Trips-in-a-Book: Junie's Favourite Beach Reads

Packing the right reading material is an important part of any vacation, be it to some tropical beach, the family cottage, or your own backyard lawn chair. Below are my picks for summer holiday reading. If you are like me, sometimes you are looking for a beach read of substance that is also a good time and maybe gives you a few laughs (i.e., light on the tragedy, heavier on the adventure that is life -- no tears on the beach). With one exception, all of the novels on this list were selected on this criteria. The exception is Restless by William Boyd, a spy thriller which won’t make you laugh, but is an exhilarating, gripping tale set in WWII in which the heroine experiences both the joys and sorrows of human life. There is one non-fiction title on this list: West with the Night by Beryl Markham. A classic memoir full of adventure telling the tale of a life lived to the fullest.  Most of these titles were published before the advent of electronic readers, but they are now all available as digital books.

I discovered each of these books serendipitously, as you do – on a friend’s bookshelf, surfing the web, at a used book sale, on a heaped table in a book store, listening to a books podcast, or after reading another book by the same author. It’s my go-to good-times list, and I have given these books as gifts many times. Each of them is a totally engrossing trip-in-a-book. The kind where you come to after reading the last page and feel like you've been somewhere fascinating, met people you will never forget, and are a bit breathless from the wild ride. Bon voyage!

 Tales From Margaritaville by Jimmy Buffett (1989). And he can write great fiction, too! A gentle, humourous collection of short stories that have the same sunny, easy-going tone which imbues Mr. Buffett’s music. The stories comprise a road trip of sorts, from Wyoming to the coast of Florida and around the Caribbean. Along the way, we visit small coastal towns and meet a collection of colourful characters who populate Margaritaville, which is, of course, a state of mind.

Cooking With Fernet Branca by James Hamilton-Paterson (2004). Laugh out loud funny. Gerald Samper is a misanthropic ghost-writer of celebrity autobiographies ensconced in a sunny hilltop villa in Italy. His solitude is disrupted when an Eastern European composer named Marta moves in next door. Throw in Gerald’s current rock star client, some mysterious nighttime visitors, and copious amounts of the local tipple, and let the fun begin.

Cowboys are my Weakness by Pam Houston (1980). A collection of short stories about strong, capable women who get tangled up with a series of cowboys and sailors, Mr. Rights and Mr. Wrongs. Not exactly happily-ever-after romances, but there’s some white water rafting and other outdoor adventures involved to keep the adrenaline surging.

This Book Will Save Your Life by A.M. Homes (2007). A funny, witty and uplifting tale of redemption set in sometimes jaded Los Angeles. Richard is a wealthy workaholic recluse who abruptly changes his M.O. after a near death experience. He involves himself in the lives of strangers, saying yes where once he would have said no. This leads him to a whole new world. Part of the pleasure of this book is the sharp, original dialogue. The characters rarely say what you might expect them to say, which takes the action into new territory. They are, at the same time, absolutely believable and recognizable citizens of the 21st century. 

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? By Maria Semple (2012). The action goes from Seattle to Antarctica. Bernadette is a somewhat unfulfilled wife and mother living in Seattle. She is increasing contemptuous of the local yummy mummies, and so fed up with the daily grind that she hires a virtual P.A. based in India to handle details like booking dental appointments and shopping. Then one day Bernadette disappears. The story is told mainly from the viewpoint of her beloved teenage daughter Bee, who sets out to find her. 

Restless by William Boyd (2007). An engrossing WWII spy thriller, with a strong female protagonist. The action trips across wartime Europe. Extraordinary demands are made of an ordinary woman, who rises to the challenge.  The action is relentless, the dramatic tension high, and the stakes are life and death.

West With the Night by Beryl Markham (1942). Beryl Markham grew up in Kenya, where she was a bush pilot in the 1930s. An unconventional life for a woman of her generation, and one filled with adventure. This beautifully written book presents a romantic portrait of colonial East Africa and a life lived to its fullest. Of it, Ernest Hemmingway wrote to his editor, Max Perkins, “She has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer . . . [She] can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers . . . It is really a bloody wonderful book.”