Rewarding Reading – Awards and a Foray into Historical Fiction

For American movies, we have the Oscar awards for the best films and the Emmy Awards for television. In Canada, there’s the Canadian Screen Awards that also covers Canadian television.  In the U.K, they have the BAFTA awards and in France, a movie can win the César.

Music wins Grammy awards in the USA and  Junos in Canada, the unimaginatively named Brit awards in the UK.

Books have awards as well. Each year, there are various award prizes that shave the nominees down to a long list and then a short list before awarding a winner. There are a lot of different prizes. A LOT. Even the “big” prizes are plentiful. There are local and regional prizes all over the place but the best known national and international competitions are:

Nobel Prize (International)
Pulitzer Prize (America, various media and literary categories)
Man Booker Prize (Fiction, published in the UK, also an International prize, translated from any language to English)

Other well known awards are:

Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction (Fiction, by women, published in the UK in English)
Scotiabank Giller Prize (Fiction, Canada)
The Walter Scott Prize (Historical fiction, UK, Ireland, Commonwealth)
The RBC Taylor prize (Canada, non-fiction)
National Book Awards (America, various categories)
The Edgar Allen Poe award (mystery)
The Governor General’s Literary Award (various categories, Canada only)
Irish Book Awards (Fiction, Ireland, various categories)
Hugo (Science Fiction/Fantasy, International) and Nebula (same, but for the USA)

Those are the ones I’m most familiar with. Wikipedia has quite a long list of competitions here, from all over the world. There are several dozen awards for debut novels which is something every new writer would love to win.  Most or all of these award cash prizes and they are all prestigious.

I follow the Bookers, the Gillers and glance in at the Governor General’s awards and the Irish Book awards. I will obviously back any Canadian writers in the Booker prize which is open to any book published in the UK in English. The next two (Giller and GG) are Canadian awards and I am a fan of some Irish writers. One thing I like about these various awards is their long list of nominees. If I want to try something by an author new to me, I can spend hours perusing the lists of current and past years’ awards looking at book descriptions. I have found some excellent books in this manner.

I planned to write here about the Historical Fiction book awards, from the Walter Scott prize, but it’s already gotten away from me! Historical fiction is probably my top favourite reading category. I love history and always have. I was lucky to have a very good history teacher in junior high school who made it really interesting.

For historical fiction, I’m not referring to the so-called “bodice ripper” books, the historical romances with a standard issue story, full of cliches and turgid euphemisms for the “act” and various body parts. I’m referring to stories that take place anywhere from 50 to hundreds of years ago. It may depict real historical figures or it may not and there may be romance involved but this isn’t always the case. I don’t mind a romance, if it’s written well, with good characters, plausible plot points and the occasional spicy scene. Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series is a perfect example of how to do it.

Unfortunately, it’s not straightforward finding the past long lists at their website.  You have to spend time going through the news archives for announcements rather than having the past winners and lists easily accessible. Thank heavens for Wikipedia!

Another favourite HF author of mine is Sharon Kay Penman who has written about various British and Welsh periods in the past. She has a trio of books on the last Welsh kings and princes during the 13th century, the conflict between King Edward 1 and Wales. She has a series on the Plantagenets and on the Wars of the Roses and has also written some medieval mysteries which are quite good. One of those was a finalist for an Edgar award, too.

The first of hers that I ever read was When Christ and His Saints Slept. This tells the story of the English civil war between King Stephen and Queen Matilda who was the mother of the man who would be Henry II, the first of the Plantagenet kings. What a great book! Her The Sunne in Splendour, her first novel, about the end of the Wars of the Roses, focusing on Richard III is also one of my favourites as are the ones she wrote on Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. She’s very good at including the point of view of various women in her medieval novels, recognizing that they were strong and had much to contribute even though history tends to push the accomplishments and contributions of women to the background.

I’m not sure I have a favourite era for historical fiction though I do tend to lean towards books set in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland for location. I’m not sure of the strict definition of what is included in historical fiction, but lately I’ve counted anything written from the 1970s backwards.  If a book is written now and is about a period of time 40+ years ago, that sounds perfectly reasonable to me. If I read a book that was actually written *in* the 1970s or 1920s or in the 19th century, I don’t count it as HF because it was current fiction when it was written. So if I read Dickens, or Jane Austen, I’d classify the novel as “classic fiction” instead or just fiction, depending on what I thought at the time.

As always, an award winning book doesn’t always appeal to me. Sometimes I feel it’s over-hyped but one book that cleaned up a lot of awards last year was Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeliene Thien. It’s historic fiction taking place in China during the cultural revolution, following three students and their families up to the Tianamen Square confrontations in 1989. It won the Giller and Governor-General and was shortlisted for the Booker., Bailey’s Women’s prize and a few others. That’s most definitely one book that deserved the awards it won. My Goodreads review is here though I don’t think my review does it justice.  I’ve spent so much of my reading on the UK past, that it was fascinating to read something from a much more exotic country. Pachinko was also very good and delved into the story of a Korean family that moved to Japan in the early 20th century. It was a bestseller though I don’t think it won any major awards.

Next month, the Scotiabank Giller prize will be awarded in a ceremony in Toronto. I’ve already read one of the shortlisted books, Bellevue Square by Michael Redhill (my review) and have just started I am a Truck by Michelle Winters. I’ve also got Minds of Winter by Ed O’Loughlin to read before the announcement. I have a feeling that none of these three will win. Transit seems to be more of a deep, full-of-themes type novel and that often swings the jury. For me, often, books like that have more theme exploration than actual story and are too slow and philosophical for my taste.

But that’s the beauty of reading. Everyone can find something that appeals to them.

As I like to say: Keep calm and read more books!

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Review: Practical Magic – Alice Hoffman

2017:83
5 of 5 stars
Published in 2017

In the book Practical Magic, we met middle aged unmarried  sisters, Franny and Jet Owens who are witches from a centuries-long line of Owens witches. The Rules of Magic takes a step back into their history and tells their story right up to about where Practical Magic starts (I think, I haven’t read it but I plan to, now!)

It is New York and the year is 1960. JFK is about to be elected and the civil rights movement is underway. Life is changing for the Owens siblings, too. Sussanah Owens sets out a long list of rules for her three children to follow, knowing they are all special and knowing it will get them in trouble. She’s pretty much just holding off the inevitable. She knows, because she’s been there.

Franny and Jet and their brother Vincent spend the summer in Massachussetts with their Aunt Isabel who acquaints them with the Owens family curse. You cannot fall in love or tragedy will follow. As magic becomes a bigger part of their lives, they test the curse and find out the hard way how it has to be for them as we follow them all through the turbulent 60s for the bulk of the book and then over the next 25 years to where Practical Magic starts.

I really like Alice Hoffman’s books.  This book had a great feel for the decade of the 60s where the main story takes place, and a wonderful way to bring the reader to the heart of magic with details and descriptions that made it all feel real. The characters are all shown to be complex and relatable. The scene shifts between New York, small town Massachussetts and California.  The story is about finding out who you are and accepting that when your family is cursed, it’s probably better not to tempt fate. It’s also about love because what is life without it? Maybe the two are incompatible. Or maybe they are if you’re an Owens with imagination.

Thanks to Netgalley for a review copy.

Movie review: IT (and other Stephen King meanderings)

It might seem odd to post a movie review to a Reading themed blog but it’s a movie that was made from a book. “IT” is a 1986 novel by the horror writer Stephen King. It’s a big, chunky book that has two parts, one taking place in 1958 with a group of early-teens fighting an entity called Pennywise and then the second part some 25+ years later in the early 80s with the same group as adults returning to their home town of Derry to confront Pennywise again. Pennywise appears as a clown at first, to lure in children then it changes to represent the innermost fear on which it feeds. It may maim or kill and is terrifying. It lurks in the sewers, or in dark corners of old, abandoned houses, never out in the open sunlight. The kids are friends but are often bullied by the stronger and more popular children. They find strength in their bond as the Losers’ Club and that’s what gets them through this nightmare, both as children and as adults.

The book was made into a tv mini-series in the 80s starring British actor Tim Curry as Pennywise the clown and he was excellent, though for me, the best part of it. It was good, better because he was in it, but not great, as I recall.

The new remake of IT was quite good. I haven’t read the book since the 80s so I couldn’t say whether it followed it well or not but it only focussed on the part to do with the kids, not the adults years later like the original mini series did. It was set in 1988-89 which would bring the adult part forward to present day if there is a sequel planned, and it seems like there might be.

All of the child actors they cast were very good, which is unusual really (in my opinion). For me, there is always at least one or more that irritates me. Not all of the kids themselves are likeable but then that’s not down to the actors, just the character and I would think the actor must be doing a good job if he’s making the character annoying! The one playing the girl in the group was especially good. She’s Sophia Lillis and she’s got talent. She’s also really pretty now at the age of about 15. She’s going to be a stunner in 5 or 10 years. She kind of reminds me of Deborah Messing from Will and Grace. Talent and looks will take her far in Hollywood. Watch that space.

The man that played Pennywise the clown in this version is Bill Skarsgård from the Swedish family of actors. You’ve seen his father Stellan in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise and his brother, Alexander, was in True Blood. We’ve only just seen Bill lately in a creepy series called Hemlock Grove. Excellent stuff with vampires, a werewolf and lots of other creatures. Tim Curry played the original Pennywise but Bill did just as good a job, I think.

Since this movie was all about the kids and their experience, it went into more detail about the lives of most of them and about their fears which is what the entity feeds on. Their parents are not major characters and only appear if it contributes to either the child’s state of mind or to their personal fears. If they do make a second movie about the adults, it should be interesting.

IT is on my list to re-read. Perhaps it would be a good October/Halloween book! I read a lot of Stephen King’s books back in the 80s with a few more in the past 10 years. I haven’t read the Dark Tower series so won’t be going to see the new movie out that’s based on them. Quite often, movies and mini-series based on King’s books have fallen flat which is a shame. Few seem to be able to really grasp the spirit of the book. Even The Shining with Jack Nicholson seemed to miss the mark a bit for em. Nicholson is great but his personality is so huge that it kind of takes over a bit. The Shining was one of the movies that was better received than most, however.

I wonder if part of the problem is that the King novels are usually so thick with lots of detail and that’s hard to translate into a film. By losing so much detail, you lose a lot of the plot and it doesn’t hang together as well. The movies then rely on effects and scare tactics rather than leading you into the situations more slowly where the creepy and scary bits then have more of an impact. At least, for me. In fact, it’s a general opinion that the best adaptations of King’s work have come from his short stories (Stand By Me, The Shawshank Redemption) with a few exceptions (Misery and the original version of Carrie were excellent adaptations from novels. You might think mini series would be better, giving more time to expand on the detail and the original IT wasn’t too bad at all but The Stand, one of my favourite books, really dragged. I loved the more recent novel 11/22/63 but I didn’t enjoy the series made from it, either. In my opinion, James Franco did not suit the lead part and they changed too much of it.

The new IT has managed to get past the details problem, probably by splitting the book into two movies, I guess. At the end, there’s a screen with “Chapter One” displayed, indicating there could be a second chapter. Hollywood loves sequels so it’s likely. If they do as good a job as they did with this one, it should be worth seeing and I would definitely recommend the movie we saw last night!

Another work in the making is a new limited 10 episode series that Hulu is producing called Castle Rock. King fans know Castle Rock is one of the towns that appear in a number of his books along with Derry, both towns in the easternmost U.S. state of Maine. Wikipedia describes the series as “The series is set to explore the themes and worlds uniting King’s entire canon, while brushing up against some of his most iconic and beloved stories. ” So far, Sissy Spacek and Bill Skarsgård are among two actors already cast, both of them being actors that have played in Steven King movies (Sissy was Carrie). It might be interesting, this “mash up” as it were.

Stephen King’s wife Tabitha is also a writer and I’ve read two of her books which were not horror based. His son Owen is now writing and collaborating with his father.

I do remember liking IT as a novel. My other favourite King books include 11/22/63, Christine, The Stand, The Shining, and The Dead Zone and Mr. Mercedes. Are you a fan? Which of King’s books or adaptations are your favourites?

Review: Binary – John Lange (Michael Crichton)

2017: 73
3 of 5 stars
Published 1972

This short novel by Michael Crichton writing as John Lange early in his career, was actually the last one of 10 he wrote under a pseudonym between 1966 and 1972, 3 years after his first novel published under his own name, The Andromeda Strain, hit the best seller lists.

Binary is a thriller about the chase to prevent an insane man about to unleash a chemical weapon on San Diego on the weekend of the Republican Primary, with the President in attendance. What the naked woman on the book cover has to do with anything other than book sales, I couldn’t tell you! Very Pulp Fiction and of its time, I guess.

It’s a short novel, really not more than a novella in which Agent John Graves must piece together the clues to figure out what the impending attack will be, where and how and then work against a very clever villain who keeps one step ahead of him all the way. It’s real edge-of-your-seat stuff though the clues are almost painstakingly slow to come together at times because the reader knows more or less the nature of the attack and Graves does not.

Still, even in his early days, it’s evident Crichton can put together a page turner and it’s interesting to read some early computer-related stuff like how long it took to send a few pages of information by a telephone wire to be printed on the other side of the country and how data would be hacked and stolen. Cutting edge stuff in the early 70s but would be in a museum these days!

Review: The Grownup by Gillian Flynn

2017: 36
3.5 of 5 stars
Published June 2014

This is a novella or a long short story by Gillian Flynn, the woman behind Gone Girl, Sharp Objects and Dark Places, all of which I really enjoyed.

The unnamed narrator is a woman that has grown up running cons with her grifter mother and is now giving psychic readings in the front of the shop and hand jobs in the back. Most of the people that come in for readings are easy marks for someone that can read people well but when Susan Burke comes in, clearly upset, the narrator gets drawn into a tangle of a situation. Is Susan’s house haunted? Is her stepson evil or possessed? Is the con being conned? The story was pretty good, but the ending was a bit fast and loose.

Review: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

2017: 28
3.5 of 5 stars
Published October 1953

Fahrenheit 451 was published in the early 1950s during the early days of the Cold War and the McCarthy era where potential Communists were targeted. Bradbury took a look at the present and foresaw a future where society was oppressed and locked down. Even in the 1950s there were book burning threats and censorship which hasn’t really gone away, with books being banned from schools and libraries even today.

At the time, he thought the rise of mass media was minimizing interest in reading and today, that’s even more relevant when people spend so much time watching movies and television, streaming video, and communicating in short sentences, brief video clips and photos of their everyday lives.

This is the story, set in the future (post-1960, remember, it was written in the early 1950s) of Guy Montag. He lives with his wife. He burns books for a living because books are now illegal. Firemen of the future will not prevent fires since houses and buildings are fireproofed, instead, they start them, seeking out places where people have hidden illegal books. Guy’s wife is detached and absorbed into the world of media, blasted out from flat screened walls in the living rooms of their house. He meets a young neighbour whose interests are old fashioned and who is shunned by her fellow students. Oddly enough, she disappears and Montag later finds out she was hit by a car and killed. I’m not sure if it’s hinted that there was a sinister reason behind this or not.

The turning point for him is the day where a woman refuses to leave her home when the firemen are trying to burn the house filled with books. She lights the fire herself and commits suicide. That affects Montag deeply. We discover he is not happy and  has been curious about books, wondering if there might be something in them that could make a difference to his life. He has been pilfering them from the fires and hiding them. We then find out from his boss how books came to be illegal: People began to lose interest with the onset of various types of new media, and little by little, the attention span of the general public shortened, books became abridged more and more until they were next to irrelevant. The government cashed in on the apathy towards books and began burning them, leading to new laws making them illegal altogether.

He connects with a former university professor who attempts to help him but when he impulsively reveals his books to his wife and her friends, they report him. He has to burn his own house but things get out of control and he ends up a fugitive. There are people living “off the grid” that help him. People who still believe in books. The final message of the book is surrounded in the legend of the phoenix, a creature that is destroyed in flames and is reborn over and over. Perhaps mankind can learn from their mistakes rather than self destructing repeatedly. The destruction at the end of the book might lead to a new rising and a lesson learned the next time around. We can only hope.

While censorship doesn’t seem to be prevalent these days, I feel sometimes it’s just under the surface. There are still governments in the world that are oppressive and some that seem like they could go either way if left to their own devices. People are so involved in the online world, social media and the like. Books are still popular but not as much as they were. Travel bans, rules, restrictions are all becoming more and more common. Newspapers are selling less as people turn to television and the internet for headlines. What Bradbury saw from the perspective of the 1950s doesn’t seem all that different to what could happen now. The fears he had are still relevant. We may not turn into a society that burns books or kills people for thought crimes (1984), but if we’re not careful, things might not be so very different in another generation or three.

Review: Purity by Jonathan Franzen

2017: 24
4.5  of 5 stars
Published September 2015

The description of Purity revolves around a young woman, Purity aka Pip and Andreas Wolf, a German media “leak” mogul but really, the book has less to do with Pip than it does Andreas and a lot more to do with a few other characters, too. Pip is the star at the beginning of the tale. Saddled with a lot of student debt, Pip is working in a crap job and living in a crap flophouse. Pip is still tangled in her mother’s apron strings though she’s trying to work her way out of it. She meets Annagret, a German woman who persuades her into contacting Andreas Wolf, the force behind a Wikileaks-like internet exposee company based in Bolivia. She’s decided to go but we don’t get to that just yet. We flip over to Andreas Wolf.

We hear about his life in Communist East Germany, his love for Annagret, his love/hate relationship with his mother (this is turning into a common theme here) and father. He’s got a secret that he carries and now his reputation will be ruined if it ever comes out. Only one person knows about it, a journalist called Tom. The focus then flips over to Tom and Leila.

Tom is running an online news service out of Denver and has a girlfriend, Leila, who is married to a disabled novelist. We hear about her as she’s investigating a story. Pip makes an appearance again finally and is taken on as an apprentice, getting involved with Tom and Leila’s lives. Now, we finally go to Pip’s experiences in Bolivia where Pip ends up going to work with the Sunshine Project for awhile, ultimately getting involved with the magnetic Wolf who has promised to help her find out who her father is because her mother has always refused to tell her. Over to Tom, now and Tom’s relationship with Anabelle, his ex-wife who disappeared abruptly many years ago becomes the next section of the book. Tom also has issues with his mother as Anabelle has with her father.

The focus then flips back over to Andreas. Back to Andreas again, to backtrack a bit for his early life with Annagret and his perspective on some things that we’ve already seen with Pip in Bolivia before all the various streams get tied together and secrets get outed at the end.

So, the book isn’t really about Purity as such though her story starts and ends it. It’s a lot more about everyone else, where Purity is more of a catalyst than anything else. There’s also the definition of the word Purity which seems to be thematic through the book though metaphors in books tend to sail over my unless it’s made blatantly obvious. I don’t like thinking about themes and influences when I read, preferring to enjoy the story for what it is. And I did enjoy this story. The oft-used phrase “richly descriptive” or similar really does apply here. Each main character’s development and history is crafted and woven like a tapestry where the whole of it comes together to make the big picture. Everyone is connected in some way even if it isn’t evident at first. And when the connection is finally made, it’s a true “Ah!” moment and you keep reading and waiting for the next one.

All of the characters are flawed and nobody is a hero/heroine. People’s basic characteristics don’t really change and everyone has secrets and regrets, just like real life. Lies can and will adversely affect your life and the lives of others in your path and maybe you can find a way to redemption or a way to shake off the negative impact that your parents’ actions had and do something better with your life. Purity is a nice, long, chunky book that you can immerse yourself in.