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December 2017

Jo's Picks

The Book of Dust

by Philip Pullman
(Knopf/Penguin Random House)

How lovely it is to be in the capable hands of a master storyteller. Pullman is a builder who takes his time. If you want slam bang pow action, then The Book of Dust is not for you, but if you want a great, epically-themed read that draws you in, seduces you with the beauty of the prose and the depth and humanity of the characters, then come on board The Belle Sauvage. Not to abuse the metaphor nor include any spoilers but reading this equal (not a prequel or a sequel) to the Dark Materials trilogy, is like being carried on a grand river (and in fact much of it does take place in a canoe), a swelling of an inexorable force, a building of tension and drama. The tale follows Malcolm, an inquisitive inn-keeper's son, forthright Alice, and Lyra Belacqua from His Dark Materials who is only a baby in this story. So easily does the reader slip into the tale that the pages fly by. It is one of those immersive reads you never want to end, a measured gorgeous foundation, an introduction to new and old beloved and feared characters on which to build the next book.


A Gentleman in Moscow

by Amor Towles
(Viking/Penguin Random House)

This has been compared to Downton Abbey by some because it tells the upstairs and downstairs stories of life in a chic Moscow Hotel during the rise of Stalin. Spanning thirty years, the action is centred around a nobleman, Count Alexander Rostov--deemed an enemy by a Bolshevik tribunal, who is placed under house arrest in the hotel attic. He is a charming character, educated and curious and full of self-deprecating humour and always always gentlemanly. There is an exuberant naivety to him, an openness to new experience, that shines through in every word- the lushness evoked by the simple eating of an apple is almost sensory overload, but the real magic comes through his relationships with a cast of compelling characters, portrayed in luminescent and rich prose. His relationship with an eight-year old girl, Sophia, who is left in his care lends even more piquancy and poignancy to his journey of self-discovery. Historical, romantic, elegant and moving, this is the perfect, curl-up-in-a-comfy-chair-and-READ book. Perhaps with a glass of fine brandy nearby.

Anne-Marie's Pick

Red & Lulu 

Written & Illustrated by Matt Tavares

Every year I like to feature stand-out holiday picture books that, in my humble estimation, would make worthwhile additions to any festive collection. I am a sucker for a handsome-looking picture book, particularly at this time of the year, and my pick this month - Red & Lulu by Matt Tavares - is just that. Its cover features the book’s title in gold lettering and two cardinals flying over an urban street bathed in the glow of an enormous Christmas tree. We discover that these birds made their home in the branches of a towering evergreen tree in a family’s front yard. The highlight of their year was when the tree was decorated on a snowy winter's day and carollers gathered to sing “O Christmas Tree”; sometimes the cardinals even sang along. One day, however, the tree is felled and loaded onto a flat-bed with one of the birds still in its branches. Red desperately tries to locate his mate, tracking the truck to the city where he loses them. Forlorn and alone in a strange landscape, Red despairs he will never see Lulu again. That is until he hears the notes of “O Christmas Tree" and rounds a corner to discover their tree ablaze with colourful lights and Lulu tucked in amongst its branches.  Children will be delighted by the reunion, and comforted by the birds’ decision to move to trees in a nearby park, and everyone will be enchanted by the luminous illustrations which are the foremost attraction of this book. Painted in watercolour and gouache, the scenes are cleverly executed from a bird’s eye view, affording the reader strikingly beautiful perspectives on both natural and urban landscapes. The back story of the tree that is erected every year at New York City’s Rockefeller Center is an interesting epilogue (combined with the fact it is donated to Habitat for Humanity for lumber) particularly given Nova Scotia’s annual donation of just such a tree to Boston.


Alice's Picks

The Inconvenient Indian

by Thomas King
(Doubleday Canada)

The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King, first published in 2012, is now well-established as a canonical book - a classic must-read about the entangled history of white explorers and settlers and the indigenous people of the continent. King is well-known and well-regarded as one of Canada's premier writers and public intellectuals, and this book is a powerful, painful, funny, clear-eyed take on the absurdity and horror that defines this long history. King's very sharp humour lays bare the lies that we've all been educated with and some of us have swallowed whole. This is a very readable book, accessibly written, and with this new edition, there are many well-chosen illustrations, including archival documents, old photographs, and ads, which provide apt visual landing points for the text. A gorgeous gift book, for anyone who is interested in the real history of North America. As the year of Canada 150 comes to a close, this book remains one of the most honest narratives about the longer history, and ongoing relationship, from which this new country was born.


Manhattan Beach

by Jennifer Egan

Manhattan Beach is a deeply satisfying novel by a master of her craft. Jennifer Egan, author of the brilliant (and Pulitzer Award winning) A Visit from the Goon Squad, is the force behind Manhattan Beach, a book set before and during WWII. It's a powerful story with a young woman named Anna Kerrigan at its centre. Her family is the genesis of the story with her father, involved in mysterious employment, who disappears, and her mother, a former showgirl who is now caring for Anna and her nonverbal, wheelchair-bound sister Lydia. Anna, working in a factory in Brooklyn, sees divers at work at a naval shipyard, and decides that this is what she wants to do. She becomes the first female diver, despite painful episodes of discrimination, and goes to work doing underwater repairs on warships. There are other threads in this book, that interweave and stretch out, including the world of gangsters, molls, sailors, and the shifting terms of identity. This is an exquisitely written book, with many moments of startlingly clear description and dialogue, and though set in the past it transcends many tropes of historical fiction, simply through Egan's craft. The reader feels deeply the scenes described, whether they be sensual, violent, humourous, or existential. A marvellous, generous book!

Alice's Recommendations

Anne-Marie's Recommendations

Jo's Recommendations