We’re revisiting some of our favorite posts of 2020 this holiday week! Grab a cup of cocoa and look back on some fun bookish goodness with us as we head toward the new year.
Summertime is synonymous with a seasonal book category known as the “beach read.” Every May, readers are inundated with new releases billed as beach reads: light, fluffy, or compulsively readable novels that are perfect to take on vacation.
But what makes a beach read? And how did the term come to be in the first place?
The History of the Beach Read
The term “beach read” began as a marketing tool for publishers. According to research by The Guardian, the first uses were in the summer of 1990. Thirty years later, almost every magazine and website publishes summer book lists.
In publishing, the term used to refer to the blockbuster books published in summer. Today, the year’s most anticipated reads often come out in late spring. Over time, the term “beach read” began to describe a certain type of book, something that will have mass appeal and isn’t particularly intellectually stimulating.
Many times these books can be classified as “women’s fiction”: romance, domestic psychological thrillers, or contemporary novels featuring female characters. The term is dripping with sexist assumptions about what women read and the books women authors write. It’s a logical leap in a patriarchal society: books by women, about women, are more likely to be considered “light reading.”
But those who discount the value of women’s fiction don’t see these beach reads for what they are: escapes from reality, easy to read, captivating, and accessible to many readers. Many readers easily identify a beach read. They know it when they see it.
Those Summertime Vibes
Classifying books as “beach reads” may seem odd, because it’s not a genre and the criteria are unclear. But choosing a vacation book is just another way of “mood reading.”
Some readers self-identify as mood readers. They allow their mood to dictate their reading. One day they’re looking for a fast-paced action novel, and the next they want slow-paced literary fiction.
Most readers have certain genres they reach for during different times of the year, even if they don’t call themselves mood readers. Some books feel better when the essence of the season or state of the world reflects onto the page. It’s not that different from choosing a book that describes a difficult personal experience to get through tough times.
A great beach read will help achieve those summer vibes. Some readers are drawn to the setting of a book, while others look for exhilarating thrills. Not all beach reads come from the same genre or have the same tone.
What Makes a Beach Read?
What criteria captures the essence of summer and distills the experience of lounging in the sand into the pages of a book? Here are some characteristics of popular books labeled “beach reads” by publishers or readers.
Try a novel that’s just pure fun. A plot-driven novel with lovable characters, silly hijinks, and a fascinating premise does just the trick. Lovers of The Bachelor will enjoy One to Watch by Kate Stayman-London, a novel about a plus-size woman who gets cast on a reality dating show after criticizing its lack of body diversity.
Joyful books often include lovable animals, like How the Penguins Saved Veronica by Hazel Prior. It’s a heartwarming book about an 85-year-old woman and her grandson who travel to Antarctica, rescue an orphaned baby penguin, and get to know each other.
A great beach read keeps you turning the pages. Books filled with exciting drama keep the reader hooked. Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid captures the everyday microaggressions Black women face in America, while also commenting on performative activism. In between the important social commentary are an exceptionally exciting plot and characters just waiting to cause drama.
Thrillers are another great choice for summer and there’s no shortage to choose from. This year, Home Before Dark by Riley Sager captures readers by putting them into a creepy old mansion that’s full of secrets.
A trip to the beach goes perfectly with a book set at the shore. Even if readers can’t get to the beach themselves, reading a book set during long summer days can serve as a substitution.
Some authors are known for their summer-themed novels. Elin Hilderbrand is back with 28 Summers, a novel about a man who discovers his late mother’s decades-long affair. The novel takes place at a beachfront cottage on the island of Nantucket—perfect summer vibes!
Hello Summer by Mary Kay Anderson is about a young newspaper reporter who finally breaks out of her small town with a huge job in Washington, D.C. But when the job falls apart, she’s back in her coastal hometown trying to keep a small newspaper alive—and writing the weekly gossip column.
Romance is always a great choice for summer. It’s a genre that promises a happy ending every time. This summer has many great romance releases, like Take a Hint, Dani Brown by Talia Hibbert or Beach Read by Emily Henry.
On the YA side, try I Wanna Be Where You Are by Kristina Forest. This road-trip novel is about an aspiring ballerina who ends up driving to her audition for a prestigious dance school with her annoying neighbor. It’s possible a romance ensues.
Sometimes, you need a book where the characters don’t have all that much to lose. Perhaps they’re wealthy and privileged, like the women in Happy and You Know It by Laura Hankin. Set in New York City, the book revolves around a playgroup and its private musician. There are secrets and outlandish drama, in the very best way.
Sometimes the conflict is trivial in the grand scheme of life. In The Lido by Libby Page, a journalist teams up with an 86-year-old widow to save a local swimming pool.
Sometimes the plot reminds you of a feel-good TV movie, like Cherry Season by Molly Fader. In this novel, Hope and her daughter travel to their family cherry farm to escape their past. An eccentric aunt ropes Hope into helping with the cherry harvest, and she soon meets a kind, local man.