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book review

From poetry to picture books, these picks should not be missed

Awful Auntie, by David Walliams (HarperCollins) When Stella's parents are suddenly killed, she is shipped off to live with her Aunt Alberta, who is, surprise, awful. Walliams has emerged to be more than the heir to Roald Dahl's delightfully demented world. Warm, humane books with massive doses of silliness and fun.

The Bleaks, by Paul Illidge (ECW) An infuriating, funny, depressing, and moving memoir of one man's Kafka-esque journey through Canada's criminal justice system.

Can't and Won't, by Lydia Davis (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) Davis is wholly unique. A vast selection of tiny stories, some no more than a few lines long, all of them performing the alchemy of turning the everyday into quietly arresting, often wry, art.

Citizen: An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine (Graywolf) A book-length poem about race, racism and America, Citizen draws broadly on the culture – both literary tradition and pop moments – to create a sustained argument about the nature of individuality in a necessarily collective society. One of the most important and talked about books of the year.

Crazy Town: The Rob Ford Story, by Robyn Doolittle (Viking Canada) The book hardly needs an introduction – as a country, we have been collectively held hostage by the antics of Toronto's mayor and his family. Muckraker Doolittle doing what she does best.

Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free, by Hector Tobar (HarperCollins) Meticulously researched and utterly gripping, this account takes us deep into the earth, where we live, breathe and sweat with the miners who almost didn't make it to the surface.

The Empathy Exams, by Leslie Jamison (Graywolf) Women essayists are killing it this year. "I'm tired of female pain, and tired of people who are tired of it," Jamison writes. Still, she goes amazing places in this wonderful, intimate book on the subject.

Faithful and Virtuous Night, by Louise Gluck (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) A career-highlight book from a poet whose career has somehow been all highlights, this collection imagines a countryside space in which its action is set, allowing Gluck a consistent canvas on which to render her miraculous poems of precision and emotional enormity.

Family Life, by Akhil Sharma (W.W. Norton) This semi-autobiographical novel explores a family dealing with the aftermath of a devastating accident. Beautiful and tragic.

For Tamara, by Sarah Lang (Anansi) A quiet, chilling prose poem in the form of a letter from a mother to her young daughter on how to survive in a post-apocalyptic America. The genre has been done to death, but, among the ruins, Lang finds something new.

Limonov: The Outrageous Adventures of the Radical Soviet Poet Who Became a Bum in New York, a Sensation in France, and a Political Antihero in Russia, by Emmanuel Carrère (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) A complicated look at a complicated man who rose from punk Soviet dissident to socialite to running the National Bolshevik Party. Julian Barnes likens it to Paul Theroux's book on V.S Naipaul – a story of thwarted love more than anything else.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan (Knopf) A Tasmanian writer won the Man Booker Prize for this story of Australian POWs during the Second World War. A visceral portrayal of the horrors of battle, it asks us tough questions about forgiveness.

On Immunity: An Innoculation, by Eula Biss (Graywolf) Biss, a new mother, writes to find her way out of the thicket of contradictory and troubling information she hears on vaccines. A level-headed combination of memoir and cultural criticism.

On Malice, by Ken Babstock (Coach House) The most accomplished book by Canada's most accomplished younger poet (Babstock was born in 1970), On Malice is a collection for the age of surveillance and confusion, at times chilling, at times unknowable, but ultimately profound in its brittle beauty.

One Hour in Paris: A True Story of Rape and Recovery, by Karyn L. Freedman (Freehand) Philosopher Freedman's forthright, deep analysis of her path to recovery after her harrowing rape at age 22. Vital reading for addressing the aftermath of sexual violence and challenging rape culture.

Moomin: The Deluxe Anniversary Edition, by Tove Jansson (Drawn & Quarterly) Sixty years after their original serialization – and to celebrate Jansson's centenary – the fanciful comic strip frolics of the hippo-like Moomins are collected together in one volume, handsome and big enough to hug.

A Pond Full of Ink, by Annie M.G. Schmidt, illustrated by Sieb Posthuma (Eerdmans Books for Young Readers) Poetry receives so little attention these days that it's getting hard to find quality stuff even in the picture book world. But A Pond Full of Ink may be everything you need. These are poems about such glorious subjects as a naughty girl's plans for her day and everything that your furniture gets up to when you're not around. Fun with just a dash of sinister.

The Quiet, by Anne-Marie Turza (Anansi) The year's most remarkable Canadian debut, The Quiet is a book of wonders, packed with unforgettable images and moments of eerie stillness. It shows us not quite our world, but one quite like it – terrifying and beautiful and somehow unknowable.

Sam & Dave Dig A Hole, by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen (Candlewick) Sam and Dave are like all of us – while searching for one thing, they accidentally find something else equally good, if not even a little better. The beauty of this story is that it articulates something kids seem to intuitively know, but can't really explain with language. The way that Klassen's illustrations tell as much of the story as Barnett's words is absolutely brilliant.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, by Elena Ferrante (Europa Editions). The third book in the Neapolitan series by a mysterious Italian author who can be likened to a more ascerbic, bloody Alice Munro telling the tale of a deeply ambivalent friendship.

The Trouble With Brunch: Work, Class and the Pursuit of Leisure, by Shawn Micallef (Coach House) Micallef, from Toronto by way of Windsor, uses the ritual of brunch as a jumping-off point for a sometimes surprising, always digestible discussion of class.

The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion, by Meghan Daum (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) Daum's collection of personal essays kicks off with a devastatingly good piece about her fraught relationship with her mother – one of the hardest things a human can write about. Her authorial voice rings sharply true (and funny) throughout the entire book.

Women In Clothes, edited by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton (Blue Rider) An exhaustive, wildly creative crowdsourced mix of interviews, poems, journal entries, sketches and more on what we mean by what we wear.