The best beach read is a paperback novel, with a page turner plot you won’t want to put down (until the next mojito, that is), characters you can identify with and a story you’ll probably forget by tomorrow. Nothing to wrinkle the brow need be considered.
The same criteria hold true for airplane reads. I always travel with two good paperback novels, and once read both of them waiting for a much delayed plane to depart. Usually, there’s enough going on at the beach that it will take a week to read both, but when laziness kicks in and staying in one’s chair under an umbrella is all one wants, then you may get through more than a couple of books. In that case, check out whether there’s a good paperback exchange near your resort. I’ve found them in the weirdest places. The one in Jaco, Mexico, is run by a guy from Winnipeg. I’ve discovered new authors at the one in Puerto Vallarta, and I’ve picked up some good reads (including my first Daniel Silva book) from a beach bar library in Bequia. The strangest lending library I’ve come across is in a repurposed red phone booth in our village in Yorkshire. It’s full of good paperbacks.
This is the time of year when sensible folks from wintery northern climes head for warmth and beaches. Canadians fly south in such numbers to Mexico, Florida and the Caribbean that they are called “snowbirds.” Scandinavians and Germans in their hordes are found sunning on the beaches in the Canary Islands, while the locals wear sweaters and turn on an electric fire. Brits head for places such as Benidorn and Torremolinos in southern Spain, where fish and chips and a cuppa are easier to find than back home. Around every pool and on every beach, you’ll see people with their noses in paperback novels. Unlike e-readers, the wonderful thing about the inexpensive, and often second-hand, paperback is that you can splash it with water without fear of shorting and it never crashes. When you’ve finished with it, give it to the bloke in the next chair, or leave it in your room for someone else to enjoy. No need to take it home.
Let’s start in the middle of my paperback bookcase. After being a Clive Cussler fan for almost 40 years, I’ve finally had to put his latest book aside unfinished. Co-author on this Dirk Pitt adventure, his 24th by my count, is his son, Dirk Cussler. In a curious bit of writerly hubris, the son of Dirk the character is also called Dirk. Further, an old grey-haired codger who rescues them at one silly point in the story is initialed CC. Putting himself into his novels is a conceit that stretches back over a few books, of which there are now over 70. Cussler has had co-authors for nearly 50 of them, and I suspect that writing has made him enough money to leave the heavy lifting to others, while he enjoys himself with his TV series, wreck diving and antique car collecting.
I met Cussler in 1976 when he was promoting Raise the Titanic!, his third, when he was still writing exciting adventure stories. He was guest on a daytime chat show I was producing and turned out to be an interesting and engaging fellow. I became an instant fan, but sadly his books have become improbably silly and now unreadable. So he’s off the beach and airplane reading list, although his co-authors continue to be prolific.
Another author who relies on others to do their writing is Robert Ludlum. He has a better excuse having died more than a decade ago. In addition, many reviewers (and me too) think his storytelling has been improved by the army of both named and uncredited writers who have continued his legacy, and made pots of money for his estate and publishers. Notable among the continuing series are the Jason Bourne books, also a successful movie franchise. Another late, great author, was Tom Clancy, whose work is written by others since his death in 2013. Sadly, their pen is not mightier than his, but the good old books are still in print and well worth re-visting.
James Patterson is another excellent writer who has finally given way to the curse of co-authors. After a couple of dozen books in the Alex Cross series, all enjoyable, he’s written 16 in the Women’s Murder Club, less enjoyable, nine in the Michael Bennet detective series, also most enjoyable, and other series including Private and NYPD Red, all with others. With Patterson and his co-writers, you know what you’re getting: thrills, good plot twists and interesting characters.
The same might be said for David Baldacci. He has several series going, for a total of 33 books, with an assassin, a detective and others as heroes, even in his latest work delving into fantasy, but the best series by far is The Camel Club. The protagonist is a crusty former agent, with a bunch of strange pals, who live in a thriller world that fairly crackles with excitement. Outstanding beach reading here.
I prefer living writers who actually write their own books. One reason is that good writing is not the work of a committee. Another is that one can send notes to living writers and they sometimes even deign to reply. Daniel Silva, whose excellent Gabriel Allon spy series continue to enthral, has his charming wife Jamie Gangel handle his correspondence. He’s clearly too busy dreaming up complicated and enjoyable plots but at least he keeps it in the family.
I once emailed Stuart Woods to ask a question about one of his characters and to my amazement he replied within hours. In the back of his books he has some amusing notes for readers, including a promise to respond to emails but not snail mail, unless the readers annoy him by pointing out printing typos, in which case he promises to ignore them. Woods admits his publisher has encouraged him to write about his most popular characters, and also increase his output to three novels a year, making them all much richer, one assumes. But at least Woods has the decency to write cracking good stories. None are quite as good as his original novel Chiefs (which he himself admits in a published interview) but they are sexy, exciting and funny enough to keep me entertained while sunning by the pool.
I picked up Orchid Beach before a flight from UK to Canada recently and it was a good read. Perfect to while away the hours on a long flight. Bonus for me was that it turns out to be a reissue of his 2007 book that first introduced the character of Holly Barker, a former Military Police officer turned local police chief. With 12 more novels either about Holly or featuring her in a walk-on role, its fun to hunt through the library or remainders bin for old books in an author’s output and read or re-read them in order. After a marathon binge over the holidays, I’ve just finished the last one and I hope Woods brings her back for some more fun and games in the spy world she now inhabits.
Lee Child, pen name for British author Jim Grant, is another writer whose thrillers really thrill. Although the Jack Reacher books feature a heroic character more than six feet tall, the diminutive Tom Cruise has taken on the role in a couple of very successful movies, which follow the adventures of a former American military policeman, wandering the United States, with little more than a toothbrush in his pocket, living by his wits and his fists. His official blogger recently posted the news that newly published Night School in hardback and Make Me in paperback have been named number one sellers around the word and The Sunday Times has named the former the number one best seller of the year. I’ve read them both, and most of the others in the series, and they are indeed good reads.
I’ve also enjoyed a number of Brad Thor novels, excellent political thrillers, of which there are about 17. Thor has worked with Homeland Security and been embedded with a black-ops team in Afghanistan, so he knows of what he writes. Before he was a writer, he was a television producer (as was I), so he can’t be a bad chap.
Finally, a great disappointment. J.K. Rowling, of Harry Potter fame, wrote a soppy romance under a pseudonym. I didn’t read it, but the reviews weren’t complimentary. Then along came her pseudonym Robert Galbraith and a series of books about British amputee detective Cormoran Strike. I loved the first, the second wasn’t bad, but I’ve not been able to finish the third. The cruelty and the gore were just too much for me. Now I hear that BBC-TV is going to adapt the stories for a television series. I think I’ll prefer them in that mode, when I can fast forward through the icky bits.
Wherever you are and whatever you’re reading, please enjoy the experience, and please share your favourites with us all.
Like all writers, we survive on the proof reading skills of our editors, and I have an outstanding one in Diane, who read this piece, made several improvements and found typos and writing errors. In my defense, I offer Ollie the kitten as an excuse. He loves to sit on my desk as I write and just by leaning over he can touch the screen and delete whole chunks of verbiage, or add many unwanted letters to a piece. qqqqqqqqqqq to Ollie and many thanks to Diane.
You neglected to mention one of my favourite beach writers, Randy Wayne White, who produces the Doc Ford character novels. Easy reading suspense novels, almost all of which are set in Florida. And they have spawned two Doc Ford Rum Bar and Grill restaurants, and related monogramed souvenir items.
I am remiss. I just finished Randy Wayne White’s new book Gone, which was excellent, but didn’t include it as it wasn’t a paperback. I also left out other fave authors of long running series: Wilbur Smith and his African adventures, Patrick O’Brian and his seafaring stories, WEB Griffin and his military novels,Simon Scarrow’s Roman army stories, and Bernard Cornwell, famous for the Sharpe books and The Last Kingdom, his Saxon vs Viking adventures now televised on Netflix.
While you deserve a severe caning for leaving this out, I will intervene and ask the Head Master to spare you.
Nigel, might I suggest two non-fiction titles for your list. A personal favourite Outwitting the Devil by Napoleon Hill and Screw Business as Usual by Richard Branson.
Worthy though these contenders might be, they sound much too serious for beach reading! I’ll save these for the dark days of Canadian winters.