• “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. My ‘summer reads’ is where I try out new authors and if I like their books, they get added to my ‘must haves’. If not, they get lost in my trunk waiting for the next Goodwill dropoff. I have found many, many authors during my ‘summer reads’ and the best one was of course yours with Outlander years ago. Kathleen

  2. This blog is like having my own personal library. I have so many slips of papers with author’s names that I will have to organize just to see what I have.

    I am not a beach or poolside reader. I am to much of a people watcher. I have to confess that I do use a book to disguise my gawking. I don’t want to get whopped oover the head if someome caught me staring, so the bigger the book the better.

    It’s according how long a flight is if I read a book on a plane. Sometimes magazines are all that is needed. I’m usally doing the old head bob before we get off the ground anyway.

  3. Every book I read could be called a Beach Read since I live two blocks from the ocean and can see it from my front yard. I don’t do much reading on the beach, though, since I’m very fair-skinned and have to be careful about skin cancer. Plus I much prefer a comfortable chair in an air conditioned room with plenty of cold iced tea at hand for reading. I am currently enthralled by S.M. Stirling’s Emberverse series: Dies the Fire, The Protector’s War and A Meeting at Corvalis. I read all three of those in much the same way I read Outlander through A Breath of Snow and Ashes – straight through hardly pausing to come up for air.
    I also love Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series and Kim Harrison’s Rachel Morgan series. And when I need a break from Post Apocalyptic America, witches and wizards, I head for Spain and Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series (or his Saxon series or his King Arthur series). Any of those authors can keep me entertained for hours and hours, though I sometimes feel like I have a case of literary whiplash going from one to the other of them!

    I’ve just finished listening to the entire Outlander series on audio books for the second time, and I’ve read the book editions three times. I’m trying to gauge exactly when to start reading Outlander again so that when I finish the last page of ABOSAA I can immediately pick up Echo and continue without interruption. Tricky, that…

    I can see that I’m going to have to get a Kindle before Echo is released – I’ll never be able to carry the whole series around with me in case I need to check something in the earlier books!


  4. I got so excited about hearing everyone’s book suggestions and of offering my own that I created an account just for that purpose!
    For me, any book can be a beach read; if it gets too intense, I just put it down for a bit and take a walk down the beach!
    Let’s see… books I’ve read/want to read this summer:
    I’ve just delved into the LJ series, so I have yet to read LJ AND THE HELLFIRE CLUB, so it is certainly high on my list. I’ve also been reading a lot of Tracy Chevalier, so next up is THE VIRGIN BLUE.
    I very highly recommend THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE by Audrey Niffenegger, JONATHAN STRANGE & MR NORRELL and LADIES OF GRACE ADIEU by Susanna Clarke, and Sarah Dunant’s books also make great beach reads.
    I was thinking about getting Stephanie Meyer’s THE HOST, but thanks to all of your input I’ll probably wait for paperback or the library.
    Reading all of these suggestions makes me want to run off to the bookstore right away!


  5. Having just got back from Barbados, I packed eight books and ended up reading Tatiana and Alexander (The sequel to The Bronze Horseman– which I loved)by Paullina Simons. Definitely a page turner which qualifies as a beach read but I must admit the juxtaposition of turquoise water full of happy people in dreadlocks and the hero stuck in a soviet work camp almost being beaten to death was sometimes a bit much. But like a previous poster said, you can always take a break and go for a walk. There are hundreds of comments about these books in the writer’s forum and I see why! My other selections included Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust and Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman because my dear friend said quite seriously that she can’t be friends with anyone who hasn’t read at least one of his books. We spent a week on the beach (under umbrella’s) and I think I could have spent an eternity reading every book I brought. Bliss!

    Oh… and I did read Drums of Autumn while sitting on a beach in St. Augustine, Florida. It was windy and late and just my friend and I were alone as the sun was setting and I couldn’t put it down. I’m surprised the spine is still intact, all the pages are curved from the dried saltwater. So thanks for that one!

  6. Well, I have two teenage daughters who loved the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer. There are three in the series as of now, but by August there will be another, then in December a movie. So, to have a fun connection with my girls, I read the books this past month and have to say they are quite charming. I enjoyed the story and was excited to share this with my girls. I started my fixation of Outlander as a beach read a few summers back and it will always be my first love…

  7. Have to say there are no ‘beach read’ books that spring to mind but I do have a ‘life saver’ book.
    When I was travelling from London to Edinburgh after a wedding reception I found myself in the midst of the Glasgow airport attack last year, so was stuck for four hours awaiting my flight.
    Fortunately my dear friend had had the forsight to give me a book to take. Not a ‘light read’ and boy was I glad of it, it was ‘The Fiery Cross.’ lol

  8. Diana:

    Since we’re discussing books, I had started and stopped MISTRESS OF THE ART OF DEATH a couple times before I could really hunker down and give it a go….. I was initially put off by Franklin’s style of writing — until I got into the story; so glad I did. It was much different than I thought and there was a certain something about the female lead that reminded me very much of one Claire Fraser.



  9. Hi Gail,

    I loved The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian! It was heartbreaking and yet funny at the same time. Sherman Alexie writes with such an honest voice, I found the book refreshing.

    I just finished Uglies, Pretties, Specials and I must say they were really good. I’m not much of a sci/fi person, but these were highly addicting. The next on my list is The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan. I’ve heard a lot of good things about the series.


  10. I’m re-reading Dana Stabenow’s Kate Shugak series this summer and waiting anxiously for the newest Janet Evanovich, Fearless Fourteen. I enjoy writers who can mix humor with some substance (OK, Janet Evanovich has more humor than substance but she’s just so much fun!)

  11. I recently finished reading The Historian” by Elizabeth Kostova, which was an interesting read if you’re into historical legends and vampire creation theories. It’s a bit much for a “beach read” and when on vacation or something, generally I’ll take a few Danielle Steele or Nora Roberts books along to change up the mood, depending on what I feel like reading. A friend has also recently gotten me to read the Katie McAlister books and they’re fun reads as well. For a beach read, I generally look for something fun and not so “in-depth”..I have enough of that in real life so light-hearted reading is a great escape.
    Now, if I could just plan a “real” escape or a trip to the beach.

  12. My beach read is Castaway by Lucy Irvine which no matter how many times I read it I thoroughly enjoy it..and yes I know its her tue story but it is still fab. I also tend to take with me (I read far too quickly) The Vampire Lestat – Anne Rice and this time I took The Time Travellers Wife…the author I can’t remember off the top of my head. For travelling I take any laurell k Hamilton books as they don’t require too much concentration and are just good fun.My husband always says why don’t i just take a suitcase with books in!!! i like to read- can’t help it!

  13. Read all the comments and now I think my brain is in overload. There simply isn’t enough time in the day… *sigh* I’m definitely bookmarking it this page. :)

  14. A great summertime read is British author Winston Graham’s series called “Poldark.” There must be 15 novels in this family saga set in 19th century Cornwall.
    I recently finished Maeve Binchy’s “Whitethorn Woods,” set mostly in a small Irish town. She is adept at twining characters around each other.
    At the moment, I am reading Amy Tan’s novel,”The Bonesetter’s Daughter.” She is a marvellous storyteller.
    Next summer, I hope to read “An Echo in the Bone”…

  15. Almost forgot to add that Laurie R. King is a fabulous writer and her series based on Sherlock Holmes’ wife, Mary. Set in the early 20th century in England, husband and wife work together to solve mysteries. The books have intrigue, romance, history, etc. One of my favourites.

  16. “Poldark” was one of my most favorite Masterpiece Theater series (it is probably available on DVD).

  17. Hi, Diana. I’m an italian reader (sorry for my bad English)and I love your books. I think that “Outlander” is a good choice if you need a story you would never finish reading. I red it in a few days (and it is not a short book). Another ideal beach-book is “The bronze horseman” written by Paullina Simons and also its sequel “Tatiana and Alexander”. I think they are wonderful

  18. For me, it’s always a mystery. Preferably by an English writer. I love Minette Walters and Stephen Booth. Ruth Rendell has been a favorite for a long time. Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter series are classics. Michael Conelly is my favorite American mystery writer at the moment. I just can’t get enough Harry Bosch! Start with Black Echo and you’ll begin the Harry Bosch series. Pick up the others along the way, they’re all thrilling reads.

  19. I would re-read the “Outlander” series, usually, but as I just finished re-reading them, I will be onto something else! I love Steve Berry, probably more than Dan Brown (they write somewhat similar, but Berry is much better), and the Harry Potter books are always good to read. Also, Jude Devereaux is great. I also like really thick books. It takes me longer to read them and there is usually more detail so I can get more involved with the characters.

    As an aside, thank you for writing the Outlander books, and for continuing to write them. I am not ready to give up Jamie and Claire yet and CANNOT wait to find out what happens in the next book! I also recommend them to anybody I can.

  20. A number of years back, when my children were smaller and we used to take summer vacation at a three week stretch camping, I used to take some “beach read” books with me. Normally when I read, I generally read Science Fiction, but those easy going, hot sunny days made me tend towards romance (or maybe it is just something with hot, steamy sex – the hotter the better). I read some authors such as Harold Robbins and Daniel Steele, or whatever romance was passed on to me in my most recent bag of pass around books from a friend or the latest garage sale find.

    Now, as far as the content suiting the “beach read” category, I agree with a previous poster that Outlander and Voyager fit that description,- mainly because of the hot steamy sex. (I find that the other books in the series have a good dose of sex as well, however, it is more mellow, like a good marriage.) Of course I treasure my Outlander series of books so much that I don’t think I would take them to the beach, and I am torn between wanting to share them with everyone, but only relinquishing them to my most trusted friends on condition that they be returned (and in good condition).

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