Lionel Barber, editor of the FT
Good books on America’s Revolutionary War against the British are a dime a dozen. Rick Atkinson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist-turned-military historian, has produced something special in The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777 (Henry Holt), a sweeping narrative which captures the spirit and the savagery of the times. Based on exhaustive research on both sides of the Atlantic, Atkinson displays a mastery of the English language as well as military tactics which puts him in a class of his own as a writer.
Tayari Jones, author of An American Marriage, winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction
Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn (Liveright/Oneworld) is even better than her debut Here Comes The Sun. Patsy is a Jamaican woman, who travels to the US to reunite with her childhood friend with whom she is in love. When she finds her, she finds their connection is lost and she is adrift in New York, unloved, undocumented. She works as a nanny, which is ironic, since she has left her own child behind in Jamaica. It’s a heartbreaker but a heart mender, too. It’s especially timely as immigration and family separation is a serious issue; it’s also a satisfying read with no easy answers, but so much compassion.
Frederick Studemann, FT’s literary editor
2019 has already delivered many delights to the FT books desk. One standout theme is AI, which has captured the minds of writers of fiction and non-fiction alike. I enjoyed Marcus du Sautoy’s The Creativity Code (Fourth Estate) which brought a welcome blend of expertise and fluency in spelling out machine learning’s creative capabilities (I am still trying to find the passage written by an algorithm) — and limitations.
Looking more to the past, one poignant read was Metropolis by Philip Kerr (Quercus), who died last year. The book is the 14th in the Bernie Gunther series of thrillers tracking the life and scrapes of a Berlin detective, as he negotiates Weimar’s darker sides, the horrors of Nazi Germany and beyond. His final outing takes the grizzled, compromised, yet also sympathetic Bernie back to the beginning. It is the late 1920s and a serial killer is terrifying Berlin. The familiar Weimar notes — political violence, corruption, high-end avant-garde and low morals — are all there, but handled deftly, along with that foreboding that we know what is coming next. A fitting end.
Helle Thorning-Schmidt, chief executive of Save the Children and former prime minister of Denmark
I’ve been married to a Brit for almost 25 years, so I thought I knew British politics and society when I moved to London a couple of months before the referendum. What I hadn’t grasped was the depth of the identity crisis that had defined the British for decades. Jonathan Coe’s brilliant novel Middle England (Viking) traces the causes and consequences of the referendum through a beautifully understated cast of characters. He captures an age of upheaval: the anger, the confusion, the prejudices, the radicalisation of people who would never have been seen as radical. Middle England doesn’t give much cause for hope that Brits will resolve this identity crisis any time soon. But on one point Coe leaves no room for doubt: for better or for worse, they are all in this together.
Alec Russell, editor of FT Weekend
I cannot be alone among FT Weekend readers and editors in having begun 2019 in vowing to read novels about anything but Brexit or Trump. Then along came John Lanchester’s bleak account of an island nation trying to keep out “Others” after a climate catastrophe. The Wall (Faber/WW Norton) powerfully pre-empted the arrival of Extinction Rebellion on the streets of London. Its stark plot also inspired me for a renewed focus on commissioning pieces on climate change, including the young Swedish activist Greta Thunberg for Lunch with the FT. The second half motors along in a rather different way to the first but if you read this on the beach you will surely think again about our future.
Ben Okri, author of ‘The Freedom Artist’
Every now and again a book comes along that shakes the received perception of history. Toby Green’s A Fistful Of Shells (Penguin) is a book that attempts to show, from within mainstream history, that Africa has a rich history and complex civilisations, something that has been obscured in Europe by centuries of assertions and poor scholarship informed by bias and prejudice. It reveals that Africa played a more central role in the world economy before European sabotage and African divisiveness kicked in. A sobering, imperfect, corrective restoration of African history.
Nilanjana Roy, FT columnist
“History, in short, was the annals of the bully on the playground.” Namwali Serpell’s electric debut novel The Old Drift (Hogarth) is richly satisfying in its storytelling and ambition. The Old Drift of the title was once a colonial settlement on the Zambezi river; a swarm of mosquitoes acts as a chorus as Serpell weaves the tales of three Zambian families, dipping from history into sci-fi. Sweeping but also playful, Serpell as a major talent.
Simon Schama, FT contributing editor
Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World — that being the time between organ termination and brain death in the body of an Istanbul prostitute — is long enough for Shafak to narrate how the woman came to be what she was and to do so with a ferocious poetic beauty that swings between the lyric and the brutally tragic. It’s a compulsive page-turner and deep meditation; everyone in it stays with you long after the last page.
Pilita Clark, FT business columnist
Why do so Many Incompetent Men become Leaders? Put another way, how could you see a book with a title like that and not pick it up? I did and was lured by the argument from author, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, who says we make a hash of picking good leaders because we confuse swaggering confidence with competence. The overconfident and narcissistic are in fact often a) poor leaders and b) men who tend to squeeze out humbler, more capable people, who are often women. I recommend all types read this book, some for self-awareness and the rest for self-defence.
Tim Harford, The Undercover Economist
Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism (Portfolio) might be the book that frees up time to let you read a few other books. His starting point is that we have fallen into unhealthy digital habits without thinking about what matters. He challenges us to slough off digital tools for a month, replacing them with alternatives such as reading, physical activity and human contact, then to reflect on our priorities before reintroducing only the digital tools that support those priorities. This book could change your summer, and beyond.
Sharon White, chief executive of Ofcom
If you are desperately seeking light relief in your summer reading, I recommend Late in the Day by Tessa Hadley (Jonathan Cape). I discovered Hadley three summers ago through her earlier novel, The Past. Her latest work centres on the relationships within and between two longstanding marriages — Alex and Christine; and Zach and Lydia. The four have been friends since their twenties. Zach’s sudden death causes the surviving trio to reappraise their entire past. It’s beautifully written with moments of real tenderness — I found it immensely enjoyable and thought-provoking.
Michael Moritz, partner, Sequoia Capital
The author himself is the first to admit that brevity is not his brief. Yet Robert A Caro’s latest book, Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing (Knopf/The Bodley Head) is a delicious quick read. It offers a glimpse into the painstaking approach that has underpinned Caro’s extraordinary accounts of the life of Robert Moses, the man who created modern New York, and his multi-volume (and unfinished) life of President Lyndon Johnson. Years of research, hundreds of interviews and devoted attention to the art of writing lie beneath the shimmering works. Working is an account of what can happen when glorious journalistic skills are turned to the service of history.
Susie Boyt, novelist and FT contributor
In A Stranger City (Virago), Linda Grant gives us a brilliantly complex portrait of contemporary London. The characters are vivid and subtle, negotiating this rapidly changing capital which holds so much menace and charm. It is an inspiring treatment of a bewildering moment of cultural and social upheaval. Grant celebrates and mourns the lived experience of Londoners, now, in a way that has not quite been done before. It is a love letter to a fallen hero.
For a look at the best summer books across genres, go to ft.com/summerbooks2019