Sun, sand, and stories: Unpacking the charm of beach reads

Folks, we have hit prime beach-read season — or dock-, patio-, or balcony-read season. Even if you’re not on vacation, you may find you want to read something different these days when the air-conditioned indoors can make even a bench in a local park feel tropical by contrast.

For the sake of ease, we’re going to stick with the term “beach read” — but why do many of us change our reading habits in the hot months, and what makes a book suitable for this season?

The creation of a category

The “beach read” concept is a bit like Valentine’s Day. If not completely created by corporations and marketers, it’s definitely been pushed and popularized by them to meet our society’s growing “vacation” culture. However, even if beach reads are a category coined by publishers (and their marketing departments), there isn’t much downside to buying in. Unlike celebrating Valentine’s Day:

  • Books don’t contain calories and won’t give you cavities.
  • You can borrow a beach read from your library and return it — no cash required.
  • Any heartbreak is fictional.

Beach reads: Light or literary?

Authors don’t always know what to think about their books being pegged as “beach reads.” On the one hand, the term can feel dismissive. On the other hand, they can cry about it all the way to the bank as readers everywhere shove their latest paperback into beach totes or carry-on luggage. Well-known beach-read author Jennifer Weiner wrote a great essay about this conflict.

As readers, too, we sometimes dismiss our summer reads as guilty pleasures. “Just something light!” we sing-song to anyone who asks the familiar “What are you reading?” question.

Maybe think about it differently. Maybe consider that you’re:

  • Staying in touch with the latest in pop culture (or catching up on a classic).
  • Supporting a woman writer (chances are high you’re reading a book by a woman).
  • Exercising one of the gains women have made by actually having some leisure time during which to read. (Did you know the earliest summer reads were for men, who had most of the disposable income and free time when vacationing?)

More than just romance

The hallmarks of a beach read are that it’s easy to read, engaging, and entertaining. That might be a rom-com … or not. It could be romance with a twist — romantasy is huge these days (romance + fantasy). And never discount the escape value in a mystery. Whatever genre you choose, the ideal beach read is absorbing enough to keep you hooked for hours, but easy to dip in and out of between splashes in the ocean (or feeding your family if you’re not vacationing solo).

Masters of the beach book

Certain authors have become synonymous with summer by writing books with the perfect cocktail of intrigue, romance, and adventure. We already mentioned Jennifer Weiner. Elin Hilderbrand, often called the “queen of beach reads,” sets her compelling dramas in Nantucket, a prime summer escape. Emily Henry and Sophie Kinsella are long-time favourites. And don’t miss Canadian writer Carley Fortune who’s rocketing up the summer reading charts with compelling stories set in recognizably Canadian locales.

Our Honest recommendations

You didn’t think we’d leave you hanging, did you? Not a chance. We’ve rounded up a great list of books to slip into your beach bag alongside your sunscreen, sunglasses, and sandals.

Who better to start with than the Queen herself, Elin Hilderbrand — who just happens to be one of co-founder Catherine’s picks — with her latest (and last?) novel, Swan Song.

Catherine Clark’s recommendations: 

Swan Song by Elin Hilderbrand

My family has been vacationing on Nantucket, a small island off the coast of Massachusetts, since I was a tiny girl. 

Every summer, we pack up our vehicle (now vehicles plural because it’s a full-family affair with my parents, my kids, my husband, and myself) and head off on our 10-hour drive from Ottawa to Hyannis and the two-hour ferry ride out to what is lovingly referred to as The Grey Lady because of the fog that often blankets the island. 

Catherine Clark and Elin Hilderbrand

It’s a yearly tradition filled with love and anticipation, and Nantucket (also known as ACK for its airport call sign) has a strong place in our hearts all through the year. Nantucket has some famous residents — the singer Meghan Trainor, for one, and the beloved #1 New York Times bestselling author Elin Hilderbrand, for another — and no summer goes by that I don’t go down to Mitchell’s Book Corner on Main Street and grab myself a copy of Elin Hilderbrand’s latest summer read. 

The thing is, this summer will be the last for that particular tradition, because Elin has made it known that her latest book — the appropriately named Swan Song — is also her last. Sob. Elin’s books are everything I love in a summer read (or frankly a fall, winter, and spring read, too). 

Her books are based on relationships that go right and wrong, they’re anchored in humour and the human spirit, and they’re set on my very favourite island in all the world. If you haven’t read an Elin Hilderbrand novel, well, lucky you — you’ve got dozens of her books to keep you busy all summer long. And for those of you who are dedicated Elin fans like me, well, rejoice — we’ve got one Swan Song left so let’s make it count.

Bury the Lead by Kate Hilton and Elizabeth Renzetti 

I love a good mystery. I love the intrigue, the questions, the worrying about what’s going to happen next — that’s why I’m so excited to add Bury the Lead to my summer book list. 

It has everything that a fabulously entertaining, entirely delightful escapist mystery novel should have: a protagonist fleeing the tattered remains of her big-city life by moving to cottage country to work as a small-town journalist, a shocking murder that reveals a whole host of community secrets, and the threat that the murderer might strike again. 

Oh boy, I LOVE a good, fun whodunnit, and Bury the Lead is my mystery pick for this summer’s beach bag. Also, the book is written by two remarkable Canadian women — bestselling author Kate Hilton and award-winning author and journalist Elizabeth Renzetti — and what could be better than supporting Canadian talent?

Jennifer Stewart’s picks: 

Meet Me at the Lake by Carley Fortune 

For a summer read that blends nostalgia and romance, Meet Me at the Lake is a perfect pick. This novel beautifully captures the essence of second chances and serendipitous love, set against the backdrop of a picturesque Muskoka.

Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen

For music lovers, Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography Born to Run offers an intimate look into the life of the legendary rocker. His compelling storytelling and raw honesty provide a powerful narrative of his journey from working-class New Jersey boy to iconic American musician. 

Both books promise to be captivating companions for your summer days.

Mary Taggart’s suggestion:

We asked friend of The Honest Talk, author, and founder of #MarysMustRead book club Mary Taggart for her go-to summer read!

Sandwich by Catherine Newman

Sandwich by Catherine Newman would fall under literary fiction rather than “beach read,” but the descriptive Cape Cod setting draws readers in, making this an ideal summertime book. The story is a tender depiction of family life and the emotional tug of the empty nest, told with the author’s gift for humour and descriptive prose.

Lisa Thibodeau’s choice: 

Our editor Lisa also couldn’t resist sharing her latest pick!

Violeta by Isabel Allende

They say never judge a book by its cover, but in this case, that’s exactly what I did, and I couldn’t be happier with my decision! 

Violeta by Isabel Allende initially caught my attention because of the beautifully designed cover, but within the pages is an equally captivating story following the main character Violeta from birth through to her senior years. Written as a letter to a loved one, the book takes you through several phases of Violeta’s life, including love, heartbreak, motherhood, and navigating being a woman in South America amidst war and societal upheaval. 

This story will absolutely capture your attention — perfect for those dog days of summer — and will leave you feeling a deep connection to Violeta and her life. An absolute page turner, I can’t recommend this book enough! 

My very own summer favourite:

Nora Goes Off Script by Annabel Monaghan

As a writer myself, I can be a wee bit picky (Okay, I critique the writing on restaurant menus — that’s how picky I am!), which is why I love being delighted by a book. You might think this means I’m looking for perfection, but I assure you I’m not. I just want a story that moves. That keeps the pages turning. That allows me to suspend my disbelief long enough that I desperately don’t want to put it down. In the summer, this might mean dinner gets put on the table late, the weeds get to grow in the garden for another day, and I might even risk sunburn to stay in my chair and finish my book.

Nora Goes Off Script delivers that page-turning experience. The writing is solid, the pacing is great, and the characters are fun. It’s hard to find a book that truly has something for everyone, but this one does a great job. Its setting is mostly rural / small town, but there’s a dash of big city and glamour. The celebrity characters will draw you in if you’re a lover of People magazine, but they’re not overpowering for readers who aren’t into A-listers.

A well-written, funny, and sometimes poignant book. I finished it eager to read more by the author and that, from (picky) me, is a great sign!

Whether it’s a tried and tested author or a new genre you’ve never explored before, the perfect beach read is waiting to transform your simple sunbathing into a splendid adventure. After all, summer is the best time to explore the vast, vibrant world of books — no passport required!