It’s that time of year again when we head off in droves to beaches and poolsides the world over armed with nothing but a massive towel and a gigantic book to read. Traditionally these “beach books” would be trashy thrillers or romance novels, but really that’s not the case anymore – they can be almost anything. You’ll see literary heavyweights like Donna Tarrt or Jonathan Franzen in amongst the Jilly Coopers and Jeffrey Archers.
All that matters is that you’re under the hot sun topping up your tan, and you’ve poked your head into something that keeps the day from dragging. Which leads us to 10 excellent reads from the past few years that are definitely beach-worthy.
1. The Girls by Emma Cline (2016): £12.99, Vintage Publishing
If you’re only going to pack one book next to your swimming trunks this year, this is the one to go for – it’s already kicking up a literary storm. It’s the story of the Charles Manson murders by any other name, seen through the eyes of a female “family” member and set against the backdrop of the US counterculture movement of the late 1960s. The female relationships within the cult provide the heartbeat of the story, rather than the fictional atrocities, which are almost peripheral. Emma Cline, a staff writer at The New Yorker, has hit a home run with her first swing.
2. Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld (2016): £14.99, HarperCollins
It’s a brave (or insane) writer who attempts to rework Jane Austen into a modern setting, but bestselling author Curtis Sittenfeld has absolutely nailed it. She brings Pride and Prejudice to Noughties Cincinnati without it seeming affected, out of place or, worse, corny. As ever, the Bennett sisters are keen to find love, and this time, Darcy is a rich, arrogant doctor. A magnificent read, Austen would be whooping in her grave. Expect it to be peppered all over beaches this summer.
3. Yes Please by Amy Poehler (2015): £9.99, Pan Macmillan
For some, the beach is the perfect setting for a celebrity autobiography, so don’t be surprised to hear a few unsettling splutters and guffaws coming from behind a copy of The World According to Clarkson this year. But for the more discerning sunbather, try out this collection of thoughts, observations, funny memories – ranging from motherhood and divorce to working in TV, and some amazing sex tips – from US comedy heavyweight Amy Poehler (otherwise known as Leslie Knope from Parks and Recreation).
4. Try Not to Breathe by Holly Seddon (2016): £12.99, Atlantic Books
This is a gripping debut novel from British freelance journalist Holly Seddon. A brutal abduction that was never solved gets teased, prodded and told from various different vantage points – each with their own voice and their own personal issues to wrangle with. One is a journalist with a drink problem, another is the victim, the same age as the reporter, almost frozen in time since emerging from a coma. It zips along, never letting up, forever dangling carrots to keep you guessing who might have slipped under the radar all those years ago. As addictive as the best box sets.
5. Red Rising by Pierce Brown (2014): £7.99, Hodder
As a New York Times Bestseller, this has already met a swell of approval across the pond, and is set to storm the beaches of Europe over the coming months. It sits somewhere within the same axis of literary sophistication as Game of Thrones and The Hunger Games (and can easily hold its own against both). Set in a dystopian future where humans are toiling on Mars, it’s got everything you want from an epic page-turner – class war, uprisings, deception, people with bold dramatic names like Darrow or Cassius. And, best of all, it’s just part one of a trilogy, so you can devour this one, then get started on the other two when you get home (depending on the length of your hols).
6. Spoiled Brats by Simon Rich (2014): £8.99, Profile Books
For those unwilling to commit to a whole novel by the pool, a decent collection of short stories is the way to go. From the pickle factory worker lost in the wrong century, to the plight of widowed hamsters languishing in school classrooms, this provides non-stop chuckles and pin-sharp insights into modern hipster culture from Simon Rich, who at one point was the youngest Saturday Night Live writer in America. It’s wickedly funny, and all in bite-sized chunks to ensure you won’t get too engrossed and end up barbecuing yourself.
7. Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick deWitt (2016): £8.99, Granta Books
Canadian novelist Patrick deWitt’s writing is engrossing, slightly unsettling, and always excellent stuff. This book is a little lighter than his last outing – the terrific western The Sisters Brothers – which makes it perfect for a long outdoor read. A gothic fantasy, it finds a flawed anti-hero at the centre of a very twisted fairytale, featuring madmen, murder, love, and a big castle. If you enjoy it, you should check out his first two novels immediately afterwards.
8. The First Bad Man by Miranda July (2015): £8.99, Canongate
Sex, violence and snail infestations – this is a wonderful, funny and strange first novel from Miranda July, who has already made big ripples as an artist, actress, filmmaker and writer of excellent vignettes (No One Belongs Here More Than You). A middle-aged woman has her life turned upside down by a young sofa surfer who washes up on her doorstep. Lena Dunham thinks it’s “astounding”. Lena Dunham is right.
9. The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante (2012-2015): £11.99 each, Europa Editions
The Neapolitan Novels – namely My Brilliant Friend (2012), The Story of a New Name (2013), Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2014), and The Story of the Lost Child (2015) – are essentially one gargantuan odyssey split into four parts, each one playing ever more manic air guitar on your heartstrings. They trace the lives of two women from a poor part of Naples over the course of 50 years, from post-war childhood to adulthood, through social and sexual politics of the 1970s. But at its core it’s an engrossing study of friendship. You may need to start these on the beach then finish them off on the plane, then at home, then in the loo at work. Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym – one of the great mysteries is who exactly is behind these wonderful books.
10. The Religion by Tim Willocks (2013): £7.99, Vintage Publishing
The ingredients for the perfect beach book aren’t specifically quantifiable, but if they sweep you along merrily without asking too many questions, that’s no bad thing. This sword-and-sandals romp has got everything you need for a good few hours crisping up under a blazing sun: muscle-bound alpha males striding around 16th Century (and now popular holiday destination) Malta, a warrior hero with an unpronounceable name, a mission to find the missing child of a powerful rich woman. It’s all very grand, and just what the doctor ordered.
There’s something for everyone on the list, from knuckle-gnawing thrillers, to funny short stories, romances, darkly comic fairytales and long meditations on what true friendship really means. But, as mentioned earlier, the one that should be packed into every suitcase alongside your passport this year should be The Girls by Emma Cline.