I agree with Anne Bogel of Modern Mrs Darcy that any book you take to the beach is a Beach Read. It really doesn’t matter which genre it is as long as you like it.
Some books, though, fit the category better than others. Easy, breezy books that you can finish in a sitting or a romance that is escape fiction or a page turner that keeps you up in the wee hours when there’s no danger of the alarm going off in the morning.
For me, personally, my top picks are well-crafted, morally commendable novels with compelling characters. Bonus points if they stick with me and help me contemplate the meaning of life. Occasionally I’m willing to suspend belief if I relate to a character that draws me in emotionally.
I surprised myself in doing the research for this post by falling in love with some Regency Romances. Think Jane Austen for modern readers.
Even though vacation is a great time to learn new things or soak up a good memoir, I’ve limited this list to fiction, mostly feel good fiction without complicated plots, an overwhelming number of characters or lots of back and forth scene changes.
Breezy Escape Fiction
Nothing says Beach Read like breezy escape fiction.
Four regency era novels qualify with straight forward, uncomplicated plots featuring heroes committed to the code of gentlemen. Just the ticket for a breezy read.
(Note: Pictures of book covers are Amazon affiliate links. At no extra cost to you a percentage of your purchase will go to support this site.)
Edenbrooke by Julianne Donaldson
The heir of Edenbrooke believes that females are empty headed flirts until he meets Marianne Daventry.
She intrigues him enough to changes his plans to flee home and his mother’s match making schemes.
Blackmore by Julianne Donaldson
Blackmore is the name of the estate of Kate Worthington’s neighboring friends. It’s where their grandparents live and where they spend their vacations. She is enamored by the idea of it and her dream is to visit it.
She also wants to visit India and the only way her mother will support her trip is if she receives and rejects three proposals of marriage. She decides Blackmore is the perfect place to achieve that goal.
The Kiss of a Stranger by Sarah M Eden
Lord Cavratt impetuously kisses an unknown woman in the garden of a country inn to prove a point.
He assumes she is a serving woman, but her angry guardian informs him she is a woman of brith whose reputation can only be saved by marriage.
The marriage of two strangers? What could go wrong? What could go right?
Seeking Persephone by Sarah M Eden
The Duke has a flaw that he believes will keep any woman from marrying him.
But, with abundant wealth at his disposal, he can surely entice a young woman into marriage by endowing her family with large quantities of money.
But can two married people get to know each other and find love with scars of the past hanging over them?
For the Young at Heart
Sometimes well written middle grade or young adult novels fit the bill of breezy escape fiction. Reading aloud on vacation or turning on audiobooks during road trips can be family bonding times. With or without kids, these picks appeal to the young and the young at heart.
Adventures with Waffles by Maria Parr
Lena and Trille are next door neighbors and best friends, coconspirators in mishaps. While getting in and out of scrapes, they learn a lot about friendship, family and life.
I enjoyed it even without kids in my life right now to read it to.
Cheaper by the Dozen by Frank B Gilbreth and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey
What if you grew up in family of twelve children?
The authors of Cheaper by the Dozen draw from the memories of their childhood days in a big family.
Laugh out loud funny, winsome characters, appealing for all ages beginning around age 8.
The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
“Nine-year-old Ada has never left her one-room apartment. Her mother is too humiliated by Ada’s twisted foot to let her outside. So when her little brother Jamie is shipped out of London to escape the war, Ada doesn’t waste a minute—she sneaks out to join him.
So begins a new adventure of Ada, and for Susan Smith, the woman who is forced to take the two kids in. As Ada teaches herself to ride a pony, learns to read, and watches for German spies, she begins to trust Susan—and Susan begins to love Ada and Jamie. But in the end, will their bond be enough to hold them together through wartime? Or will Ada and her brother fall back into the cruel hands of their mother?” — from GoodReads
Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt
“In this companion novel to The Wednesday Wars, Doug struggles to be more than the “skinny thug” that some people think him to be. He finds an unlikely ally in Lil Spicer, who gives him the strength to endure an abusive father, the suspicions of a town, and the return of his oldest brother, forever scarred, from Vietnam. Schmidt expertly weaves multiple themes of loss and recovery in a story teeming with distinctive, unusual characters and invaluable lessons about love, creativity, and survival.”– from Amazon
Excellent book. LOVED it.
Deals with so many important themes.
Abusive parent. War veterans. Learning disabilities. Young love. Poverty. Predjudice.
The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall
5 Stars! I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this whimsical story. (That’s a lotta love.) I’m thinking about reading it to the teens in my carpool, since I don’t have any little kids to read it too. I’ll be giving it to my nieces and nephews, too, when I get the chance.
Four motherless girls on vacation with their father. Their romps with pets, neighbors and each other: a simple, but satisfying plot.
I loved the uplifting, engaging characters. Real heroes. Great values. Whimsical.
The Princess Academy by Shannon Hale
What if you lived in a small kingdom where the prince chooses his bride from the graduates of the Princess Academy?
What if you had the chance for an education that would never be possible otherwise?
I loved this middle grade novel for telling a tale of what could be, the power of knowledge, friendships and courage.
One of my favorite parts of Princess Academy was how they snuck in principles of Commerce and Negotiation. It was fun how that played out.
The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
“Fantastic creatures, heroic deeds, epic battles in the war between good and evil, and unforgettable adventures come together in this world where magic meets reality, which has been enchanting readers of all ages for over sixty years. The Chronicles of Narnia has transcended the fantasy genre to become a part of the canon of classic literature.”– from GoodReads
In my opinion, it doesn’t get any better than Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia for middle grade.
But, not only middle grade. Narnia appeals to every age.
Lewis tells compelling stories with an amazing economy of words. He weaves timeless truths into tales that highlight the classic conflict between good and evil.
I can’t recommend them highly enough.
Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink
Caddie Woodlawn is perhaps an under appreciated classic. My husband has fond memories of hearing this read aloud by his teacher in elementary school. He remembered the story, but forgot the title of the book. Stumbling across it decades later like reuniting with an old friend.
Caddie is the spunky spirited heroine growing up during the Little House on the Prairie era.
The Boys in the Boat, Young Readers edition, by Daniel James Brown
The background story of the Olympic rowing team of 1936.
A huge takeaway for me from this book was the critical element of trust in teamwork.
In addition to the practical principles of building a winning team, the pathos of a couple of the boys on the team pulled the heart strings.
I originally checked out the print version of Boys in the Boat from the library to read to my 16-year-old. When that had to go back, I checked out the e-version. When that was returned, there were no more available copies of the book. So, I checked out the young readers edition. I liked it even better than the original.
All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot
My mother read to us scads of books while I was growing up, but my favorite memory of reading James Herriot was when my Dad read this to me and my brother on a trip. We would have been about 7th and 9th grades and we laughed so hard we could hardly breathe.
The tales of a country vet working in the English countryside set the scene for some fascinating and humorous stories.
For more book recommendations for reading with (or without) kids read Best Family Read Alouds and Where to Start
What benefits do Classics have?
Some books speak to us in different ways during different seasons. Depending on current life stage and circumstances, a classic can meet us in a different way. These books are generally not breezy reads.
I find when I’m stressed it’s harder to focus on what I’m reading, but these classics are usually compelling enough to stick with regardless of my mental state.
Since they’re not the hot books just off the press, there’s no waiting list at the library. Since they’ve stood the test of time, they have the credibility that brand new books don’t. They also carry with them the benefit of not bending to the winds of trendiness.
It doesn’t matter if it’s first read or a favorite reread. They are just as good the second or tenth time.
Pride and Predjudice by Jane Austen
It’s hard not to like Lizzie Bennet. She speaks her mind, she’s unfazed by social regulations, she’s fiercely loyal. And no one can articulate matters of the heart like Jane Austen.
Five girls growing up in one household is certainly a recipe for matchmaking dilemmas.
Certainly other Austen titles have won hearts, but Pride and Prejudice often is recognized as standing above the rest.
Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
Anne is a herione universally loved by girls and remembered fondly by women. Of course, so much of the charm is Anne herself, spunky, competitive, fiercely loyal, throughly human.
But some of it is the wistfulness of small town community where the gossips whisper and pass judgment and the sons and daughters marry their neighbors and hearts are broken never to see healing through the decades.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
A classic for a reason, generations have grown up with the escapades of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. Patterned after the author’s own home life, the stories of the four sisters ring true. Each sister is endearing in their own way.
The book contains not so much a plot as a journey as each one reaches to fulfill their destiny.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
I made it 49 years without reading To Kill a Mockingbird. I’m glad I didn’t wait any longer.
Scout and her brother have a front row seat to watch their attorney father stand for his principles against prejudice in the South.
So glad I finally made time for this classic.
I’m not sure if I’ll tackle the sequel or not, since reviews were mixed and many negative.
Christy by Catherine Marshall
The setting is rural, but can hardly be called small town. Set in the mountains of Kentucky, Christy is the school teacher to children who don’t always wear shoes, who don’t always have the means to pack a lunch.
Confronted with a culture so different from the one she grew up in, Christy is forced to examine her own beliefs about life. She also discovers deciding who to love can be difficult.
Classic for a reason, Christy will draw you in to the pathos and the drama of the human condition.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
“The story of young, sensitive, and idealistic Francie Nolan and her bittersweet formative years in the slums of Williamsburg has enchanted and inspired millions of readers for more than sixty years. By turns overwhelming, sublime, heartbreaking, and uplifting, the daily experiences of the unforgettable Nolans are raw with honesty and tenderly threaded with family connectedness — in a work of literary art that brilliantly captures a unique time and place as well as incredibly rich moments of universal experience. “–Goodreads
Rightly labeled a literary work of art. Francie Nolan develops the grit and humanity she needs to survive her tumultuous life.
The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery
Valancy Stirling, age 29, lives with her mother and aunt. She’s stifled by the expectations of her relatives and her coping method is to build a dream castle in her imagination.
One day she receives unexpected news that radically changes her outlook. With new freedom, she throws off convention to begin living her own life.
Throughly relatable to anyone who’s ever daydreamed and wished they could walk away from stifling convention.
Freckles by Gene Stratton-Porter
Another of my top picks from Gene Straton Porter is the story of Freckles, a handicapped boy who found his purpose and meaning living close to the earth.
Butterflies, birds, trees and plants. These are all Gene Straton Porter’s domain and she is a master at making them as much a part of the story as the humans and animals themselves. Clearly a student of human nature as well as a naturalist, she is able to capture the emotions and relationships in clear detail that is a joy to read.
Read the free ebook version at Project Gutenberg, Freckles by Gene Stratton-Porter
The Virginian by Owen Wister
Owen Wister has been credited with starting the genre of the Western, with his story of the unnamed cowboy, the Virginian.
Wister explores the justice of the newly settle West, the relationships, the quest for man to build their own kingdoms and fence them. The country was captivated by the tales of the people who lived untamed lives on untamed land.
The Chosen by Chaim Potok
Chaim Potok brilliantly captures the internal struggles of two boys growing up in Jewish homes in New York City beginning in the 40s.
There’s clashes with their fathers, wrestling with what they believe about faith, community, family and their own future. Potak so vividly paints the world he grew up in, it feels like you were dropped onto the sizzling New York City asphalt yourself.
It contains less a plot and more a journey.
Modern Literary Fiction
There may be some debate as to what qualifies as literary fiction. For me, a book that excels in character with slow moving or virtually non-existent plot fits the bill. Beautiful writing is a bonus.
These books will become classics, but until then, we occupy the same planet with the authors.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
What if you were nobility in Russia in the twenties who is under house arrest at a posh hotel stripped of titles and wealth? Could you still build a life for yourself? Make the human connections and community that everyone needs to survive?
Be prepared for a slow moving plot and brief scenes that aren’t morally commendable.
Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry
Hannah Coulter takes the panoramic view of a person’s life, the progression of a lifetime.
Sometimes when we sit down to a novel, we are looking for perspective, to find meaning for the daily grind. We need to see that what we do day after day matters. Hannah Coulter gives us a clue. For many women, all those meals cooked, all the time serving and caring others adds up to a lifetime of meaning.
Then there’s the small town, rural community. I think our deep longing for community resonates with what happens in small, rural towns where people know each other and care for each other, where lives intertwine in romance, conflict, partnership, friendship and commerce. And no man lives as an island, no matter how solitary they choose to live their lives.
Finally, there’s the strong female protagonist in Hannah Coulter. You might not realize she’s strong. Not at first. She’s the type of woman that is the glue of a community. Keeping her family together. Working the long hours to grow, process and prepare the food that keeps the whole engine running. She tends to the sick, stands by her man and brings up her children. She’s the backbone, the unsung hero. Being unassuming makes it hard to recognize her as strong.
Check out more books like Hannah Coulter.
Peace Like a River by Lief Enger
Told through the eyes of an eleven year old boy, the novel is not about a span of time, it mostly just covers one year.
Rueben is the eleven year old, Swede, his younger sister, and Davy their older brother. They live with their father out west, growing up in a modest life.
Circumstances dictate a search for answers to a reality that doesn’t add up.
This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger
“The unforgettable story of four orphans who travel the Mississippi River on a life-changing odyssey during the Great Depression.”—from Amazon
The story is told through Odie O’Banion’s adolescent eyes.
It’s his quest for home, family and the meaning of life. Along for the ride are his brother Albert and his friends Mose and Emmy.
The human experience is more complicated than most novelists are able to express. There’s the complexity of human nature and relationships, the complexity of our belief system and how our experience influences our beliefs. I feel like This Tender Land wrestled with that complexity and won.
It doesn’t downplay the true depravity of man. It has lots of plot twists.
The novelist deals with the most delicate of subjects in an inoffensive way.
There was one element of the book I didn’t care for, but it wasn’t enough to ruin it for me.
It reminded me of Peace Like a River. I’ll want to read it again and again.
Gilead by Marilyn Robinson
Gilead is the story of a pastor who married late in life and has a seven year old that he won’t see grow up. The novel is a series of letters to his son.
He tells of his life, his friends and neighbors, meeting and marrying his mother.
The action is slow moving, and, yet, it’s not necessarily character driven, either. Just a reflective account of life and faith in small town Iowa.
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
I can’t remember the last time a novel made me cry. This one did.
Ove is near the end of his life, but this novel takes us back to his family, his first love and his losses. It is a bittersweet exploration of what really matters in relationships and what gets in the way.
Love, friendship, community and social awkwardness. It’s the recipe for a great novel.
It demonstrates in brilliant colors that no man is an island.
Jewel by Bret Lott
“It is 1943 in the backwoods of Mississippi. In the land of honeysuckle and wild grapevine, Jewel Hilburn and her husband Leston – whose love for his wife is the surest comfort she’s ever known – are truly blessed. They have five fine children who embrace the world as though it were a sumptuous table set for a feast; and when Brenda Kay is born, Jewel gives thanks for yet another healthy baby, last-born and most welcome.
JEWEL is the story of how quickly a life can change; how, like lightning, an unforseen event can illuminate our lives and set us on a course without reason or compass.”– Goodreads
Jewel fights the odds of prejudice and ignorance with a mother’s fierce love.
“Bret Lott has created one of the finest and most indomitable heroines of contemporary American fiction.”
Beautifully crafted. A pleasure to read.
Recently Published Fiction
Published within the last twenty years, these some of my top picks for compelling stories.
These is My Words by Nancy E. Turner
“A moving, exciting, and heartfelt American saga inspired by the author’s own family memoirs, these words belong to Sarah Prine, a woman of spirit and fire who forges a full and remarkable existence in a harsh, unfamiliar frontier. Scrupulously recording her steps down the path Providence has set her upon–from child to determined young adult to loving mother–she shares the turbulent events, both joyous and tragic, that molded her and recalls the enduring love with cavalry officer Captain Jack Elliot that gave her strength and purpose.
Rich in authentic everyday details and alive with truly unforgettable characters, These Is My Words brilliantly brings a vanished world to breathtaking life again.”–Goodreads
The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey
Based of the life of the first female lawyer in Bombay.
Not only does this fictional account weave a riveting tale, it highlights the culture and customs of 1920’s India.
Limited educational opportunities, arranged marriages, gender segregation and inequalities. These were real obstacles.
Navigating that world and winning is a real feat.
The Tehran Initiative by Joel Rosenberg
I had never read a Rosenberg book before and it surprised me by drawing me in.
I don’t read very many people who know that much about what’s going on in the middle east. I found it fascinating. I felt like he did a good job of keeping the plot unpredictable.
I liked the characters, too and found myself rooting for them. And, always, the critical element of every page turner, what’s going to happen next?
It’s part of 3 book series.
Dear Mr. Knightly by Katherine Reay
Five stars for Dear Mr. Knightly! I struggle to find wholesome, well-written fiction. This one’s a winner. I’m a huge fan of Webster’s Daddy Long Legs, and this modern re-telling knocked it out of the park. I like it better than the original. The Austen references were fun, but the story itself was poignant.
Even though it’s technically Inspirational fiction, the Christian message was subtle, not overwhelming. Kudos to Reay for a wholesome, engaging work.
When Crickets Cry by Charles Martin
Reese first meets little Annie Stephens at her lemonade stand. It doesn’t take long to see that she’s fighting serious health issues while fiercely holding to a dream of a long and healthy life. She’s lost her parents and lives with her aunt.
Reese is hiding from his past life in the medical profession.
The plot could be considered predictable, but the journey to get there is so enjoyable. Charles Martin has the magic touch to draw you in and practically force you to fall in love with his characters.
The work of a sleuth is different in the days before cell phones and fingerprints. An ability to understand human nature and get to the truth are the skills that are needed.
Independent and likable, Maise Dobbs is a heroine to cheer for and skillful plotting of the story keeps you turning pages.