TERRY PRONE: Paperbacks dominate devices when it comes to beach books

The Kindle was supposed to do away with the “beach book”. It didn’t. Whatever sun-warmed sand you trudge through this summer, you’re more likely to see readers holding fat paperbacks than holding reading gadgets.

Early adopters of the reading device told themselves that they would forever prefer to read a real book and had invested in the electronic reader only so they wouldn’t be weighed down getting on a plane to foreign parts with two or three paperbacks. Two or three paperbacks, you know yourself, being so incredibly heavy. Half the early adopters then decided they didn’t need the weight of the Kindle plus their laptop or iPad and downloaded books on to them instead, with a small bunch of headbangers using their smartphones, which is pure daft because your fingers get exhausted from page-turning and to see a book announcing it has 1,979 pages by virtue of fitting each onto a small screen is daunting.

The beach book — which came into existence as a designation only about 25 years ago — has survived the Kindle and litters the ‘2 for 1’ tables at airport bookshops worldwide. Many of them are recogniseable by titles like Summer of Memory, The Vacation Crowd, The Secret of the Seashell or The Lesson of the Sand Dune.

Title-writers eschew the overtly sexy and avoid like the plague anything that sounds exciting, like “scandal” or “horror”. It goes without saying that a word like “paradigm” is never going to appear in a beach book title, because the implicit promise of such a book is that it will not challenge the brain cells of the reader in any way.

It’s not that readers on holiday are stupid. It’s that people who don’t normally read books tend to consume their only fiction during vacations, and — understandably — they don’t want to feel like they’re doing homework on the beach. This is why beach book recommendations from TV and radio book clubs are never hardbacked — probably because people feel a certain responsibility towards a hardback and wouldn’t want it water-stained or spine-stuffed with sand. A paperback, in contrast, can be abused without guilt and abandoned on a chair at an airport departure gate with a feeling of mild virtue because someone else might pick it up and enjoy it.

Beach books, in addition to having similar themes and titles, also tend to have a commonality of colour and design. The colours are neon pastels. The cover illustrations rely heavily on Adirondack chairs on white sand. Or sandy paths between scrub-grass leading to a turquoise sea. Or the respectable detritus of a day at the beach: buckets and spades or flip-flops. (Nobody has ever put on a cover the ubiquitous detritus of folded disposable nappies and crisp bags. The truth doesn’t sell vacation fiction.)

The plots are comfortingly similar in their predictability. There’s the one where a woman recently bereaved/divorced or diagnosed with something terminal goes back to where she used to vacation as a child. Her grief, rage or cancer die down a bit in response to random sun-drenched events. There’s the one where the woman recently given a good drubbing on social media goes somewhere obscure to get away from whatever she did to send berserk the trollers who spend their days going from berserk to berserker. There’s the one where the three childhood friends meet up for a week to irritate the hell out of each other as they always do in summer.

Whichever of the types is involved, the plot, as it unhinges, establishes some major truth which solves the unhappiness experienced by the central character. The major truth varies. Sometimes, what the troubled character is taught is culinary: like that making fairy cakes prevents malaise of every kind. Sometimes, she cops on that feeling as odd as a fish on a footpath just means she’s special.

Now and then, the problem to be solved by page 380 is generational, with the central character learning that her mad cow mother had reasons for being nastier than a jellyfish or that her father wasn’t actually her father at all. Whether it’s fairy cakes or fathers who weren’t, the message is that something has happened during this significant vacation to simultaneously tranquillise and empower the key woman in the book. She goes back to non-vacation life changed for the better. This is because beach books, by definition, are escapism, and so must be resolute in their unreality.

A small notch above the overt seasonalised almost-bestseller is the thriller with Girl in the title, which has three plot twists “you won’t see coming” one of which, at the end, establishes the Girl in the title as having murdered someone else or destroyed someone else’s sanity. Girl in the title books are dodgy propositions. Most of them are copycats which are fast-moving but confusing, so you either move forward in exhausted confusion or keep looping back to find why this particular character has just said what they’ve just said. One exception is Luckiest Girl in the World by Jessica Knoll, which is more than worth the cover price.

Of course not all beach books are written for women. You’ll find James Patterson books beside lounge chairs occupied by men this year. Some publishers maintain that men read more thrillers than do women, although I’d lay a few euro down that books in Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series are bought more by women than by men.

Men also, it is believed, consume novels “factionalised” from TV series to which they are addicted. Fictionalising TV series is a respectable niche market for writers who can write but aren’t able to make up stuff on their own. Only readers challenged by real life and the exigencies of literacy read ficionalised product.

The best beach book I was given this year was neither new nor fictional, and was by an author who turned out to be not quite pseudonymous, but close. When Australian journalist/historian Les Carlyon’s Gallipoli. 

was published in Europe, it was decided that what he was usually called wasn’t upmarket enough for a major history, so the author became LA Carlyon. This guy — whose door stopper paperback comes from Bantam — gives Anthony Beavor a run for
his money in his capacity to make one of the most confused, pointless and deeply tragic theatres of war leap off the page and clutch the reader warmly by the throat. It’s also, believe it or not, funny in spots. As is Clean by Juno Dawson, (Quercus) a novel which is meant for young readers, but you have to ignore agism when someone tells such a good story.

The big American semi-political bestseller this year is former FBI chief James Comey’s A Higher Loyalty, published by MacMillan. This one is worth taking to the beach if only to prove that a precious self-regarding and deeply flawed puritan can produce an entertaining book about Trump which scratches every itch possessed by the Irish liberal reader.

Sand, sun and a chance to step into other words through reading. Just a few of the elements in a great holiday.

People who don’t normally read books tend to consume their only fiction during vacations


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