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: Late Nights on Air – Elizabeth Hay

2017: 75
4.5 of 5 stars
Published 2007

Late Nights On Air takes place in the northern Canadian city of Yellowknife in 1975-76. Television was about to come to the Northwest Territories and a hearing was ongoing to assess the impact of a gas pipeline to be built from the north down “south of 60”.  Radio, at the time, was one of the only connections to the outside world and a method of communication in much of the remote North.

A lot of people escape to the North to run from something in their lives or they come North looking for something, and we open with two women who have done just that, Dido and Gwen. They join broadcaster and temporary manager Harry, receptionist Eleanor and other employees of the small radio station such as Ralph, Eddy and Teresa. The book chronicles their lives, their pasts, their journeys including a physical one, a canoe trip that several of them take later in the book.

This novel won the Giller prize. It’s not a fast paced book, it’s a slow moving, character based story and I really liked it.  Some of the characters you will like and some you won’t. You will get a good feel for life in the remote parts of Canada where the radio communicates not just the outside world but passes on personal messages to folks that are listening of things like babies born, family deaths, and transportation delays.  I remember when the radio had “buy and sell” segments and would announce anniversaries if you wrote in and told them.

The canoe trip that four of the characters underwent north from Yellowknife was particularly wonderful to read. They had more or less replicated a real life journey by a man called John Hornby who did it in the 1920s, whereupon he attempted to spend a winter and he and his companions starved to death. You can read about him here.   I really got a sense of the North, the vast tundra, the wild life, herds of caribou, wolves, bears, the icy lakes even in July, uncertain weather, the utter desolate wildness, peace and beauty of it. That trip changed the characters that went on it, and they felt that difference the rest of their lives.

This book completes my Cross Canada reading challenge. I’ll post something with a round up of all my choices over the next week or so.

Review: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

2017:51
4 of 5 stars
Published April 1997

This takes place at the southern part of India and is about the family of fraternal twins Estha and Rahel (brother and sister). The family members include multiple generations, both colourful and tragic. It is told in two timelines, from the adult twins and looking back to 1969 when their uncle’s English ex-wife and his daughter come home to India after the death of the ex’s second husband. The family is very much looking forward to the arrival, especially of the daughter, Sophie Mol. Then something happens and all of their lives are turned around.

I found the book hard to get into at first but after the first chapter, it settled down and made more sense. The twins’ family was contentious, with an alcoholic and abusive father. Their mother, Ammu, took her children and left him, returning home to her family to face their disapproval (for the divorce) from there on. Her parents, Mammachi and Pappachi and brother Chacko  lived in the family home along with Baby Kochamma, who was the sister of Mammachi, she’s referred to as a grandaunt. (great aunt?) She is an especially nasty piece of work due to her own personal unhappiness with her own life, and is really awful and vindictive towards ammu. Sophie Mol is known early on in the book to have died but it’s not revealed how until late in the book.

The story hook is “Things can change in a day” and they do, more than once.  The story is told mainly from the twins’ point of view, twins that are very close to each other, almost to the exclusion of anyone else and they are the only ones that can help each other. The language is lovely and liquid with interesting two-words-together descriptions and the children are often referred to as “two-egg twins”. The descriptions are very beautiful but at times, I felt went on and on a bit much. How many different descriptive ways can one describe a garden as someone is walking through it? Several pages of it on my eReader. Get on with the story! But the story is compelling, more and more so as you get further into it.

This book won the Booker Prize in 1997.

Review: Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis

2017: 14
2 of 5 stars
Published March 2015

This book won the Scotiabank Giller prize and is one of the contenders for this year’s Canada Reads competition and I can’t for the life of me see why. I thought to read as many of the Canada Reads finalists as I thought might possibly appeal to me which is the only reason I read this. This is not the style of book that would normally appeal to me and though I thought, maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised, I wasn’t. It’s not without its merits, it’s well written and some of the story did appeal to me for the story’s sake but it’s a book of symbolism, metaphors and the like and I never get much out of that kind of thing. I prefer a straight out story, without hidden meaning and stuffed with philosophy.

Here’s the premise: There are 15 dogs in a veterinarian clinic. Two Greek Gods, Hermes and Apollo, decide they will give the dogs the ability to reason and think, human consciousness as it were, and see how it changes their lives. They do it for a bet, then free the dogs into the streets of Toronto. The animals are still dogs with the pack society and rules but now there’s thought and reasoning behind the social echelons of their pack. They can communicate with more clarity among themselves and several even learn to communicate with humans. Other dogs are always attacking because they sense these dogs are different.

Some of the dogs acclimatize to the new changes but others don’t. The leaders decide it’s better to be traditionally dog-like but they can’t really go back again, not successfully. The dogs turn on each other, and do what they have to do in order to follow the leader of the pack’s rules or just for the survival of the fittest philosophy. It’s all meant to represent the worst of humanity. But they’re dogs. And they’re not really coming to terms with this new way of thinking or language for the most part.

Over time, the pack shrinks and we end up following the last few dogs of the original 15, with the occaisional intervention from one of the two Gods or from Zeus himself. It’s all about the ups and downs of human consciousness but from the point of view of the dogs. Nope. Just didn’t work for me. I get that it’s a creative way of telling a story and sometimes the stories of the dogs did draw me in, particularly Majnoun’s relationship with a human couple that take him in. For that reason, it gets 2 stars.

It will be interesting to hear the debates in Canada Reads, though, and it will also fill a Bingo Challenge square for me, the one for a book outside my comfort zone.