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: The Manticore – Robertson Davies

2017:85
2 of 5 stars
Published 1972

I read a few books by some newer Canadian authors over the summer. Now it’s time to go back to some of the classic Canadian writers like Robertson Davies. I avoided him for many years, thinking he would not be very interesting and perhaps when I was younger, I wouldn’t have appreciated him anyway. Last year, I read Fifth Business, the first of his Deptford Trilogy. The Manticore is the second of the three. Davies’ characters are really well drawn, interesting. I remember thinking after reading Fifth Business that I wasn’t so keen on the main character but all of the others that he encountered in his “life” fairly leaped off the page.

This book continues with a character, David Staunton, who was a minor character in Fifth Business who is also from the town of Deptford. I wasn’t too keen on him, either. After the death of David’s father, “Boy” Staunton, David retreats to Switzerland to enter treatment with a Jungian psychiatrist to figure out his relationship with his father and how it affected his life. Thus we return to his earlier life and experiences and follow them through as David gets to grips with who he is.

The Jungian psychoanalysis side was a hard slog for me so there were parts where I found it difficult to concentrate. And as was the case in Fifth Business, the characters David encounters in his life are more interesting than David himself. His father might have kept him on a short leash, but David was still a spoiled rich kid with a major sense of entitlement. He is a spoiled, rich adult too. I found the book a struggle to get through.

Davies is a very good writer and he ties things all together well. His books are not light and fluffy nor would you want them to be. He tells a good story and his characters are all well written. I only rate the book lower than I might have because I find it difficult to get on with a book where I find the main character uninteresting and I also didn’t enjoy all the analysis bits. It’s ok if I dislike a character because that’s often the intent of the author. But I found David to be far too self absorbed and had no charm or mischief in him. I suppose that also was the intent and I should take in the overall story and I did, which is why I didn’t give up on the book half way through like I thought about doing. It did keep getting pushed to the bottom of the pile, though and it took awhile to get to the end. I’m glad I got through it but I’m also glad to see the end of it, if you get my drift.

Review: Bellevue Square – Michael Redhill

2017:84
4 of 5 stars
Published September 2017

Bellevue Square is one of the books on the shortlist for this year’s Scotiabank Giller prize and one of the ones I thought I would like to read in advance of the award. The CanadianContent Goodreads group also picked this for the November group read so I was pleased I’d bought it.

Jean Mason owns a bookstore in Toronto and discovers she has a doppelganger, an identical “twin” who frequents nearby Kensington Market. She starts spending time in the neighbourhood, hanging out in the park (Bellevue Square) and getting to know some of the locals in her quest to find the double. She, a married mother of two, becomes obsessed and pays some of the park regulars who mostly tend to be from the unfortunate side of life (drug addicts, people with mental illnesses) to help her search. Several people she’s come in contact with turn up dead or missing and Jean herself may end up being blamed. Who is the double and what does she want?

As she becomes more and more obsessed, we discover things in Jean’s past that start to make her an unreliable narrator. The story is an exploration of mental illness and brings you to the point where you’re not sure who or what’s real and who or what isn’t. By the end of the book, you might feel like your mind has really been messed with. I’m still not quite sure who was what but the book was so well woven together that I found myself somewhat horrified at what was going on and trying to figure out what was all in her head and was any of it true. But unlike a badly written book, this kind of confusion just makes me say “Whoah”.

It was different, I’ll give it that much!

 

Review: The Watch that Ends the Night – Hugh MacLennan

2017: 82
3.5 of 5 stars
Published 1959

This is the final book I needed to read to complete my 2017 Bingo Reading Challenge “Card”! The square called for a book published in the year you were born (or decade if you couldn’t find something). That gives me a few months to research books that might work for next year’s Bingo challenge!

George Stewart is married to Catherine, the love of his life whose health is precarious due to a heart condition. But she was married to a man before him, a man who became his best friend, Dr. Jerome Martell. Jerome went missing in WWII, presumed dead in a POW camp. But Jerome has returned to Montreal and the apple cart is upset.

The story then retreats into the pasts of all three characters to bring t heir stories from the 1930s right up to the early 1950s when the story began. George became a third wheel in the relationship between Catherine and Jerome and was a good family friend to them both up to when Jerome left Montreal to take his medical skills to the Spanish Civil War.   Montreal in the 1930s was crackling with politics, with the Spanish war between the Fascists and Communists firing imaginations worldwide. George then has to deal with the huge impact that Jerome’s return has caused. I did find that the narrative got dragged down by too much philosophy near the end. I don’t think it really added to the story much, just gave the author a chance to express his own views on the world and the individual.

It’s the story of relationships, friendship, politics, families, love, survival and loyalties. The characters are interesting and the dynamics between them are written very realistically. I’m reading this book nearly 60 years after it was written, but it doesn’t feel dated at all.

It’s Giller Award Season

The Scotiabank Giller literary award is given each year to a book of fiction or short stories in English, or translated to English by a Canadian author. It was founded in 1994 by Jack Rabinovitch as a memorial to his late wife, Doris Giller who was a literary journalist with the Montreal Gazette for many years and later with the Toronto Sun. The foundation teamed with Scotiabank in 2005 to ensure the legacy and prize money would endure. The yearly long list and subsequent shortlist are highly anticipated by CanLit fans. The books that are nominated yearly are the best of Canadian Literature. The prize is awarded in November.

The current prize is $100,000 for the winning book, with $10,000 for the other books on the short list. What I really like is that if the book is translated to English, the prizes are split 70/30 with the translator. Translating books into another language and being able to give the book the same feeling and atmosphere, the “page turning” tension, the humour, the sparkling dialogue, and all the other attributes that make a novel great in its original language is a huge talent and a skill with language almost above and beyond and certainly equal to the actual author’s dexterity to the written word.

The jury has to pare down the submissions to a maximum of 12 titles for the long list and then to a maximum of 5 for the short list. What a tough job that has to be! But then again, a jury member gets to read all those great books!

The books are new works published by Canadian authors even if they live outside the country. They don’t accept posthumous submissions, nor are Young Adult, graphic novels or self published novels accepted. The publishers of the long and short list books end up having to put out funding for advertising etc. but they would likely reap rewards with increased sales.

Are you still with me?

This year’s Short List: (click through the link to find out more about the books and authors)

Rachel Cusk – Transit
Ed O’Loughlin – Minds of Winter
Michael Redhill – Bellevue Square
Eden Robinson – Son of a Trickster
Michelle Winters – I Am A Truck

The Long List, chosen out of over 100 books is here.

The great thing about the Giller prize is the list of potentially wonderful books you can find, perhaps find a new author to read as well. Last year I read 3 of the long list nominated books and I’ve bought a 4th but haven’t read it yet. The winner, Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien was very good and very worthy of the win. Everyone’s taste in books is different. I look at the lists every year and I know there will always be a lot of the books that won’t appeal to me but there are always a few. I just had a scan through the history of the long and short lists over the years and a number of books I’ve read have turned up on those older lists, though I didn’t read them back during the years they were published/nominated. This year I’ve bought Minds of Winter, Bellevue Square and I Am A Truck and plan to read them over the next month or so, in time for the Giller prize announcement on November 20 if I can.

There are some very talented Canadian writers beyond the names you normally hear. Check out your local library and dip into works by Kathleen Winter, Michael Crummey, Wayne Johnston, Linden McIntyre, Zoe WhittallHeather O’Neill, Richard Wagamese, Elizabeth Hay, Frances Itani and Miriam Toews

Review: The Skin of a Lion – Michael Ondaatje

2017:80
2.5 of 5 stars
Published 1987

I’m not sure what I can say about this book. As far as the prose goes, it’s written beautifully, very lyrical. The plot is a bit loose and felt a bit disconnected for me. It more or less follows Patrick Lewis through much of his life, hopping from childhood to various parts of his adult life, the things he did and the things that happened to him. There didn’t seem to be a lot to connect each section, as far as Patrick’s motivations at times.

It starts with the building of an aquaduct in Toronto in the 1920s. The workers are mainly immigrants. Several nuns stumble onto the unfinished bridge and one falls off, to be rescued by one of the immigrants. Each of the two characters do appear in the book later on but one seems to be only a support character and the identity of the other isn’t revealed for some time. They do have connections to Patrick Lewis who gets involved in other industrial projects that build the city including tunnels under the lake.

He also gets obsessed with finding a missing millionaire, finds love and affection a couple of times and some of his actions seem to happen for no discernable reason that was obvious to me. But I don’t always pick up on these things and if the story isn’t pulling me in, I tend to skim at times. It didn’t really feel like a story with a beginning, middle and end as such. Apparently, a few of the secondary characters are also in Ondaatje’s The English Patient. I read that a long time ago so I don’t remember aside from one name that sounds familiar.

Don’t take my low-ish rating too much to heart. It might be that I wasn’t in the right mindset to read this. I can appreciate the prose and the flow but it didn’t feel like a “story” to me.

Review: Hag-seed – Margaret Atwood

2017: 79
5 of 5 stars
Published 2016

I recently blogged about the Hogarth Shakespeare Project, modern writers creating novels retelling some of Shakespeare’s popular works. Hag-Seed is my first foray into an attempt to read all of them. Hag-Seed is a retelling of The Tempest and one of Canada’s top star writers, Margaret Atwood is the author.

Felix is the Creative Director of a theatre festival similar to the well known Stratford Festival in Ontario but his visions for his productions are definitely unusual and edgy. He is unceremoniously fired just as he was about to put on a production of The Tempest and his assistant has usurped his position. The other thing you need to know about Felix is that his small daughter, Miranda (named after the Tempest character) died a few months before the start of the book and he is completely devastated. Felix simmers alone in a rented shack for a few years with his memories, ghosts and anger then finds himself teaching theatre to inmates in a prison while biding his time plotting his revenge against those that brought him down. All the pieces fall into place eventually and he moves ahead with his plans while putting forth a production of, you guessed it, the Tempest!

As in The Tempest, Prospero/Felix gets his revenge, Miranda finds her Ferdinand, bygones are allowed to be bygones, spirits are freed. The story continues after the night the play is performed, because Felix has to be set free just as Prospero must be.

It’s an interesting take on the original. The characters don’t all mirror the ones in the play but the themes, revenge, grief and perhaps madness, certainly do apply here.  Leave it to Ms. Atwood to turn the tale on its ear so well! If the rest of the Hogarth series is as good as this one, it will be a real treat to read through them.