Review: Minds of Winter – Ed O’Loughlin

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.


Review: I am a Truck – Michelle Winters

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: Bellevue Square – Michael Redhill

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!


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: 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.