If one word summed up 2019, it might be uncertainty: in politics, in the future of our environment, in our ability to predict just what will happen next. But throughout the chaos, one thing has stood firm, and that's our love of a good read: in January it was reported that 190.9 million books were sold in the UK, a figure which has risen for the fourth year in a row.

Providing some much needed escapism is only part of the story. Throughout 2019, books were at the centre of the most important debates taking place in society, from climate change to gender equality to the mental health crisis. Sometimes they have enriched our understanding of difficult topics in a way endlessly scrolling social media simply can not. Sometimes they have started conversations we didn't even know we needed to have. 

Here, then, are the books we think have helped shape 2019, from transformative novels to agenda-setting journalism, inspiring memoirs to data-crunching eye-openers.

  • Becoming

  • An intimate, powerful, and inspiring memoir; 15 million copies sold worldwide






    In a life filled with meaning and accomplishment, Michelle Obama has emerged as one of the most iconic and compelling women of our era.

    As First Lady of the United States of America - the first African-American to serve in that role - she helped create the most welcoming and inclusive White House in history, while also establishing herself as a powerful advocate for women and girls in the U.S. and around the world. She dramatically changed the ways that families pursue healthier and more active lives, and stood with her husband as he led America through some of its most harrowing moments. Along the way, she showed us a few dance moves, crushed Carpool Karaoke, and raised two down-to-earth daughters under an unforgiving media glare.

    In her memoir, a work of deep reflection and mesmerizing storytelling, Michelle Obama invites readers into her world, chronicling the experiences that have shaped her - from her childhood on the South Side of Chicago to her years as an executive balancing the demands of motherhood and work, to her time spent at the world's most famous address. With unerring honesty and lively wit, she describes her triumphs and her disappointments, both public and private, telling her full story as she has lived it - in her own words and on her own terms.

    Warm, wise, and revelatory, Becoming is the deeply personal reckoning of a woman of soul and substance who has steadily defied expectations - and whose story inspires us to do the same.

    'A rich, entertaining and candid memoir. And overall Obama's a fun person to sit alongside as she tells you the story of her life . . . it is as beautifully written as any piece of fiction' i

    'A genuine page-turner, full of intimacies and reflections' Evening Standard

    'Offers new insights into her upbringing on the south side of Chicago and the highs and lows of life with Barack Obama . . . a refreshing level of honesty about what politics really did to her' Guardian

    'An inspirational memoir that also rings true' Daily Telegraph

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This was the year Becoming became Amazon’s longest-standing No. 1 title since Fifty Shades of Grey, won a British Book Awards and saw its author go on a sell-out worldwide arena tour. Oprah Winfrey called the book "tender, compelling, powerful and raw". The New York Times called it "a polished pearl". Surely no coincidence, then, that in May an international YouGov poll saw Michelle Obama surpass Angelina Jolie to become the most admired woman in the world. 

So why all the fuss? As political memoirs go, Becoming was popular for the same reasons Michelle Obama was one of the most admired First Ladies in history. It radiates warmth, wit and honesty as it explores her childhood, her studies, young love, marriage, motherhood, miscarriage and the loneliness of life when your partner is the most powerful person in the world.

Rather than fade from the public view, Obama is arguably more influential than ever since leaving the White House and Becoming is one of the reasons why.

Further reading: 5 things we learned about Michelle Obama in Becoming

Caroline Criado-Perez’s game-changing analysis of the facts that get missed when we talk about gender equality was one of the most important books of 2019. From speech-recognition software to bulletproof vests, medical tests to office temperature controls, it is a prejudice-skewering exposé of all the ways in which the world is designed for men as a default.

The book had such an impact on the conversation around gender, it won Criado-Perez – who holds an OBE and successfully pushed for Jane Austen to be featured on the UK’s £10 note in 2017 — the prestigious Royal Society science prize in September. As one judge said: 'This important and vital book is only the beginning of the conversations we need to be having about how to make sure modern life works properly for everyone, no matter who they are.' 

Writing for the Guardian, author Diana Evans called Queenie an 'important political tome of black womanhood and black British life, a rare perspective from the margins.' It follows a 26-year-old Jamaican-British woman living in London and working at a national newspaper staffed primarily by white people who, following a messy break up, reaches her wit’s end and descends into full blown self-destruct mode. 

As well as being exceptionally funny, Queenie was important evidence of the huge appetite for fiction dealing with black identity in Britain, becoming one of the most celebrated and talked about novels of the year.

For a few months around Easter, it was impossible to walk along a London Tube platform or a bus stop without seeing a strange, rubbery, topless man staring back at you. Was he a robot, or just a well-oiled male model? Closer inspection revealed it was the cover of Ian McEwan’s new book, Machines Like Me.

Ubiquitous too has been the subject of artificial intelligence, the central concern of McEwan’s alternative history in which synthetic humans have come early to 1980s London. One of the many pertinent questions this beautifully written and stunningly conceived novel poses is: if we built a machine that could look into our hearts, could we really expect it to like what it sees? 

Further reading: Ian McEwan on rewriting the past and artificial intelligence

The novel that shared the Booker Prize with Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments would have, in perhaps any other year, won it on its own. Bold, brilliant and formally daring, Girl, Woman, Other weaves the interconnected stories of twelve mostly black British women and one non-binary character in a blend of prose and poetry that pushed new boundaries for the form.

It will be remembered by history for making Evaristo became the first black female winner of Britain’s most prestigious literary prize, but by readers as a brilliant story they couldn't put down and wanted to talk about with everyone they met.

Further reading: Bernardine Evaristo: 'Older black women, who writes about that?' 

  • This Is Not A Drill

  • Extinction Rebellion are inspiring a whole generation to take action on climate breakdown.
    Now you can become part of the movement - and together, we can make history.

    It's time. This is our last chance to do anything about the global climate and ecological emergency. Our last chance to save the world as we know it.

    Now or never, we need to be radical. We need to rise up. And we need to rebel.

    Extinction Rebellion is a global activist movement of ordinary people, demanding action from Governments. This is a book of truth and action. It has facts to arm you, stories to empower you, pages to fill in and pages to rip out, alongside instructions on how to rebel - from organising a roadblock to facing arrest.

    By the time you finish this book you will have become an Extinction Rebellion activist. Act now before it's too late.

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Unless you live on another, hopefully far healthier planet, you’ll have heard of Extinction Rebellion. The protest group blocked roads and bridges, glued themselves to buildings, sprayed the Treasury with 1,800 litres of fake blood and occupied Trafalgar Square: and that's just in London. 

One of the bestselling books of the year, and created in just 10 daysThis Is Not A Drill is a collection of essays by scientists, psychologists, artists and activists designed to help rouse us from our collective lethargy and deliver the group's devastating diagnosis: 'We are in the sixth mass extinction event and we will face catastrophe if we do not act swiftly and robustly.'

Further reading: The books that inspired the Extinction Rebellion protesters

There was much hype surrounding New York Times writer Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s debut novel, and for good reason. Check the book review aggregator Bookmarks and you won't find a single negative review of the satire which turned the marriage novel inside out and became a talking point at dinner parties on both sides of the Atlantic.

It tells the story of a post-split couple struggling to come to terms with their past. He’s a newly dating app-obsessed doctor and she’s a workaholic booking agent. One night, she drops the kids off at 4 am and, with a casual text, vanishes from their lives. What follows is a shrewd poke about in the darkest corners of matrimony and untold truths about female rage, male inadequacy and the delicate power-balance marriage involves.

Another 'have you read it yet?' moment of 2019 - this time, non-fiction - Three Women is a painstakingly researched study of the sex and love lives of three women that, as one reviewer put it, confirmed 'the hypocrisies of the heterosexual marriage, the psychological scars that sexual coercion and violence can leave on a person, and the persistence of gender inequality.'

Taddeo immersed herself in the lives of her subjects who were from quite different regions and backgrounds – an intimacy-starved housewife trapped in a passionless marriage; a student whose life is destroyed by an affair with a married teacher; and a reluctant swinger whose husband forces her to have threesomes that leave her feeling empty and unmoored.

A beautifully compassionate and complex feat of modern storytelling, it was a book that, in some ways, captured the #metoo movement in a way no book had done before.

One of the most keenly anticipated books of the year, the latest instalment in Malorie Blackman's Nought and Crosses saga didn't disappoint and was a timely reminder of the impact and influence of the series that grime superstar Stormzy calls 'still my favourite books of all time,' poet Benjamin Zephaniah named 'the most original book I ever read' and Queenie author Candice Carty-Williams described as 'one of the few books about black people, so I felt seen.' 

Crossfire once again takes place in a topsy-turvy alternate Britain in which a white underclass, the “Noughts”, were once enslaved by the “Crosses” and encounter constant racial prejudice. While forbidden love was at the story’s core twenty years ago, this new book is focused more on power, and what people will do to grasp it. "Every aspect of our lives is governed by politics,” she writes in Crossfire's preface. "[Brexit and Trump have] brought home to me just how potent the politics of fear and division can be." Timely, and important.

Further reading: How Malorie Blackman tackles Brexit and Trump in Crossfire

  • How To Be an Antiracist

  • Not being racist is not enough. We have to be antiracist.

    In this rousing and deeply empathetic book, Ibram X. Kendi, founding director of the Antiracism Research and Policy Center, shows that when it comes to racism, neutrality is not an option: until we become part of the solution, we can only be part of the problem.

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In a year in which the President of the United States both told his political rivals, all women of colour, they should 'go back to the places from which they came' and a few days later declared 'I am the least racist person there is anywhere in the world,' the time feels right for a reassessment of how we talk and think about race.

Ibram X. Kendi's ground-breaking book How to be an Antiracist does just that. As the American professor told Penguin.co.uk: 'There has always been an effort in the United States and across the world, for people to not use the term racist. And that’s because denial of racism is the heartbeat of racism.' Profiles in the Guardian and the New Yorker followed. Lucid, fearless and full of empathy, it's a book people of all backgrounds will feel improved and invigorated by. 

Further reading: Meet the man who wants to change how you think about race

In 2017, David Wallace-Well's long-form essay for New York magazine, 'The Uninhabitable Earth', become both a touchstone and a catalyst for the environmental movement. Millions of people read it, even if through their fingers to learn, for the first time the scale of the ecological disaster already bringing havoc across the globe.

Like Greta Thunberg’s No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference and This is Not a Drill, the book he wrote next is a manifesto for action, and a forest fire on the brain. His point, in essence, is this: no matter how well-informed you think you are, you are not alarmed enough.

Further reading: David Wallace-Wells on climate change: 'It's worse, much worse than you think'

There are uranium enrichment sites whose whereabouts were less closely guarded than advance copies of Margaret Atwood's follow up to The Handmaid's Tale, leading to what was inarguably the publishing event of the year: millions tuned in to watch the author interviewed on TV, reading parties sprung up across the country and green handmaids queued outside bookshops at midnight to get their copy. 

The best part was that it was all worth it. The novel, set in the dying days of the Gilead regime, earned not just rave reviews but a share of the Booker Prize. Like her original dystopia, The Testaments - and Atwood's wry, wise interviews about it - got the world talking in a new way about history, politics and the dangers of inequality. It's hard to imagine a book having a bigger or more important impact than that.

Further reading: Margaret Atwood on the real-life events that inspired The Handmaid's Tale

  • The Secret Commonwealth: The Book of Dust Volume Two

  • It is twenty years since the events of La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust Volume One unfolded and saw the baby Lyra Belacqua begin her life-changing journey.

    It is almost ten years since readers left Lyra and the love of her young life, Will Parry, on a park bench in Oxford's Botanic Gardens at the end of the ground-breaking, bestselling His Dark Materials sequence.

    Now, in The Secret Commonwealth, we meet Lyra Silvertongue. And she is no longer a child . . .

    The second volume of Philip Pullman's The Book of Dust sees Lyra, now twenty years old, and her daemon Pantalaimon, forced to navigate their relationship in a way they could never have imagined, and drawn into the complex and dangerous factions of a world that they had no idea existed. Pulled along on his own journey too is Malcolm; once a boy with a boat and a mission to save a baby from the flood, now a man with a strong sense of duty and a desire to do what is right.

    Theirs is a world at once familiar and extraordinary, and they must travel far beyond the edges of Oxford, across Europe and into Asia, in search for what is lost - a city haunted by daemons, a secret at the heart of a desert, and the mystery of the elusive Dust.

    The Secret Commonwealth is truly a book for our times; a powerful adventure and a thought-provoking look at what it is to understand yourself, to grow up and make sense of the world around you. This is storytelling at its very best from one of our greatest writers.

    *The first book in The Book of Dust trilogy, La Belle Sauvage, is coming to the stage in the summer of this year. Performed at The Bridge Theatre from July 2020, it will be a theatrical spectacle not to be missed*

    Reviews for The Secret Commonwealth: The Book of Dust Volume Two:

    "[Pullman] has created a fantasy world, made yet more satisfying in rigour and stylistic elegance. This is a book for getting older with" Guardian, Book of the Week

    "The Secret Commonwealth is ablaze with light and life. The writing is exquisite; every sentence sings ... To read Pullman is to experience the world refreshed, aglow, in Technicolour" i

    "Pullman's story is still thought-provoking ... This book elegantly weaves in live issues, from Europe's refugee crisis to facts in the post-truth era. And Pullman's prose is rewarding as ever" The Times

    "A long, taxing, complex journey, laced with beauty, terror and philosophy" Metro

    "As ever, Pullman's story is complex and vast but home to some of the finest storytelling in the 21st century. Revel in whole new worlds and enjoy one of literature's most wonderful heroines before she comes to HBO and the BBC" Stylist

    "Pullman is confronting readers with the horrors of our own world reflected back at us. In The Secret Commonwealth he creates a fearful symmetry" The Herald

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Another huge return in YA fiction this year was Philip Pullman, who in October released The Secret Commonwealth, the second instalment of his Book of Dust series, some twenty years after he established himself as one of Britain’s greatest living storytellers with the sensational His Dark Materials trilogy (for a taste of quite how popular they are, consider that, in 2003, the trilogy came third in a national poll of BBC viewers' favourite books, after The Lord of the Rings and Pride and Prejudice).

The Secret Commonwealth re-joins heroine Lyra Belacqua, now an adult, in her lifelong battle against the all-powerful, theocratic Magisterium, a group of evil overlords that oversee a fantasy world in which people’s souls take on the form of animals called daemons. And once again it saw Pullman break new ground for what books aimed at younger readers can achieve. 

Further reading: All you need to know about The Book of Dust 

In 2018 a 15-year-old Greta Thunberg bunked off school to hold a one-person protest outside Sweden’s parliament building. She did the same every Friday until people began to notice, not just in her homeland, but across Europe, then the world.

By 2019, her quiet voice had grown into a klaxon as she became the figurehead of a global youth movement that has pushed the climate crisis to the top of the news agenda and inspired millions to take to the streets. Her speeches have become legendary, and No One is Too Small to Make a Difference is a collection of those words that should - and did - find its way into a new generation of activists. 

Further reading: Meet the young climate activists demanding change

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