Cool summer beach reads
July 2, 2023

Fourth of July weekend is the best time to find a good beach towel, a nice grassy area and a big glass of water before settling in with a great read. Here are some old, new and classic titles our InReview contributors recommend!


“Secret of the Moon Conch” by David Bowles and Guadalupe García McCall (Fiction, Bloomsbury YA, $19.99)

Using the powers of the Moon Goddess to communicate across time, two young people fall in love despite living 500 years apart in this young adult novel that defies genre, blending historical fiction and romance with a touch of the supernatural. Sitlali and Calizto’s story is full of suspenseful cliff-hangers and impossible to put down. The fun of “Secrets of the Moon Conch” is both its well-crafted narrative and the deeply investigated research backing it up — from Meso-American gods, language, temples and conquests to our contemporary immigration system and its unforgiving bureaucracy. This not-so-young adult recommends it thoroughly.

— Adriana E. Ramírez

“All the Difference” by Leah Ferguson (Fiction, Berkley, $16)

On New Year’s Eve, Molly Sullivan’s boyfriend proposes to her. They’re seemingly the perfect couple building a perfect life, but she’s also just found out she’s pregnant and wondering if he’s really right for her at all. What will her life be like if she accepts? What if she says no? In “All the Difference,” author Leah Ferguson examines both paths and what happens when Molly makes the decision to find herself, no matter which answer she gives. This engaging book is a great read for anyone who has ever looked at their own life and wondered … what if?

— Christy Gualtieri

“Beach Read” by Emily Henry (Fiction, Penguin, $16)

In neighboring houses on the shores of Michigan, fiction writer Augustus Everett and romance writer January Andrews clash before they realize they are both creatively stuck. They pursue a challenge: Trade places and write each other’s genre of book. She teaches him about writing romance (even though she has given up on romance) and he teaches her — through some truly peculiar field trips — to interview people for novels, and how to kill them off. The tongue-in-cheek nod to the reader in the title says all you need to know: It’s the quintessential book for summer.

— Meredith Cummings

“Fairy Tale” by Stephen King (Fiction, Scribner, $20)

Stephen King is more than the master of horror: He’s also pretty good at fantasy, from “Eyes of the Dragon” to “The Dark Tower” cycle. Charlie Reade, a regular, relatable 17-year-old boy is set upon by destiny and discovers an astounding world of impossible people and things. This novel delivers a classic boy-and-his-dog adventure filled with quintessential Stephen King moments. It’s simultaneously fresh and new while also familiar and part of a long tradition of “a door to magical worlds” fiction. This is a book the whole family can share.

— Joshua M. Patton

“Blink and We’ll Miss It” by Ginny Kochis (Fiction, Zelie Press, $12.99)

First loves, best friends and relaxing summers on the beautiful North Carolina coast: sounds like any teenager’s dream. But add in long-buried generational secrets, a parent with untreated bipolar disorder and the occasional “blink” (protagonist Mae Griffin’s code word for her episodes of time travel), and the dream easily turns into a nightmare. Perfect for teens, young adults or anyone who remembers their first love with fondness, Ginny Kochis’ “Blink And We’ll Miss It” not only explores the pain that ripples through families that struggle with mental illness, but the real meanings of unconditional friendship, love and forgiveness.

— Christy Gualtieri

“Last Call In the City of Bridges” by Salvatore Pane (Fiction, Braddock Avenue Books, $16)

Sal Pane’s 2012 debut novel fits into the local literary canon of works of fiction, steeped in the city as it was when the author spent time at the University of Pittsburgh. More “Wonder Boys” than “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh,” the book is a bildungsroman that feels timeless but also captures a snapshot of the city and its denizens at, perhaps, a generation’s last optimistic moment in the 21st century. It’s funny, with sharp dialogue, fantastical asides and surgically placed pop culture references. Yet, at its core, this book presents readers with easily relatable characters looking toward a future with uncertainty.

— Joshua M. Patton

“Romantic Comedy” Curtis Sittenfeld (Fiction, Random House, $28)

Curtis Sittenfeld is known for novels that riff on real-life women (her “American Life” is about former First Lady Laura Bush, while her “Rodham” is about … well, you know). Her latest also reads like a roman à clef, set at what sure seems to be “Saturday Night Live.” Have you ever wondered what a backstage romance between former SNL head-writer Tina Fey and a musical guest who sure seems a lot like Kenny Chesney would be like? If so, this is the book for you. Ms. Sittenfeld’s characters are convincingly human and also somehow charming, and she nails the setting and vibe.

— Shannon Reed

“The Covenant of Water” by Abraham Verghese (Fiction, Grove Press, $32)

Abraham Verghese’s epic (and hefty) novel spans over 70 years and chronicles one Kerala-based family during a tumultuous time in Indian history — the end of colonial British rule and beginning of nationhood. The center of “The Covenant of Water” is Big Ammachi, whom we meet at age 12, on the night before her marriage into a family with one deadly quirk: One person in every generation dies of drowning. This one is for readers who love expansive world-building, historical details and the occasional tragedy. It’s a long book, but that only makes it the perfect summer reading project.

— Adriana E. Ramírez

“Good in Bed” by Jennifer Weiner (Fiction, Washington Square Press, $17)

If you’re timid about sticking your toe in beach water and want to tamp down body-image concerns, you will welcome Cannie Shapiro into your life as she comes to terms with those issues herself. The title of this book conjures sex. And it is about that, but perhaps not in the way a reader might think, which is what makes this book a gratifying romp. Cannie’s world is upside down when she sees a column titled “Loving a larger woman” and realizes it’s about her, written by her ex-boyfriend. Cannie is propped up by her friends, her adorable pup and her job as a pop culture reporter for the Philadelphia Examiner. As she learns about love and forgiveness, for herself and others, this journey is a fun one worth reading.

— Meredith Cummings

“The Roughest Draft” by Emily Wibberley and Austin Siegemund-Broka (Fiction, Berkley, $16)

Nathan Van Huysen and Katrina Freeling are thrown together to work on the final book in a contract. Three years prior, their last book became a best-selling sensation. The problem? They hate each other after falling out in the aftermath. Despite public demand, they won’t say why they haven’t spoken in years. Holed up together in a Florida home arranged by their agent, they must complete the final draft of a romance book as they unpack the past, while battling the intense Florida heat and each other. The twists and turns when town characters are invited into their lives make this a wonderful summer read.

— Meredith Cummings


“Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America In The Swinging 70s” by Dan Epstein (Nonfiction, St. Martin’s Griffin, $18.99)

There are few things as inseparable as summer and baseball. So why not indulge in the sport’s raucous history during your trip to the beach? Dan Epstein’s book not only highlights baseball’s incredible decade of the 1970s — its stars, super-teams and milestones — but also lifts the lid on the craziness that was transpiring in the dugouts. The hilarious stories of players swapping wives and taking whatever drugs they could before games (remember when Pirates star Doc Ellis threw a no-hitter on LSD?), not to mention the funky uniforms, the era of protest and the bicentennial years: It’s all here. And what a way to relive those two glorious Bucco championships!

— Edward Banchs

“Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life” by William Finnegan (Nonfiction, Penguin Books, $18)

“Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life” is an unblinking account of writer William Finnegan’s life and his love for surfing that is as passionate and unrelenting as the waves he rides around the globe. The book chronicles his childhood in California and Hawaii and his many adulthood adventures, including riding dreamlike waves in Fiji and on Australia’s Gold Coast, navigating Polynesian islands, teaching in South Africa, exploring the rugged coastlines of Tonga and even surfing in Hurricane Irene at Montauk. This Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir grips you from the very first pages and doesn’t let go, and will inspire readers to embrace their own adventures.

— Christy Gualtieri

“Wannabe: Reckonings with the Pop Culture that Shapes Me” by Aisha Harris (Nonfiction, HarperOne, $29.99)

People who listen to “Pop-Culture Happy Hour” on NPR are familiar with the intelligent insights of Aisha Harris, but for the uninitiated, she’s put together a collection of nine essays. The book sizzles with Ms. Harris’ inimitable voice and thorough examinations of the zeitgeist, including a phenomenal breakdown of the Black best friend trope as well as a deep analysis of procreation expectation. Combining memoir and thoughtful criticism, “Wannabe” entertains as much as it offers scrutiny of the art we consume. Ms. Harris is whip-smart, funny and not afraid to put herself on blast.

— Adriana E. Ramírez

“The Crofter and the Laird” by John McPhee (Nonfiction, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $17)

Many years ago, when driving along an island off the west coast of Scotland, I spotted a family enjoying an afternoon at the beach. Nothing remarkable, except that they all wore full wetsuits because it was about 50 degrees (and who knows what temperature the water was?). Ever since then, I like to remember that beach reads aren’t only for folks lying in the sun, and I hope that family would appreciate my choice of the great New Yorker writer John McPhee’s 1969 collection of essays about the year he lived with his family in a two-room cottage on an island off the west coast of Scotland. It’s immersive and transporting.

— Shannon Reed

“808s & Otherworlds: Memories, Remixes, and Mythologies” by Sean Avery Medlin (Nonfiction, Two Dollar Radio, $15.99)

Using hip-hop songs and album titles as a primer, Sean Avery Medlin (who uses they/them pronouns) dives into a collection of short stories, poetry and insights in Black life, Black history and Black masculinity through their lens. Whether they are writing about their suburban upbringing in Phoenix, their favorite performers, love or the omissions of Black contributions to America, what Medlin leaves is a work whose words will reverberate long after you put the book down. Their words can be as uplifting as they are poignant, as reflective as they are inspiring. This is shorter, intense fare that should find its way into your backpack.

— Edward Banchs

“The Carnegie Treasures Cookbook” by the Museum of Art, Carnegie Institute (Nonfiction/​Art/​Cookbook, Carnegie Museum Store, prices may vary)

You’ll have to do some digging for this one, which I pulled out of the Monroeville Public Library’s used book sale last summer. It was published in 1984 by what’s credited on the cover as the “Museum of Art, Carnegie Institute,” and is the most high-concept cookbook I’ve ever encountered. A work of art from the collection is pictured and described, followed by a menu of recipes inspired (maybe?) by it. I probably won’t be making Squab with Apricots and Macadamia Nuts (inspired by an Augustus Saint-Gaudens sculpture) or Green Chili Sorbet (inspired by a Georgia O’Keefe painting), but they’re so fun to read about.

— Shannon Reed

“Slugfest: Inside the Epic, 50-Year Battle between Marvel and DC” by Reed Tucker (Nonfiction, Da Capo Press, $37)

Reed Tucker’s 2017 book was the first to track the repeated rise and fall of the comic book creators who shaped modern pop culture. Meticulously sourced with interviews from creators — many now sadly gone — “Slugfest” tells the story of publishing’s greatest rivalry and reveals the symbiotic nature of the industry. Full of revelations and anecdotes, the moral the narrative reveals is that these two titans need each other: A healthy Marvel Comics is good for DC, and vice versa. Artists and writers making funny books for kids created America’s modern mythology — and this book shows us how they all did it.

— Joshua M. Patton

“How Music Got Free: A Story of Obsession and Invention” by Stephen Witt (Nonfiction, Penguin Books, $18)

Stephen Witt’s book, which reads like a fast-paced thriller, takes readers through the end of the ‘90s, when CDs still ruled the world, and explains what happened to physical music as the MP3 took over during the early part of the century. His adroit navigation through the era of pirating music, the overall music scene in the ’90s and early 2000s and the introduction of file sharing sites pulls back the curtain on the industry’s downfall — and failure to recognize its own hubris. The interviews, industry facts and perceptive insights make this book a must read.

— Edward Banchs


Edward Banchs is a freelance writer, author and independent scholar based in Pittsburgh. His latest book is “Scream for Me, Africa!: Heavy Metal Identities in Post-Colonial Africa.”

Christy Gualtieri is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Edgewood.

Meredith Cummings is a freelance journalist and teaching assistant professor of journalism at Lehigh University.

Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran and senior writer for Comic Book Resources and the author of the comics-inspired short story collection “Tales of Adventure & Fantasy – Book 1.”

Shannon Reed is teaching assistant professor of creative writing at Pitt and the author of ”Why Did I Get a B? And Other Mysteries We’re Discussing in the Faculty Lounge.”

Adriana E. Ramírez is a columnist and InReview editor for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: aramirez@post-gazette.com.