Close-up on your beach bag: coconut-scented sunscreen, foil-wrapped cheese and tomato sandwiches melting in the sun, two frozen LaCroix sweating away, maybe a Frisbee, a collection of little cases for your contacts, your edibles, your ID and keys, a handful of sand, and at the bottom—safely wrapped in a towel—your queer-and-compelling beach book. The breeze blows, the sounds of laughter drift across the water, and you’re relaxing and baking your bones with book* in hand.
But what to read? To my mind—as a writer, editor, and lifetime book lover—a great beach book has three things: a compelling plot that keeps you oriented to what’s happening even if you only open it on Summer Fridays when you get to dip out at 3 p.m.; an overall vibe that can be funny or swoony or adventuresome or even occasionally difficult but has a clear and strong optimism to it; and something at least as delicious as it is nutritious.
On the nutritious-to-delicious scale, we have assembled a selection of delights for your gay-ass delectation at the beach: some classics and some new releases, mysteries and romances and thrillers and coming-of-age stories, sexy books and sweet books and several that are plenty of both.
*Could this be a book downloaded to your phone or e-reader? Of course, but just bear in mind: Your book cover tells people things about you. So if you’re up for other kinds of queer hotness besides the temperature, consider letting your book cover show proudly. (And if anyone asks about it, you can always let them borrow it and jot your number inside the front cover for when they’re ready to bring it back.)
Got ‘til It’s Gone by Larry Duplechan
30 years after his first book about protagonist Johnnie Ray (and one of the first Black gay coming out novels ever, Blackbird), Duplechan’s written a thoroughly grown-people romance from the perspective of middle-aged Johnnie Ray—who’s now the Daddy, and is navigating his life and relationships from the other side of what he sees as a great divide. There are four Johnnie Ray novels, so you could start back at the beginning and make it a Blackbird summer (and considering how luxurious Duplechan’s descriptions are, I think you probably want to).
Bright Lines by Tanwi Nandini Islam
When I first read Bright Lines, I read it in two days—three weeks apart. I was halfway through and a friend was just about to get on a long plane ride, so I gave it to him (and instantly regretted my choices). I was left waiting for the resolution of all of the large and small stories and moments—many of the characters seemed headed for discovery or trouble, or in some cases both, about their sexual orientations or relationships. Add in a very summer-in-the-city vibe and the wait was difficult but: From personal experience I can tell you that I picked eagerly, greedily, right back up for the exciting conclusions, and so will you.
The Killer Wore Leather by Laura Antoniou
Comedic mystery novels are a perfect level for the beach, and this is one of my longtime favorites: lots of plot, twists and turns, people behaving badly, sexy times, misunderstandings, secret identities, and more! Antoniou sets her pervy pansexual murder mystery in the world of leather contests, fancy outfits, and kinky sex while keeping it funny and fast-paced, with plenty of surprises in store. And reading it at the beach means that when you spit your beverage in helpless laughter there won’t be much to clean up. Especially recommended for anyone who has ever attended a title event.
Tales of The City series by Armistead Maupin
I gobbled up this series the summer I was 14, just as I first started to understand exactly how I felt different, and I will never stop recommending these books—they introduced me to the first trans character I ever felt like I got to know in a book, who wasn’t wildly pathologized or “exotic” but real, and right, and loving and loved. Now, nine volumes and two miniseries later, Tales is a wild ride and a glimpse into decades of queer San Francisco as series main character Michael “Mouse” Tolliver and his friends, enemies, lovers, pottery, dogs, and T-cells make a journey from 1976 to today in fits and starts.
Funny Boy by Shyam Selvadurai
Framed by the impending Tamil-Sinhalese conflict in Sri Lanka, Funny Boy is definitely a non-traditional choice for a “beach read” but: This is a classic gay coming-of-age novel, full of big feelings and big risks. There is zero chance you’ll forget who’s who and what’s what even if you leave it in your bag for two weeks, and Funny Boy pulls the reader along with lots of ideas, conflict, and drama. There are a few difficult moments, for sure, but the payoffs are so gorgeously written it’s completely worth it.
One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston
Queers, complicated family relationships, romance, time travel, and Brooklyn... what’s not to like? From the author of the frothy and yet incredibly compelling Red, White & Royal Blue comes an equally improbable and equally delightful summer romance story that somehow feels timeless: Haven’t we all been new somewhere, trying to leave something behind, when a new possibility lights us up and makes us forget reason for a minute?
B-Boy Blues: A Seriously Sexy, Fiercely Funny, Black-On-Black Love Story by James Earl Hardy
This 1993 instant classic has gone out of print, which is a crying shame, but luckily there are still many used copies for sale and I urge you to pick one up. (It’s also available for Kindle.) B-Boy Blues is so sweet and so real and such a moment—Black gay men, right in the moment of Tongues Untied and Rotimi Fani-Kayode and a little explosion of Black queer projects reaching the mainstream. In strolls Hardy with hot sex scenes and warm love scenes and all the hurt/comfort romance trope action you could ever want.
Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas
Listen, I am not a ghosts person but I am very much a romance-plus-some-weird-shit person, and this high-stakes, trans, Latinx ghost story (but also love story?) does everything you need summer reading to do. A strange but pleasing bonus is how lyrically and fondly Thomas describes some of the particularities of trans romance. Add in the struggle of trying to right wrongs, and the heartbreak of loving someone who it’s nearly impossible to be with, and I am all the way in, right to the “Wait, what? OMG, yes!” ending.
Sfsx (Safe Sex) Volume 1: Protection by Tina Horn
Queer resistance, sex workers, future dystopia with a repressive regime, freedom fighters, and power-dynamic-laden sexytimes? If all that plus a comic book/graphic novel format and some truly eye-popping visuals sound like your summer vibe, have I got good news for you! Image Comics has collected the first seven issues of this comic as an annual for anyone who loves snappy dialogue, fighting for justice, or any movie where a dirt-streaked woman wearing tall boots saves the world.
Lay Your Sleeping Head: A Henry Rios Novel by Michael Nava
Another mystery, this one an atmospheric and fast-paced thriller, with a gay detective and a throwback 80s vibe. You can smell the poppers and mustache wax in this first entry of an eight-book series; it’s got danger and mystery along with sloppy drunken business and the inevitable plot twist you never saw coming. If you love a good chase afoot but get tired of the usual homophobic “humor” that the genre seems to love so dearly, Henry Rios is your guy. (And if you burn through the series, there’s also an old-timey radio drama podcast version.)
All The Birds In The Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
I’m… listen. There are books you can describe, and books you simply have to read because there’s no way to shorthand them. Is this a love story? Yes. Is it an apocalyptic thriller? Also yes. Magic? Yes. Technologically-saturated dystopia? Yes, again. And on, and on. Here’s what it isn’t: boring, reductive, anything less than wildly imaginative and truly stellar, or a book you want to rush through. Anders’ writing is so fresh and crisp you’ll stay breezy all day in the sunshine. Savor this with your feet in the cool water while the battles for control of the world rage on the pages. Do the good guys win? It… really depends on who you decide are the good guys.
Vicissitudes by Kim Green
I’ve read a lot of books where Black trans women explain themselves, defend themselves, describe their lives... but rarely one where they get to be in love, tumble through romance, make mistakes, be pursued, and live to love again another day. Vicissitudes gives you 100 percent of the unmoored, unmasked romance vibe along with a story that feels excitingly new to read between covers.
Magic’s Pawn (The Last Herald Mage Trilogy) by Mercedes Lackey
I’ve never quite understood why this series isn’t more popular among the gay younglings, but for a full-fledged Rennaisaance Faire gay romance adventure, it really can’t be beat. There’s romance and heartbreak and revenge and magic and gay bird-uncles, plus: a series! Pair coming-out drama and very tenderly written gay love scenes with a lot of High Fantasy Magic and it’s a beach-book shoo-in. Keep yourself engaged all summer long with the adventurous beats and ethical stylings of Vanyel Ashkevron and friends!
The Slow Fix by Ivan Coyote
The thing about Ivan Coyote’s books of stories is that they feel so familiar to me, and therefore comforting, but then just exactly often enough, something surprising shoots across the narrative and gives me that fizzy, delighted feeling. Coyote’s written more than a dozen books, mapping a lifetime of reflection and reminiscences about gender, family, love, community, and the experience of being known or nor known, seen or not seen, but The Slow Fix has always been a favorite for the perfect combination.
There’s a baker’s dozen for you, but there are plenty more, and of course, the Beach Read category itself depends so much on who and what you naturally vibe with—Fledgling is as valid a beach book as Twilight, and The Paying Guests might just be more your (anguished and deliberate) speed than any of the romances listed above. Whatever you read at the beach (or the pool or your yard or on the roof of your building or the porch of the old cabin), don’t forget your sunscreen, body confidence, and queer joy.