A beach read, we’re informed by glossy lifestyle magazines, should fulfil several criteria. They need to be accessible, not too intellectually taxing or contemplative of life’s woes, and have a plot so gripping you won’t even register the small child expressing their individuality by methodically pouring wet sand down the neck of your t-shirt.
It also helps, we’ve discovered, if said books are sturdy enough to form a makeshift table on which to balance trays of snacks, and hefty enough to offer robust defence against wasps/seagulls.
The choices below fulfil all that criteria and more. Please do add to the list with your own suggestions for great geek-skewed beach reading in the comments section.
Redshirts by John Scalzi (2012)
Redshirts is the inverse of Galaxy Quest; rather than actors who find themselves unwittingly playing their roles in real life, here we follow a group of genuine members of a futuristic space-based military force who find themselves inadvertently playing out the narrative roles of fictional characters – and not the lead characters either…
Redshirts is not perfect. It is neither long nor deep, but it keeps things moving through a series of dramatic twists and turns and is a fun ride perfect for lazy beach days. For any Star Trek fan (especially of the classic series) it is a joy, playing on tropes that have been well mocked over the years, but no less funny for that. We’d also highly recommend it for fans of Vonnegut-esque meta-fiction – as long as you know enough about Star Trek to understand the title, you’ll be fine.
As an added bonus, if you just want to lie back and enjoy the sun without the inevitable back-ache produced by trying to find a comfortable reading position, the audiobook is narrated by Wil Wheaton. JH
Meg: A Novel Of Deep Terror – Steve Alten (1997)
People who say you shouldn’t read Jaws on a beach are wrong. Reading Jaws on a beach is brilliant. It turns what is essentially quite a boring and odd thing to do—lying down on a towel in public wearing fewer clothes than is correct—into a monster movie starring you. Every paddle and sand-castle takes on a new layer of thrilling menace when you read Jaws on a beach.
The same goes for Steve Alten’s brilliantly tense, pulpy Meg: A Novel Of Deep Terror (a subtitle that should have any sane person already scouring the charity shop shelves in search of a copy). Meg isn’t just about sharks eating people, it’s about massive prehistoric dinosaur sharks, some of which glow in the dark, eating people, boats and whales. I’m not sure it needs any more recommendation than that, other than to say there are a clutch of sequels, a prequel on the way, and the long-troubled movie adaptation, now directed by Eli Roth, is once again showing signs of life.
Get it. Read it in one sitting. Then don’t go in the water. LM
A Stranger Came Ashore – Mollie Hunter (1975)
Proving that an easy read can also be an unforgettable one, A Stranger Came Ashore was first published in 1975 for young adults, but retains the power to scare the hell out of you after you grow up. Set in an isolated Shetland community, Finn Learson is washed up upon the beach after a fierce storm, and he is taken in by the Henderson family. He is handsome, and charms the daughter, Elspeth – but her brother, Robbie, is not so trusting. He suspects Learson of not being quite human at all, but a creature of the sea, with plans to lure Elspeth under the water…
Traditional folk tales blend with fear and paranoia to make a strange, mesmeric story. This should be read next to a quietly lapping ocean, as a reminder of how dangerous the oceans can be, and how many secrets they may yet keep from us. AW
Moving Pictures – Terry Pratchett (1990)
You could take any Discworld novel to the beach and be assured of a good time, and if you want something appropriate to the climate you could do worse than Pyramids or The Last Continent. However, if you’ve never read a Discworld novel and you fancy giving Pratchett’s master-work a go while you’re on holiday, we’d suggest Moving Pictures. While not quite as feather-light as the first Discworld novel (The Colour Of Magic) it’s not quite as deep as some later entries either (Jingo, Night Watch) and, like Pyramids, it’s largely a tale that stands alone, rather than part of the several sub-series contained within the world (though it does feature recurring characters, the wizards of Unseen University).
The Hollywood pastiche should also ensure some level of familiarity for those new to the world, and the story is a bit lighter and more beach-fun than the usual recommendations for Discworld entry-points like Mort, Reaper Man, or even Guards! Guards!. If you’re more into theatre than the movies, go for Wyrd Sistersinstead. JH
Sparks – David Quantick (2012)
Whenever a sniff of comedy gets near a bit of science-fiction (or vice versa), the words Douglas and Adams tend to loom large in reviews. Sparks, a novel by music journalist and comedy writer David Quantick, genuinely merits the comparison, and actually comes out of it well.
It’s the story of Paul Sparks, a man whose life is characterised by inertia and failure until he stumbles upon a massive sci-fi secret. It’s clever, sharply written, very funny, stuffed with jokes, and clearly the product of a brilliantly unhinged imagination. We’ve two words for you: angry bears.
If you’re after a recommendation from a more august source than us, then Neil Gaiman is a fan. On Twitter in 2012, he called it the best e-book he’d read. Or the best e-book he’d read in 2012. Either way.
And that’s another thing. As this one’s only available on e-readers, you’re left with extra room in your suitcase for bringing home sand-filled glass souvenirs (the end goal of any trip to the seaside). LM
Dead Until Dark – Charlaine Harris (2001)
If you’re on a beach, hopefully that means it’s nice and warm, and you probably want to read something that matches up with that pleasant and sometimes all too rare feeling. Inland Louisiana, the setting of Charlaine Harris’ The Southern Vampire Mysteries series, may lack beaches but it more than makes up for that in heat. These books are best known for introducing Sookie Stackhouse to the world, but they also have a wonderful sense of place, evoking the heat and humidity of a Louisiana summer through language, dialogue and (for some reason) detailed descriptions of every skimpy outfit Sookie puts on.
Dead Until Dark is the first of this vampire-romance-detective series; my personal favourites are Dead To The World and All Together Dead, but that has more to do with my particular tastes in cheesy romantic vampires than anything else. Although the books tail off in quality towards the end of the series, they are all fun page-turners with a mystery element that makes for a perfect quick beach read. JH
The Fionavar Tapestry Trilogy – Guy Gavriel Kay (1984)
Five university students are drawn into Fionavar, the first world according to its mythology, by a mage called Loren Silvercloak; he suspects they all have different and dangerous destinies awaiting them. Over time they start to realise that the legends that have trickled down to Earth have a terrible truth in Fionavar, and they have parts to play within those legends that cannot be circumvented.
If you’ve got hours of holiday time to immerse yourself within a totally convincing fantasy world, then I can’t think of a better place to spend it than in Kay’s creation of Fionavar. It’s one of those far-reaching stories that has comforting, familiar aspects (if you’re a Tolkien fan you will love it) but is entirely unique in the way it ties together adventure, fable, action and romance with lyricism and pathos. AW
Only Forward – Michael Marshall Smith (1994)
If holiday reading is all about escapism, then you can’t be better served than by Michael Marshall Smith’s celebrated debut. Only Forward is a sci-fi, comic, fantasy adventure hole that you’ll fall into headfirst. It’s the kind of novel you’ll settle down to on your sun lounger in the morning, only to look up hours later at the darkened sky, wondering where your children have got to and why a family of seagulls is nesting in your JD Sports Bag For Life.
Only Forward brims with inventive, engaging ideas—talking appliances, city quarters populated entirely by cats… To reveal much more would spoil its many surprises, so we’ll just say that this is a very fine piece of work. If you’ve not yet had the pleasure of reading Michael Marshall Smith (or simply Michael Marshall, when he’s not doing SFF), then we’re jealous. He’s ace. LM
The End Of Eternity – Isaac Asimov (1955)
Eternity is an organisation run by humans living outside of the normal time-stream called Eternals, devoted to improving humankind’s history/future by making small tweaks and changes in the timeline to produce new, altered futures. They are also determined to prevent humankind from discovering space travel, because they believe it is the cause of various social problems. Travelling between a fixed point in the past and skipping over the mysterious Hidden Centuries of the far future using machines called kettles, they take the stand-on-a-butterfly-and-change-history theory to an extreme, causing all manner of paradoxes on the way.
Although it could be linked to his Foundation/Empireseries (opinions vary) this is essentially a stand-alone novel, so it’s a perfect beach-sized slice of Asimov if you want to get your teeth into some temporal paradoxes. It’s also rather lovely. The only drawback is that all that talk of kettles might remind you how far you are from a cup of tea… JH
Aberystwyth Mon Amour – Malcolm Pryce (2001)
Set on a very different type of beach, Malcolm Pryce’s quirky detective novels are a joy, especially (though not exclusively) if you know the Welsh seaside resort of the title. Narrated in the style of Raymond Chandler, these stories follow Aberystwyth PI Louie Knight as he flirts with lounge singers and the girls who model for the fudge boxes and battles murderers, organised crime-lords the Druids, and sinister P.E. teachers.
Later books feature Louie moving his office to 22/1b Stryd-Y-Popty (Welsh for Street of the Baker) and his living in a lonely caravan on the sands of Ynyslas, but start with Aberystwyth Mon Amour, the first, to follow the overall character arcs chronologically. If ‘beach holiday’ to you means a caravan in Cornwall or a walk down a windy, rocky shore in Scotland, these are the books to bring. JH
The Princess Bride – William Goldman (1973)
On a beach. On a train. In a space shuttle. There’s simply no bad context in which to read Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman’s terrific The Princess Bride, a novel almost unbeatable for its sheer volume of jokes and human warmth. Thanks to Rob Reiner’s almost equally brilliant film adaptation, most people won’t need a summary of the plot, so we won’t waste your time with one.
The Princess Bride is so good in fact, that it’s a little unfair on the other books on this list to sing its praises. To give the others a fighting chance then, here’s some criticism of it in the form of a (rare) one-star review from a disgruntled customer on a popular book- selling website:
“Thankfully I picked this up in a second-hand store, had I paid full whack for it I’d’ve been really angry. It’s one of the most self-indulgent bits of loonery I’ve ever read. There wasn’t a likeable character in it, let alone one you cared anything about. I cottoned on quite early that his claim of abridgement of a longer work by someone else was tosh which made the loonery all the more annoying. I can only assume he originally pitched the story as a screenplay, no-one would buy it, they all told him it was rubbish and to prove them wrong, he published the screenplay as a novel. It was pure drivel, I skim-read the last half in the same way he claimed his father “abridged” the book when it was read to him as a boy. The ending was as annoying as the rest of the book. Avoid at all costs.
PS A lot of the other reviews refer to the fact they’d seen the film before reading the book. Thankfully I never knew there was a film before I read it and now I’m spared the tragedy of watching the film and thereby wasting another couple of hours of my life.”
That’s us told then. LM
52 Songs, 52 Stories – Iain Rowan (2014)
Sitting in the sun, listening to your favourite tunes, I can’t think of anything better to read than Iain Rowan’s book of not-quite-right-in-the-head flash fiction. Perhaps that’s because the dark places he takes you to spring naturally from music too. Rowan wrote a story a week for a year, each one inspired by a tune chosen randomly. He tells you what song he was listening to at the time of writing before each piece, which gives reading his fiction an added level of enjoyment; you either want to track down the song if you’ve never heard it, or you hear it in your head as you read along.
Rowan’s flash fiction is just right for the beach: read one, have a paddle, grab an ice cream, think about what you’ve read, and then choose another. It’s not filled with sunny emotions, but that makes the contrast all the sweeter. AW
Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft – Thor Heyerdahl (1950)
“If… you put out to sea on a wooden raft with a parrot and five companions, it is inevitable that sooner or later you will wake up one morning out at sea, perhaps a little better rested than ordinarily, and begin to think about it.”
So begins the kind of adventure that sounds like make-believe. In 1947 Thor Heyerdahl and five of his friends (and a parrot) journeyed across the Pacific Ocean by raft. He wanted to prove that, historically, such a trip was possible, and it is his mixture of optimism and pragmatism that carries the raft, and this book, along. He writes with a sense of wonder for the world around him; as the voyage progresses the raft begins to act as a magnet for curious creatures, with whom the crew forms relationships as they weather storms and privations. It’s a book that rediscovers a connection with the elements, and reminds us that for all our ingenuity, humans are still part of an environment that is as astonishing as anything we can create. AW
Those are our suggestions to get things started. What can you recommend we pack into the suitcase?