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Getting to know Liz, and other helpful new books

Detail from the cover of "Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch," by Sally Bedell Smith

The Man Who Planted Trees Lost Groves, Champion Trees, and an Urgent Plan to Save the Planet

By Jim Robbins, Spiegel & Grau, 216 pages, $29.95

David Milarch, a Michigan nurseryman, had a vision: It was 20 years ago when angels told him that the Earth's trees were dying, and without them, human life was in danger. The solution, the angels said, was to clone the largest, hardiest trees, the ones that had survived millennia and were most resistant to climate change, and create a Noah's ark of tree genes. He was often told it couldn't be done, but after 20 years, he and his team has successfully cloned some of the world's oldest trees, among them giant redwoods and sequoias, and grown seedlings from the oldest tree in the world, the bristlecone pine Methuselah. This book is a fascinating investigation into the world of trees and an inspiring story of one man's quest to help save the planet.

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Elizabeth the Queen The Life of a Modern Monarch

By Sally Bedell Smith, Random House, 663 pages, $34

Out of the armada of books celebrating the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, this may be the one royal-watchers find most compelling. Sally Bedell Smith, whose previous subjects include Princess Diana and the Clintons, employs her considerable powers of research to take us through Elizabeth's life and times. Bedell Smith touches all the royal bases, from the young girl who found herself "heiress presumptive" when her uncle abdicated, to the matriarch of today, a cool presence usually viewed from a distance, which for some is the ideal spot. But we are taken deep inside the palace walls, not just to observe the Queen's family relationships – themselves more than sufficiently entertaining (as disaster can be) – but to her political relationships with 12 prime ministers. For anyone who cares about the world's last great monarchy, this is must reading.

New Ways to Kill Your Mother Writers and Their Families

By Colm Tóibín, Emblem Editions, 346 pages, $24.99

Irish writer Colm Tóibín, one of our best novelists and critics (and an honorary Canadian, so involved is he with our literary life) has written a unique study of family dynamics as filtered through the relationship between famous writers and their families. Tóibín has an acute critical mind, and makes all sorts of fascinating connections, such as linking the achievements of James Baldwin and Barack Obama, both of whom came fully into their own only when their fathers died, and both of whom became more American after living abroad. Taking as his theme the writer's simultaneous repudiation of family and attachment to it, Tóibín offers often dazzling and unexpected readings of the likes of Austen, Henry James and Tennessee Williams, as well as a host of writers from his native Ireland, including Yeats, Beckett and Roddy Doyle.

100 Under 100 The Race to Save the World's Rarest Living things

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By Scott Leslie, Collins, 300 pages, $24.99

Award-winning wildlife photographer and author Scott Leslie takes up the cause of the rarest of the rare, 100 species from around the world with populations of fewer than 100, including several – e.g. the Pinta Island Galapagos giant tortoise, the Yangtze giant softshell turtle – with estimated populations of one. These endangered species are at the mercy of and being pushed by the most obtrusive animal on Earth: humans. As we add 80 million people a year to the planet, about 20 per cent of the world's mammals are in danger of extinction. Leslie provides a clear-sighted cultural history of the relationship between Homo sapiens and the most vulnerable species, along with a selection of full-colour photographs. He also includes heartening success stories of species brought back from the brink of extinction.

China Airborne

By James Fallows, Pantheon, 268 pages, $30

The numbers are astonishing: Of all airports being built in the world today, more than two-thirds are in China. The country's airlines expect their fleets to triple within years and are on their way to becoming the biggest market for Boeing and Airbus. Not only that, says Atlantic correspondent James Fallows, but the Asian giant plans to spend a quarter of a trillion dollars on its aerospace industry. Fallows, a veteran China-watcher, sees this as a test case for modernizing the country, comparing its possible effects to that of North America's transcontinental railways. Among Fallows's stops: the city of Xi'an, home to 250,000 (not a misprint) aerospace engineers and assembly workers, as well as the array of opportunists. hucksters, entrepreneurs and hangers-on always found at the edges of an exploding industry. Mind-boggling, but than almost everything about China is.

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