The beach is one of my favorite places to read. What could be better than sitting with your toes in the sand, a tote bag full of books in arm’s reach and a cooler full of Spindrift nearby?
Unfortunately, I can’t spend all summer reading a book a day on the beach (I wish!). And last year we didn’t make it to the shore at all. But I’m thankful that with the right beachy read, I can transport myself from my comfy chair at home to a place with cresting waves, seaside storms, or lakeside cabins.
Today’s list features books set on the water, from the coast of Maine to the shores of lake Michigan—and in seaside locales around the world. These books are perfect for reading with your feet dipped in the water, whether you’re in a kiddie pool in the backyard or enjoying a real sea breeze.
A few of the titles listed here are in our 2021 Summer Reading Guide, where you’ll find even more vacation-worthy titles to take to the beach or enjoy in the air-conditioned comfort of your favorite armchair. Whether you’re in the mood for an atmospheric mystery or a beachy family drama, I hope you find a few transportive titles for your TBR list today.
Polly’s life is in ruins: in one fell swoop, she's lost her business, her boyfriend, and her flat. She can't afford a place in town, so she's forced to move out of the city—way out of the city, to a remote British island town, in a flat above an abandoned shop. The Cornish coast might be lovely, but her new home is anything but cozy; the building should probably be condemned. Polly turns to baking to cheer herself up, and before long her favorite hobby turns into something more substantial than she ever dared to dream. A sweet and multilayered story about starting over, with lots of heart. More info →
I love this one so much, I included it in Volume II of my short-form podcast One Great Book (returning to a podcast app near you!). This family saga tells the story of three generations of a modern British family, brought together again during a time of crisis, all of whom have been burned by love and must figure out how to move forward. The action moves between Cornwall and London, and between past and present, spanning the period from Penelope’s childhood between the wars to Pilcher’s current day, the 1980s. Pilcher aimed to write a “big, fat novel” and this one spreads out over 600 admirably paced pages, giving the reader ample time to get to know her interesting, well-developed, flawed-but-likable characters. More info →
An outlier on this list of fiction, this is one of my favorite memoirs. Written during a vacation by the sea, Lindbergh combines memoir, meditation, and practical guide. She muses on womanhood, solitude, busyness, contentment, growing older, and more. If you're fond of reflective reads and collections of wise words, it's worth coming back to again and again: you'll discover new insights with each reading. This short book was first published in 1955 yet still feels fresh and relevant for today. I'm a fan of the 50th anniversary edition, which includes an introduction from the author's daughter. More info →
When a small plane crashes near a remote island in the South Pacific, the two surviving passengers turn to one another for survival. Sophie was on her way to her honeymoon, and Barry was fleeing his desk job in search of artistic inspiration. They couldn't be more different, and they don't really like each other at first. While grappling with loss and uncertainty, the unlikely castaways must work together to create a temporary home on the island, keeping the hope of rescue alive. More than a fast-paced survival story, this lyrical novel balances heart-pounding moments with quiet explorations of human resilience and love. More info →
See spins a tale of female friendship spanning eighty years, set against the backdrop of history in an incredible setting—the very real South Korean island of Jeju. On Jeju, women are the breadwinners, making their families’ livings by free-diving into the chilly waters of the Pacific Ocean, harvesting seafood to sell, while the husbands stay home with the children. This tradition has gone on for thousands of years, and we see it lived out in the lives of Young-sook Mi-ja. The two girls become fast friends as seven-year-olds in 1938, but their respective marriages take them down different paths, and bring unforeseen tensions into their relationship. A second storyline, set in 2008, gives readers hints of what may have caused the rift between the girls, but it’s only in the final pages that all is revealed. A fascinating, rewarding story of strong women, little-known history, and human resilience. More info →
In this short novel, three college friends come back together for the first time in years, reunited in Martha's Vineyard, where they spent a life-changing Memorial Day weekend together nearly forty years before. That was the weekend that one of their friends—a friend they were all at least a little bit in love with—disappeared over the weekend, and they've been thinking about her ever since. Surprisingly suspenseful but full of tenderness, too. Russo crafts a story of male friendship, family tragedy, and how the past is never really past. More info →
In this standalone novel from the author of Next Year in Havana, three women's lives become entangled over the course of Labor Day weekend, 1935, when the storm of the century slams into Key West. The story is told from three perspectives, that of three different women who seem to share little in common, but whose lives are about to intersect in ways no one could foresee. Helen is a Key West native, poor and pregnant, fleeing her abusive husband. Mirta is Cuban, newly married to a man she barely knows, and just beginning her honeymoon. And Elizabeth, who’s come south on a dangerous search for a long-lost loved one. A captivating novel about a little-known historical event. More info →
"Where does a mistake begin?" So begins Amity Gaige's literary thriller, inspired by a real-life 2014 Coast Guard rescue. Michael and Juliet, facing an ailing marriage and midlife malaise, decided to sell all their worldly possessions and spend a year sailing around the Caribbean. But now Juliet is home, Michael is absent, and we don't know why—but it's clear everything changed on the yacht. In dual narratives, we see Juliet struggling mightily to cope with her current life in the suburbs, and—thanks to her early discovery of Michael's captains log from the voyage—we get Michael’s real-time, emotional account of their harrowing times on the open seas, and the unbearable stress it placed on their already-crumbling relationship. A harrowing portrait of a boat in peril and a marriage in crisis. More info →
I found this book to be a delightful, engrossing, just-the-right-amount-of-zany surprise. Our heroine is Daphne Berg, a popular plus-size fashion influencer. Daphne's hard-earned equilibrium is rattled when her old frenemy Drue surfaces after a 7-year absence, begging Daphne to lend her platform and presence to Drue's high-society wedding to a reality tv star. Daphne's instincts say no, but shes never been able to resist her charming friend. Soon enough, she's at a million-dollar affair on Cape Cod, learning the troubled bride she's attending engineered the whole event with social media in mind—right down to the brand sponsorships Drue sold for big bucks. And that's when things really take a turn for the worse. A fun and fresh tale of female friendship, family secrets, influencer culture, and love. More info →
January is a 29-year-old romance writer who no longer believes in happily-ever-after. Demoralized and broke, she moves into the lake house she inherited when her father died, hoping to lick her wounds and finish her current manuscript. But then, in a cruel twist of fate, she discovers her neighbor is the beloved literary fiction writer Augustus Everett, her college rival (and crush), whom she was hoping to never see again. But it turns out Gus has troubles of his own, and so the two make a bet to get their writing back on track: January will try her hand at the “bleak literary fiction” that Gus writes, and Gus will write a romance novel. A warm and delightfully meta take on love, writing, and second chances. More info →
The premise is guaranteed to make some readers mad, but the execution sucked me right in: at the request of his dying mother Mallory, Link places a call and is shocked when Jake McCloud answers. Link knows who Jake is: his wife is expected to be elected president in the upcoming 2020 election. But how could Jake possibly know his mother? Well. Unbeknownst to Link and almost everyone else, Jake and Mallory have a history. When they first met on Nantucket in 1993, they decided to borrow the premise of the film Same Time, Next Year for their own relationship, and have since spent 28 Labor Day weekends together on the island, despite marriage, children, and everything else. An exploration of love in all its forms that pushes readers to ask What if...? This would make a fabulous book club selection—there's so much to talk about. More info →
In this whimsical fantasy, a 40-year-old career case worker has his life turned upside down by a special assignment. Linus Baker’s job is to ensure the children are safe—or at least he’s convinced himself that the field visits he makes to the orphanages sanctioned by The Department of Magical Youth are crucial to the well-being of these unusual children. But everything changes for Linus when Extremely Upper Management sends him to report on an island orphanage that’s a place of last resort for magical children viewed as misfits by the establishment, as well as their unconventional caretaker. Linus may have always been a company man, but this visit forces him to question everything he thought he knew about the world—and himself. Many readers are going to find this quirky book a delightful surprise. More info →
Isabel "Belly" Conklin lives for summers at the beach with her family—and her mother's best friend and her two sons: Jeremiah and Conrad. They've always been her summer companions, extra brothers to annoy her from June through August. But this summer, everything changes as Belly experiences a love triangle plot reminiscent of Sabrina. Jenny Han writes such delightful YA romances novels: humorous and charming, totally swoon worthy. This is the first in a trilogy you can easily finish in one week at the beach. More info →
Jane Brannen dreams of becoming a famous author someday, just like her idol Jane Austen. When bestselling author J. E. Fairfax comes to Whickett Harbor, Jane thinks it's the perfect opportunity to ask her about the secret to literary success. When a hurricane rolls through, Jane misses her chance and gets thrown together with the author's snobby, science-geek son instead. In addition to an exceptionally annoying boy, the storm blows in bad news for Jane's future: her mother has filed for custody and intends to bring Jane back to California with her. Jane doesn't want to leave her beloved small town, so she sets her sights on finding the perfect match for her father and proving to her mother that Whickett Harbor is where she's meant to be. Full of Austen-isms and a lot of heart, this middle grade novel is sure to delight adult Austen fans, too. More info →
I’ve long said that Harper's first novel The Dry is her best work, but now I might have a new favorite. In her latest, Harper returns to the themes that worked so well in her debut: a man returns to his tiny hometown to find that neither the community nor his family have forgotten or forgiven his involvement in a past tragedy—and that's before a fresh crime brings painful memories raging back. Much of the story is set in seaside caves that the local teens enjoy exploring—but flood when the tide comes in. A deliciously creepy (and sometimes claustrophobic) tale of buried secrets, family tensions, and life after tragedy. More info →
This page-turning family saga has everything you could want in a beach read: surfers, rockstars, 80s pop culture, and a mansion going up in flames. It’s 1983, and the four adult children of rockstar Mick Riva are preparing to host Malibu’s party of the year, unaware of how this one night will irrevocably change their lives. Reid employs an interesting structure to unpack what happens, hour by hour, the day of the party, intercutting the present-day narrative with scenes from the family’s past that go back generations. With well-drawn characters and a strong sense of time and place (I hung on every reference to Tab, big hair, and belted t-shirts), it’s perfect for fans of messy family stories and compulsively readable literary fiction. I couldn’t put it down. More info →
The untold story of the Titanic of the South, and a poignant exploration of how survivors across centuries cope in the aftermath of tragedy. When Savannah art professor Everly Winthrop signs on to curate a museum collection dedicated to the 1838 sinking of the steamship Pulaski, she’s consumed by the mysteries surrounding the exploded ship and its passengers—especially that of a woman who seemed to seize the opportunity the disaster afforded her to build a new future. As she examines freshly unearthed artifacts from the shipwreck, she’s forced to confront her role in a painful loss of her own. Both past and present storylines probe how those who physically survive a disaster can emotionally survive the aftermath. Don’t miss the author’s note. (Content warning for death of a loved one and abuse.) More info →
Buckle up for a hair-raising ride through Morocco’s cliff-hugging roads in this psychological thriller. Aspiring writer Florence is determined to get her stories published—no matter what it takes. But after her initial underhanded efforts to get a book deal result in getting fired from her low-level publishing job, she receives a fortuitously-timed offer to play assistant to a blockbuster novelist whose identity is a closely-guarded secret. Soon she’s privy to the secrets of “Maud Dixon,” who hit the bestseller charts with her debut about a sinister Southern murder, but whose sophomore novel is long overdue to the publisher. When the prickly writer invites Florence to accompany her on a research trip to Morocco, Florence can’t say yes fast enough...and that’s when the book takes a suspenseful turn I never saw coming. More info →
Three generations of women grapple with good intentions gone wrong as a hurricane barrels towards the coast of Maine. In 2008, Skye visits her grandmother and confronts family secrets that unspool in alternating timelines from 1944 to 1970 and back to the present, where the residents of Haven Point brace for major power outages. The stormy atmosphere adds to the drama of this multigenerational family saga that explores how secrets of the past unlock happiness and peace in the present. More info →
A mind-bending mystery, alternate history, and queer romance rolled into one. In the new time-slip novel from The Bedlam Stacks author, Napoleon conquers England in the Battle of Trafalgar and a stone portal in the sea serves as a passageway between centuries. When Joe steps off a train in the city of Londre, 1898, he has a postcard in his pocket written in forbidden English, with a postmark dated 1805 though it inexplicably bears the image of a recently-constructed lighthouse. “Dearest Joe, come home if you remember,” says the postcard, signed simply “M.” Joe’s search for M leads him to the Outer Hebrides and back and forth through the stone portals many a time on his dangerous quest to reunite with his family without changing the course of history—or erasing his own existence. More info →
Which books set on the water would you add to our list? Share your recommendations in the comments.