20 books to enjoy over the holidays

CBC Radio’s All In A Day book panelists share their choices for must-give or read this season

CBC News · 

Here are just a few of the 20 books All In A Day’s book panel suggests you might want to get that special someone this year. (Composite by CBC News)

It’s no secret that books often make for great Christmas presents.

But what if your “nice” list includes a seven-year-old nephew, a cycling-obsessed neighbour, or a friend who’s constantly out protesting with placards?

Two book panel members for CBC Radio’s All In A Day were asked to come up with a diverse list of 20 titles they think are worth putting under your tree. They broke their selections down by category, from books to “terrify your rude uncle” to ones that are simply “pretty to look at.”

Here are the top picks from Sean Wilson of the Ottawa International Writers Festival and Ann Archer from the Ottawa Public Library.

For kids with personality

Fern and Horn by Marie-Louise Gay

First up is a story about a set of twins, named Fern and Horn, with “boundless imagination, but with different ways of seeing the world,” Archer said. 

The two twins try to outdo each other by dreaming up fantastical scenes and using whatever creative implements they have handy — crayons, pencils paper and cardboard — to bring them to life.

The book features vibrant, colourful illustrations and detailed collages meant to spark creativity in young children.

(House of Anansi Press)

Albert’s Quiet Quest by Isabelle Arsenault

Archer also recommended this picture book about an introverted boy named Albert, who simply wants to read in peace, even though his friends have other ideas.

The story follows Albert as he searches for a quiet spot in the alley behind his home in Montreal’s Mile End neighbourhood. It explores the importance of finding alone time and the joys of reading.

(Penguin Random House Canada)

To inspire — and to terrify

Rebent Sinner by Ivan Coyote

Sean Wilson said his first selection, Rebent Sinner, focuses on the difficulties of “living life as a non-binary person.”

It features a collection of true stories in which Coyote takes on patriarchy and the political, recounting personal examples of being misgendered and having their identity challenged or denied.

Ultimately, however, the book aims to inspire young transgender people that there is light beyond the darkness.

(Arsenal Pulp Press)

The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls by Mona Eltahawy

Wilson said his second pick is one he “recommends for every single teenager on planet Earth, regardless of how they identify.”

The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls serves as an unapologetic feminist manifesto aimed at dismantling the patriarchal structures that have led to inequality between the genders.

Eltahawy encourages women and girls to embrace the qualities they’ve been told they’re not supposed to exhibit — from being loud and showing anger to chasing ambition and power.

“It’s the perfect book,” Wilson said, “if you’ve got that rude uncle, if you’ve got that misogynist in the house that wants to talk about ‘women these days.'”

(Penguin Random House Canada)

First novels, strong voices

Africville by Jeffrey Colvin

This debut book by Jeffrey Colvin follows three generations of the Sebolt family who “live and struggle” in Africville, the small Nova Scotia town settled by former slaves.

Their lives unfold against the backdrop of major societal upheavals, from the Great Depression of the 1930s through to the protest movements of the 1960s, and finally to the economic downturn of the 1980s.

Recommended by Archer, the novel explores the black experience in Canada and the U.S. 

(HarperCollins Canada)

Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club by Megan Gail Coles

The second book in Archer’s category was short-listed for the 2019 Giller Prize. It chronicles the lives of a cast of deeply flawed characters, all tied to a high-end St. John’s restaurant called The Hazel. 

The story takes place over one day when a blizzard strikes, causing rolling blackouts. With a love triangle between a young hostess, the older womanizing head chef and his restaurateur wife at the centre of the narrative, the novel explores issues of race, class, and sexuality head-on.

(House of Anansi Press)


Empire of Wild by Cherie Dimaline

When asked for good page-turners, Wilson said Dimaline’s Empire of Wild will “get your mind blown.”

The book tells the story of a wife whose husband goes missing on the night of a serious argument. When she finds him in a Walmart parking lot, he’s preaching the gospel in a revival tent to local members of the Métis community — but he doesn’t recognize her and has a new name.

The story is inspired by the traditional Métis story of the Rogarou, a werewolf-like creature that haunts Métis communities.

(Penguin Random House Canada)

The Institute by Stephen King

The prolific author’s latest novel is a dystopian look at good vs. evil in a world where the good guys don’t necessarily come out on top. 

It follows the story of Luke Ellis, a young boy abducted from his home and taken to The Institute, a sinister place where children are exploited for their supernatural talents of telepathy and telekinesis. Luke wants to escape, but no one ever has.

“Things are going to be difficult in there, but it’s going to be ultimately rewarding, and the bad guys do get what bad guys get,” said Wilson.


For history buffs

This Place: 150 Years Retold by Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, Sonny Assu, Brandon Mitchell, et al.

This graphic novel starts tells the history of the last 150 years through the eyes of Indigenous artists, with the final story being a work of science fiction.

Wilson said the title is a reminder that “not only was Canada Indigenous, it still is, and it will be 150 years from now.”

(Portage and Main Press)

A Mind Spread Out on the Ground by Alicia Elliott

This novel explores the author’s personal experience with intergenerational trauma and the treatment of Indigenous people in North America more broadly.

The phrase “a mind spread out on the ground,” Wilson explained, represents the Mohawk concept of depression.  

The book is “really all about the colonial legacy, and mental illness, and growing up poor,” said Wilson.

(Penguin Random House Canada)

Find my maker

Saltwater Classics by Christine LeGrow and Shirley A. Scott

Archer recommends Saltwater Classics for any knitters on your list.

“If you’re a maker, and love textiles and fiber, here is a book for you,” said Archer. 

The book includes a collection of instructions for recreating some of Newfoundland’s most-loved knitwear — hats, mitts, gloves, socks and more.

(Boulder Books)

The Year of Knots by Windy Chien

This next title began as an Instagram project, in which the author came up with a new kind of knot for knitters to try each day of the year.

That project is “gorgeously documented with photos and instructions” in the book, Archer said. 

Featuring a mixture of photos, tutorials, and personal stories, Chien brings the reader along for the journey that reinvented her life and career.

(Abrams Books)

(W.W. Norton and Co./Penguin Random House)

For activists on your list

Team Human by Douglas Rushkoff

This book from a digital theorist and NPR One podcast host is all about how to re-establish control over the technologies and institutions that now exert so much control over our daily lives.

Rushkoff makes the case that everything from algorithms and artificial intelligence to money and education have evolved in ways that advance an “anti-human” agenda, according to the book’s description.

The book is “essentially about reframing our culture, putting people back at the forefront, rather than the algorithms,” Wilson said.

“It’s brilliant. It’s inspiring.”

(W. W. Norton Company)

Teardown: Rebuilding Democracy from the Ground Up by Dave Meslin

If you know someone who is feeling pessimistic about the future of democracy, Wilson thinks you should pick up this title. 

Teardown: Rebuilding Democracy from the Ground Up contains a list of potential solutions to the problems that plague democracy around the world today — from disaffected voters and partisan legislatures to increasingly powerful executives and rigged elections. 

“It’s neat to be reminded that democracy conceivably could work, and might actually be a viable system if some changes were made to it,” said Wilson.

(Penguin Random House Canada)

Pretty books

Blanket Toss Under Midnight Sun by Paul Seesequasis

This book contains “portraits of everyday life in eight Indigenous communities,” said Archer.

It’s made up of never-before-published archival photographs and grew out of a popular social media project where Seesequasis sought to tell the other side of the stories that came out of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The photos in this book show how Indigenous people stuck together and persevered during those difficult times.

(Penguin Random House Canada)

Leaf: Lettuce, Greens, Herbs, Weeds by Catherine Phipps

Archer said this next title is a “beautiful cookbook.”

It features 120 recipes showing the versatility of edible leaves of all kinds. The book covers a wide range of meals from soups and salads to brunches and desserts.

(Quadrille Publishing/Chronicle Books)

For the sci-fi fans

Radicalized by Cory Doctorow

Radicalized features four novellas that explore social, technological and economic visions of America’s present and what it could be like in the near future.

One of the stories, Wilson said, imagines a future where your toaster can only toast a certain kind of bread — forcing you to buy one for white bread, and another for other varieties. 

In another, a superhero-like figure attempts to take on corrupt police forces, only to find that his efforts end up harming the very people he wanted to help.

(Macmillan Publishers)

Crow Winter by Karen McBride

This pick is for anyone who enjoys both fantasy and Indigenous stories, Wilson said. 

Crow Winterfollows a young woman who moves home to her First Nation reserve after her father dies, only to discover forces on her father’s property that cross the boundaries between this world and the next.

(HarperCollins Canada)

People who like to get around by non-motorized means

A Walking Life by Antonia Malchik

Archer’s first pick for this category is all about “anecdotes of the power of walking in our lives.”

The author laments how a car-centric culture and the endless drive for productivity and efficiency has led to the rise of a sedentary lifestyle across North America. 

Malchik shows how walking is “such a rudimentary act of reclamation,” said Archer. “It’s clean, it’s beneficial, it’s empowering and it’s spiritual.”

(Hachette Book Group)

In Praise of the Bicycle by Marc Augé

Part personal memoir, part call-to-action, this 93-page book takes the reader on a journey through our cities and into the role cycling plays in our lives.

In Praise of the Bicycle is a “delightful little book,” said Archer.

“This is a manifesto on cycling by an anthropologist.”

(Reaktion Books)

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