Deciding whether to recommend a book or not is always tough, as enjoyment of a book is such a subjective experience. For that reason, we’re deeply grateful to all the book prizes that exist, with judging panels that spend months reading dozens of entries before deciding, together, on a winner. Judges also often have specialist experience in the subject they’re choosing books for—suggesting these books are more than just an enjoyable read but quality accounts that are worth spending your time on.
Below, we’ve listed all the books that have won prizes this year, including nonfiction, history, science, travel and more.
“This book comes out of that fine North American tradition of nonfiction writing—a deeply researched and meticulously told account of a real event. It’s about a fire that happened up in the subarctic region of Canada, which is, by definition, very remote. It’s a very hard place to earn a living and it tells you a lot about human beings that tens of thousands of people have moved up there to work in the tar sands industry. This is a part of the oil industry that should be marginal because it’s very difficult to get the oil out. You have to expend huge amounts of electricity and natural gas to lift the sands and then to melt and render out the oil…Fire Weather tells the story of what happens when everything goes wrong and the unthinkable happens…this fire in 2016 went completely out of control. There are various reasons for that, but it points to a bigger issue around changes in the climate. The author gives you a very vivid account of that extraordinary event, which affected 90,000. It destroyed much of this place, Fort McMurray, and made a lot of people homeless. 2,400 structures were destroyed and 1,000 more were damaged.” Read more...
The Best Nonfiction Books: The 2023 Baillie Gifford Prize Shortlist
🏆 Winner of the 2023 Cundill History Prize
If you want to understand China, there is one piece of its history that you must understand, and that's the Cultural Revolution. Nothing about the present makes sense without it. More than 100 million people were affected and yet, unlike Rwanda, South Africa or Germany post-World War II, China has yet to come to terms with what happened during those ten years of chaos.
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“What Red Memory does very powerfully, as many specialist works on the Cultural Revolution have done before it, is to show that one of the deeply disturbing things about that decade was that people could begin on one side of the perpetrator-victim divide and end up on the other or flip back and forth between them. It’s a real mistake to try to divide up the people who suffered and the people who caused suffering because it was often members of the same family who were affected in different ways, and there were individuals who were victims and victimizers during different parts of their lives. Efforts to simplify this complicated event creates real problems for understanding China.” Read more...
The Best China Books of 2023
“It really is an absolutely marvelous read, from start to finish. It’s just very intriguing. It focuses on animal senses—including smell, sight, hearing, and echolocation, among others. It’s written in a way that truly defines what a great science book is, in that it takes a topic and describes it in a clear scientific manner, but also in a way that really makes the reader think. It really makes you think about all the different senses and all these animals with their amazing senses all around us. The book opens up the reader to a whole new world. As humans, we use sight as our main sense to interpret the world around us. But for dogs, for example, their main sense is smell. Learning how a dog, and all the other animals discussed in the book, interpret the world around them was truly intriguing. I also learned about animals that I’d never heard about before. I learned about the star-nosed mole and the fire-chaser beetle, which is really quite amazing. Fire-chaser beetles sense forest fires from miles away and go there to lay their eggs. I really went ‘Wow!’ learning about that. After finishing the book, I felt I had a new appreciation for the world around me and all the species of animals that inhabit it. It really made me think and understand that we are not the only ones here. It’s quite special.” Read more...
The Best Science Books of 2023: The Royal Society Book Prize
“Amy Edmondson is a very distinguished Harvard researcher, best known for having explored the concept of ‘psychological safety.’ This is the idea, which she pursues further in this book, that you can only advance and become more successful if you are in an environment where you can safely admit—and indeed call out—errors and mistakes being made. She did a lot of work, which recurs in this book, in the healthcare sector. That’s where she started and where she discovered—slightly to her astonishment—that it wasn’t the teams that were making the fewest errors that were the most successful. It was the teams that were admitting to the most errors, because they were then able to correct and work together to improve. That is the fundamental underpinning of her research and that of others in this area. She bases this on a fundamental point: that if we’re not able to admit to failure and to approach failure in a constructive way, we’re never going to want to take any risks. We’re not going to be able to make the smarter and more adventurous decisions that lead us to advance. I find it a very compelling hypothesis, well backed up by research and interesting tales – everything from the Columbia shuttle disaster to open heart surgery – to show how we reached the level of sophistication that we now have in some of these vital areas. I think it’s an important book from an important researcher.” Read more...
The Best Business Books of 2023: the Financial Times Business Book of the Year Award
“It’s comprehensive, and that’s very important because a problem with history writing in general, but particularly with resistance, is that it tends to be written from a nation-centric point of view…But this was a pan-European movement and what she does really well is to identify first of all the commonalities. In all of these countries, when you look at underground resistance movements, similar things happened. They had clandestine literature, they collected intelligence, later on they started engaging in sabotage and armed conflict. All of this is happening at different moments and in different ways, but it is happening across Europe. But looking at it across Europe gives you a sense that geography, too, matters. What happens in Eastern Europe is different from Western Europe. That’s the other big takeaway from the book. The Nazis, beyond a certain point in the East, simply regarded these territories as fodder.” Read more...
The Best History Books of 2023: The Wolfson History Prize
“Hoover answered to no voters. The quintessential ‘Government Man,’ a counselor and advisor to eight U.S. presidents, of both political parties, he was one of the most powerful, unelected government officials in history. He reigned over the Federal Bureau of Investigations from 1924 to 1972. Hoover began as a young reformer and—as he accrued power—was simultaneously loathed and admired. Through Hoover, Gage skilfully guides readers through the full arc of 20th-century America, and contends: ‘We cannot know our own story without understanding his.'” Read more...
The Best Biographies of 2023: The National Book Critics Circle Shortlist
“This is a remarkable book. Owen Matthews is a very experienced journalist with a quarter of a century history of working as the Moscow correspondent of various world media. He’s well-known to the Russia-watching community and he has written a number of books. In my personal opinion, this book has the best possible title: Overreach. It’s one of those cases where a word is spot on. It symbolizes the whole complex thing in just one word…You have a nice little plan which you’re sure will succeed. You have done the same thing before, and it went fine. Then you do it again, but on a larger scale, and everything collapses around your ears. You have overplayed your hand.” Read more...
The Best Russia Books: The 2023 Pushkin House Prize
“The hapless ambassador to the second-order monarch finds himself in these extraordinary palaces, where he hangs around and it’s not even clear that he’s going to be given an audience. Das is conjuring this world. Every sentence gives you a present. It’s absolutely wonderful. It’s constructed like a Swiss watch: everything locks in and returns. One moment you find yourself in Jacobean London, and then, the next moment, you’re encountering something oriental and remote.” Read more...
The Best Nonfiction Books: The 2024 Duff Cooper Prize
🏆 Winner of the 2023 Orwell Prize for Political Writing (nonfiction)
“The title of this book, ‘Show Me the Bodies,’ is of course the response that is ascribed to one of the civil servants working in the Department for Communities and Local Government who was warned before the Grenfell catastrophe that fire safety rules needed to be tightened. To have such an expansive history of Grenfell is phenomenal. The book is an incredible journey through the last 40 years of sometimes neglect, sometimes just carelessness, in the management of our housing stock by successive governments, ministers and civil servants, as well as councillors and building suppliers. It’s very carefully researched and unflinching.
It’s a very forensic look at how we got to Grenfell, but also all the other issues that we face in social housing. It’s not only devastating about the horrific tragedy at Grenfell, but it’s also the years of abuse that we’ve put people through because of the substandard quality of housing that they have lived in.”
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🏆 The Edward Stanford Travel Book of the Year, 2023
Mountaineer and former Silicon Valley executive Silvia Vasquez-Lavado’s inspirational story intertwines her quest to summit Mount Everest with a vulnerable meditation on her traumatic Peruvian childhood and the story of her struggle to succeed as an immigrant in the United States. After witnessing domestic violence and becoming a victim of child sexual abuse, the author details her struggles with relationships, growing ambition, and coming to terms with her sexuality as a gay woman. Later, mountain climbing becomes a fixation, and a form of catharsis. “Reaching the top isn’t about the accomplishment,” she writes. “It’s about walking in the shadows long enough to see the other side, about learning how to roll with other women and men, and how to lean on and support others instead of white-knuckling life alone.” Kirkus described it as an “emotionally raw and courageous memoir”; the New York Times said it was “cinematic.”
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🏆 Winner of the 2023 Elizabeth Longford Prize for Historical Biography
The foreigners who fought against Franco in Spain are much feted in literature and the popular imagination, those who helped India fight for its independence from the British Empire not so much. In this book, Indian historian Ramachandra Guha tells the story of seven of them (five Brits and two Americans), rescuing them from obscurity.
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“Bard professor and New Yorker writer Hua Hsu’s Stay True centres upon the death of a Berkeley classmate in a bungled armed robbery. The Pulitzer judges declared it an ‘elegant and poignant coming of age account that considers intense, youthful friendships but also random violence that can suddenly and permanently alter the presumed logic of our personal narratives.'” Read more...
Notable Memoirs of 2023
Five Books Editor
“I cried several times. This is the story of a father and daughter setting up a bakery in the village of Watlington in Oxfordshire. What gives it its narrative drive is that their baking was born out of Kitty suffering from depression at the devastatingly young age of 14. Purely by accident, her father alighted on baking as something that seemed to draw her out of it. He really captures that. They alternate. So he writes and then she writes, and then he writes, and she writes—so you get her perspective, his perspective, her perspective, his perspective. You really get a sense of their relationship…He was an amateur baker, and it just happened to be something that gradually drew her out of her depression, so they baked more together. Then she really fell for it, and her mum would take her all around the country to different bakeries to speak to bakers. She learned from them, read everything, watched YouTube. She just inhaled baking, basically. She inhaled the aroma of bread and baked more and more for her local community. Then they had pop ups and then, finally, they got their own little bakery called the Orange Bakery.” Read more...
The Best Food Books: The 2023 Fortnum & Mason Food And Drink Awards
Cooks & Food Writer