You can instantly recognize a good beach book. It’s the one with the grits of sand in the binding, and translucent splotches made by Coppertone fingers turning the pages. The ones you find on the shelves of that musty-smelling summer cottage by the ocean you rented, tattered and swollen by water, books where the pages are dogeared and some of the spines are broken. But they are well read and well loved, and nobody cares if the covers are falling off.

I remember reading Sidney Sheldon’s The Other Side of Midnight sitting at the beach in Nantucket — a big sunburn ensued, since I did not budge. The Winds of War, and Marjorie Morningstar (sneaked from my parents’ bookshelves) — and of course Jaws. The beach is not the place to read Jaws. Or maybe, it is.

It’s very meta to think of beach books that take place at the beach! Stories where the very beachiness is pivotal to the plot and the theme, a book that takes you there, in these times of staying inside. Tales that remind you of the briny winds off the shore, and the squawking of the seagulls, and the smell of beer and sunscreen and lemonade. And vacuuming the sand out of your car. We miss it, but hey, dive into the ones I’ve included here, and all the memories will come back.

Jaws (Ballantine Books) by Peter Benchley

Don’t laugh! The book is just as good as the movie, although it has more stuff in it, but the pacing and the suspense and the structure create a masterclass for suspense writers. And the shark in your imagination is scarier than anything that might be on the screen. Who doesn’t think of this book when they go to the shore?

Sunburn (William Morrow) by Laura Lippman

So twisty, so elegant, such a rewardingly good book by a terrific author. What if you arrived for your week at the beach with your family and decided, Forget about it. I’m done. Could you walk away from your life? Compelling and beautifully told, this book had me wincing as I read it, because as in any great noir, the reader knows things can only go horribly wrong.

On the Beach (Vintage Publishing) by Nevil Shute

I had seen this old favorite book recently, before the COVID-19 pandemic, used in a bookstore, and snapped it right up. It was published in 1957, but I had devoured it in the sixties. It’s haunted me ever since. The last survivors of nuclear war flee to the beaches of Australia, where they hope to be the ones to survive and keep civilization alive. Before Covid, I had planned to re-read this book to see, after all these years, whether it held up. Whether I’d still have “Waltzing Matilda” stuck in my head. Now, I think I’ll wait.

The Summer of 69 (Little, Brown & Company) by Elin Hilderbrand

I will admit to you that in 1969, I was in college and beginning to step not only onto the beaches of the Eastern shore of Maryland, but also into political activism. Listening to “Pinball Wizard” and “Gimme Shelter,” and wondering what was ahead for me. This is Hilderbrand’s first historical, and she took me right back to the moon landing, and civil rights marches, and Chappaquiddick and Vietnam, all through the eyes of a family on Nantucket. No one does beach like Elin.

The Guest List (William Morrow) by Lucy Foley 

A glossy, flossy and competitive group of former classmates, business rivals, collaborators, wannabes, hangers-on and a murderer or two are invited to a super-glamorous wedding at a super-inaccessible island. They pack their scary secrets and finest outfits (except the one who doesn’t) and get ready to party on the rich people’s dimes. You will smell the salt air, and feel the grains of sand spiking your face as the storm winds kick up, and the salt water trickling down the back of your neck and you will envision that person in the water … sinking down, down, down.

The Last Resort (Graydon House) by Marissa Stapley

How does this sound? Dump all your digital devices, all your worries, and all your inhibitions and head to a Gorgeous Island Resort with the one you are hoping to love again. Sign up for a little sunbathing and beach-going and personal re-engagement and spiritual guidance. Ha ha. Just don’t ask any questions. Now: drink this.

Until the Day I Die: A Novel by [Emily Carpenter]

Until the Day I Die (Lake Union Publishing) by Emily Carpenter

How can our poor heroine get over her husband’s sudden death, her needy daughter, her overwhelming business responsibilities? Maybe she should fly off to the Caribbean, to a lovely resort, which may be just what she needs for relaxation and restoration and getting her mojo back. But when you go on vacation, you’re supposed to do whatever you want to, right? 

Stranger on the Beach (St. Martin’s Guest) by Michele Campbell

Oh, the perfect beach house! And the perfect place to show off a perfect family. But when the husband starts to lie, and the money starts to vanish, what is a person to do? And then, there is Aiden, on the beach outside their beautiful home. Sheesh. These people who have one night stands with strangers on the beach don’t they ever read thrillers? But that’s what can happen when you go to the beach.

The Last House Guest (Simon & Schuster) by Megan Miranda 

Littleport Maine is a gorgeous vacation town for the wealthy and then, there are the townies. At the end of every summer, there’s the see-you-next-year party and this year, there’s someone who won’t return the one who’s found dead on the beach. Miranda offers a page-turner with a truly innovative structure in this perfect book for fans of Pretty Little Liars.

My upcoming book, The First to Lie (Forge Publishing) has a beach, too that Nantucket shore I mentioned comes back in all its white-wine and cold-shrimp glory. Speeding across the bay on a gorgeous sailboat, two main characters are headed for a party on the beach. But one will arrive, and one will not.

If you’re headed to the real beach, I hope you are staying socially distant this year. No more sharing beers and rubbing SPF 50 on each other, okay? But it is always safe at the beach inside a book. And one good thing, at least your mask will keep your face and nose from getting sunburned.