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Best books of 2019: fantastic must-reads of the year revealed

Books to keep your brain sharp in 2020.

Best books of 2019: fantastic must-reads of the year revealed
Jon Mundy
31 December 2019

It’s been a brilliant, confounding and controversial year for book lovers, culminating in the October’s Booker Prize award being shared between two authors.

Whatever your view of that particular bout of Great British indecision, there’s been plenty to admire in the wider world of books.

For one thing, we’ve seen major works from literary titans like Margaret Atwood and Salman Rushdie. Beneath those headline-grabbers, a vast pool of writing talent displayed their intention to take up the mantle.

The past 12 months have also seen some beautiful work in the realm of non-fiction, of graphic novels and of cookery books. We’ve sought to offer a taster of each of these disparate areas in our round-up of the best books of 2019.

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    Best books of 2019

    Best books of 2019

    1. The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

    £9.99
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    Whoever said ‘never go back’ clearly never met Margaret Atwood. It might have seemed risky to return to the scene of her greatest triumph, 1985’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Yet The Testaments is a more than worthy follow-up, showing us the very end of Gilead’s theocratic rule through the eyes of three very different women. The decision to name Atwood joint winner of the 2019 Booker Prize attracted considerable criticism, but the quality of the work itself is unimpeachable.

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    Best books of 2019

    2. The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

    £8.49
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    The Nickel Boys is another devastatingly powerful tale of historic American racism from author Colson Whitehead, following on from his outstandingly bold and imaginative novel The Underground Railroad. The setting may be less fantastical than its predecessor but the result is no less impactful.

    Based on a historical case, the book follows young and idealistic Elwood Curtis through the full horrors of a segregated reform school in 1960s Florida. It’s another stunning piece of work from one of the best writers of his generation.

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    Best books of 2019

    3. The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman

    £9.99
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    It’s been a particularly good year for fans of Philip Pullman. The first part of his famed His Dark Materials trilogy was turned into a polished prime time TV series by the BBC and HBO, and around the same time the second volume of his follow-up trilogy landed in book shops. The Secret Commonwealth shows us a more grown-up, cynical Lyra who finds herself embarking on a perilous journey east without her estranged daemon Pan.

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    4. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

    £7.50
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    Author Bernadine Evaristo was unwittingly (and faultlessly) at the centre of one of 2019’s biggest literary controversies when she was forced to share the limelight with Margaret Atwood for the 2019 Booker Prize. Whether she should have claimed the prize in isolation is by the by. Cut through the fuss and you’re left with a brilliant book, Girl, Woman, Other, which tells a tale of a racially diverse modern Britain through 12 mostly black and British perspectives.

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    Best books of 2019

    5. Quichotte by Salman Rushdie

    £10.00
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    The author of Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses embarks on an unusual project with his latest book, Quichotte - a loose modern day retelling of Don Quixote. The titular character is an ageing travelling salesman and a hopeless romantic, but an unhealthy obsession with trashy TV makes it hard for him to tell fact from fiction.

    Having lost his job, Quichotte sets off across America with his imaginary son, Sancho, on a mission to woo the famous object of his affections.

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    6. The Topeka School by Ben Lerner

    £13.27
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    The Topeka School follows the musings of 17-year-old debate wizard Adam Gordon (a younger version of the protagonist of Lerner’s first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station), as well as his psychologist parents John and Jane, and loner schoolmate Darren Eberhard. Despite the late ’90s Kansas setting, the book deals with many of the major themes concerning modern America, such as the coarsening of public discourse and the roots of toxic masculinity.

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    7. Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellman

    £9.62
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    Shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2019, Ducks, Newburyport has attracted a great deal of buzz since its release. Its stream-of-consciousness narrative is splurged across 1,000 pages, channeling every last thought of a middle-aged Ohio housewife as she goes about baking her pies.

    The reader is bombarded by the narrator’s musings on everything from the plight of African elephants and her fear of firearms to her feelings about her parents - all of which combine to tell us something profound about modern America.

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    8. Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan

    £9.49
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    Ian McEwan delves into the world of speculative fiction in Machines Like Me. It is set in an alternate history Britain where Alan Turing was allowed to thrive and jumpstart the computer revolution decades early.

    Turing’s work on advanced artificial intelligence has resulted in the creation of an eerily human-like helper, which leads to the muddled relationship at the heart of the book. It’s a truly bizarre love triangle between fresh android Adam, his owner Charlie, and the latter’s girlfriend Miranda.

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    Best books of 2019

    9. Dishoom: From Bombay with Love by Shamil Thakrar, Kavi Thakra, and Naved Nasir

    £12.99
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    Across nine years and seven London restaurants, the Dishoom group has brought a modern take on Indian cooking to hungry Londoners with considerable style and a bottomless supply of chai. Few cookbooks have been as hotly anticipated as this first effort from Dishoom co-founders Shamil Thakrar and Kavi Thakrar and executive chef Naved Nasir.

    It’s as much a lavish guide to Bombay culture as a recipe book - though many of the restaurant’s famous dishes (hello black daal) are present and accounted for.

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    Best books of 2019

    10. Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

    £19.99
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    Gideon the Ninth recently got the nod from Amazon as its best science fiction and fantasy book of the year. You don’t need to take word of a monolithic online retailer, though. Tamsyn Muir’s tale of lesbian necromancers, ancient orders, brutal swordplay and deadly rituals has already won a legion of devoted fans. With a sequel set for June 2020, you won’t want to leave it too long to find out what all the fuss is about.

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    11. How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell

    £14.06
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    Part self help book, part political manifesto, How to Do Nothing proved to be an immensely timely release from artist and writer Jenny Odell. In a world where our attention is demanded at every minute of every day by the bleeping device in our pocket, and where the constant bombardment of information (and misinformation) can be overwhelming, Odell offers her very own plan for opting out. Once you’ve read this, you’ll never look at Facebook or Twitter the same again.

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    Best books of 2019

    12. Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry

    £7.49
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    Kevin Barry’s third novel made it onto the Booker Prize longlist for 2019. It’s a blackly comic story about two middle-aged Irish criminals waiting at a ferry terminal in southern Spain for any sign of a missing daughter.

    More than one critic has pointed to the influence of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot as this flawed pair of thugs indulge in bored banter and philosophical musing. Through al this, Barry’s lyrical dialogue is full of life and dark humour.

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    13. The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy

    £7.49
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    Deborah Levy’s The Man Who Saw Everything is a hallucinogenic trip through time and recent European politics, flitting between East Berlin just prior to the wall coming down and London just prior to the Brexit referendum.

    The novel jumps back and forth as we follow the romantic and political entanglements of protagonist Saul Adler, a self-involved historian who appears to be fighting for his life in 2016. Nominated for the Man Booker Prize, Levy’s book is a tough one to pin down in the best possible way.

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    14. Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang

    £11.89
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    Ted Chiang’s Exhalation: Stories is a collection of nine mind-expanding sci-fi tales that touch upon time travel, the search for alien intelligence, digital pets, and plenty of stargazey philosophy. Chiang’s infrequent contributions to the sci-fi genre have long been highly valued, and in recent years have burst through to the mainstream (the 2016 film Arrival was based on a Chiang short story). Exhalation: Stories is a brilliant example of why that’s the case.

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    15. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Tempest by Alan Moore and Kevin O’ Neill

    £16.64
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    Alan Moore had a profound impact on popular culture in 2019, whether he likes it or not, thanks to the success of Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen TV spinoff. But the year also saw the grand old master signing off from the comic book medium altogether with the release of the final volume in his long-running The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series. Arguably the biggest literary crossover event ever comes to a suitably apocalyptic conclusion with Moore’s customary wit and dark humour.

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    16. Rusty Brown by Chris Ware

    £12.50
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    The author of Jimmy Corrigan and Building Stories took nearly 20 years to write Rusty Brown, and it shows. This graphic novel earns the description ‘epic’, even though its multiple narratives spring from a single mundane school day in ’70s Nebraska, and never shift from their focus on the everyday travails of ordinary people.

    Ware’s intricate, stylised, instruction-manual-like artwork feels like it’s been designed as much as drawn, with each wide page packed with detailed panels.

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    Best books of 2019

    17. Clyde Fans by Seth

    £28.98
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    Like Rusty Brown (also featured on this list), Clyde is a graphic novel - or ‘picture novel’ - some 20 years in the making. It tells the story of two fan salesmen brothers who inherit their father’s business in mid-twentieth century Canada.

    This odd couple broods and bickers throughout the decades as the rise of air conditioning threatens their livelihood. Seth’s nostalgic blue-and-black art style suits the period mood perfectly, and does a great job at selling this gentle indictment of 20th century capitalism.

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    18. From the Oven to the Table by Diana Henry

    £12.50
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    Plenty of cook books will promise to save you time and labour, but few have done so with as much thought or success as Diana Henry’s 2019 bestseller. From the Oven to the Table is full of delicious one-pan recipes that can literally be thrown together with little skill or consideration. It’s perfect for those faff-free after-work meals. The book also includes plenty of recipes that focus on grains, pulses and vegetables rather than meat and fish.

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    19. Underland by Robert Macfarlane

    £15.13
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    Robert Macfarlane’s Underland is a work of narrative non-fiction that dives into our world’s mysterious underground ecosystems. As well as an impeccably researched scientific core, and the claustrophobic first hand experience of its intrepid author, the book finds time to look into the underworld mythologies and the literature that have been inspired by Earth’s dark places over the millennia. It also deals poignantly with the way that mankind is polluting and exploiting the spaces beneath its feet.

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    20. Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe

    £6.99
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    An impeccably reported account of the murder of 38-year-old widow and mother Jean McConville amidst the turmoil of the Troubles in 1972 Northern Ireland. In Say Nothing, writer Patrick Radden Keefe interviews members involved with both sides of the incident and of the wider conflict. What’s most startling is that he manages to make something of a breakthrough in a case that dates back almost 40 years. It’s a piece of historical true crime writing with the meticulous plotting of a first rate detective novel.

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