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Who says beach reads have to be mediocre?

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Use your precious holiday time to read books worth remembering when you get home, says Anna James, even if they do feature Nazi teenagers and intense, upsetting passages 

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By Anna James on

Last week, I was booked to talk about my favourite August book releases on a local BBC radio show. The two titles I’d chosen were Hanya Yanagihara’s Man Booker-longlisted A Little Life (Picador) and Julie Mayhew’s exceptional YA novel The Big Lie (Hot Key).

But the discussion got a little hijacked, as the presenter kept asking, with the best of intentions: “But is it a good beach read?” My instant reaction was mild panic; one of the books was a 700+ page story featuring explicit sexual abuse and self-harm, and one was a novel about a gay teenage Nazi – not what you usually associate with lazy days on the beach. 

But it dawned on me that I wasn’t happy with the idea that a beach read needs to be an easy read or a book you’d read and happily abandon in your holiday cottage because it had so little effect on you. It’s patronising to readers, and authors, to suggest that this is all you want or need for your holiday. Why seek out mediocrity? The book I read on my beach holiday last year turned out to be my favourite of the year and the future Baileys Prize winner, How To Be Both by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton). 

It’s patronising to readers, and authors, to suggest that this is all you want or need for your holiday. Why seek out mediocrity?

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with wanting something that isn’t too much like hard work on your holiday, but this isn’t the same as reading something disposable. A book to get lost in, a book that you can enjoy in a straightforward way, a book that is exactly what it seems – you can find all these things in all genres without sacrificing quality. This summer, aim to read a book on your holiday that you’d rather take home than your flip flops – a book you’ll want to push into the hands of your friends when you get back. Demand more of your beach reads. 

Whether your holiday is the only time you read or you see a holiday as a chance to catch up on some serious reading time, I’m fairly confident that the universal touchstone is that you want to be pretty confident you’re going to enjoy it. But, within that, the criteria for what makes a good beach read are as varied as everyone’s individual taste. Whether I’m on the Tube commuting or on the beach relaxing, I want a good book. If a book is good, then surely it’s a good beach read? A Little Life does have some very intense and upsetting passages, so be warned, but the main thing counting against it as a beach read is just that, at 720 pages, it might tip you over your weight allowance. But stick it on your e-reader and you’re good to go – although watch out for tears in your margarita. 

So, here are my favourite five beach reads, by which I mean five really good books I’ve read this year:

  1. For a moving but witty story of growing up in the Troubles with a narrator you will fall in love with, try The Good Son by Paul McVeigh (Salt).
  2. For an intelligent, super-creative fantasy novel for grown-ups (even those who don’t like fantasy), try A Darker Shade of Magic by VE Schwab (Titan) and meet her brilliant hero and heroine, who refuse to confirm to stereotypes.
  3. For a Cornish apocalyptic novel to restore your faith in humanity (yes really), try John Ironmonger’s gorgeous Not Forgetting The Whale (W&N). 
  4. For something a bit more literary and experimental, try Anna Smaill’s soaring, sensory tale of music and mystery The Chimes (Sceptre). 
  5. For a beautiful, evocative historical novel about Virginia Woolf’s relationship with her sister, Vanessa Bell, try one of the most underrated novels of the year, Vanessa And Her Sister by Priya Parmar (Bloomsbury). 


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