list yet. (Beach in quotes because I’m not a beach person.) I’m actually going on vacation in October, so I’ll have to decide by then. What should I read on my cruise? I’m looking for some murder mysteries that occur on cruise ships. One I think I’ll take with me is Louise Hare’s recently released Miss Aldridge Regrets because it’s set on the actual ship I’ll be sailing on. 

Connie: Alexia, I love your definition of a beach read! Exactly my own thought—and haven’t we needed that escape during Covid. Thanks for mentioning Louise Hare’s new book! I love the title.

Tracee de Hahn: I recently returned from my version of a beach—an ocean liner complete with a library. Although I’d taken books with me, I decided to read what was on offer and chose to reread Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train. I picked it because I was reading with one eye cocked to the North Atlantic, looking for dolphins and whales. (I was rewarded for my vigilance!) And there is something about reading about travel while traveling. 

I also read Janice Hadlow’s The Other Bennett Sister. Purchased at Jane Austen’s house, it ticked all of the vacation-read boxes—enjoyable and at the same time linked to my current experience. I suppose that in a vacation read I look for something familiar (I’m with Alexia and think that doesn’t have to mean happy) or something new, relevant to my stay. In short, a vacation read is something to enjoy! 

Connie: I followed some of your fabulous travels on Facebook, Tracee. Mentioning The Mystery of the Blue Train reminds me that I always try to read at least one classic mystery every year, and most often I do that in the summer.

Catherine Maiorisi: The sun is not my friend so I don’t do beach vacations anymore, but I do enjoy reading outside in the shade on a terrace overlooking the ocean with a cold drink. My choice of books to take with me to this beautiful, serene place is very different than it would have been before the pandemic. I used to read tons of mysteries and thrillers, but more and more because of what’s happening in our country, I find I can’t tolerate books with tension or violence. So what do I read?

My perfect beach read is a book that takes me out of myself into another world. I still read some mysteries and recently enjoyed our own Michele Dorsey’s Salt Water Wounds and Sarah Stewart Taylor’s The Mountains Wild, but mostly I find lesbian romances, science fiction, fantasy, paranormal and speculative fiction easier to tolerate, or should I say, enjoy, without my blood pressure going through the roof and my stomach churning. And from time to time I reread the books that successfully pull me into their world, whatever that world is, and make me happy.

Some of  the new reads I’d take with me include:

  • Something to Hide by Elizabeth George
  • Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
  • The 1619 Project by Nikole Hannah-Jones
  • Too many lesbian romances to list

Some of the rereads I’d bring along are:

  • The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon
  • Where Serpents Sleep by C.S. Harris
  • The Caphenon (The Chronicles of Alsea Series) by Fletcher Delancy
  • Aurora’s Angel by Emily Moon
  • Too many lesbian romances to list

Connie: Thanks for the list, Catherine! If you enjoy science fiction and fantasy, you might enjoy Jodi Taylor. The Priory of the Orange Tree beckons to me—anything with a hint of history.

Emilya Naymark: I’ll read anything. I went to Puerto Rico once, read a book a day, and then panicked because I finished all the ones I’d brought and had to buy one for the trip home. I did the same thing on a cruise once, except I also brought a Hebrew primer and a book on chess with me and learned the Hebrew alphabet, while also trying to memorize chess moves. Since in my normal life I get no practice with either, I forgot pretty much everything I learned. 

The gravest sin a book can do for me is to be tedious. As long as it’s a good read, I actually don’t care what it is. I’ll read case studies if they’re about interesting things, well written. I’ll even read something that’s not very well written if it has other compelling qualities. 

I guess what it comes down to is I’d rather live in Lala land than in real land, even on the beach. 

Connie: We’re two of a kind, Emilya. If I’m desperate, I’ll read labels on household products.

Sharon Ward: I don’t necessarily have separate criteria for vacation or beach reads. I read widely, year-round, no matter what I’m doing or where I am. My preferred genre is mystery and thrillers, naturally, but I also read a lot of sci-fi/fantasy, a few classics, and a fair amount of non-fiction. I typically read about 100 to 125 books a year, and I would say about 50 to 60 percent of them are mysteries.

I love books in series, so I tend to find one I like and just read the whole series all in a row. I am currently reading Nick Sullivan’s Deep series, which is similar to the books I write. It’s about two divemasters who bounce around various Caribbean islands and alas, find a crime on each one. The growing romance between the two main characters, Boone & Emily, is as big a draw as the mystery. Fun reads, and definitely beachy.

Connie: The number of books you read per year is impressive, Sharon. Thanks for the Nick Sullivan recommendation!

Now that we’ve heard from the Miss Demeanors, what about you?

What kind of books do you love to read on vacation—and do you have recommendations?

We’d love to hear from you, either below or on our Facebook page.

Happy Summer Reading!

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