Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones
"My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist," begins this cleverly structured, emotionally punchy novel about two African-American teenage girls who discover they are sisters. Like Jones’s bestselling novel An American Marriage (2018), Silver Sparrow is set in Atlanta, Georgia in the mid-1980s.
The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
Mantel concludes her monumental Wolf Hall trilogy about Thomas Cromwell with an exhilarating novel, massive in scope, wrenching in climax and swarming with familiar friends from the Tudor court. Yes, at 900 pages, there is fat that could have been trimmed, but at the expense of flavour. The reader’s senses are deliciously engaged, and her mordant wit makes itself felt like pins stuck in a yard of velvet.
Ladies Can’t Climb Ladders by Jane Robinson
Looking back at the UK’s 1919 Act that allowed women to train in medicine, law and other professions, this book celebrates the unsung heroines who paved the way for career women today. It’s not just an important work of scholarship, but also a crackingly good read.
The Habsburgs by Martyn Rady
This scrupulously even-handed chronicle of the Habsburg dynasty, starting in the 10th century and ending in 2011 with the death of its last crown prince, amounts to a magnificent panorama of a millennium of European history, spiced up with dry asides and droll anecdotes.
Weather by Jenny Offill
In fragmented vignettes, like her 2014 novel, Dept of Speculation, Offill depicts an American woman’s quotidian anxieties – a young son, an addict brother, money worries – rubbing up against her near-paralysing fear of "the coming chaos" of climate apocalypse. Masterfully marrying humour and dread, this is a novel about coming to terms with helplessness.
Parallel lives by Phyllis Rose
Finally back in print, this classic 1983 study of five Victorian marriages (including those of George Eliot, John Ruskin and Charles Dickens) offers timeless observations about human nature, and how conventional relationships can prove "banal and sterile".
Here we are by Graham Swift
Like his superb novella Mothering Sunday, Swift’s Here We Are is about working-class aspiration – and, in particular, the aspiration to self-expression. Set in late-1950s Brighton, it unpicks a love triangle between Jack, the compere of the pier show, Ronnie, the illusionist, and his fiancee, the comely assistant Evie. The eventual reveal is a surprise and a delight.
Blooming Flowers by Kasia Boddy
This joyful, elegant study of how poets, philosophers and politicians have seen meaning in various types of flowers – from the Cold War symbol of "Daisy Girl" to D H Lawrence’s verdict on the daffodil ("ruffled birds on their perches") – is a tour de force.
How innovation works by Matt Ridley
The author of The Rational Optimist takes us from the rise of heat-melded tools in the late Stone Age to the dawn of gene editing in his history of innovation, which advances the bold theory that necessity isn’t the mother of invention – freedom is.
Coffeeland by Augustine Sedgewick
By telling the story of one man’s ascent from the slums of 19th-century Manchester to his later fortune in coffee plantations in El Salvador, Coffeeland reveals the strength of the mysterious lines of force drawn by commodities exported from the world’s poorest countries to the richest. It also becomes a pocket history of globalisation itself.
Warhol by Blake Gopnik
For Gopnik, Warhol has "overtaken Picasso as the most important and influential artist of the 20th century". But he cultivated the art of concealment, keeping his beliefs and sexuality private. This rollicking book is a formidable achievement, but for all its accumulation of detail, scholarship and gossip, Warhol remains essentially, brilliantly unknowable.
Humankind by Rutger Bregman, (translators) Elizabeth Manton and Erica Moore
People are kind, and tough times bring out the best of us; that’s the thesis behind this uplifting and compulsively readable mash-up of science, history, psychology, anthropology and economics from the Dutch wunderkind behind Utopia for Realists.
Notes from an apocalypse by Mark O’Connell
In this fretful, funny book, O’Connell peeks into the world of the "preppers" – those making urgent plans for the end of days. His pilgrimages take him from South Dakota, where subterranean shelters offer "turnkey apocalypse solutions", to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, "a fever-dream of a world gone void".
Sitopia by Carolyn Steel
With a surprising amount of philosophy Trojan-horsed into what is ostensibly a book about food, Steel argues that the Industrial Revolution ruptured our relationship with what we eat. From the food security crisis to our "obesogenic" 21st-century culture and smartphone addictions, there’s scarcely a modern malaise she doesn’t brilliantly unpick.
Hollywood’s eve by Lili Anolik
Sharp-witted LA author Eve Babitz ate muffins with Warhol, drank chartreuse with Dali and played chess with Duchamp. She said she had affairs with Jim Morrison and Harrison Ford. Anolik’s biography tells the remarkable story of this "louche, wayward, headlong, hidden genius of Los Angeles".
The bird way by Jennifer Ackerman
Chapter by meatily evidence-based chapter, Ackerman lays out the assumptions that underpin our understanding of birds – then pecks them apart. Birds, it turns out, can learn other languages, play, laugh and lie – and they see the world in such radiant colour that it makes our vision feel monochrome by contrast.