The 50 best books of 2019

An illustration by Michael Kirkham of a man reading - Michael Kirkham
An illustration by Michael Kirkham of a man reading - Michael Kirkham

From politics to page-turners, sport to science, our critics pick the perfect book for every reader. For 20% off all these titles visit the Telegraph Bookshop

50. Open Side by Sam Warburton: The Wales and Lions star opens up about his awful injuries, and the World Cup red card that left him sobbing “hot, angry tears”. (HarperCollins)

49. Winds of Change by Peter Hennessy: A flavoursome account of Britain in the early Sixties, taking in de Gaulle’s veto, the Profumo affair and the growing fear of nuclear annihilation. (Allen Lane) Read the full review

48. Worst Case Scenario by Helen FitzGerald: In this blissfully scabrous thriller,  the onset of the menopause leads a social worker’s life to unravel in disastrous and liberating ways. (Orenda)

47. Afternoons with the Blinds Drawn by Brett Anderson: The story of Suede’s rise and fall, the drugs and the feuds with other bands isn’t pretty, but Anderson is on typically sharp form as he tells it. (Little, Brown)

46. Hell is Round the Corner by Tricky: The rapper’s heart-wrenchingly honest memoir begins with the suicide of his mother in 1972 and ends with the suicide of his daughter this year. (Blink)

45. Fentanyl, Inc by Ben Westhoff: More Americans are now dying from opioid overdoses than car crashes. Westhoff exposes, with cinematic scope and reams of data, a new epidemic. (Scribe)

44. Gunpowder and Geometry by Benjamin Wardhaugh: The colourful 18th-century life of Charles Hutton, miner turned teacher and ballistics pioneer, who made maths a fashionable science. (William Collins)

43. Useful Enemies by Noel Malcolm: This brilliant study describes the “obsession” Westerners  had with Islam, after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, and its effect on Western ideas. (OUP) Read the full review

42. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo: Evaristo’s verse novel about black British women felt fresher and funnier than 2019’s other Booker winner, Atwood’s The Testaments. (Hamish Hamilton) Read the full review

Barnardine Evaristo (right, pictured with Margaret Atwood) won the Booker Prize for Girl, Woman, Other - Rii Schroer
Barnardine Evaristo (right, pictured with Margaret Atwood) won the Booker Prize for Girl, Woman, Other - Rii Schroer

41. Vertigo and Ghost by Fiona Benson: A thrilling book of two halves: a nightmarish verse sequence with Zeus as a modern-day rapist; and a set of beautiful, intimate lyric poems. (Cape) Read the full review

40. Promise Me You’ll Shoot Yourself by Florian Huber, tr Imogen Taylor: Hitler’s war took an appalling toll on ordinary Germans, too. With compassion, Huber tells the story of “the suicide epidemic” that began in 1945. (Allen Lane) Read the full review

39. We Are Made of Diamond Stuff by Isabel Waidner: A garrulous, magical-realist and Brexit-tinged comedy about a pair of trans migrants working at a “no star” hotel on the Isle of Wight. (Dostoevsky Wannabe)

38. Conviction by Denise Mina: Two people thrown together when their spouses elope go on a hilarious road trip around Europe in pursuit of a possible murderer. (Harvill Secker)

37. I Am Sovereign by Nicola Barker: An astonishingly intricate novella about an estate agent, a homeowner, a buyer and her daughter at a house viewing. (William Heinemann)

36. We Won an Island by Charlotte Lo: In this stunning children’s debut, a young girl hopes her family’s move to a Scottish island will help her father to overcome his depression. (Nosy Crow)

35. The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead: The Underground Railroad author based his new novel on a Florida school where 55 unmarked graves were found on the black side of the campus. (Fleet)

Colson Whitehead, author of The Nickel Boys - Getty
Colson Whitehead, author of The Nickel Boys - Getty

34. Year of the Monkey by Patti Smith: Some rockstars shut themselves away from life, but Smith’s engagement with the world only deepens, as this dreamy memoir of 2016 shows. (Bloomsbury)

33. Rough Magic by Lara Prior-Palmer: Prior-Palmer recounts how she became the first female victor – and, at 19, the youngest – of the Mongol Derby, the world’s toughest horse race. (Ebury)

32. The Five by Hallie Rubenhold: This revelatory study unpicks the myth that all five women murdered by Jack the Ripper were prostitutes. Only two were – so why the lies? (Transworld)

31. Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann: Over 1,000 pages, mostly in a single sentence, an Ohio housewife ruminates on nearly every topic imaginable in this bravura novel. (Galley Beggar)

30. The Second Sleep by Robert Harris: It appears to be set in medieval England, but in fact there’s an ingenious twist to this thriller – Harris’s most imaginative since Fatherland. (Hutchinson)

29. The Good Thieves by Katherine Rundell: In this masterful children’s adventure, a girl finds herself entangled in the criminal underworld of Prohibition-era New York. (Bloomsbury)

28. King and Emperor by Janet L Nelson: Nelson’s outstanding biography of Charlemagne reaches across 1,200 years of confusion to give us a clearer idea of what he cared about. (Allen Lane)

27. Novacene by James Lovelock: The eminent scientist hails our future robot overlords as the next step in the evolution of conscious life. They may even keep us as pets. (Allen Lane)

26. In Sunshine or in Shadow by Donald McRae: An uplifting study of Northern Irish boxer Gerry Storey, who, in the Troubles, ignoring threats, trained Republicans and Loyalists alike. (Simon & Schuster)

25. The Topeka School by Ben Lerner: This fine, exacting novel returns us to the consciousness of Adam Gordon (Leaving the Atocha Station) and asks how to raise a good son. (Granta)

Ben Lerner, author of The Topeka School - Rex
Ben Lerner, author of The Topeka School - Rex

24. King of the World by Philip Mansel: Louis XIV’s seven-decade reign over France is still the longest by any European sovereign. This nuanced study makes you feel for the old monster. (Allen Lane)

23. The Royal Society by Adrian Tinniswood: A delightful history of the scientific society, founded in 1660, during the golden age of curious early-modern messing-about. (Head of Zeus)

22. Who Dares Wins by Dominic Sandbrook: Breathtakingly broad and beautifully written, the latest in Sandbrook’s histories of postwar Britain takes us from 1979 to Falkands victory. (Allen Lane)

21. Significant Other by Isabel Galleymore: Small, intricate, gemlike poems about love and the natural world from a former poet-in-residence at a research centre in the Amazon rainforest. (Carcanet)

20. Human Compatible by Stuart Russell: The machine learning pioneer gives an excellent, nuanced history of AI, and suggests we build a kind of humility into our future robots. (Allen Lane)

19. Homecoming by Colin Grant: The Windrush generation tells Grant what it was like to come to Britain: the cold and dirt, discrimination, heartache, riots and carnival. (Jonathan Cape)

18. A Long Night in Paris by Dov Alfon, tr Daniella Zamir: The year’s best espionage thriller, by an Israeli ex-spy, brought a cracking pace to its geopolitics and a light touch to its cynicism. (MacLehose)

17. The Brothers York by Thomas Penn: Edward IV emerges as a rock-star antihero, the Duke of Clarence as a nonentity and Richard III as a paranoid hypocrite in this exceptional history. (Allen Lane)

16. Last Witnesses by Svetlana Alexievich, tr Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky: An oral tapestry of Second World War testimonies by Russian children. (Penguin Classics)

15. Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout: In 13 episodes, this utterly brilliant novel revisits the small fictional Maine town of Olive Kitteridge in unflinching prose, pierced by beauty. (Viking)

Elizabeth Strout, author of Olive, Again - Rii Schroer
Elizabeth Strout, author of Olive, Again - Rii Schroer

14. The Years by Annie Ernaux, tr Alison L Strayer: Both intimate and majestic, taking in a century of social change, this is a patchwork of collective history from the French doyenne. (Fitzcarraldo)

13. If All the World and Love Were Young by Stephen Sexton: The Northern Irish debut poet’s pastoral elegy for his mother is inspired by the odd landscapes of Super Mario World. Playful, poignant, disarming. (Penguin)

12. On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming: Cumming is an art critic, and the child of artists. Her memoir has a mysterious kidnapping at its heart, but its real subject is looking. (Chatto & Windus)

11. For the Record by David Cameron: The ex-prime minister’s massive memoir draws on the recordings he made while in office. Bitter, even furious, it is also packed with colour. (William Collins)

10. Staring at God by Simon Heffer: Filled with revelations, this is the first serious and really wide-ranging history of the Home Front during the Great War for decades. (Random House)

9. The Umbrella Mouse by Anna Fargher: An exquisite children’s book about a mouse orphaned in the London blitz. Fargher invests her rodent hero with the complexity of a human being. (Macmillan)#

8. Me by Elton John: Elton’s gossipy, self-aware memoir of his ascent from lonely, suburban boy to A-list party animal is as eye-popping as his wardrobe. (Macmillan)

7. Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow: Packed with skulduggery and subterfuge, this is the account of how Harvey Weinstein tried to stop Farrow breaking his story on him in October 2017. (Fleet)

Culture newsletter REFERRAL (article)
Culture newsletter REFERRAL (article)

6. Attlee and Churchill by Leo McKinstry: This book stands out in the sea of Churchilliana with its highly original portrait of Winston’s close wartime partnership with the Labour leader. (Atlantic)

5. The Border by Don Winslow: A barnstorming conclusion to Winslow’s epic Cartel trilogy. These thrillers lays bare just how counterproductive the “war on drugs” has been. (HarperCollins)

4. Superior: The Return of Race Science by Angela Saini: A magisterial, forensic demolition of the racism that persists in modern medicine, perpetuated by false research. Eye-opening. (Fourth Estate)

3. Margaret Thatcher, Vol III: Herself Alone by Charles Moore: Sparkling, scholarly, revelatory and at times desperately sad, this is a triumphant conclusion to the official biography of the Iron Lady. (Allen Lane)

2. The Man who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy: This exquisitely constructed novel of recurring images and motifs is a sharp meditation on Anglo-European relations since the war. (Hamish Hamilton)

1. The Lives of Lucian Freud: Youth by William Feaver: With elegance and tact, Feaver – who spoke to Freud almost daily – gives a robust portrait of this ruthlessly self-interested artist’s rise. (Bloomsbury)

Contributors: Leo Robson, Gaby Wood, Simon Heffer, Steven Poole, Jake Kerridge, Tristram Fane Saunders, Martin Chilton, Asa Bennett, Helen Brown, Emily Bearn