Elizabeth Abbott, author of Sugar. ((John Loper))

A history of sugar, an account of Canadians fighting in the First World War and the unusual story of a young female assassin during the Russian Revolution are finalists for the Charles Taylor Prize for literary non-fiction.

The three nominees for the $25,000 prize were announced Tuesday in Toronto.

They are:

  • Sugar: A Bittersweet History, by Elizabeth Abbott of Toronto.
  • Shock Troops: Canadians Fighting the Great War, 1917-1918, by Tim Cook of Ottawa.
  • Angel of Vengeance: The "Girl Assassin," the Governor of St. Petersburg and Russia's Revolutionary World, by Ana Siljak of Kingston, Ont.

Juror Jeffrey Simpson, a writer with the Globe and Mail, said the jury considered 135 books from writers across Canada.

Simpson and fellow jurors Warren Cariou, a Winnipeg author, and Shirley Thomson,  an Ottawa curator, created a long list of about 15 books from the 135 submissions before whittling the choice down to three.

Simpson said it was "heartbreaking" to have to eliminate many fine works of non-fiction from the shortlist and choose the finalists.

"It had to be a book that was exceptionally well-written," Simpson said in explaining his criteria for choosing the nominees. "It also had to be so compelling that it took me to places I hadn't been before."

Abbott's Sugar is an investigation of how Europe's desire for sugar changed history.

"The author, whose great-great-grandfather was a bit-player in the colonial sugar industry, shows how Europe's addiction to sweetness contributed to the formation of global empires, the enslavement of entire peoples, the creation of diasporas and the destruction of the environment," the jury said in its citation.


Tim Cook, author of Shock Troops. ((Sarah Klotz))

Cook's Shock Troops is an examination of a pivotal moment in Canadian and world history.

"By shifting focus between grand strategy and on-the-ground struggle, Tim Cook creates a kaleidoscopic story that reveals the difficult relationships that formed among politicians, commanders and ordinary soldiers in their attempts to prepare for and execute a series of near-impossible missions," the jury said.

Angel of Vengeance is an unusual story set amid the ideological struggles of 19th century Russia.

"Ranging from the courts of St. Peterburg to peasant huts, this meticulously researched book tells the dramatic and little-known story of one woman's act of political desperation and her very public trial," the jury said.

The Charles Taylor prize, named for a well-respected journalist and writer, will be awarded Feb. 9 in Toronto.