• “The smartest historical sci-fi adventure-romance story ever written by a science Ph.D. with a background in scripting 'Scrooge McDuck' comics.”—Salon.com
  • A time-hopping, continent-spanning salmagundi of genres.”
  • “These books have to be word-of-mouth books because they're too weird to describe to anybody.”
    —Jackie Cantor, Diana's first editor


Well, now, here’s a question: What’s a “beach read?” What’s a good beach read? And what are some of your favorites of the species?

Once in awhile, I find OUTLANDER on someone’s list of “great beach reads,” but usually none of the other books. (This sticks in my mind, because one of the early public appearances I did when OUTLANDER was released, was a “Great Beach Read” program done with several other authors for a public library—wherein we were supposed to talk about our own books, but also give a list of other books we thought were great beach reads. I remember the occasion, because it’s the first—and thankfully one of very few—occasion on which I forgot I was supposed to be somewhere. I was in fact shopping for bunk-beds with my husband—and my children all “turned” last month, being now 26, 24, and 22, so you know it was awhile ago—when he got a frantic call (he having one of the new-fangled car-phones) from his secretary, to the effect that the Glendale (I think) Public Library was looking for me, and why wasn’t I on their stage? We rushed there instantly, and I made it in time to be last on the program, but still, Highly Traumatic. I shudder when I hear the words “Beach Read.”)

Now, personally, I’ve always figured that “great beach read” is one of those left-handed compliments. It implies that the book is a page-turner, all right—but probably not something filled with Deep Meaning, as my husband says (“Does this have lots of Deep Meaning?” he asks, suspiciously, when I hand him a new excerpt to read. “Or does something actually happen?”). Nobody describes WAR AND PEACE as a great beach read (though in fact it is, size quite aside. It actually is a page-turner, though the translation makes a difference. I got an edition translated by someone whose first language was apparently French, resulting in male characters not infrequently threatening to give each other “a bang on the snout!” Which was mildly distracting. But I digress…).

The implication is that the book should be entertaining, but something you can easily put down in order to play volleyball, and it won’t really matter if you doze off and let it fall on your stomach where it will absorb sun-tan lotion and all the pages become transparent. And when you leave the beach, you can toss it in the trash can if you’ve finished it, and into your trunk if you haven’t, there to be ignored until next Thanksgiving, when you discover it while cramming your trunk with turkey, bags of fresh cranberries, and whatever other family-specific food you consider indispensable to the occasion (my stepmother’s family traditionally serves buttered rutabagas at Thanksgiving. I consider this perverse, but as long as I’m not personally required to eat rutabagas—and no force of nature would compel me, I assure you—more power to them).

On the other hand—a beach read has the assurance of being entertaining, and of probably being popular. A beach read is something that everybody (in a given summer) is reading. Which is of course Highly Desirable, if you are the author of said book. I mean, if it comes right down to it, do you want the New York Times to say your book is “a brilliant, if depressing, portrait of humanity, filled with insights on dependency and longing,”—or do you want it to say, “#1″ on the Bestsellers list? Yeah, me too.

(Mind, if anybody happens to want to look for Deep Meaning in my books, it’s there [g]—no, really—but I do think there ought to be a Good Story on the uppermost layer of a book.)

Now, I personally am no judge of a beach read, because a) I read all the time, regardless of location, and b) I don’t live near a beach, and c) if I did live near a beach, I wouldn’t be sitting on it, reading. I hate sitting in the sun; it makes me sweaty and dizzy, and the last thing I’d do is read a book while doing it. But tastes differ.

IF we were to define a “beach read” simply as a book that’s very entertaining, but “light” (in the literary-fiction sense of the word)—what would you pick? (Or if you define a beach read differently, how would you define it?)

The nearest equivalent of a “beach read” for me, is probably a “plane book.” I.e., what you read on a plane to distract your mind from the knowledge that there is nothing under you but 30,000 feet of thin air (though my husband, who flies planes, assures me that air is really much more substantial than it appears). That would be things like Nora Roberts romances and futuristic mysteries, Michael Connelly thrillers, Janet Evanovich’s comic romance/mysteries, Anne Perry’s Victorian mysteries, John LeCarre’ spy/intrigue novels, and the like (I gather I’m not alone in these preferences, since these are the books commonly found in airport bookstores). Not THE LOVELY BONES; I read half of that on a long flight to Sydney, left it on the plane, and never felt the urge to get another copy and read the rest of it. I know a number of folks loved it, but I thought it was hollow and mildly repellant—though I freely admit this impression may have had more to do with the effects of being on an airplane for fourteen hours, than with the book itself.

(I should note here that while I have referred to the books I read on planes as “toilet paper books,” this is not a diss. It’s because such books perform an indispensable function—but you use them only once.)

Speaking historically, though—it seems to me that many of the great “beach reads” of the last 15-20 years have indeed been “big” books: James Clavell’s SHO-GUN (one of my all-time favorite books ever!) or TAI-PAN, Judith Krantz’s SCRUPLES, PRINCESS DAISY, etc., James Michener’s monster sagas, etc. These are books that would get you through an entire vacation.

I don’t know whether it’s the current economic climate affecting publishing (paper costs keep rising, as does the cost of shipping books), or whether there’s a change in public taste, but you see fewer “big” books than you used to. (Mind, when a new “big” book appears, it gets a lot of attention—vide THE HISTORIAN, or MR. NORELL AND WHOEVER THE OTHER GUY WAS—on the sheer basis of size. The assumption being, I imagine, that if a publisher was willing to pay to print this, it must be good. Sometimes this assumption is true; sometimes not so much.) What’s the “beach read” of this summer? (I’ve been so busy lately I haven’t paid any attention to publishing news at all. I’m also neck-deep in the research for ECHO IN THE BONE, plus a “Lord John” short piece I’m doing for an anthology, that involves yet another chapter of the Seven Years War. My guess is that neither Francis Parkman’s MONTCALM AND WOLFE, nor Kenneth Webb’s THE GROWTH OF SCOTTISH NATIONALISM would be in most people’s beach-bags.)

So…what’s in your beach-bag?

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110 Responses »

  1. I always regress to my childhood books in the summer – makes it even easier to escape the stresses of audulthood. :) Harry Potter, the Enchanted Forest series by Patricia C. Wrede, Enid Blyton’s boarding school stories, as well as the Pern series by Anne McCaffrey, the Chronicles of Narnia, and anything by Tamora Pierce. I’m also a pretty big Star Wars geek, and I love the original books by Timothy Zhan, and the Rogue Squadron series as well.
    I’m leaving tomorrow for 2 and a half weeks on an archeaological dig in Israel, and I’m taking the Outlander books that I have in paperback – I read through books pretty quickly, but hopefully the sheer mass of them will slow me down a bit so I won’t have to pack as many books. :)

  2. “The Eight” by Katherine Neville,
    “World Without End” by Ken Follett and the latest by James Collins “The Last Oracle”. They are already packed and ready for the cottage.

  3. After reading some of the comments here I recently checked out Ariana Franklin’s ‘Mistress of the Art of Death’ from the library. It was a very good read. Having finished it in a couple of days is always a good indicator. I am now on the look out for ‘The Serpent’s Tale.’ Have read that there will be a third book with Adelia — authenticating discovered bones that may or may not be that of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere. http://www.arianafranklin.com/franklin-qa.htm

    Thanks for the recommendations!

  4. OK, so it’s not summer here in Oz, but I did have surgery recently and had to take a couple of weeks off work, and therefore got in a lot of extra reading.
    I picked up Julianne Lee’s 3 part series (I believe there’s more to come?) starting with Knight Tenebrae, mainly because according to the cover blurb, they involve time travel and Scottish history.
    Nothing at all like our beloved Outlander series (shorter for one thing!) and set in the 1300s, but an easy “disposable” read, I suppose.
    Jen in Oz

  5. My parents always served mashed rutabega with Thanksgiving dinner. One year, my mother-in-law served it when we spent the holidays with her. She knew my family always served it, but she didn’t know that I NEVER ate it. Ick. Nice of her, though.
    I agree about Kristen Lavransdatter. I recently read it again after waiting 27 years. I was so weepy after the first time I read it that my husband asked me never to read it again!!

  6. Ah, late to the party, as usual, but I had to say…I feel the same way about the beach. I am fair-skinned and mostly Irish, therefore I go from zero to crispy in about fifteen minutes, sunscreen be damned.
    Regardless of my feelings about the beach, this is a concept I can grasp. I prefer to call these books “junk food”. Sometimes I read something with way to much DEEP MEANING (as your husband put it)…and then I just want to read something light. A snack between meals, if you will. To me, these are normally the oversize paperbacks of Jennifer Weiner, Jane Green, etc. Chick-lit, I believe they call it now. Also, the Stephanie Plum novels of Janet Evanovich, which I enjoy, read in a day and then really never read again.

    I wouldn’t put Outlander in there with the ever-afters, it’s in the infinitely re-readable category of “comfort food” for me, with my The Mirror of Her Dreams and Corelli’s Mandolin.

  7. I can’t believe I came across this, because Outlander was what was in my beach bag, while at the beach in Port Dover, Ontario. Now your novels are in my purse, diaper bag, gym bag…everywhere I am.

  8. I agree with Outlander being infinitely re-readable! I think I re-read that one in particular because that’s where the love story starts. And I save the very best books for the beach– if anything’s being read while I’m there it’s got to be as great as my surroundings! btw I loved your latest book excerpt Diana!

  9. I am reading The Time Traveler’s Wife and it’s pretty good so far.

  10. Humm…I’m always late to comment but -oh well-

    I read anything I want, pretty much wherever I want but it’s true that, if I begin reading something I’m really into, I get rather pissed if interrupted; adding to that the fact that I’m a bit of a “maniac” with the condition of my books, so if by great misfortune someone playfully dirty or damage a book I really enjoy (^_^), I can’t guarantee my reaction. So indeed, if I must go to the beach with a group of friends, it might be wiser for me that I bring along some chick-litt than a “Lord John”…

    Speaking about chick-litt, I recently read my first of the genre (I think) : the famous Kinsella’s first “Shopaholic” book…which I found funny the 1st quarter, and unexpectedly stressing after :/

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