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STAFF PICKS

December 2018


Jo's Picks

Washington Black

by Esi Edugyan
(HarperCollins)

Winner of the Giller (second time for Esi Edugyan). Lavish, poignant, and written with an acute and sensory eye for detail especially the landscape and plantations of early 19th century Barbados and beyond, this is the story of Washington 'Wash' Black, an 11-year old, born a field slave. His life is filled with violence, his days harsh, unrelenting, he knows no different, and when the Master's younger eccentric brother, Christopher known as Titch, shows up, he expects more of the same abuse. Instead he is taken on as an apprentice by the scientist, explorer and abolitionist, and introduced to the wonders of the natural world. Titch's obsession is with launching a hot air balloon, a task that terrifies and intrigues Wash even as he discovers within himself a gift for scientific drawings and documentation. Following a man's death for which he is blamed, Wash escapes with Titch, and here is where this compelling novel about slavery and freedom, takes on elements of Jules Verne-esque grand adventure. Wash and Titch travel into the far north, outrunning slavers and bounty hunters, until they are separated. Wash travels on alone, discovering his prodigious talent for science.  The high adventure continues but themes of identity are also explored, transforming the story into a coming-of-age tale. The question becomes: who is Wash? Someone to be exploited?  Or saved? Or someone on a quest of self-discovery?  if you enjoy historical fiction with a soupçon of implausibility, Edugyan's exuberant skills ensure that you'll go along for the ride.

 

Leonardo Da Vinci

by Walter Isaacson
(Simon & Schuster)

Isaacson (writer of biographies of Steve Jobs and Einstein among others) knows something about bringing larger than life characters to life. The joy of this wondrously researched book is that Isaacson delves into Leonardo, the man. His life-long curiosity, his passion for learning, the way his artistic and scientific minds intersected. One can clearly see the relationship between his paintings, his anatomical studies, his scientific experiments with machinery.  Isaacson draws on and refers to a multitude of illustrations and notes from da Vinci's own journals, which serve as a backbone to the book, giving structure to the evolution of this mercurial and complicated renaissance man.  A richly detailed and thoughtful, immensely readable biography.

 

Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster

by Jonathan Auxier
(Puffin Canada)

This has the feel of a classic. Echoes of Frances Hodgson Burnett (A Little PrincessThe Secret Garden) abound in the way it gives the reader a book completely and realistically from the child's perspective;  and perhaps even a bit of Oscar Wilde, in the way Auxier breaks your heart. Add a Dickensian sensibility and you have an entirely charming and engrossing read that tackles some deep truths but leavens it with love and magic and the sheer joy of being a child. Eleven-year old Nan Sparrow is one of the only girls who sweeps Victorian London's chimneys and she is possibly the best. Trapped in a chimney and left to die by a brutal master she is saved by the piece of char (coal) she has carried for warmth in her pocket ever since her old mentor, Sweep, gifted it to her. Without giving too much away, char becomes Charlie, her constant companion and best friend, and what follows is a fantastic tale rooted in historical fact (the abusive treatment of child labourers in the early nineteenth century, for instance) interwoven with Jewish mythology. Such a gem.

 

The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone

by Jaclyn Moriarty
(Scholastic)

An utterly charming middle-grade novel that tackles some 'issues' (absent parents, end of the world, grief, death, aunts, and politics) but never gets bogged down in them because Moriarty has the lightest touch and seasons her rollicking tale with a lot of humour. Add the wry, clever and sensible protagonist we have in ten-year-old, Bronte Mettlestone, and illustrations sprinkled throughout, and this book is a winner in every way. For all the eight to twelve year olds in your life and those who are young at heart.


Alice's Picks

Circe

by Madeline Miller
(Little, Brown and Company)

Madeline Miller's Circe is a masterful take on the story of Sorceress Goddess Circe, drawn from The Odyssey. It is a retelling and fleshing out of her story, and is illuminated by brilliant, beautiful writing. There is a pleasing subversiveness to Circe's tale - eternally banished to an island for her perceived threat to the gods, she perfects her witchcraft, tames lions, and reflects on her relationships with Daedalus, Medea, Odysseus, Athena, the Minotaur and Penelope, amongst other immortal and mortal figures. This is exquisite writing, clear and exacting, epic and very intimate at the same time. She shows how the epic quality of Greek mythology scales down into a precise description of the human state. Highly recommended, and a great accompaniment to my other pick this month, Emily Wilson's translation of Homer's The Odyssey.

 

The Odyssey

Translated by Emily Wilson
(WW Norton)

Emily Wilson's new translation of Homer's epic The Odyssey is a fresh, exciting take on an ancient text. She emphasizes a clear, gorgeous lyric, without any pedantry at all, no mean feat with such an important - one of the MOST important - classical texts. She is exacting as well - the number of lines in her translation matches the original ancient Greek poem. This is the very first published volume of The Odyssey to be translated by a female scholar, and it is already considered one of the best interpretations yet. She uses plain direct address, in a beautiful way, honouring the original. Highly recommended - this is a keeper. Pick up Madeline Miller's novel Circe for a little sideways jaunt with one of the characters so important in this poetic masterpiece.


Anne-Marie's Picks

The Snowy Nap

Written and illustrated by Jan Brett
(G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers)

What would the holiday picture book season be without an offering from Jan Brett?  The Snowy Nap is a companion title to her popular book The Hat, with the same cast of comical critters on a Danish farm.  With characteristic detail and charming nordic aesthetic, Brett tells the story of a hedgehog’s reluctance to succumb to hibernation.  The other animals have lamented how he will miss all the delights of winter - sliding on pond ice, seeing the beauty of icicles and snowflakes, hearing sleigh bells, making snow figures - so Hedgie resolves to stay up.  But that resolve is soon overwhelmed by sleep and the little girl of the farm discovers him lying exposed outside.  She brings him in and settles him on a window sill to weather a snow storm and happily, from this vantage point, he witnesses the farm in all its winter glory.  Satisfied, he finally gives in to hibernation and the girl tucks him back into his burrow where he belongs.  A cozy, gentle read, this picture book is a feast for the eyes and a timely reminder of the wonders of winter.

 

The Day You Begin

Written by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by Rafael López
(G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers)

This new picture book from award-winning author Jacqueline Woodson (Brown Girl Dreaming) is a tender look at how kids grapple with difference, in themselves and in others. “There will be times when the world feels like a place that you’re standing all the way outside of…”; where nobody is quite like you.  It may be because of your skin, your hair, or language.  Maybe it’s because the monkey bars are too high and the game too fast, or because of your “strange” lunch or what your family could afford to do last summer.  In those moments, Woodson reminds young readers, what “stands beside you is your own brave self.”  She exhorts children to find their voices and share their stories, so that difference can connect and enrich instead of isolate.  Rafael López underlines this message with lively stylized illustrations in vivid, riotous colours.



Alice's Recommendations

Anne-Marie's Recommendations

Jo's Recommendations