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

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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.

 

Review: Fall On Your Knees – Anne-Marie MacDonald

2017: 77
5 of 5 stars
Published 1996

This is one of my all time favourite books and I was due a re-read. In this year’s CanadianContent (on Goodreads) Bingo Challenge, one of the squares was to read your favourite book. Perfect opportunity!

Fall On Your Knees is the story of the Piper family, a nice, long, chunky book covering several generations of a family and mostof the early the 20th century in and around New Waterford and Sydney, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. It starts with Lebanese immigrant Materia who marries Cape Breton native James when she was a young teen, progresses through their four daughters, beautiful and talented Kathleen, Mercedes the mother figure, Lily, the disabled and much loved baby of the family and wild Frances and reaches the next generation. Themes touched on include war, incest, racism, prostitution, family secrets, abuse.  Did I mention family secrets? There are an awful lot of them. That makes the book sound awfully grim, doesn’t it? And yet the characters are so well written and the writing itself so superb that I found it hard to put down. Anne-Marie MacDonald is from Cape Breton so she knows the culture and the people very well.

This is a debut novel and made quite a splash at the time, at least , winning the Governor General’s award. Ann-Marie MacDonald hasn’t written very many full length novels but they are all very well worth reading. (The Way the Crow Flies (my second favourite of hers), Adult Onset) She tends to focus on plays and has a few novellas as well. She acts and has been a CBC presenter on The Life and Times.

This is my second last book to read to complete my Bingo Challenge, as well.

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: First Snow, Last Light – Wayne Johnston

2017:74
5 of 5 stars
Published 2017

We begin with a 14 year old boy, Ned Vatcher, who comes home from school to discover his parents are gone. They’ve disappeared without a word on the day of the first snow storm of the winter, in St. John’s, Newfoundland, November 1936, leaving him behind. Ned has come home from school to an empty house and a mystery. He runs to his sports coach from school, Father Duggan and ends up with his father’s family, a family of fishermen who have already lost one son to the sea. He grows up to make a life for himself in media and other businesses but his parents’ disappearance continues to haunt him. What happened to them? Why did they leave him behind?

A couple of years ago, Wayne Johnston wrote a fictional account of the life of Joey Smallwood, the first premier of Newfoundland called The Colony of Unrequited Dreams. It featured a female journalist, the enigmatic, alcoholic and reclusive Sheilagh Fielding. First Snow, Last Light is told from Ned’s point of view and also from the point of view of Fielding, which is great because she was such a strange and engaging character in that first book. Johnston also wrote The Custodian of Paradise which is mainly about her though I haven’t read that (yet).

Ned’s parents’ disappearance colours his life as he grows up and becomes a wealthy businessman in Newfoundland. Sheilagh Fielding had made friends with his father and reconnects with Ned, his adopted son, Brendan, and  Father Duggan. The novel follows their lives while we wait to see if the mystery of Ned’s parents ever gets resolved. There are twists and secrets, and the ghosts of the past haunt them all.

Wayne Johnston is a very talented writer and his characters are complex with many layers. Ned is not particularly likeable, nor was Smallwood in Colony of Unrequited Dreams but Fielding is again the best character in the book. I wonder if the trilogy of books isn’t really her story, rather than those of Ned Vatcher and Joey Smallwood. I really enjoy his books and they haven’t let me down yet.

This was a Netgalley book for review. It is released in September 2017.

Review: The Chronicles of Avonlea – L. M. Montgomery

2017: 72
4 of 5 stars
Published 1912

Lucy Maud Montgomery is best known for Anne of Green Gables. She wrote many books about Anne Shirley but she also wrote about the Islanders and communities in and around Avonlea where Green Gables is. These are 12 stories about the men, women and children of various communities in the area around Avonlea and Carmody. Anne Shirley even gets name checked or makes a brief appearance now and then but the stories aren’t about her. They’re about an engaged couple that haven’t spoken in 15 years, or a proud old woman who sacrifices to do special things for the daughter of a lost love, or a young lad who has an extraordinary talent for the fiddle or two very different sisters trying to raise a young lad. We get heart warming stories, humourous stories, hopes and dreams all told in the superb prose of Montgomery, never cloyingly sweet or “folksy”, just prose glowing with wit and painting a perfect picture of rural Prince Edward Island and it’s inhabitants.

This book nearly completes my Cross Canada reading challenge. Just one for the Northwest Territories left, that will be “Late Nights on Air” by Elizabeth Hay.