Sex, spies and Sookie Stackhouse: that's what makes our first summer reading list go 'round. Brace yourself; there's not a Stieg Larsson novel in sight.
This month, in honor of summer vacation, we attempt the daunting task of narrowing down books for the beach. Beach reading is the most democratic of all categories; it spans genres from naughty romances to pant-soiling thrillers.
Whether you're whiling away the day on the sand or in a lounge chair at the apartment pool, there's an endless supply of summer reads to have in the beach bag.
Most of these books have been released in the past six months, and while some are guilty pleasures, others tickle the brain. Check out our picks after the jump.
The Fifth Witness by Michael Connelly (April 2011) The author of The Lincoln Lawyer has pumped out a fourth novel featuring Mickey Haller, the L.A. attorney who does business out of a Lincoln Town Car. How baller is that? Connelly, a master of legal thrillers à la John Grisham, assigns Haller a client fighting foreclosure. Then a mortgage banker gets whacked, a scenario that's probably crossed a few minds in the past couple of years. Despite the financial plot, this one won't lull you to sleep.
The Paris Wife: A Novel by Paula McClain (February 2011) No woman wants to be remembered by historians as a "starter wife," but that unfortunate fate befell Hadley Richardson, Ernest Hemingway's first spouse. The pair lived as poor expatriates in 1920s Paris as Hemingway laid the foundation of his career. McClain's narrative, told mostly from Hadley's perspective, is woven around material from biographies, letters and Hemingway's novels. The New York Times dubbed the book "literary tourism," as historical novels often are, but it's a quick, entertaining read.
Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend by James S. Hirsch (New in paperback March 2011) Recently released in paperback (a smart choice for sandy destinations), this authorized biography of Willie Mays is a must for sports fanatics. Mays, one of the greatest players to pick up a glove and bat, is a paragon of baseball's golden age. At 640 pages, Hirsch's lengthy account is well suited for a long plane ride.
My Reading Life by Pat Conroy (November 2010) No American writer is as closely identified with "beach reading" as Pat Conroy. The Southern author produced such beloved tomes as The Great Santini, Prince of Tides and Beach Music. In My Reading Life, Conroy reveals he's as prolific a reader as writer. His book lust began in childhood. "I grew up a word-haunted boy," he writes, "I felt words inside me and stored them as wondrous pearls. I mouthed them and fingered them and rolled them around my tongue." Fittingly, Conroy names Gone With the Wind as a favorite book. This one is recommended for hard-core book lovers.
Dead Reckoning by Charlaine Harris (May 2011) Season Four of HBO's soft-core spectacle True Blood, based on Charlaine Harris' Sookie Stackhouse books, begins June 26. Ahead of the new season, Harris released Dead Reckoning, the eleventh novel in the series. Fangbangers who need a Sookie fix, like right now, can read the first chapter on Harris' website. (A teaser: "The attic had been kept locked until the day after my grandmother died.") Newbies should start with the first in the series, Dead Until Dark. Harris writes the books as stand-alones, but who wants to start at the end?
Spies of the Balkans: A Novel by Alan Furst (New in paperback June 2011) Furst consistently delivers excellently researched historical spy novels. Spies of the Balkans came out last year, but will be released in paperback on June 14. WWII is inching closer to Greece in 1940 when Costa Zannis, a high-ranking police official, establishes an underground railroad for Jews escaping Europe. And, like any good spy, he becomes involved with a beautiful and mysterious woman. Though Furst's novels tend to follow the same formula, Dark Star (2002), about a Polish journalist entangled in deadly spy games, is another worthy read.
Honorable mention: U.S. Navy Pirate Combat Skills by the Department of the Navy (April 2011) This "Navy" field manual ain't the real thing. The stodgy U.S. military wouldn't dare slap a jaunty photo of a skull with an eye patch on the cover. The book "distributed to all sailors," (wink, wink) is loosely based on actual field manuals, but with a liberal amount of peg legs and rum. It instructs on "crow's-nest parachute landings," "hand-to-hook" combat and ways to escape from captivity. You could always settle for changing your Facebook language to Pirate. Ahoy, mateys!
This list only skims the surface of good beach books. Leave your suggestions in the comments below. Next month, class is back in session for Science Fiction and Fantasy 101.