Biographies of National Ballet of Canada founder Celia Franca and poet P.K. Page are among the finalists for the $25,000 Charles Taylor Prize for literary non-fiction.

The short list, announced Tuesday in Toronto by Noreen Taylor, head of the Charles Taylor Foundation, is:

  • The Pursuit of Perfection: The Life of Celia Franca by Carol Bishop-Gwyn (Toronto), Cormorant Books.
  • Warlords: Borden, Mackenzie King and Canada's World Wars by Tim Cook (Ottawa), Allen Lane.
  • Journey with No Maps: A Life of P.K. Page by Sandra Djwa (Vancouver), McGill-Queen’s University Press.
  • Leonardo and The Last Supper by Ross King (Oxford), Bond Street Books.
  • Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy by Andrew Preston (Cambridge), Alfred A. Knopf Canada.

celia-franca-book

The Pursuit of Perfection: The life of Celia Franca by Carol Bishop-Gwyn. (Cormorant Books)

The Charles Taylor Prize is awarded annually to the author whose book "best combines a superb command of the English language, an elegance of style and a subtlety of thought and perception." An honorarium of $2,000 is given to each finalist.

The shortlist of five is winnowed from a long list of 15 announced last December.

The jury for this year’s prize is former TV executive Susanne Boyce, past recipient and newspaper columnist Richard Gwyn and writer Joseph Kertes.

Conflict of interest

Bishop-Gwyn is the wife of juror Richard Gwyn, a situation that prompted prize organizers to outline their conflict of interest policy during Wednesday's news conference —with Gwyn expected to refrain from discussion of or voting on his wife’s book.

Her biography of Franca chronicles how a woman from a working-class family in London became a dancer in Britain and created a new ballet company in Toronto in a city that was then considered a cultural backwater.

Cook, a historian at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, is a previous winner of the Charles Taylor Prize.

His book Warlords "humanizes the war effort through the eyes of the prime ministers, William Lyon Mackenzie King and Sir Robert Borden" outlining the challenges faced by two politicians in extreme circumstances, the jury said in its citation.

Djwa, professor emeritus of English at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, chronicles internationally renowned poet Page’s life through two wars, world travels and the rise of modernist and Canadian cultures.

Political backdrop to The Last Supper

King, a novelist and non-fiction writer who also penned Brunelleschi's Dome and The Last Judgment, turns his focus to Leonardo’s most famous work, The Last Supper, detailing the background of political and religious turmoil around the artist.

Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith by Cambridge-based Canadian historian Preston explores the role of religion in American foreign policy from the first colonists to the presidents of the 21st Century.

"The book is an unprecedented achievement: no one has yet attempted such a bold synthesis of American history. It is also a remarkable work of balance and fair-mindedness about one of the most fraught subjects in America," the jury said in its citation.

A winner will be named March 4.