Eight Books to Take on Your Summer Holiday

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Mar del Plata, Argentina, 2014© Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

The best beach books to read this summer – from Jia Tolentino’s first collection of essays Trick Mirror, to Ocean Vuong’s long-awaited fiction debut On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

Along with the usual summer holiday health hazards – sunburn, bug bites – there’s another danger to avoid on your next getaway. Picture this: you’ve found yourself on a beach in the sunshine, with nothing to read. Your grand plans for a week away from social media crumble; you’re left with nothing but Twitter and TikTok for entertainment. Your soul starts to feel dehydrated. Your data eventually runs out. 

This horrible fate could have easily been avoided with a little forethought and a trip to your local independent bookshop before jetting off. But don’t leave it until the poorly-stocked WH Smith in departures. Arm yourself with a list of books to seek out, and you’ll soon find yourself happily under a beach umbrella, a paperback in one hand and a Campari soda in the other. The pinnacle of summer holiday good health.

1. Sweet Home, by Wendy Erskine

There’s something about short stories which makes them perfectly suited to beach reading. Dip in, doze off behind your sunglasses, wake up as the waves crash gently before you, and have another dip. Anything served in bitesize chunks has a tendency to be moreish, including Wendy Erskine’s short stories in Sweet Home – careful glimpses into the lives of ordinary residents of east Belfast. Big themes of pain, joy, tenderness and cruelty all orbit in small paths: in one, a café manager covers for his employees as they have sex in the workplace and in another, a deeply unhappy gangster extorts local businesses. Erskine writes with precision, sensitivity and a bone-dry humour that you’ll find it hard not to seek solace in.

2. Inheritance, by Dani Shapiro

A chance interaction with an online DNA test led to a shock for Shapiro, who learned in an instant that her father was not, in fact, her biological father. What follows is an ardent quest for the truth – with both parents now dead, she must hunt for her own reality in new ways. The book moves like a thriller, but it also reads as a meditation on the role that both secrets and the truth can play in our lives.

3. Exhalation, by Ted Chiang

You might know this author’s work: Ted Chiang’s short story Story of Your Life was adapted into the 2016 Oscar-winning film Arrival. Exhalation is his second collection of stories, and will appeal to more than just fans of science fiction. Successful genre fiction can easily transcend the limits of category, and the dizzying stories in Exhalation create questions on what it means to be a human and why we live the way we do. Published July 11, 2019.

4. Trick Mirror, by Jia Tolentino

One of the smartest writers of her generation, you’ll know Jia Tolentino from her essays on Juuling, Ovid and ecstasy for the New Yorker. Trick Mirror is her first collection of essays, and each one zeroes in on some facet of contemporary culture as it ripples and ruptures beneath our feet. Reality TV, the wedding-industrial complex, the era of the millennial scammer: Tolentino uses her own lived experience, on and offline, to bring devastating clarity to our gruesome modern condition. Published 8 Aug 2019.

5. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, by Ocean Vuong

The long-awaited fiction debut from the incredible poet, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous has been touted by some as the great American novel. The story’s narrator shares biographical similarities with the writer, and navigating a world of pain, the novel takes the form of a long letter written to his mother, a first-generation Vietnamese immigrant. Vuong is an unbelievable talent and I’d read anything he wrote.

6. The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead

Anyone who read and loved the 2016 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Underground Railroad will be awaiting Colson Whitehead’s follow-up. Don’t expect an easy ride, though – much like The Underground Railroad, The Nickel Boys fictionalises another dark chapter of modern American history. Two young African-American boys in the Jim Crow-era South are sentenced to a spell at a brutal reform school, where cruelty and abuse reign, with consequences that linger long after the fact. Published 16 July 2019.

7. Vivian, by Christina Hesselholdt

The best fiction lets us look, for a time, through the eyes of another, and Vivian does exactly that. Tracing the biography of the enigmatic outsider photographer Vivian Maier, the fragmented novel mimics an oral history that puts the protagonist at its very centre. By turns hilarious and heart-rending, this is an unusual portrait of a female eccentric that doubles as a gripping page-turner.

8. Sleepless Nights, by Elizabeth Hardwick

At the best of times, life can feel fragmented and plotless. And yet reading novels, you’d think we all flitted from neat little episode to neat little episode. Praise, then, the gloriously plotless novel, represented best by Sleepless Nights. The essential book, first published in 1979, traces the days of a female writer at a distance from her audience. But it moves like a ballet more than a novel, delicate and yet dazzling, and never afraid of pinning down the inscrutability of life. Now it’s being republished by Faber, with an introduction by Eimear McBride. Read it to learn why the likes of Sally Rooney and Deborah Levy are such Hardwick fans – and prepare to join their ranks. Published July 2019.

Martin Parr: Beach Therapy is out now, published by Damiani.