Lionel Barber, FT editor
The Light That Failed: A Reckoning (Allen Lane, RRP£20) is a brilliant, original book on the crisis of modern liberalism. Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes, two political theorists, dissect what went wrong after the fall of the Berlin Wall, ostensibly liberalism’s greatest triumph. Far from marking the end of history, the world entered the Age of Imitation, where former communist states embraced EU/western norms only to become disillusioned and resentful. Post-Soviet Russia simply faked it. And Trump’s US has abandoned liberalism in favour of nationalism. A must-read to understand our present discontents.
Bernardine Evaristo, novelist
Blood (Fentum Press, RRP£9.99/$15.95) by Maggie Gee is a very funny and daring novel about Monica, an unforgettable, galumphing, middle-aged school teacher and misfit, whose deluded self-belief and critical observations about the rest of humankind hide a deep-seated trauma. Gee weaves the seriousness of Brexit politics and bigotry in a seaside Kentish town with the psychological legacy of violent parenting in a thrillerish blend of whodunnit-cum-family drama.
Rory Stewart, candidate for mayor of London
The Order of Time (Penguin, RRP£8.99/Riverhead, RRP$20) by Carlo Rovelli explores why past, present and future are only an illusion. He brings the most difficult ideas alive in clear, appealing language. It is as close as I’ve come to a physics lesson that almost suggests the meaning of life.
Roula Khalaf, FT deputy editor
Richard Davies’ Extreme Economies (Bantam Press, RRP£20) is a reflection on human resilience. The author takes you from a prison to a refugee camp to Kinshasa and Santiago to explain how economies work in extreme circumstances and why markets succeed or fail. Weaving economic theory and individual life stories, this is an important and enjoyable read. I also loved The Anarchy (Bloomsbury, RRP£30), William Dalrymple’s splendid history of the East India Company. A timely tale of corporate greed and brutality.
Howard Davies, chairman RBS
In what was not a vintage reading year for me, the book I most enjoyed was I Am God: A Novel (Restless Books, RRP£12.99/$17.99) by Giacomo Sartori. The Almighty falls in love with an anticlerical geneticist woman who artificially inseminates cows and burns crucifixes, causing Him to reflect on his creation and its eccentricities. A highly original novel, showing that there is, thankfully, more to Italian fiction than Elena Ferrante.
Pilita Clark, FT business columnist
At the risk of sounding unsisterly, I started reading She Said by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey (Bloomsbury, RRP£20/Penguin, RRP$28) more out of duty than zeal. I thought I knew enough about the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the #MeToo movement it helped to ignite. I was wrong. The tale of how two New York Times reporters investigated Weinstein is a journalism masterclass. The revelations of the legal and PR tactics Weinstein deployed to thwart his pursuers are shocking. So is the realisation that, all too often, those strategies succeed.
Alec Russell, FT Weekend editor
Stunning, shocking, haunting, pitiless yet redemptive — I jotted down these words as I read Edna O’Brien’s Girl (Faber, £16.99/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, RRP$26) on a hot afternoon in August. Some writers run out of puff as the decades pass; others do not . . . O’ Brien’s latest is based on the horrendous experiences of the Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram but also speaks to the eternal themes of her writing.
Simon Schama, FT contributing editor
If the Booker judges can do a duet so can I. In fact, the two tours de force of spectacular writing they didn’t choose: Quichotte (Jonathan Cape, RRP£20/Random House, RRP$28) by Salman Rushdie in mind-blowing form, by turns cunning and uproarious about present madnesses and past haunting, a glory to read; and Elif Shafak’s moving and beautiful 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World (Viking, RRP£14.99/Bloomsbury, RRP$27) related largely by a not altogether dead Istanbul sex worker but a great lyric to life and, like Quichotte, a vindication of the storyteller’s power.
Susie Boyt, novelist and FT contributor
Girl, Woman, Other (Hamish Hamilton, RRP£16.99/Grove Press, RRP$27) is a Booker-winning novel of deep pleasures. Bernardine Evaristo takes us into the heart of 12 lives — “mostly women, mostly black” — with such intimacy and power that you feel you are living alongside them. My favourite line concerns the insomnia of a mother who is sleeping with her daughter’s husband who nightly “went to war with her morals on behalf of her feelings”. I sometimes felt I was on the top deck of the best bus in the world.
Tell us what you think
What are your favourites from this list — and what books have we missed? Tell us in the comments below
Frederick Studemann, FT literary editor
Of the many memorable books of 2019, John Lanchester’s The Wall (Faber, RRP£8.99/WW Norton, RRP$25.95) stood out. I read the cold, dystopian account of a world in the wake of a climate catastrophe at the start of the year. Its vision, bleak though elegantly executed, has lingered throughout a year in which climate change has risen to the top of the agenda, on and off the page.
An FT review persuaded me to read 1931: Debt, Crisis and the Rise of Hitler (Oxford University Press, RRP£16.99). Tobias Straumann’s crisp account of the dying days of the Weimar Republic looks to the destructive force that debt exerted on politics. As well as challenging some of the conventional wisdoms about which factors enabled the rise of Hitler, the book has an unsettling relevance for today.
Gillian Tett, chair FT editorial board (US)
We have heard a lot of handwringing about how robots will replace humans in the workforce. But there has been woefully little debate about the vast army of all-too-human workers who actually make the digital economy work — from content moderators to security experts. Ghost Work (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, RRP$27) by Mary Gray and Siddharth Suri provides one of the first in-depth on the ground studies of this world. Their portrait is sometimes damning and always provocative in terms of shining a light on the darker corners of our digital age, and exposing practices that are painfully hard for outsiders to track and all too easy for tech consumers to ignore.
Bonnie Greer, author and cultural commentator
My seasonal book is Hope Walks By Me (Barbican Press, RRP£9.99) — a collection of poetry and prose by the incarcerated. Developed out of writing projects in Hull and across the UK, the works, assembled by the novelist and poet Russ Litten and writer Josephine Metcalf, are clear, direct and powerful. Some are like haikus. All of it is true. You know this, even if you don’t know this truth directly yourself.
Merryn Somerset Webb, editor in chief of MoneyWeek
I loved Ray Perman’s The Rise and Fall of the City of Money (Birlinn, RRP£25) a fabulous history of the crises and flashes of entrepreneurial brilliance that made Edinburgh the UK’s second-biggest financial city. A meticulously researched book of stories about the people who rose and fell with the city — bank directors who ended up in jail, aristocrats who ended up broke, and clever investment managers who set up the firms your pension is probably still with today.
Books of the Year 2019
FT commentators, critics and guests select the titles of the year that you need to read. Explore the series here.
Join our online book group on Facebook at FTBooksCafe. You can listen to acclaimed novelist Ben Lerner discuss his newest book, The Topeka School, on the FT’s culture podcast Culture Call. Find it on the FT, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
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