Elizabeth Gilbert, David Nicholls and Colson Whitehead: 19 unmissable books to read this summer

From thrillers to debut novels and a collection of essays, here are the 19 books to pack for the beach this summer

It's time to pick your books for the summer holidays, just don't call them 'beach reads', begs The National's Rupert Hawksley‏
Powered by automated translation

I've never really liked the phrase "beach reads". There is ­something slightly contemptuous about it, as if the books we read on the sunlounger should be unchallenging and disposable – cheap airport paperbacks. But they shouldn't be. For a start, the very best thrillers aren't disposal at all – they are brilliant, taut webs of intrigue. It is the prose, as much as the plot, which encourages you to turn page after page late into the evening.

It is also worth remembering that a summer holiday might be the only period during the year when, free from the stresses of daily life (and the incessant pinging of your smartphone), you have the time and the head space to tackle something more substantial.

With this in mind, I've selected 19 of the most exciting, thought-provoking books published this summer. There are plenty of thrillers on the list, of course, but also some highly anticipated debut novels, the first translation of Vasily Grossman's 1954 epic Stalingrad and a brilliant collection of essays.

Every one of them would make a perfect companion for a trip to the beach – please, just don't call them "beach reads".

1. I’ll Never Tell by Catherine McKenzie

Following the unexpected deaths of their parents, five siblings return to their childhood home in Canada to decide how best to break up the estate, which was used as a summer camp long ago. The situation is complicated, however, by the discovery of their father's will, which states that the property cannot be sold off until the mystery of who murdered camp employee Amanda Holmes 20 years previously is solved. Suspicion has always hounded elder sibling Ryan, though the police cleared him of any wrongdoing. So what exactly do the other siblings know? And why did their father keep secretive files on all of them? Catherine McKenzie, author of 2018 bestseller The Good Liar, has again delivered a compulsive family thriller.

2. City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert

If you're one of the 13 million people who read Elizabeth Gilbert's 2006 self-discovery memoir Eat Pray Love, you'll be desperate to get your hands on her latest novel. Set in the summer of 1940, City of Girls follows 19-year-old Vivian Morris as she falls in and out of love and friendship with a colourful cast of characters she meets at the rundown Manhattan theatre owned by her eccentric aunt. The story is narrated by Vivian as an 89-year-old, allowing for Gilbert to offer readers the kind of advice that has made her a "fulfilment" guru to so many people around the world. "At some point in a woman's life, she just gets tired of being ashamed all the time," explains Vivian. "After that, she is free to become whoever she truly is."

City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert. Courtesy Penguin Random House

3. Searching for Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok

Paula Hawkins, author of The Girl on the Train, has described Jean Kwok's latest novel as, "a twisting tale of love, loss and dark family secrets". Sylvie, the elder daughter of a Chinese immigrant family, travels to the Netherlands to visit her dying grandmother and then disappears off the face of the Earth, leaving her sister Amy to try and decipher what might have happened. As Amy goes in search of answers, she is forced to confront her family's tumultuous past, which is pockmarked with the difficulties and tragedies faced by those attempting to build a new life away from home.

4. Stalingrad by Vasily Grossman

This is the first complete ­English translation of the prequel to Vasily Grossman's epic 1960 novel, Life and Fate. Featuring dozens of real and imagined characters, Stalingrad, which was originally published in Russia in 1954, brings to vivid life one of the Second World War's bloodiest battles, in which around two million people were killed. The story of how this book came to be published at all is fascinating – it was censored in Russia, then banned – and the translators Robert and Elizabeth Chandler have done it full justice in an engaging and comprehensive introduction.

Stalingrad by Vasily Grossman published Harvill Secker. Courtesy Penguin UK

5. Honestly, We Meant Well by Grant Ginder

The latest novel from Grant Ginder (The People We Hate at the Wedding), celebrates – in a manner of speaking – a disastrous family holiday. After discovering that her husband is having an affair, Classics professor Sue Ellen Wright heads off to the Greek island of Aegina, where she is due to give a tour to a group of geriatric cruise-goers. The only problem is that her husband and son have decided to join her. Ginder serves up a gently amusing glance at family life, which reminds us of the value of "just getting by" – even when it turns out that the hotel you're staying in is run by the daughter of a former lover.

6. Big Sky by Kate Atkinson

Atkinson returns with her first Jackson Brodie novel since 2010's Started Early, Took My Dog. Brodie, a soldier turned private investigator, is now living in a quiet seaside town, spending his days trying to uncover evidence of infidelity on behalf of suspicious spouses. This monotony is upended when he meets a strange man while out walking. It isn't long before Brodie is pulled back into the sinister underworld he is more familiar with.

Big Sky by Kate Atkinson published by Doubleday. Courtesy Penguin UK

7. Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

The author is best known for her very funny, often cruel, celebrity profiles in The New York Times and GQ – Bradley Cooper, Jonathan Franzen and Tom Hiddleston have all been delightfully skewered by her pen in recent years. Now comes her debut novel, a no-holds-barred examination of marriage and its flaws, which follows Toby Fleishman, a doctor looking forward to some much-needed freedom after the breakdown of his 15-year marriage – until his ex-wife drops the children off at his home and never returns.  

8. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

The debut novel from the acclaimed American poet is presented as a heartbreaking letter from a son to his mother. It's a poignant exploration of a family history, a celebration of maternal love and an unflinching examination of race and class. Vuong's novel is one of the most anticipated of the year with everyone from Marlon James to Celeste Ng heaping praise on it. But the prize for most breathless – quite literally – review of all goes to author Jacqueline Woodson: "Sometimes a writer comes along and stops your breath. I'm reading On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous and there is so little air moving through my body as I read. When writing is this good, who needs air?"

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong published by Jonathan Cape. Courtesy Penguin UK

9. Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn

Set between Jamaica and Brooklyn, this fine novel follows Patsy, a young mother who arrives in New York in 1998, having abandoned her five-year-old daughter, chasing the American dream. While Patsy struggles to integrate into her new life, her daughter grows up grappling with unanswered questions about her mother's decision to leave Jamaica.

10. Three Women by Lisa Taddeo

Lina, Maggie and Sloane – three women living very different lives, all desiring very different things, all unhappy in very different ways. Lisa Taddeo’s stunning piece of literary non-fiction is a biting look at how our hopes and dreams can so quickly curdle into disappointment and tragedy.

Three Women by Lisa Taddeo. Courtesy Bloomsbury

11. The Last Book Party by Karen Dukess

Set against the backdrop of Cape Cod and the New York literary scene, Karen Dukess's delightful novel opens with Eve Rosen, a frustrated young writer, landing a job as a research assistant to Henry Grey, a respected magazine writer. An invitation to Grey's notorious summer party reveals how fragile the literary world that Eve so wanted to be a part of really is.  

12. Stay and Fight by Madeline Ffitch

Lily and Karen attempt to live the "Good Life" on the Women's Land Trust in Ohio. When their son is born, however, they know they will have to move on within five years, so set up home on a 20-acre plot of land with another woman called Helen. Laughter and no shortage of chaos ensues. This wild family saga shows that love can spring up in the most unlikely of places and is a rallying environmentalist call-to-arms.

Stay and Fight by Madeline Ffitch published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Courtesy Macmillan

13. Sweet Sorrow by David Nicholls

The author of One Day and Us delivers another tear-jerking tragicomedy. Not much is going right for 16-year-old Charlie Lewis – his father is unwell and he's failing at school. But then along comes budding thespian Fran Fisher and suddenly all seems right with the world again – that is if Charlie can overcome his shyness and dare to tread the boards with Fran. This charming novel combines first love, heartbreak and a dose of Shakespeare, too.

14 Wanderers by Chuck Wendig

Chuck Wendig is one of the premier science-fiction writers working today and this is already being hailed as "­career-defining" and his "magnum opus". A sleepwalking epidemic is spreading across America with those afflicted all seemingly heading towards the same place. But what quickly becomes clear, as this strange crowd moves across the country, is that the epidemic itself is far less dangerous than the fear it provokes in others, a fear that threatens to tear entire communities apart.

Wanderers by Chuck Wendig published by Solaris. Courtesy Simon & Schuster UK

15 Speaking of Summer by Kalisha Buckhanon

What starts off as a classic thriller set-up – Autumn Spencer's twin sister, Summer, disappears without trace off the roof of their house in Harlem – becomes something altogether more psychologically knotty. Kalisha Buckhanon's fourth novel, described by author Colin Channer as "her finest work to date", explores the most intimate family relationships, while tackling the subject of race relations and urban degradation in America today.

16. The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author returns with this bruising novel about a 1960s Florida reform school for wayward youths, which turns out to be a place of emotional and physical torture. The school is, in fact, based on the real-life Dozier School for Boys in Florida, where more than a hundred burial sites have been found.

When the idealistic Elwood Curtis is sent to the Nickel Academy, he becomes friends with Turner, who sees the world differently. Tension builds between them as their views clash.

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead publsihed by Fleet. Courtesy Little, Brown

17. Life and Other Inconveniences by Kristan Higgins

A perfectly executed family drama that touches on love, forgiveness and class. Emma London was kicked out by her grandmother Genevieve after becoming pregnant during her senior year at high school, but nevertheless managed to build a good life for her and her daughter. So how will she react when Genevieve gets back in touch years later to ask for help?

18. Coventry by Rachel Cusk

A beautiful set of essays from the author of the Outline trilogy, exploring everything from family life and politics to authors D H Lawrence and Kazuo Ishiguro. Cusk writes with a rare clarity, the originality and incisiveness of her thinking persuading you to look at the world in an altogether different way.

Coventry by Rachel Cusk published by Farrar, Straus And Giroux. Courtesy Macmillan

19. Doxology by Nell Zink

Life changes for Lower East Side punk rockers Pam and Daniel when baby Flora arrives. But the world around them is changing, too, in the immediate aftermath of 9 / 11. Nell Zink's powerful novel looks at how two generations of the same family respond to the defining moment of recent US history.