The genre of “beach reads” is thought of as a euphemism for lighter literary fare ― books that will entertain you, but that won’t distract you from the awesome scenery that surrounds you.
We’re all for breezy books ― we ranked a few decidedly beachy reads among our favorite fiction books of the year last year ― but we think there can be more to a good summer book than a gripping plot and buoyant language, depending on what helps you unwind.
This year, our beach read recommendations list includes a story of a family fraught with financial woes, coming to grips with their lost inheritance while summering at an idyllic beach house. It includes the short tale of a relationship that goes sour under the California sun, and a moving exploration of songs of summers past. Take a look, and read on!
13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl by Mona Awad
Lizzie, the hilarious and self-possessed, but in many ways socially anxious, narrator of Mona Awad’s connected stories is all of us. From a young age, she sees the gap between her private desires and her social life unsettling ― she finds herself making desserts for a man who describes her as “nice, not beautiful,” and finds herself resenting the thin, bubbly, vintage-clothes-wearing girl she gets lunch with. When Lizzie does lose weight, the idea of weight loss still haunts her, a statement Awad thought was important to make: shedding pounds is no fairy tale ending, but learning to embrace your body for what it is can be. You’ll follow Lizzie through punk rock-scored drives and a crumbling relationship, but Awad’s bright scenes will keep you laughing, too. ― Maddie Crum
The Past by Tessa Hadley
Hadley’s poetic novel tells the story of a group of siblings coming together for a last vacation at their family’s summer home, a reunion at which they will decide what to do with the crumbling house. The book boasts the sort of keen observation and artful language best appreciated in moments of quiet relaxation, and the emotional tangles and traumas the family must pick at add a welcome energy to the read.
From our review: “Hadley treats human existence the way a nature writer might treat a forest path: She’s deeply aware of the past and of the future, but she’s so powerfully fixated on the present moment, its details both painful and ecstatic, that all the rest seems like only an echo.” ― Claire Fallon
The Bed Moved by Rebecca Schiff
Rebecca Schiff’s stories are devious, sharp and very funny. They’re quick reads, but you’ll find something new each time you read them ― which makes them perfect for lackadaisical sun lounging.
From our review: “Unlike other writers of her ilk, Schiff doesn’t tell these tales in a gritty, realistic style, shedding light on something sinister lurking beneath the characters’ sexual whims. Instead, her very short stories [bounce] from one insight to the next. Like smart, confident teens trying out new belief systems in earnest, her characters make assured, funny observations about their peers, and then, lightly, move on.” ― Maddie Crum
Modern Lovers by Emma Straub
Straub specializes in the type of smart, luxuriant, relationship-driven literary fare perfect for beachside reading: The characters live sun-dappled, upper-middle-class New York lives punctuated by sufficiently dramatic problems for compelling reading, but not tragic enough to destroy the aspirational aspect of their brownstone-based lifestyles. Long-simmering jealousy surfaces, or a bid for youthful independence goes awry. In her latest, two middle-aged couples living in Brooklyn are rocked by long-suppressed dramas when a studio begins to make a film about a long-dead pop star who was once in a college band with three of the four friends. ― Claire Fallom
Midair by Kodi Scheer
There’s something about the white-hot, just-kindled emotions of teenagehood that make them the ideal subject matter for summer reading. Kodi Scheer’s novel isn’t a YA book ― its language and themes are dark enough to be categorized as adult literary fiction ― but its heroine, Nessa, has romantic ideas about how to best cope with her grief. After the death of her brother and a sudden betrayal of a friend, she’s decided that she wants to end her own life in a way that’s symbolic to her: by jumping off the Eiffel Tower. For Nessa, the final act isn’t about a loss of hope, but about a want for the most rhapsodic of revenge. Anyone appreciative of dark stories will fly through Midair. ― Maddie Crum
The Seed Collectors by Scarlett Thomas
This prickly, brilliant novel has it all: family tensions, forbidden love, infidelity, adventure, humor. Follow the Gardener clan as they pursue their odd inheritance ― rare and possibly deadly seed pods discovered by their botanist parents ― while their lives collapse around their ears. The Seed Collectors is both literary and compulsively readable.
From our review: “A searing family saga with dollops of magical realism, The Seed Collectors is an exquisitely nimble novel about self-knowledge, love and self-love, and the many ways we shape our lives.” ― Claire Fallon
Emotional Rescue by Ben Greenman
Music writing never seems to match the emotive energy of music itself ― a quandary critics are always confronting. In response, should they double down on their cerebral takes, employing stats and data to discuss the future of song? Probably not, but so many do. As an antidote, novelist Ben Greenman ― who’s written about QuestLove and Prince ― dredged up a series of blog posts when he was younger and unsure of the direction his future love life would take. The result is a book that breaks down songs from a personal, subjective standpoint, discussing themes like “Communication/Miscommunication,” “Trust/Distrust” and “Pain/Pleasure.” If you want to read a book about music that’s as pleasurable and personal as music itself, pick up Emotional Rescue. ― Maddie Crum
The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware
Ware’s debut thriller, set in an isolated bachelorette party, was such a success that Reese Witherspoon is reportedly adapting it for the screen. Her next, The Woman in Cabin 10, follows the same path of female-centered psychological suspense. Lo, a travel journalist, has the assignment of a lifetime on the maiden voyage of a small luxury cruise ship, but when she hears a scream and a splash in the middle of the night, she becomes convinced she’s witnessed a murder. One small problem: No one from the very small guest or staff lists turns up missing. ― Claire Fallon
The Hopefuls by Jennifer Close
Jennifer Close’s scorching sendup of Washington D.C.’s careerist culture begins with a list of what people talked about at a reunion for Obama’s campaign. Perhaps unsurprisingly, attendees didn’t talk politics. They did, however, talk about who slept with whom, and how many frequent flier miles each of them have racked up. The story could continue down this cynical path, mocking the vapidity of those wrapped up in politics, and it does for a while. But close imbues her criticisms with heart, centering the plot around a married couple ― Beth and Matt ― who fall in friend-love with another married couple, before ambition begins to seep sinisterly into their relationships. If you’re looking for an icy drama or a cool setting to live vicariously through less sun-soaked characters, this book set in swampy D.C. isn’t the best choice. Otherwise, you’ll be charmed by Close’s clever observations and lovable characters. ― Maddie Crum
How to Be a Person in the World by Heather Havrilesky
Ah, vacation. What better time to take stock of your entire life and fix it? OK but really, Havrilesky’s new book version of her beloved Ask Polly advice column (found on The Cut) might be the most relaxing yet energizing self-help book around. In response to dozens of letters from readers questioning the purpose of their lives, why their relationships never work out, and more, she exhorts us all (in less than PG-rated language) to embrace the lame, magical, obnoxious weirdo inside of us. Polly wants you to feel what you feel without apology. Polly wants you to pursue your passions and be honest about your desires. But Polly also wants you to understand that other people are also whole beings with feelings and passions and desires just as real and boundless. She also knows people like to be entertained, so buckle up for some extended Kanye metaphors. Unwind for a day with Polly, and you will close the book feeling ready to take on the goddamn world ― after a few more vacation days. ― Claire Fallon
The Unseen World by Liz Moore
Fans of A Wrinkle in Time will remember Meg and Charles Wallace Murray, whose mysterious, scientific parents labor away on the tesseract and disappear in the process. The Murray kids’ search for their parents, who’ve slipped into a new dimension, becomes an unforgettable saga, one that fostered budding sci-fi lovers’ reading habits for decades. Liz Moore’s novel is decidedly less fantastical, but nevertheless filled with wonder, as a young girl ― Ada ― uncovers her scientific father’s past, discovering herself in the process. ― Maddie Crum
Dear Emma by Katie Heaney
Sometimes all you need are a few hours of sweet, funny escapism, and Heaney’s modern update of Emma by Jane Austen fits the bill. Protagonist Harriet writes the advice column for her college newspaper, under the moniker “Emma,” but like so many people, she struggles to live the sensible advice she doles out. When she’s ghosted by a guy she’d begun to fall for, Keith, she becomes obsessed ― especially when she becomes coworkers, then friends, with Remy, Keith’s beautiful new girlfriend. Then Remy herself writes to the paper’s advice column asking whether she should stay in her budding relationship, and Harriet’s character and common sense are put to the toughest test of all. The stakes and the scope of this light read may be small, but it reads like a fizzy mimosa sipped oceanside: refreshing, pleasant, and easy to gulp down. ― Claire Fallon
Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty by Ramona Ausubel
A relaxing, romantic life of sea, sand and baked goods is the backdrop for Ausubel’s latest novel ― that is, until a rude awakening washes all of that away, and the central family is forced to cope with a nightmare they didn’t even think to fear. After lifetimes of summering and artistic pursuits, Fern and Edgar receive a call letting them know that their inheritance has run out. When faced with needing to work, Edgar in particular copes badly; he’d been sternly opposed to taking over his family business, and had been writing a book instead. While the couple handles the news, their children ― and especially their sunny young daughter, Cricket ― are tasked with staying optimistic, and holding the family together. ― Maddie Crum
Land of Enchantment by Leigh Stein
For memoir fans, Stein’s poignant, virtuosic Land of Enchantment should be de rigeur summer reading. The book tells the story of her abusive relationship with her first love, Jason, their breakup, and his death not long after in a motorcycle accident. The title references the nickname of New Mexico, where she lived for a short time with her ex-boyfriend in her early 20s, but it also describes the vision she had of their relationship, as a unique and magical space reserved for the two of them. In seductively polished and sensory language, Stein turns a slice of her past into a narrative that feels real enough to touch, and in doing so confronts readers with the traumatic truth of grief, intimate partner violence, emotional abuse, and even the more mundane pain of first heartbreak. Beware of crying at the tiki bar, but it’s worth it to be consumed by such a propulsive and haunting memoir. ― Claire Fallon
Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman
Look out, “Boys of Summer”: 2016 is the summer of “girls.” Emma Cline’s The Girls might be the most buzzed-about title of the beach read set this year, and for good reason ― it’s both a thoughtful examination of the overpowering tide of peer pressures young women experience as they get older, and a gripping page-turner about a fictionalized Charles Manson. If you find the dangers of teenagehood alluring, but aren’t so taken with the cult psychology angle, Robin Wasserman’s Girls on Fire, about two girls coming of age in the era when Kurt Cobain was still an underground heartthrob, will surely woo you. ― Maddie Crum
Chronicle of a Last Summer by Yasmine El Rashidi
If you’re feeling a little more substance in your beach fiction, Chronicle of a Last Summer examines three crucial summers in the modern history of Egypt, through the eyes of one quiet, intelligent girl. As she grows up, her youth punctuated by periods of unrest and revolution, she grapples with what her role is in the country’s political future and with her personal dreams of being a filmmaker or writer. She has long talks with her idealistic older cousin, who believes everyone should be more involved in activism. Others aren’t sure how much a new regime can change things. The novel is slim and pensive, not cheerful beach reading material, but a vivid glimpse of a less-than-carefree type of summer. ― Claire Fallon