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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High Praise Indeed

Jane Austen on the 10 pound note

Hot on the heels of my earlier post about Jane Austen, I’ve discovered that her picture is going to be on the British 10 pound note in commemoration of the anniversary of her death this year. This was just announced this morning at Winchester Cathedral where she’s buried. Apparently, though, this portrait was not one of her in life, but done some time after her death and is not all that accurate. She’s been made to look much prettier, something you’d do with Photoshop these days. There was only one known portrait of Jane done in her lifetime. It was a sketch by her sister Cassandra and it shows a more mousy looking face, with a pointed chin and bags under her eyes. You can see that here.

The bill is not paper, either, but printed on a plastic polymer. We in Canada have had our money in this material for a couple of years and I can tell you it’s awful. It might be more secure but it’s slippery and doesn’t stay when you fold it. And when you do fold it , it doesn’t want to flatten out very well when you hand it over to pay for something. But I digress…

Jane is only the third women to be on one of the bank notes in the U.K., the other two being ?Florence Nightengale and the prison reformer Elizabeth Fry.  Jane will replace Charles Darwin, the current resident on the “tenner”. The new bill goes into circulation in September.

All About Austen

This year marks the 200th anniversary since writer Jane Austen died. Miss Austen was 41 and had never married. Jane Austen wrote 7 books, 3 of which were published after she died, which have become hugely popular classics. They are “Pride and Prejudice”, “Northanger Abbey”, “Sense and Sensibility”, “Emma”, “Persuasion”, “Susan” and “Mansfield Park”. She also published three collections of “Juvenilia”, odds and ends written when she was younger including poems, satirical pieces, essays etc.

Royal Circus

Bath – The “Royal Circus”. Houses by architect John Wood, the Elder (and the Younger who finished the work his father began)

Jane Austen has become hugely popular, as I’ve said, to the point where there are university courses on her life and works and there are Austen scholars that spend their careers researching this woman. There isn’t a lot of detail known about her. She was a private person and there were not many women writers back then. Because she never married, she lived with family, stayed with friends when she could. She’s associated with the city of Bath which also features in several of her books. There is a Jane Austen museum/resource centre in the historic city and Bath attracts a lot of her fans. The Georgian streets haven’t changed a lot in 200 years aside from the shops sporting more electric signs and the hordes of tourists. The architecture is elegant and graceful and the streets wide enough for two carriages to pass by. You can still imagine what it was like in the days when Bath was *the* place to be seen by society.

Austen heroes

Everyone has their favourite of her novels, with most people pointing to Pride and Prejudice. I think that has to do, in part, with the British series starring Colin Firth as Darcy. Many a heart beat a little faster watching him dive into that pond and emerge soaking wet with his white shirt nearly transparent and clinging to his broad chest.

Excuse me. I’ll just go sit by the air conditioner for a minute.

Actually, my favourite Austen book is Persuasion and, I confess, that’s also influenced by a filmed version that the BBC did staring Amanda Root as Anne Elliott and Ciaran Hinds as Captain Wentworth. Oh yes. A very close runner up was the movie Sense and Sensibility starring Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet and Hugh Grant. Rickman’s Colonel Brandon will also set pulses racing! I also confess that I hadn’t read any Jane Austen until I had seen my first filmed version, P&P and then Persuasion, both of which persuaded (ahem) me to pick up the books. There have been a few filmed versions of these novels that I’ve enjoyed and a great number of movies and tv series that have been made from them. It says something about the perpetual popularity of Austen’s works that they continue to be made.

Other filmed versions I’ve enjoyed are Emma starring Gwyneth Paltrow and also Alicia Silverstone’s Clueless was based on Emma and it was quite fun as well. Mansfield Park starring James Purefoy and Frances O’Connor. P&P probably has the most filmed versions including a 1938 movie and a 1952 television series, 6 episodes, starting Peter Cushing as Mr. Darcy! Fans of Cushing’s horror movies will find that an odd casting choice but of course he was an actor long before he became popular for the macabre. However, there’s also Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Cushing would have fit right in there! It’s a bizarre mash up of P&P and the current zombie fad where the five Bennet sisters are badass zombie fighters.

There’s a really good podcast by the British newspaper, The Guardian, here which includes an interview with historian Lucy Worsley . The podcast talks more about the woman, Jane Austen, who she was and why she’s popular. Lucy Worsley has a  new book about Jane, “Jane Austen at Home” which  covers her home life via the various homes where she lived and how that was so important to her books’ characters. If you’re a fan of Jane Austen, you will enjoy this new book.

 

Lucy Worsley

Lucy Worsley’s pretty awesome, by the way. She’s the curator of the Royal Palaces in London and she writes books about various historical topics and they’re very approachable. She’s also filmed companion television series to go along with many of the books and they’re really good, too. She’s very charming and quirky and cheeky and very likeable. She makes history very interesting, bringing out it’s human side rather than just parading dusty dates and relics. On the Austen topic, there is also an article written by Lucy for the Guardian on Jane Austen and an interview with History Extra as well.

Various other writers have also submitted their opinions on which is their favourite Austen Novel, published in the Guardian here.

I haven’t read all of Austen’s books and I think probably I should. I’ve never been a FANatic fan but I *have* enjoyed the ones I’ve read and it’s likely time for a reread. The ebooks are free to download because they’re outside the copyright limits. Project Gutenberg (a great site to get free ebook versions of classic novels) will have them but you should also be able to get them via Amazon Kindle or other ebook retailers though some of them will still try to charge you for some electronic versions so be persistent. I may even lend an ear to an audiobook version via the library.

Are you a fan of Jane Austen? If so, what is your favourite of the books (or movies)?

Lucy Worsley on Twitter
Jane Austen Centre in Bath

Happy Birthday, Canada

Tomorrow is Canada’s 150th birthday as a country. While the Indigenous peoples have been here for millenia, officially, Canada has been settled by the Europeans for over 400 years, originally by the French with settlements near Quebec and in what is now Nova Scotia (Port Royal, 1605). But did you know there was a Viking settlement at the top tip of Newfoundland 1000 years ago? And John Cabot, an Italian explorer (Giovanni Caboto), is believed to have touched down in Newfoundland in the late 15th century.

Canada is one of the world’s best countries, all the polls say so! (but I’m not very objective) I feel privileged to live here where we have such a fantastic mix of cultures, beautiful scenery from mountains to sea to prairie, lakes and rivers, cities and villages. Are we perfect? Of course not. But Canada is respected and I’m proud that we are ahead of the game on issues like LGBTQ rights, gender equality, education and health care. We still have a long way to go in many areas but we’re getting there.

And talent, boy do we have talent. Gold medal winning athletes, some of the funniest comedians in the world, award winning performers from all areas of the arts, and writers…. we have some stupendous writers whose works have had an impact on our own culture as well as world wide fame.

A century ago or more, a woman from rural Prince Edward Island wrote a story about a funny looking, red-headed orphan girl called Anne Shirley (don’t forget the E on her name!) Lucy Maud Montgomery gave young readers and adults alike a character that has earned a place in many hearts. Anne of Green Gables and all the sequels and other books about the Islanders have been best sellers ever since. One culture in particular, the Japanese, have become particularly huge fans of Anne and tourists from Japan flock to Prince Edward Island to visit the recreated Green Gables farm.

From the innocence of Anne to the horror of dystopia, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has chilled us for 30 years. Margaret Atwood is one of Canada’s most respected writers, giving us poetry, short stories, novels (historic fiction, regular fiction, science fiction and dystopian, is there anything she can’t do?). Followers will know that I’ve written a lot about The Handmaid’s Tale recently with the airing of the new television series that’s just ended. I’ve only read a handful of her works so far but I’m determined to make my way through the novels at the very lease.

I wouldn’t have the time or space to write about the whole history of Canadian writers but there have been published novels here since the mid-19th century when Susanna Moodie wrote Roughing It in the Bush about the hardship of surviving in the wilds of Canada, trying to eke out a living on a farm.  She wrote several books on the same theme.  W. O. Mitchell’s “Who Has Seen the Wind” has similar themes to Anne of Green Gables, focusing on a young boy on the Prairies. There is a good list of classic Canadian books here from the earliest days to present day. And another list here as well, from the early days to 2010.  I’ve read 10 on that list (so far!) Interestingly, Anne of Green Gables isn’t on that list and I think it should be!

And there have been other contributions to the literary arts. Another person from Canada that has contributed to pop culture in a huge way is Joe Shuster. Joe Shuster was born in Toronto though moved to Cleveland with his family where he grew up and became an artist.  He and a friend got involved with comics and they created a strip featuring a character that has endured ever since the 1933s. Superman! Yep, Superman was created by a Canadian-born lad. Where would the comic superhero world be without Superman? I’m sure lots of kids have learned to read thanks to comics.

Some of the more classic Canadian writers include Margaret Laurence, Mordecai Richler, Robertson Davies, Morley Callaghan, Hugh MacLennan, Alice Munro, and Timothy Findley. We’re still giving the world amazing new talent. While some of these writers have been producing for quite awhile, these are some I’ve discovered over the past few years: Miriam Toews, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Frances Itani, Gil Adamson, Richard Wagamese, Linden McIntyre, Guy Gavriel Kay (scifi), Michael Ondaatje, David Adams Richards, Wayne Johnston, Lesley Crewe, Jane Urquhart, Heather O’Neill, Jocelyn Saucier, Emma Donoghue, Elizabeth Hay, Madeline Ashby, Katherine Vermette, Jo Walton, Donna Morrissey, Madeleine Thien, Ami McKay, Linwood Barclay, Zoe Whittall, Stephen Price, Kathleen Winter…. oh gosh, somebody stop me! You won’t go wrong with these but there are so many more.

I don’t read exclusively Canadian authors but over the past 4 or 5 years, I’ve discovered many of the above and am trying to support Canadian writers more often. I find that my second most popular country for writers is the United Kingdom and then America. I’ve also found that I really like some of the Scandiavian crime writers after I read the “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” Millenium series, Jo Nesbo in particular.

On the eve of Canada’s birthday, I urge Canadians to read more, try to choose some of our talented writers, poets and graphic artists. There are works from all genres. Support and explore the wonderful Indigenous writers. Read books written in French or translated from French. Read books written by immigrants who made Canada their home, writers we proudly claim as ours now.  Pick up a biography or autobiography about/by some of our stand out citizens (celebrities, politicians, activists, athletes, artists) Try some classic authors and give some brand new talent the chance to entrance you and take you to another place. You’ll be glad you did.

Monday Message

Twitter gem seen this morning:

Even though reading is very subjective as to what you enjoy reading and what you don’t, if you filter your reading material by that broad a category, you’re really missing out.

IWD: Favourite Women Authors

Meeting Diana Gabaldon

Today is International Women’s Day, so I’m told. It may be as good a time as any to write a few notes on some of my favourite female authors. Number one on the list is Diana Gabaldon. She’s been on the top of my list since I discovered her very first book in 1990, Outlander. I love her style of writing and her characters and their stories are well researched, well written and thoroughly enjoyable. Her ongoing saga tells the story of Jamie and Claire Fraser and their family.

Minor spoilers if you’ve never read the books are included in this paragraph: Nurse Claire Randall “fell” through the standing stones in a stone circle in Scotland to find herself in the mid 18th century during the Jacobite Uprising where she met Jamie Fraser. They fell in love and married. Claire’s healing abilities served her well but also, on occasion, got her into trouble where women that could heal were sometimes suspected of being witches in that time period. During the series of books (8 so far), Claire returned to the future just before the battle of Cullodden but when she discovered Jamie didn’t die in the battle, found a way to return to him. Her daughter, Briana, also has the ability to travel through the stones as does Briana’s two children. (I’m covering a lot of ground here!)  Over the years, the Frasers end up in pre-Revolution America in West Virginian mountain country but get tangled up in the War of Independence.

There’s so much more detail, of course, with adventures galore, villains, heroes and everything in between. Diana has also written a few spin off books and stories about a secondary character, Lord John Grey. The books are in the process of being made into a television series on the American network Starz. The first two books have been aired so far with season three following book three coming later this year. Some people find Diana’s books have far too much detail in them but fans of the books wallow in every word! The television series pulls out the best of the books and keeps to the storyline very well with some differences that are inevitable due to the logistics of film/visual storytelling. Her website has excerpts from her books including the one she is currently writing and there is news and appearance schedules when applicable.

As you can see from the photo, I’ve met her (two or three times, actually) when her book signing tours have landed in Halifax. She’s very interesting and a real joy to listen to. She’s intelligent and funny and warm. She really seems to appreciate her fans and all the support they’ve given her over the years.

I could go on and on about Ms. Gabaldon but I was meant to write about other favourite authors as well.

I couldn’t talk about female authors without mentioning Canada’s Margaret Atwood. She really has become the First Lady of CanLit over the past forty years. She writes fiction, poetry, short stories and recently, she’s authored a graphic novel, working with the artist to create Angel Catbird. I own the first volume and I think the second one is due out soon. Her books span a variety of types of fiction though many have a sci-fi Dystopian theme. The Handmaid’s Tale is one of her best known books and has been filmed once already. A new series is due out later this year, debuting at the end of April in a 10 episode series on the American network Hulu. The most outrageous thing is that there is no apparently Canadian debut for this series based on a classic Canadian book. Not that I’ve heard , yet. And they wonder why people continue to download illegally or buy proxy VPN services to circumvent the restrictions between countries.

On the positive side, her novel Alias Grace is going to be a mini-series and will air on CBC in Canada in addition to Netflix in the US. Another recent book, The Heart Goes Last, is going to be filmed as well. It seems like the world at large is finally realizing the gem that we always knew we had here in Canada.

Some years ago, I discovered a series of books about witches in the modern world. The author’s name is Debora Geary. She wrote well over a dozen of these charming little books, filled with a community of strong women who were the hearts of their families and friends. Their abilities varied from fire, water, earth and air, with different witches having different strengths. Not just women, but some of the men and boys were also witches with abilities as well. One small boy will prove to be the most powerful of them all and it’s a challenge to raise a little one like that! It really does take a village! The books are only available on Amazon Kindle and this page on her website gives you more details on the series.

Anyway, I was gutted when she gave up writing about witches a few years ago but she’s still writing under the name of Audrey Faye. I haven’t read any of her newer series but a couple of them seem to be more science fiction and fantasy  and I think I would probably like them just as much. Her books are “clean”, that is, no swearing, no sex (though it’s alluded to among the happy couples). If you were concerned, you would have none were you to give them to your teenagers, though I think they’d appeal more to girls than boys but everyone’s different.

That’s pretty much my top three but I enjoy books but quite a few women. In random order: Anita Burgh, Penny Vincenzi, Miriam Toews, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Fiona Walker, Sharon Kay Penman, Alice Hoffman, Hilary Mantel, Emma Donoghue, Susanna Kearsley, Gillian Flynn, Tana French, Frances Itani, Maeve Binchy, Barbara Erskine, and Val McDermid.