It may not entirely feel like it, but it’s finally summer. Commercial fiction gets its second biggest bump of the year during the summer (the biggest is at Christmas, obviously), and because the Romance genre is the largest section, its uptick in sales is the most noticeable. That’s because mild and humid as it might be, summer means vacation season has finally arrived.
And that means it’s time for beach reading.*
Beach reading is a particular phenomenon. It’s the reason airport bookstores carry racks and racks of bestsellers instead of a curated collection. It’s a time for people who read for work, duty, or education to relax a little and remember how to read for pleasure. And it’s also a time when you read less expensive books because they may get covered in sand, sunscreen or snack food.
Below are some of the qualities that make for good beach reads. There are undoubtedly more: every reader has her own preferences.
Suspense is like a hook that pulls the wriggling plot of a novel through the text into the net of your brain. It comes in several forms and takes on many disguises, but in general suspense is the thing that keeps you turning pages way past your bedtime. It is fiction’s forward momentum, that rising roller-coaster shape we were taught in junior high English class. That’s why Romantic Suspense makes for such good beach reading: the structure is laid out and ready, all you have to do is climb on board and ride it to the (thrilling) end.
Suggestions for Romantic Suspense include:
Historical I find suspense in a historical Romance to be a little more elusive; after all, we already know how the battle/espionage/debate turned out. But Joanna Bourne’s ‘Great Game’ books demonstrate that the contest can still be exciting even though we know who’s going to win. Start with The Spymaster’s Lady.
Contemporary Linda Howard is strong in this subsection. Try her Dying to Please, or Kill and Tell. Each is fast-paced, full of danger, and independent from the other. Or read the ‘Lily Yu’ series by Eileen Wilks, which starts with Tempting Danger, a paranormal/police procedural adventure. Many of Nora Roberts’ big single title books fit in well here, like The Search, or High Noon.
Another quality that often makes a book a good beach read is that it is simple and straightforward**. Let’s face it, the point of vacation is that we can allow ourselves to work at less than optimal brain capacity. But to quote the great Terry Pratchett, “simple isn’t the same as stupid”. A love story is simple in essence, but can be very powerful in execution.
Historical Eva Ibbotson is one of those writers whose books seem simple because they’re so perfectly written. Try The Secret Countess (aka A Countess Below Stairs), or A Company of Swans. Joan Wolf wrote two book in a historical mystery series, No Dark Place and The Poisoned Serpent, that I love to re-read. Their simplicity is one of their strongest selling points.
Contemporary Jayne Castle (aka Jayne Ann Krentz) writes the kind of book I like to take on vacation. Her books set on the world of Harmony, starting with After Dark and After Glow, feature ordinary people who get caught up in extraordinary events – but who still have pets, and parents, and employers to keep them grounded. Jill Shalvis is another who writes real people having real lives. Her ‘Lucky Harbour’ series, starting with Simply Irresistible, is exactly that.
As a result of my foray into anime, I have recently become obsessed with a few different shoujo manga series (for those who don’t know, manga are Japanese comics; shoujo means for girls and young women). I took more than a dozen away with me on the long weekend and tore through them like they were crack-filled chocolate-covered peanuts. They’re often very romantic, but they also offer insight into the entire spectrum of relationships: friends, family, career, etc.
Natsuki Takaya, Fruits Basket: I’ve read this series before, and it remains one of my favourites. I’m not alone; it’s the most popular manga series in North America (it was really popular in Japan, too). It’s the story of the Soma family, their zodiac curse, and the young woman who helps them all climb out from under its shadow. Lovely.
Izumi Tsubaki, Oresama Teacher: Mafuyu used to be a delinquent, but at her new school she wants nothing more than to be an ordinary high-school girl. Unfortunately her teacher is her former next-door neighbour, the man who set her on the path to delinquency in the first place. Things! Get! Exciting! Funny and full of punching.
Yoshiki Nakamura, Skip Beat: Kyoko goes with Sho, the boy she grew up with and loves, to Tokyo where he beings to make a name for himself as a musician. When she discovers Sho considers her as little more than a maid, she joins show business herself in order to meet him on an equal footing… and destroy him. But Ren Tsuruga, the most popular man in Japan, leads her to realize that acting can be more than a means to revenge. Truly delightful.
The beach is a great place to catch up on a whole series. It’s a decadent holiday sort of feeling, to finish one book and immediately sink into the next. You can gorge yourself, calorie free! Whether it follows a single set of characters or spins off each book off onto a new pair, reading all of a series also allows you to shortcut the getting-to-know-the-characters phase.
Historical Lisa Kleypas has written several series, but the one that made me a die-hard fan was her ‘Wallflowers’ series, about four young women who meet on the outside edges of fashionable balls, where they have been relegated by their social status. The first in the series is Secrets of a Summer Night. The ‘Slightly’ series, by Mary Balogh, is a can’t-miss winner. The first is Slightly Married, though technically the Bedwyn family is first introduced in A Summer to Remember, so you’ll probably want to start there.
Contemporary It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of J.D. Robb’s ‘In Death’ series, featuring Eve Dallas and Roarke. I recently re-read all the books and truly enjoyed watching the character growth unfold over twenty-plus books. I was also impressed at how well Robb’s tech held up, given that she started this future-set series in 1995. It might be hard to find, but the ‘Fiddler and Fiora’ series by A.E. Maxwell is a solid read: each is a mystery and it gets more romantic as the series progresses.
*Or dock reading. Whatever. It’s not a scientific term.
**Conversely, for some people this is the only time they have enough leftover memory to, say, keep track of all the characters in George R.R. Martin’s ‘Song of Fire and Ice’. To each her own.
Chris Szego took 20 books away for the long weekend and despite spend most of her time in the lake, managed to read 15 of them. She’s calling that a win.