A quick review and a word of gratitude
Recently in this space I reviewed “The Broken Spine” by Dorothy St. James, a murder mystery set in a small town in South Carolina. At one point, I described the novel as “a perfect book for an escape from the trials of the day or for that trip to the beach.”
This past week, I read John Gilstrap’s thriller “Lethal Game” (Pinnacle Books, 2022, 400 pages), the latest in Gilstrap’s Jonathan Grave series. The appropriately named Grave is a hostage rescue expert who along with a team of mostly military veterans specializes in dangerous situations and rescuing people snatched by the bad guys for a variety of reasons.
In this current installment, Grave and Boxers, his good friend and a member of the team, are attacked for unknown reasons while on a hunting trip in Montana. While they’re fighting for their lives, their compatriots, the Security Solutions force back in Virginia, also find themselves mysteriously under assault. A vendetta is clearly underway, and Grave, Boxers, Gail Bonneville, and Venice Alexander, the group’s computer whiz, must figure out who these killers are and why they are aiming their gunsights at Security Solutions.
“Lethal Game” is a fast-paced, action-packed tale, which includes reflections on the meaning of family, friendship, and loyalty.
On the back cover of the book are several blurbs of praise, one of which reads “A sizzling beach read for military action fans … the perfect summer read for thriller fans.”
That mini-review gave me pause. Having recently described “The Broken Spine” as a great book for the beach, I wondered about the meaning of that designation and whether it was somehow a bit of an insult to the author.
In other words, what do we mean by “a beach read?”
If you’ve ever rented a house or condo on the coast, you probably found at least one shelf of books in a living room or den intended for the reading pleasure of guests. Most of these books are paperbacks, some of the pages may be corrugated by exposure to saltwater or dotted with drops of suntan oil, and nearly all of them fit the categories of genre fiction, with romance, mystery and thriller, and horror stories among the most popular.
Using these items as evidence, a “beach read,” then, is like the beach vacation itself. We seek a break away from work and the headaches and trials of daily life, and so head out to where the magic of sand, water, and sunshine will grant us peace, rest, and recovery. Throw in some shrimp and crab cakes, a evening glass or two of wine on the screened porch, and the cure is almost guaranteed.
And so it is with beach books. These mass-market paperbacks are built to take punishment: grains of sand, dog-eared pages, the drool from the baby you’re holding as you read, coffee spills, the damage done when you jam the book into a carry-all bag containing juice boxes, buckets, and sand shovels for the kids.
And like our vacation, these books offer an escape. We’re in a place where our biggest concerns are getting too much sun or figuring out how to work the remote for the enormous television screen on the wall. We want adventure and romance, a story whose plotline doesn’t require more than a minimum of concentration and characters we recognize as good and evil.
Doubtless there are people who tote William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury” off to the shore, or Soren Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling,” or Hannah Arendt’s “The Origins of Totalitarianism.” As the French might say, à chacun son gout, which means to each his own, but which I’d translate in this instance as “More power to these folks.” If you can handle Faulkner’s crazy Compson family at mid-afternoon on a beach towel at Emerald Isle, I’m impressed.
But not so impressed as to follow suit. No, when I pack for the beach — and far too much time has passed since I last hugged the sand — I always load up a small box with books. A popular history, a biography or two, a shoot-em-up, even a Nicholas Sparks novel: those provide plenty of fun for this beach bum. The closest I come to high-brow might be an old Raymond Chandler Marlowe detective story or an Anne Tyler tale of Baltimore. Like so many other vacationers, I want to relax body and soul.
To all you writers whose work is described as a “beach read” and to all you readers who enjoy those stories, know this: both you tellers of these tales and you who listen are part of a tradition as old as humankind itself. Like your long-ago ancestors who sat by their fires and entertained one another with stories, you the teller and you the receiver are doing precisely the same.
So, here’s a lifted glass of praise and appreciation to Dorothy St. James, John Gilstrap, and the hundreds of other writers who entertain us, who take us away from ourselves for a while, whether we’re at the beach or lounging on the sofa in the den of our home, and who may even inspire us to aim a little higher in our own aspirations as we read of the struggles of the men, women, and children in their books.
Thank you, all you writers of beach books.