9 beach reads for your 2021 summer vaxcation

The best summer books for every type of reader

A beach book.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

After staring at the walls of your home for the past 14 months, you're probably ready for a little change of scenery. And so is everyone else; summer "vaxcation" travel is already picking up as every weekend seems to set a new record for pandemic-era travel. Excited though you might be to get to the pool, don't forget to put a good book in your bag for the flight. Here are the best 2021 beach reads, for every type of reader.

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If you're looking for … a sexy, satisfying romance

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Seven Days in June, by Tia Williams

Opening line: "In the year of our Lord 2019, thirty-two-year-old Eva Mercy nearly choked to death on a piece of gum."

Eva Mercy and Shane Hall spent a week explosively in love when they were teenagers. Twenty years later, Eva now writes a bestselling erotica series and is busy raising her 12-year-old daughter, while Shane is a reclusive and respected literary author. The two unexpectedly find themselves with the opportunity to try their relationship out again after running into each other at a Brooklyn panel, but their past traumas threaten their second-chance romance. Williams' writing is zippy and fun to read, but her characters are also complicated individuals, making their love feel authentic. Kirkus called the book "hugely satisfying" as a romance as a result, and it's sexy to boot.

If you're looking for … something that celebrates the year of The Great Gatsby

The Chosen and the Beautiful, by Nghi Vo

Opening line: "The wind came into the house from the Sound, and it blew Daisy and me around her East Egg mansion like puffs of dandelion seeds, like foam, like a pair of young women in white dresses who had no cares to weigh them down."

Have you heard? This is the year of The Great Gatsby. F. Scott Fitzgerald's quintessential portrait of the Jazz Age has captivated readers and writers alike for nearly a century, and the text entered the public domain earlier this year. As a result, we have new works like The Chosen and the Beautiful, which retells the story from the view of Jordan Baker — who, readers of the original will recall, is Daisy's longtime friend who becomes involved with Nick Carraway, The Great Gatsby's narrator. Here, though, author Nghi Vo recasts Jordan as a queer, Vietnamese adoptee who also has the power to cast magic through paper. As a result, The Chosen and the Beautiful is the perfect reinvention of the classic summer reading list standby.

If you're looking for … a small-town murder mystery that's perfect for book club

What Comes After, by JoAnne Tompkins

Opening line: "First, a few facts. A few weeks into his senior year, my son failed to come home after football practice."

The small Washington state town of Port Furlong has been torn apart by an unthinkable tragedy: teenager Daniel Balch is murdered by his childhood best friend, Jonah Geiger, who kills himself eight days later after leaving a confession. Now Isaac, Daniel's father, grieves the death of his son while just next door, Lorrie struggles to make sense of her son Jonah's actions. And then Evangeline, a 16-year-old pregnant girl, shows up in their lives, complicating the mystery of the boys' deaths and her involvement with them. The New York Times recommends What Comes After for book club in particular, describing it as "like a Choose Your Own Adventure book for adults."

If you're looking for … the book everyone's going to have in their carry-on

Malibu Rising, by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Opening line: "Malibu catches fire. It is simply what Malibu does from time to time."

Taylor Jenkins Reid follows up her 2019 hit about the 1970s L.A. rock scene, Daisy Jones & and the Six, with this new novel focused on one night in Malibu in 1983. The Riva siblings are the famous children of the legendary singer Mick Riva, and are gathering at Nina's house for their annual end-of-summer party. "By morning, the Riva mansion will have gone up in flame," the book's publisher writes. "But before that first spark in the early hours before dawn, the alcohol will flow, the music will play, and the loves and secrets that shaped this family's generations will all come rising to the surface." Malibu Rising already seems to be the most buzzed-about book of the summer despite not being out yet; look for it in your airport's Hudson News starting June 1.

If you're looking for … a rom-com that takes the 'beach read' part literally

The Layover, by Lacie Waldon

Opening line: "I don't know what city I'm in."

Ava Greene is ready to quit flying. She's been a flight attendant for a decade, but her fiancé, Alexander, "has always been clear about the fact that he didn't want his future partner to travel for a living, just like I've told him from the beginning I'm ready to move on from flying." Ava has just one more trip before she's through — only to end up on her 24-hour Belize layover with her enemy, the handsome, flirtatious former pilot Jack Stone. While they say you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, The Layover is what's promised: a fun, bright, and colorful tropical romance by a real flight attendant that will pair perfectly with a glass of chilled rosé.

If you're looking for … an escapist fantasy to sweep you into a whole new world

A Master of Djinn, by P. Djèlí Clark

Opening line: "Archibald James Portendorf disliked stairs."

Regular readers of fantasy and science-fiction have been buzzing about P. Djèlí Clark for years now, and in particular his 2019 novella, "The Haunting of Tram Car 015," a police procedural set in an alternative Cairo in 1912, and focusing on agents who work for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities doing investigations into magical abuses. A Master of Djinn, which came out this spring, is Clark's first full-length novel and takes place in the same alternative Cairo, but centers on Fatma el-Sha'arawi, the youngest woman at the ministry, as she investigates the murders targeting members of a secret brotherhood. The novel earned a starred review from Publishers Weekly, which calls it reliably "sure to wow," so you can lighten your bag of any plan B's.

If you're looking for … something to read on the way to that twice-postponed, out-of-state wedding

Mergers and Acquisitions: Or, Everything I Know About Love I Learned on the Wedding Pages, by Cate Doty

Opening line: "The manila folder slapped down on my desk with a flick of a large, hairy wrist, snapping me out of my daydream."

Shortly after graduating college, Cate Doty finds herself writing wedding announcements for The New York Times. I went to journalism school for this? she marvels in the opening anecdote, about her disastrous attempt to fact-check the relationship of a Pretty-Well-Known A******. But being so close to stories about other people's happily-ever-afters all the time (as well as skeptical of the process that determines whose wedding announcements make the cut), Doty can't help but want to ride off into the sunset with someone, too. This charming memoir has just the right balance of society gossip and personal confession, making it absolutely perfect for poolside binging at a Bachelorette party, or on the flight to your first post-COVID wedding.

If you're looking for … this year's Stephen King

Billy Summers, by Stephen King

Opening line: "Billy Summers sits in the hotel lobby, waiting for his ride."

Summers are for reading Stephen King, and the prolific author's latest book seems to truly confirm it. Billy Summers is the aptly-named protagonist at the center of King's latest crime novel, a hit man who will "do the job only if the target is a truly bad guy" — and he's been assured, this next target is "a very bad person." So bad, in fact, that someone's willing to pay an exorbitant $2 million to have him dead. Now all Summers has to do is this one last job, and he can retire — but those are famous last words, of course. King's publisher calls Billy Summers "part war story, part love letter to small town America and the people who live there," and says "it features one of the most compelling and surprising duos in King fiction, who set out to avenge the crimes of an extraordinarily evil man." It's out Aug. 3, and will be going straight on my to-read pile.

If you're looking for … something to satisfy your inner wolf girl

For the Wolf, by Hannah Whitten

Opening line: "Two nights before she was sent to the Wolf, Red wore a dress the color of blood."

Wolf girls — not to be confused with the more familiar, preppy archetype of horse girls — are "the deeply weird girls whose stare makes others uncomfortable, the girls painting their nails and their purple Jansport backpacks with whiteout," Kristen Hanley Cardozo writes for Electric Literature. Wolf girls, though, definitely do not enjoy summer, and want pretty much the opposite of a beach read. And they're in luck; there are a number of wolf girl-esque books out this June, including Ava Reid's The Wolf and the Woodsman, on the June 8. A week earlier, you can also pick up For the Wolf, which focuses on Red, the only second daughter to be born in a century and thus the designated sacrifice to the Wolf in the Woods — who, like the monster in Beauty and the Beast, is actually a man. Kirkus Reviews gave For the Wolf a starred review, calling it "an un-put-down-able fairy tale that traces the boundaries of duty, love, and loss."

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Jeva Lange

Jeva Lange was the executive editor at TheWeek.com. She formerly served as The Week's deputy editor and culture critic. She is also a contributor to Screen Slate, and her writing has appeared in The New York Daily News, The Awl, Vice, and Gothamist, among other publications. Jeva lives in New York City. Follow her on Twitter.