Review: Minds of Winter – Ed O’Loughlin

2017:92
2.5 of 5 stars
Published in 2017

It starts with Sir John Franklin whose expedition to find the Arctic Northwest Passage ended in tragedy, with the deaths of him and all his crew aboard two ships. All of the gear he had with the expedition was also lost. It ends with a Greenwich chronometer, a navigational aid, found in London 150+ years later. This really happened and nobody can explain how it turned up there.

Over the century and a half, there were various men and expeditions in the Arctic and Antarctic with some stalwart explorers trying to conquer both poles of the earth. In present day, Fay Morgan, grieving for her recently deceased mother,  is in Inuvik trying to track down connections to her grandfather who also had connections to the polar explorers. She meets Nelson whose brother has been missing and who may have committed suicide, a brother who was tracing histories of the polar explorers and looking into the mystery of the chronometer. As they sift through his papers, we are told more details about the various expeditions over the years. It doesn’t really solve the mystery of the chronometer but it does keep popping up.

It’s a big book with lots of characters. Some of them keep reappearing but mostly they come and go as their era/period is done. There are a great many stories of the expeditions and the explorers, real and fictional. The individual stories lead you through the decades of exploration and adventure, interspersed with Fay and Nelson’s ongoing investigations. The ending is a bit ambiguous and you end up scratching your head over what’s true or real and what isn’t. As always with a book that covers so many years, I felt the stories in the first half of the book are better crafted than the last few with much more interesting characters. Fay and Nelson are only the links between them and aren’t particularly interesting themselves.

This is on the shortlist for this year’s Giller prize though didn’t win.

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Review: Today I Learned It Was You – Edward Riche

2017:89
3 of 5 stars
Published in 2016

The city is St. John’s, Newfoundland. A retired actor turns to the security guard profession and on a nightly check in a local park, has a clash with some teens. The next time we hear anything about him, he is apparently living in the park and is transitioning to a deer. Or something like that. Yes, you, too, will shake your head in disbelief.

In the meantime, we’ve shifted views to the local municipal council and the mayor, Matt Olford, who is a local hero because he used to be in the NHL on a Stanley Cup winning team. His wife has found religion, he’s contemplating entering Federal politics, he’s got a crush on a lovely fellow councillor, an immigrant from Italy. There are two animal rights activists stirring things up and another councillor who has a very large, ugly chip on his shoulder.  Social media goes viral over the whole deer situation. Many aspects of the tale are told by a lot of different voices, most of whom really have nothing to contribute to the actual story and are never seen again. That leaves most of the other regulars less developed than they should be. Not all of the narratives really cross over or just a little. It’s a bit confusing at times. And yet, it’s also kind of fun and it was enjoyable and quick to read.

While reading the book, I could almost picture it as one of those goofy Canadian films with quirky characters and lots of local colour and colourful locals. You can never go wrong with local colour in St. John’s. There are loose ends untied which loses a star in the rating and another star for the somewhat disjointed feel of the overall story.

This book was on the long list for Canada Reads 2017 though I do have to say I don’t think it would ever be considered a book that would fit the theme of “the one book every Canadian should read”.

Review: I am a Truck – Michelle Winters

2017:88
3.5 of 5 stars
Published 2016

Agathe and Réjean have been married for 20 years and seem to have a good relationship. They are French and isolate themselves from the English community where they live. “Just you and me forever” sounds romantic but there’s always such a thing as too much togetherness.  Then Réjean‘s pickup truck, a Ford Silverado, is found abandoned by the side of the road and Réjean is missing. It seems he might have just walked away from his life and Agathe, left behind, has no idea why.

Agathe struggles to build a new life and pursue interests that she was unable to previously, such as a love of rock and roll. Meanwhile, Martin, a salesman at the local Chevy dealer who sold Réjean his yearly Silverado upgrade model, may be the one person that knows what happened to Réjean. A lonely man, he seemed to have developed a man-crush on Réjean and after Réjean disappeared, becomes obsessed with watching over Agathe.

The story is told in chapters alternating before and after Réjean‘s disappearance, so we can see how Martin’s dependence on Réjean‘s friendship grew and get a picture of the marriage and then how things proceed after his disappearance. The dialogue is sometimes French mixed with English but you can get the gist of it if you have no French at all. There are lots of references to rock songs of the era, late 70s going by the ones I recognized, and how they “speak” to Agathe.

It seems like this book is about identity, who you are individually, who you are in a relationship, and  who you want to be.  All three characters haven’t had a chance to grow as a person because of their isolation.  Both Agathe and Réjean are different apart than they were together. Réjean  seems to have become an anchor in Martin’s life and when that anchor is gone, Martin starts to sink. And yet, it’s a love story, and it’s quirky and unusual. A short and enjoyable read.

This novel is the author’s first and is on the shortlist for this year’s Giller prize. Quite an accomplishment!

Review: Poles Apart – Terry Fallis

2017:86
5 of 5 stars
Published in 2015

After the mind F#$* that was Bellevue Square and the frustration that was The Manticore and a dose of violence and investigative journalism that was The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye, I am ready for something light, fun and easy to read. What better than the humour of Terry Fallis?

Everette Kane, a freelance journalist in his 30s and avid feminist has to be the dutiful son and assist his father who is recovering from a stroke in Florida. He finds a small apartment and flies from Toronto to Orlando for the duration but finds he has a lot of time on his hands so he starts a blog. A feminist blog called Eve of Equality. When Ev takes on the owner of a chain of strip clubs, one of which has newly opened in the building where his apartment is, word of mouth and the backing of a TV talk show host send its popularity into the stratosphere and suddenly his blog is the talk of the nation.  The thing is, nobody realizes the woman behind the blog is a man.

Everette spends part of his days with his misogynistic father and connecting with a feminist hero who is also a patient there and spends much of the rest of his time writing blog posts and wrangling with the comments and emails the blog produces. He gets to know several people connected with the XY club downstairs and becomes entangled in the web he’s created trying to keep his blog anonymous. There are successes and there are dangers. Everette learns a lot about himself and his family during these months and might just come out the other end unharmed. Or unhinged. It could go either way.

Loved the book. Fallis writes with such wit that you’re smiling through most of the pages at his turns of phrases, and lovely little moments. His characters feel very real and he mixes quite a diverse number of types together to interact with his earnest young Everette through the story. You always know you’re going to get an easy to read but highly enjoyable tale from Terry Fallis, a top Canadian writer if ever there was one. I can highly recommend his novels!

 

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!

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!