The best books that reveal the beauty, threat, and fascination of the natural world

The Books I Picked & Why

The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean

By Susan Casey

Book cover of The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean

Why this book?

The Wave is a brilliant piece of investigative journalism and a very human tale full of rare personalities and fascinating science. Casey trails extreme surfers like Laird Hamilton around the globe as they pursue the thrill and fame of conquering 100-foot waves. She also interviews scientists about the forces that create the kind of monsters that sink our biggest vessels. Until recently, many scientists considered reports of rogue waves no more than sailors’ exaggerations. But now the scientific imperative of understanding them is rising like the waves themselves as they become more extreme, nurtured by the impacts of climate change.  Like many of my favourite books, The Wave blends adventure, nature, and science into a fascinating and thrilling read.


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The River

By Peter Heller

Book cover of The River

Why this book?

This novel is both frightening and gorgeous in its depiction of a wilderness canoe trip gone wrong. The story opens with two young men, with very different personalities but long-time friends, setting out for what they intend to be a relaxing break canoeing whitewater in northern Canada. But the friends get caught up in a terrifying wildfire. The flames’ ferocity and threat are brilliantly evoked, as is the human danger posed by a couple encountered along the river. This is a tale of survival in the wilderness, mystery, and violence. It is all beautifully and movingly captured – witness the forest animals fleeing the flames. In these days of escalating danger posed by climate change, it is a story that seems especially relevant.     


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The Sea Was in Their Blood: The Disappearance of the Miss Ally's Five-Man Crew

By Quentin Casey

Book cover of The Sea Was in Their Blood: The Disappearance of the Miss Ally's Five-Man Crew

Why this book?

This book is based on a real-life tragedy – the deaths of five young Nova Scotia fishermen aboard the Miss Ally, a fishing vessel that was lost with all hands during a storm in 2013. Casey, a journalist and writer, has produced a moving synthesis in this work. He explores the lives, families, and characters of the young men who were lost, and recreates the community they lived in, effectively evoking the fishing culture, the profession’s unique dangers, and the economic imperatives and opportunities. Some may feel he judges the official emergency responders harshly but he is writing from the position of the community, which is always apparent to the reader. He explores the youthful over-confidence and bravado that likely played a role in the tragedy without pointing the cold finger of judgment. 


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Life of Pi

By Yann Martel

Book cover of Life of Pi

Why this book?

I adore the exuberance of Life of Pi. This book breathes life on every page. Who could not delight in a tale that maroons a teenager alone for 227 days on a shipwrecked vessel with a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan, and a Bengal tiger? This story blends many elements we know and love but shakes them up to create something unique and novel. There’s the shipwreck, the immigrant journey, the youth alone in perilous circumstances. The reader turns each page desperate to know how young Pi Patel can possibly survive being shipwrecked alone on the Pacific with the wild inhabitants of his parents’ former zoo. The conclusion is unexpected and masterful.   


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We're Going on a Bear Hunt

By Michael Rosen, Helen Oxenbury

Book cover of We're Going on a Bear Hunt

Why this book?

This is my favourite picture book; one I gift to the parents of every newborn I know. In this classic adventure story, a family of children, their dog, and their dad set off one day on a bear hunt. 

In beautifully evoked words and pictures, the story shows the family traipsing through all kinds of landscapes and weather conditions accompanied by the refrain “We’re going on a bear hunt, we’re going to catch a big one.” The sounds and sensations of the natural world are brilliantly captured, and there’s a lesson here. The path gets tough and the story emphasizes the importance of persevering and putting one foot in front of the other. “We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it. Oh no! We’ve got to go through it.” Too true. A brilliant conclusion.     


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