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The yin and yang of the Taylor prize finalists

Author Tim Cook speaks after receiving the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction from juror Jeffrey Simpson at the Meridien King Edward Hotel in Toronto in 2009.

Charla Jones/The Globe and Mail

Military history and female artistry split the honours Wednesday with the announcement of the five finalists competing for the 2013 Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction, a premier Canadian literary prize worth $25,000 to the eventual winner.

The yang side of the list is led by Ottawa historian and former Taylor Prize winner Tim Cook, nominated this year for Warlords: Borden, Mackenzie King, and Canada's World Wars. He is joined by Canadian-born Cambridge historian Andrew Preston, nominated for Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy.

Facing them with a distinctly different emphasis are Vancouver's Sandra Djwa, nominated for Journey with No Maps, a biography of Canadian poet P.K. Page; and Carol Bishop-Gwyn, nominated for The Pursuit of Perfection, her biography of National Ballet of Canada founder Celia Franca.

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And off in a league by himself is Canadian-born British resident Ross King, whose Leonardo and the Last Supper won a Governor-General's award this fall and is now nominated for the Charles Taylor prize – his second nomination for the award named in the memory of former Globe and Mail correspondent and author Charles Taylor.

The three-person jury charged with reading more than 100 books for the prize this year braved potential criticism in selecting a book by Bishop-Gwyn, wife of author, former Taylor Prize winner and current prize juror Richard Gwyn. But Gwyn recused himself from discussion about the book, and "it was we other two jurors who enthusiastically placed the biography on the short list," according to one of them, author Joseph Kertes. Veteran broadcast executive Susanne Boyce rounded out the trio.

Bishop-Gwyn "gives us the complex story of an artist both driven and tyrannical, both sensitive and unreasonable," according to the jurors who nominated the book. Fellow biographer Djwa "needed to be as driven and sensitive as her subject," they said, to create her "compelling and necessary biography" of Page, a key figure in 20th-century Canadian culture. They lauded King's already bestselling story about the making of Leonardo's famous Last Supper as "a masterly exercise in the art of popular biography."

In studying the unlikely leaders who led Canada in its two greatest wars of that century, "each of them effective warriors striving for peace," author Cook's "great achievement is his capturing of Canada as it grapples with its identity," jurors said. They lauded Preston's sweeping study of religion in U.S. foreign policy as "fluently written, comprehensively researched and scrupulously balanced."

In making its selection, the Taylor Prize jurors favoured "important" books they imagined being read 50 years from now, according to Kertes.

The winner will be announced in Toronto March 4.

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