That vacation rental may come equipped with a handy deer antler hat rack, a cupboard full of well-worn board games, or a grill that may or may not have propane in the tank. If you're lucky, there might be a pingpong table or, out front, a canoe complete with paddles.
Whether it has any books worth reading is a gamble. (Although the Lake Michigan cottage we rented when I was a kid did have the classic "Prudence of the Parsonage," featuring a romantic scene in which Prudence's beloved accidentally knocks her unconscious with a croquet ball.)
Since the summer I found myself grabbing random books at the library right before closing, coming up with a list of worthwhile beach books has been a vacation priority. Never again would I arrive at the cottage with a pile of poorly chosen books, only to give up on most of them after the first page.
Recommendations can come from friends, relatives (if they share your taste in books), "Best of" lists, Edgar nominees, Entertainment Weekly. The sole criterion for a vacation read, whether thriller, novel, or memoir: The book has to grab you from the first page. (But be careful. "The Leopard," by Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbo, opens with a torture scene so gruesome I gave up after the first chapter.)
We've checked out every book here to find solid suggestions for your vacation reading pleasure:
Heart of a Killer by David Rosenfelt. A gripping legal thriller about a convicted murderer who wishes to donate her heart to her dying 14-year-old daughter turns into something else entirely as Rosenfelt dials up the suspense.
The Lock Artist by Steve Hamilton. Traumatized and rendered mute at the age of 8, Mike Smith, now 17, is a gifted artist – and a skilled lockpicker and safecracker in thrall to a creepy Detroit master criminal. Winner of the 2011 Edgar for best novel, this gripping tale keeps Mike's secret locked up tight until almost the end.
A Trick of the Light: A Chief Inspector Gamache novel by Louise Penny. A former art critic known for her savage reviews is found murdered in a village outside Montreal in this beautifully plotted mystery that offers a devastating look at the jealousies and general ugliness that underlie artistic ambition and success.
Two for Sorrow by Nicola Upson. This nifty series, set in 1930s London, features mystery writer Josephine Tey. In this one, Tey is researching a novel about two women hanged as baby killers in 1903 at London's Holloway Prison when she discovers a link to the gruesome slaying of a young seamstress three decades later.
The Most Dangerous Thing by Laura Lippman. Childhood friends share a terrible secret, and one of them ends up dead in this latest stand-alone novel from a genre-bending master of thrillers. (This is a stand-alone but features a cameo by Lippman's Baltimore private eye Tess Monaghan.)
Defending Jacob by William Landay. An assistant district attorney must confront unpleasant truths about his family heritage after his teenage son becomes the target of a murder investigation in this gripping novel that is part family drama, part courtroom thriller.
Coming July 24: Broken Harbor by Tana French.French's fourth novel about the Dublin murder squad stars Mick "Scorcher" Kennedy, who was a rather obnoxious presence in her last novel, "Faithful Place."
The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey. Not a slavish parallel as April Lindner's 2010 "Jane" was (with Mr. Rochester as a rock star), this marvelous, beautifully written update of Jane Eyre, set in Scotland, is at its best in Jane's early years before she meets Livesey's incarnation of Mr. Rochester.
Carry the One by Carol Anshaw. A car carrying drunken, sleepy revelers from a wedding reception strikes and kills a young girl on a lonely rural road, and the aftershocks reverberate forever through the lives of two sisters and their brother. The eloquence of Anshaw's prose approaches poetry, and her haunting novel lingers in the memory.
Brooklyn by Colm Toibin. A compelling depiction of the immigrant experience, in the story of Eilis Lacey, a young bookkeeper whose older sister concocts a scheme for her to leave Ireland for Brooklyn in 1951.
The Night Circus by Erin Morginstern. There's enchantment in this wondrous tale of two young magicians embroiled in a deadly competition at the mysterious Le Cirque des Reves, a "Circus of Dreams" that is only open at night.
Buddha in the Attic by Julia Otsuka. This extraordinary short novel captures the shared experience of "picture brides" brought from Japan to San Francisco nearly 100 years ago in vivid prose, a group portrait painted in heartbreaking, colorful detail.
Out of Oz. The Final Volume in the Wicked Years by Gregory Maguire. Dorothy returns to Oz – in a most ingenious manner – and goes on trial in the death of Elphaba in the conclusion to Maguire's vividly imagined "Wicked" series.
Confessions of a Prairie Bitch by Alison Arngrim. This funny, often poignant memoir by the actress who played Nellie Oleson on "Little House on the Prairie" offers an insider's tour of "The Little House" set and reveals Arngrim as a committed activist on behalf of AIDS victims and victims of child abuse (she was abused by her older brother for years).
Bossypants by Tina Fey. This breezy memoir from the "30 Rock" creator glides over some things (she was slashed in the face as a child by a stranger) and dwells at length on others including her honeymoon cruise interrupted by fire, her guilt over being unable to breast-feed her daughter and her initial misgivings about portraying Sarah Palin on "Saturday Night Live."
Fire Season: Field Notes From a Wilderness Lookout by Philip Connors. A former editor for the Wall Street Journal chucked the journalism grind for a simpler life, now spending several months a year alone with his dog, Alice, keeping vigil in a 7-by-7-foot, glass-walled lookout tower watching for smoke in New Mexico. His reflections about nature and solitude have a hypnotic charm.
The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival by John Vaillant. What was the motive of the Amur tiger that stalked and devoured beekeeper/poacher Vladimir Markov in 1997 near a tiny logging village in Russia's Far East? This beautifully written ("raucous kvetching" of crows), sprawling work is a murder mystery of a very different kind. Vaillant maintains the suspense as he brings to life the vivid characters and the geography and history of this remote and brutal place.
Catherine the Great by Robert Massie. Another compulsively readable, gripping narrative from the author of "Peter the Great" and "Nicholas and Alexandra" about the brilliant German princess who became ruler of Russia and corresponded with Voltaire.
Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II by Mitchell Zuckoff. While not as compelling as Laura Hillenbrand's "Unbroken," this fascinating World War II adventure tells of the daring rescue, from the treacherous mountains and jungle of New Guinea, of three survivors (one a WAC) of a U.S. military plane that crashed in March 1945 during a sightseeing excursion to the "lost valley" nicknamed Shangri-La.
> For Middle-Grade Readers:
Chomp by Carl Hiaasen. Following in the grand tradition of "Hoot," "Flush" and "Scat," Hiaasen offers an action-packed adventure, with an environmental theme, set in Florida. This one stars a wildlife wrangler and Derek Badger, the supposedly heroic star of a popular reality TV series called "Expedition Survival!"
The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict by Trenton Lee Stewart. This prequel to the Mysterious Benedict Society books tells the back story of the genius who made all kinds of discoveries about life while fending off bullies in a Dickensian-style orphanage.
Slide by Jill Hathaway. This paranormal thriller from a debut novelist features a teen who can "slide" into other people's minds and finds herself inside the mind of a killer.
Fracture by Megan Miranda. Another nifty paranormal thriller features one Delaney Maxwell, who survives being submerged 11 minutes in a frozen lake only to find herself drawn to the dying – and worrying that she may be causing the deaths.
"Hunger Games" fans will love these dystopian page-turners, if they haven't already discovered them:
The Lost Code: Book One of the Atlanteans by Kevin Emerson. The promising first book of a series links the myth of the Lost City of Atlantis with a dystopian future where biodomes shielding humans from the killer heat and sun are starting to fail.
Divergent by Veronica Roth. This non-stop thrill ride is set in a Chicago of the future where young people at 16 must choose a faction (Abnegation, Erudite, Candor, Dauntless, Amity), and the most dangerous thing to be is "Divergent." Sequel "Insurgent" came out in May.
Legend by Marie Lu. This high-octane thriller, set in a dystopian Los Angeles, offers thrilling suspense and an engaging romance across a steep class divide.
Cinder: Book One in the Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer. Cinderella is a cyborg and her fairy slipper is a robotic foot in this thrilling futuristic fable, set in a plague-ridden New Beijing, the first of a series based on classic fairy tales (still to come are tales based on Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Snow White).