Seating Arrangements

By this point in the summer, your body may be tanned and swimsuit-ready, but your mind might feel a bit flabby after a steady diet of very beachy beach reads. Fifty Shades of Grey and novels written by reality TV stars were fine for June and July, but why not use August to get your brain in fighting shape for a fall publishing season full of literary heavyweights (Junot Diaz, Zadie Smith, Michael Chabon, Tom Wolfe, Ian McEwan). Of course, if you don’t want to read anything overly ponderous while slathered up in sunscreen, there is a middle ground: books that are reasonably light, utterly addictive, and entirely guilt-free. Here are five recent titles you can feel proud to show off on your beach blanket before Labor Day:

Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead: Let’s be honest — we all like reading about the messed-up lives of wealthy WASP types. Two preppy families gather on a tony island off the New England coast for a wedding, which gets all that blue blood pumping when several members of the party have epic meltdowns, and the festivities become explosive — literally. This debut novel is just as full of startling insights as it is of voyeuristic intrigue. (EW Grade: A–)

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter: The latest from Walter, author of The Financial Lives of the Poets, opens with a mysterious image: It’s the 1960s. A beautiful American actress is hiding away in a tiny Italian coastal town, and she is dying. Why is she on the run? How is she so sure she’s dying? The answers unfurl over five decades and many different characters’ stories. This is the sort of expansive book that you’ll cancel plans for — it’s that engrossing. (EW Grade: A–)

The Cranes Dance by Meg Howrey: When you see a world-class ballerina dance, it’s easy to forget she’s human. She’s so ethereal and so elegant that she couldn’t possibly be otherwise off-stage. Howrey, a former dancer herself, shows you how wrong you are in this involving, true-to-life novel about pill-popping, smart-talking New York City ballerinas. (EW Grade: B+)

Double Cross by Ben Macintyre: McIntyre’s nonfiction account of the elaborate MI5 plot that effectively misled the Nazis into prepping for Allied attacks at Calais and Norway instead of Normandy in 1944 reads like a particularly thrilling and well-written novel. (EW Grade: A–)

Dare Me by Megan Abbott: Enter the ferocious and terrifying world of high school cheerleading. There’s a strict hierarchy in Addy Hanlon’s cheer squad, and adding a new, charismatic coach to the mix is like setting off a powder keg. It’d be easy to reduce this terrific psychological thriller to a catchy tagline, like “a cheerleader murder mystery” — and sure, the protagonists quote Ke$ha songs rather frequently — but Abbott’s novel is a complex, taut, and profoundly observant look inside the mind of teenage girls. (EW Grade: A–)

Also note that there are many other books that belong here that Shelf Life has gushed about enough already (Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, Wild and Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed, The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson). What are some of your non-beachy beach reads?

Follow Stephan on Twitter: @EWStephanLee

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