Tyee Books

Joyeux Novel!

Just in time for the holidays, The Tyee's picks for every quirky reader. Add to our list! Tell us your faves, too!

By Tyee Staff 9 Dec 2013 | TheTyee.ca

Contributors to this year's holiday books list include David Beers, Geoff D'Auria, Geoff Dembicki, Katie Hyslop, Rafe Mair, Robyn Smith and Jackie Wong.

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In a bind for gift ideas? Look no further than The Tyee's annual holiday books list. Book photo via Shutterstock.

Did you hear that? It's faint. Listen close. Is it sleigh bells jingling? Yes, that's it. And a ring-ting-tingling, too? Yes, now you've got it. It's lovely weather for a sleigh ride together to... to... to the mall?

Indeed, folks, it's that time of year again. And we feel your pain. It's the last place we want to spend the holidays, too. But if you have to go hunting for shiny presents in climate-controlled environments with fluorescent light, we thought this might help you get in and out before anyone gets hurt.

Our staff and contributors have put together this time-saving list of 2013's best books for everyone you plan to give to this year. And we mean everyone. That stickler evangelist aunt of yours? Got it covered. That nephew with the alarming doomsday obsession? No problemo.

All you gotta do is print it out, nab the canvas bags, and head on over to your local bookshop. And if you're feeling truly spirited, go ahead and add your own holiday picks in the comment thread below.

For your buddy the boulevardier:

Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design by Charles Montgomery (Doubleday Canada, 2013)

Vancouver-based Charles Montgomery roamed the world in search of what makes urban places put a smile on people's faces. That question leads to many others that make for a fascinating journey. What settings cause people to slow down and enjoy the moment? To feel friendly toward strangers? To give off the hormone that facilitates social trust? Montgomery is not only a brilliant tour guide and explainer, he possesses a quality in short supply and badly needed: optimism about the human ability to think, and design, our way to a better life for all.

For your 20-year-old cousin who, against the advice of every older relative, is knee-deep in a promising, yet anxiety-ridden future career in journalism:

The Dilettantes by Michael Hingston (Freehand Books, 2013)

"All those sad little jump kicks" is the title of one of the later chapters in Michael Hingston's first novel. The year is 2008, and a team of too-smart undergrads is running the campus newspaper at Simon Fraser University when the arrival of a new commuter daily threatens to gobble up their few loyal readers. Hingston, now an excellent and widely published book critic, is a former denizen of the SFU quadrangle and its nearby campus press. He vividly captures the life and everyday worries of any young person who has ever punched above his weight and continued fighting well after his glasses broke.

For your in-law at BC Hydro who's riveted by water management failures:

Down the Drain by Chris Wood and Ralph Pentland (Greystone Books, 2013)

Everything you ever wanted to know about the failure of Canada's government to protect that most vital of natural resources: water. Award-winning Tyee contributor Chris Wood and Ralph "godfather of Canadian water policy" Pentland plunge readers into a whirlpool of failed legislation and scientific repression, explaining why a country so blessed with freshwater still reckons with 90,000 cases of water-related illness each year. WWF Canada calls this authoritative work "an inspiring call to action for our waters."

For the amateur ornithologist in your life:

Birdfinding in British Columbia by Russell Cannings (Greystone Books, 2013)

Want to find the best birding sites in B.C.? Let one of Canada's most experienced birdfinders, Richard Cannings, take you on an infectiously enthusiastic tour of the provincial ecosystems birds like the white-headed woodpecker call home. You'll be joined by Canning's son Russell -- "a gifted birder in his own right" -- and talented bird illustrator Donald Gunn. Critics are already raving. "I wished they had produced this book 20 years ago," exclaimed the Canadian Field-Naturalist journal.

For the cousin who says First Nations people should "just get over it already":

Tilly: A Story of Hope and Resilience by Monique Gray Smith (Sono Nis Press, 2013)

Part memoir, part fictionalized account of First Nations' struggles in 20th and 21st century Canada, Monique Gray Smith's title character doesn't attend residential school, reside on a reserve, or lose contact with her family because of government-enforced adoptions. But the ripple effect of these and many other intrusions into the lives of First Nations people rocks her life. As early alcoholism, trouble in school, poverty and isolation turn into broken families and broken hearts, Tilly ultimately searches for a path to a healthier future for First Nations. "Those schools, they taught us new ways. They took our traditional teachings away and replaced them with abuses, hunger, and loneliness," writes Gray Smith. "But it's the brave ones... who will lead us and our families out of the darkness."

For your masochistic nephew with visions of the apocalypse:

The Burning Question by Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clark (Profile Books, 2013)

In order to stave off a global temperature rise that will flood coastal cities and cook us all, we need to keep unfathomably large reserves of coal, gas and oil where they belong: deep beneath the Earth's surface. So argue two of the world's leading climate thinkers in a sober, nuanced and ultimately hopeful warning call -- one that the journal Nature is calling "number-crunching and synthesis at their best," adding "this is a book we have been waiting for."

For the anxious new parent in need of some perspective:

Drunk Mom by Jowita Bydlowska (Doubleday Canada, 2013)

Bruises, blackouts and "covert pump-and-dumps": Jowita Bydlowska certainly wasn't gunning for mother of the year with the release of her 2013 memoir, Drunk Mom. But her confessional is a brave achievement in its own right, an honest and provocative window into the brutal cocktail of addiction and denial. Although this story of a new mom's battle with alcoholism is at times severely chilling, Bydlowska says she wrote the book to inspire compassion. As she told The Tyee earlier this year: "Addicts are disgusting sometimes. You feel sorry for them, but you're so angry at them at the same time. You think, 'I don't know if I want to slap you or help you.' So I'm hoping that [the book] will be more of a 'before you slap me, maybe you can help me' kind of thing."

For your holy roller aunt who forces Christ into everyone's Christmas:

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan (Random House, 2013)

It's a pity author Reza Aslan is better known for his on-air bout with Fox News anchor Lauren Green, over Aslan's ability to write a book about Jesus as a practicing Muslim. Because a much bigger controversy -- for those who haven't spent their life studying the Messiah -- is what Aslan's book reveals about the man Christians know as The Son of God. Turns out Jesus of Nazereth wasn't a special snowflake in first century Palestine. In Zealot, Aslan shows Jesus to be one of many miracle workers who claimed to have the answers when, much like today, fear of the apocalypse was at a fever pitch. But when the dust settled 2,000 years later, Jesus was the only faith healer remaining in our collective memory. Why? Aslan has his theories. As he puts it: "This book is an attempt to reclaim, as much as possible, the Jesus of history, the Jesus before Christianity. It's also about how, in the aftermath of Jesus' failure to establish God's reign on earth, his followers reinterpreted not only Jesus' mission and identity, but also the very nature and definition of the Jewish messiah."

For the tough cookie in your life:

Lucky: A Novel, by Kathryn Para (Mother Tongue Publishing, 2013)

Ani is a woman in pursuit of her dream -- to photograph a notorious terrorist in Iraq. What could go wrong? She brings along the many prescription pills she'll need to swallow, and the ideals she'll be pressed to cough up. Author Para carves Ani's relationships -- to men, to war, to her own ambitions -- with hard, jagged edges. This assured novel, winner of the second Search for the Great B.C. Novel Contest, is, in more than one sense, a heart pounder.

For your Vancouver-raised family member whose ideal weekend includes visiting a museum to read, in meticulous detail, every single exhibition placard in quiet hope that the next one will be smarter and more charmingly written than the last, but is constantly disappointed and thus grumpy:

This Day in Vancouver by Jesse Donaldson (Anvil Press, 2013)

It's a book on civic history, but describing it as such undersells the fact that Jesse Donaldson is one of the most entertaining non-fiction writers working in the city today. This Day, his first book, shines a light on the historical and contemporary events that shaped Vancouver for each of the 365 days of the year. From the moment John "Gassy Jack" Deighton arrived on the shores of the Burrard Inlet to eventually and "inadvertently contribute to the beginnings of the city of Vancouver," to that one time in 1925 a terrifying man in Ku Klux Klan regalia stood proudly in front of the mansion that would later become Canuck Place, the book is studded with gems. Donaldson hilariously captures undersung moments in Vancouver history and reminds us of the enduring -- and endearing -- humanity that runs across decades. Plus, as he recently confided to The Tyee, his author photo on the dust jacket is actually a secret selfie taken in a basement with a borrowed set of lights. We've all been there.

For that fervent Francophile with fulsome time on her hands:

Paris by Edward Rutherfurd (Doubleday, 2013)

This 809-page novel unpeels Paris with flashbacks to earlier eras (a la James Michener). The saga starts in prehistoric times but leaves there, mercifully, to visit pre-Reformation times and the Reformation itself. At that point Rutherfurd shifts to more modern epochs via various family sagas -- working class, middle class and aristocrats -- capturing the "personalities" of these lineages brilliantly. The religious struggles, the Revolution, the First World War and the Occupation of 1940-45 are especially gripping. Rutherfurd is good with anecdotes. Sample: members of the about-to-be Underground on the eve of Hitler arriving don't want the Fuhrer gloating from the top of the Eiffel Tower, so they disable the elevator system.

For the college kid who thinks a politician can't be a hero, or human:

Svend Robinson: A Life in Politics by Graeme Truelove (New Star Books, 2013)

If you're looking for a British Columbia-bred political icon, you could hardly do better than Svend Robinson. The first MP to come out as gay, a key architect of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, a stalwart battler for causes ranging from Palestinian statehood to Canadians' right to choose their time and manner of death, Robinson is a charismatic, compelling figure. And a heartbreakingly complex one. Truelove's bio sheds important context on the baffling episode that took Robinson out of the Parliament game at the top of his powers -- his pocketing of a pricey ring and subsequent tearful confession. Read it and weep... and cheer, too.

For your obnoxious American cousin who doesn't read much:

Flight of the Eagle by Conrad Black (McClelland and Stewart, 2013)

Revel in the irony of Canada's own ultra-right, former U.S. jailbird schooling Americans on who should be their proper heroes! Inflict Lord Crossharbour's circuitous bombast on someone deserving south of the border! Your gift recipient won't know the joke is on them. To be fair, Black's version of U.S. history has some strong points. He does a good job on the American Revolution, albeit falling in love with his heroes starting with George Washington, who does no wrong. He trivializes the War of 1812, despite our federal government's attempt to make it a huge Canadian victory. Black gets an A for coverage of the run-up to the U.S. Civil War, though he deifies Lincoln, but who doesn't? Indeed, Black's treatment of the politics of slavery is the best part of the book. For some odd reason, we learn little about the rise and effects of the "robber barons" led by John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan and their ultra-rich ilk. He clearly doesn't care much for Bill Clinton while putting Ronald Reagan on a pedestal with Lincoln and Washington. Then again, he elevates Franklin D. Roosevelt, creator of the U.S. welfare state, to sainthood. Confused? Footnotes are few, almost invisible, and when they happen, they often refer to a previous Black book. In short, Eagle is 609 pages of Black bias. Export some today.

For your brother who works at a social media startup and is ardently hawking the 2014 Gastown Bartenders Charity Calendar on behalf of his closest friends:

The Stanza Project by Thursdays Writing Collective and Mlpproosten Architecture. Edited by Elee Kraljii Gardiner (Otter Press, 2013)

Every Thursday afternoon inside the Downtown Eastside's Carnegie Community Centre, a group called the Thursdays Writing Collective sits down around a large classroom table to write. Elee Kraljii Gardiner is there every time, a brilliant and beloved presence who has been working for years to amplify the voices of a community often punished for speaking up for itself. This year, the collective collaborated with Mark Proosten, who explores alternative architectural theories through his studio Mlpproosten Architecture in Maastricht, Netherlands, to produce The Stanza Project. The work is the product of a year's exploration into space and place, architectural and literary. Published at a time when the inner city and its longest-standing residents continue to exist as contested entities, this book raises critical questions about belonging, access and the nature of home.

For the Kits mom who keeps saying "Finland doesn't even have a word for 'competition'":

One Game at a Time: Why Sports Matter by Matt Hern (AK Press, 2013)

At some point in the last century, football formed an unholy alliance with religion. Together they wrapped themselves the ole' red, white, and blue and marched into a future of taxpayer-subsidized arenas and multi-billion-dollar broadcasting contracts. It set the tone for much of our modern sporting life in North America. Not surprising that many on the left are disenchanted. But to remain so, argues Vancouver's Matt Hern in his defence of sports, is to cede rich territory where radical politics can prove itself. "Our core political ideals are always being performed in the gym, rink, ring, field, or track and then tested materially and bodily," he writes. Besides, to ignore it, he says, is to ignore an essential part of the human experience.

For the eager unionist whose enthusiasm at times borders on maniacal:

Rebel Life: The Life and Times of Robert Gosden by Mark Leier (New Star Books, 2013)

Are B.C. politics actually "wackier" than anywhere else? Hard to say, really. Bipolar may be a better descriptor. That's the picture that emerges from the background of Mark Leier's biography of Robert Gosden, a radical labour activist turned police spy. In the early decades of the last century, B.C. was rife with conflict between the many poorly paid workers and the few moneyed owners, an archeological rift that resonates to this day. Gosden mirrors that rift. At first a radical labour leader who fought for revolution and publicly advocated assassinating the premier, he eventually became a police spy, informing on his co-conspirators. David Bright of the Canadian Historical Review calls this revised edition, "One of the finest books on Canadian labour to appear in recent years. Rebel Life stands out as a true diamond."

For your crusty Scottish uncle who brags he never cries:

Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole (Ballantine Books, 2013)

Author Jessica Brockmole spent several years in and around Skye, and it shows very much to her advantage. The plot of Letters from Skye involves a Scot's family over the course of the two World War eras. The common denominators are Elspeth Dunn, a poetess in Skye, and an American college student, David Graham, who, having read some of Elspeth's poems, writes her a letter starting a 30-year exchange. Of course, they fall in love. She marries another -- a neighbour who winds up presumed dead in the First World War but is very much alive in a German prisoner of war camp. So does David, who in 1916 left then neutral America to drive an ambulance. For the reader, the shedding of tears proves inevitable.

For the natural-born nature lover:

The Once and Future World by J.B. MacKinnon (Random House Canada, 2013)

What would nature look like without humans? It's a great question, but you'd want to at least keep the brilliant author James MacKinnon around to document that way wilder world. Which he's sort of done with his latest book, The Once and Future World. In 2007, MacKinnon made waves with The 100-Mile Diet Tyee series and book he co-authored about his experience restricting his diet to food grown exclusively within 100 miles of his home in Vancouver. His new book finds MacKinnon grappling with issues of ecology and sustainability, as he explores the history, current state and potential future of the natural world. His deep reporting and sparkling storytelling take us everywhere from a city park (Vancouver's Trout Lake) to centuries old archives of colonial outposts in the Americas. A major theme is the idea of rewilding -- that is, the process of reinvigorating nature. Anyone who loves being in nature or contemplating human nature will be reinvigorated by The Once and Future World.

Don't forget to add your own holiday book pick ideas in the comment thread below.  [Tyee]

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