The 2015 Shadow Giller winner is…

November 8, 2015

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…Martin John, by Anakana Schofield.

First a note on this year’s judging. I sampled all five short list titles but my medical condition meant I finished none and did not take part in the balloting. Again this year, each juror was given 100 points to disperse and here were the results:

Kim — Archibald 40, Schofield 35, Cusk 10, O’Neill 9, Alexis 6

Alison — Schofield 24, Alexis 20, Cusk 20, Archibald 19, O’Neill 17

Trevor — O’Neill 30, Schofield 25, Cusk 20, Archibald 15, Alexis 10

Totals: Schofield 84, Archibald 74, O’Neill 56 , Cusk 50, Alexis 36

My observation would be that it was an evenly matched bunch, with no one title rising above the others. We opted to go with the Schofield because both Trevor and Kim said they were happy with it as a choice.

You can find Kim’s full review here — here’s an excerpt that I think captures her thoughts:

If I’m making the book sound a bit oppressive, I don’t mean to. The serious nature of the crimes committed here (none of which, by the way, are ever trivialised) are lightened by humour. The prose is ripe with witty remarks and ridiculously funny, if absurd, situations, so much so that you can’t help but feel a little empathy for Martin John. Yes, he’s manipulative, yes, he’s a liar, yes, he harms others, but somewhere along the line you realise it could all be stopped if he received the right treatment, for Martin John is not normal.

And Trevor had this to say: I wouldn’t mind if this one won, and it battled for the first spot on my own list. On the one hand, it was the most compelling read, and the compulsion to keep reading was helped by the streamlined style as we go through the fragmented thoughts of a sexual offender and those who must associate with him.

With that, we turn things over to the Real Jury. They have shown a taste for the experimental in their choices so far — who knows how that will play out next Tuesday.

2015 Giller Prize shortlist

October 5, 2015

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Here’s the official Giller Prize shortlist for this year:

  • Fifteen Dogs, by Andre Alexis
  • Arvida , by Samuel Archibald
  • Outline, by Rachel Cusk
  • Daydreams of Angels, by Heather O’Neill
  • Martin John, by Anakana Schofield
  • The Shadow Jury doesn’t have much to say about the choice: except for Kim’s reading of Fifteen Dogs (which she didn’t like at all) and Alison’s reading of Outline (which she liked), none of us have read the other three. I’m a bit surprised to see two short story collections, Archibald and O’Neill.

    Now the serious work begins for the Shadow Jury. I’m hoping to get to the entire shortlist.

    Kimbofo reviews Fifteen Dogs

    September 28, 2015

    12015 AlexisKimbofo has kicked off her Giller reading this year with Fifteen Dogs, Andre Alexis’ novel. Here is the opening of her review — you can get the full version here:

    André Alexis’s Fifteen Dogs has been longlisted for this year’s Giller Prize. It’s by far the oddest, and possibly most absurd, book I’ve read in a long while. Indeed, to say I didn’t much like it might be an understatement.

    Under normal circumstances, I’m sure I would have abandoned this strange and unusual novella. But as some of you will no doubt know, every year since 2011 I have taken part in the Shadow Giller — chaired by KevinfromCanada — in which a group of us read and review all the books on the Giller Prize longlist for that year. Between the four of us, we then choose a winner in advance of the real Giller. (You can read more about how the Shadow Giller came about on Kevin’s blog here.) And because I’m taking part in the process once again for 2015, I felt that I had to finish the book — even when every bone (pun not intended) in my body told me to put it aside and read something else instead!

    So, what’s so weird about it, I hear you ask? Well, it takes the form of a fable in which the Greek gods Hermes and Apollo give a group of dogs the gift of consciousness. The idea is that intelligence does not make humans any more superior or happier than other animals.

    “— I’ll wager a year’s servitude, said Apollo, that animals — any animal you choose — would be even more unhappy than humans are, if they had human intelligence.
    — An earth year? I’ll take that bet, said Hermes, but on condition that if, at the end of its life, even one of the
    creatures is happy, I win.”

    And then 15 dogs, all staying overnight in a veterinary clinic in Toronto, discover that they can suddenly think for themselves, talk in a new language (English) and reason with one another. Yes, I told you it was a weird book.

    Kim’s convinced me — I won’t be reading this one unless it make the shortlist (and even then only to try to figure out what the judges could be thinking). She is moving on to Patrick deWitt’s Undermajordomo Minor next. I’m almost finished Connie Gault’s A Beauty and should have a review up later this week.


    September 22, 2015

    It turns out I was a tad optimistic in announcing the return of the Kevin From Canada blog. A medical procedure that I thought I could take in stride has got in the way of both reading and blogging.

    I’m hoping to be back in shape shortly. I have all the Giller titles on hand and still intend to get to as many as possible. Thanks in advance for bearing with me.

    2015 Giller Prize longlist

    September 9, 2015

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    Here’s this year’s Giller Prize longlist:

    André Alexis for his novel Fifteen Dogs, published by Coach House Books

    •Samuel Archibald for his story collection Arvida, published by Biblioasis, translated from the French by Donald Winkler

    •Michael Christie for his novel If I Fall, If I Die, published by McClelland & Stewart

    •Rachel Cusk for her novel Outline, published by Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd

    •Patrick deWitt for his novel Undermajordomo Minor, published by House of Anansi Press

    •Marina Endicott for her novel Close to Hugh, published by Doubleday Canada

    •Connie Gault for her novel A Beauty, published by McClelland & Stewart

    •Alix Hawley for her novel All True Not a Lie in It, published by Knopf Canada

    •Clifford Jackman for his novel The Winter Family, published by Random House Canada

    •Heather O’Neill for her story collection Daydreams of Angels, published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd

    •Anakana Schofield for her novel Martin John, published by A John Metcalf Book, an imprint of Biblioasis

    •Russell Smith for his story collection Confidence, published by A John Metcalf Book, an imprint of Biblioasis

    Certainly some familiar names and a few surprise absences (Jane Urquhart and Nino Ricci to name just two). As I indicated in my last post, I haven’t read a single one of these — so it is time to get down to some serious book buying and reading.

    Stay tuned.

    The KfC blog is back — and so is the Shadow Giller

    September 3, 2015

    Health issues have meant the Kevin from Canada blog has been silent for all of 2015. Things have progressed however and I’m ready to resume reading (and blogging) — although I’ll warn in advance that there may still be some down periods. My personal thanks to those who have sent comments and emails expressing concerns and support for my challenge.

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    The decision to start the blog up again now was undoubtedly influenced by the fact that the 2015 Giller Prize longlist will be announced Sept. 9. Regular visitors here are aware that since year two of the Giller I have chaired a “Shadow Jury” that has dueled with the Real Jury in making choices. It has taken a variety of forms — you can find the story of its history here.

    This year’s jury will remain the same as in recent years. Kim Forrester, an Aussie ex-pat who lives in London, blogs at Reading Matters. Trevor Berrett blogs at The Mookse and the Gripes from his home base in Utah. And Alison Gzowski is an editor at the Globe and Mail.

    As in past years, I’ll post excerpts of Kim and Trevor’s reviews with links to the full version. Alison may be contributing a few guest posts here. With only four weeks to the shortlist announcement, we do our best to try to make sure at least one of us reads each longlist book — we don’t really get going until the shortlist season.

    It is great to be back. I certainly welcome comments on the Giller (and links to your own reviews if they are up). We have had a lot of fun with it over the last five years here and I hope this year will be equally as rewarding and entertaining.

    2014 — KfC’s 10 best

    December 15, 2014

    I will be the first to admit it: the KfC blog had a lot of downtime in 2014 as distractions, diversions and domestic disturbances (it is amazing what the impact of fixing a collapsed, 100-year-old sewage pipe can have on one’s reading and writing) diverted me from dedicated discussion of books. And, let’s face it, a lack of discipline from the blogger reduced both the number of books read and reviews produced. I pledge to do better in 2015.

    Still, I read more than enough books to produce what I feel is a worthy Ten Best list. They are listed in the order that I read them — click on the title to go back to the full review.

    2014 roy The Tin Flute, by Gabrielle Roy. This novel, along with Hugh MacLennan’s Two Solitudes, another exploration of French-English tensions in Quebec, was part of my 2013 project to revisit Canadian authors whom I had read in my youth. Rereading Roy’s novel did not disappoint — indeed, it was even better than when I first read it. Her story of the Lacasse family in post-Depression Montreal is heart-warming at one end, tear-inducing at the other. MacLennan’s novel may be a better example of the macro aspect of the English-French conflict in mid-20th century Montreal — The Tin Flute decisively and sympathetically explores the human cost it imposes on one family.

    2014 collins The Burial, by Courtney Collins. Australian author Courtney Collins’ novel started out with two major strikes against it for me — a hackneyed prologue about an Houdini appearance in Melbourne that serves as the novel’s over-arching metaphor and the introduction of a deceased infant narrative voice, normally a killer when it comes to KfC prejudices. Collins recovered quickly — we soon meet her heroine Jessie Hickman and I was quickly engaged in her story of “escape” (you can’t quite get away from the Houdini metaphor) from brutal experiences. I have a deep affection for North American “frontier” novels; The Burial is an excellent illustration that Australians can produce equally good ones.

    2014 marai Embers, by Sandor Marai. I don’t read nearly as much translated fiction as some bloggers do, but that doesn’t mean that every year’s top 10 list seems to feature at least one example. Embers was first published in 1942 — it has been a well-read classic ever since and, like a good wine (it is one of those “dinner-based” novels), it has improved with age. The book opens with “the General” instructing his servant to prepare the landau to go and fetch “the Captain” from his lodgings in a nearby town. As the book unfolds we experience the chilling story of their history — we slowly learn what it was that fueled the “embers” which are all that remains of their current relationship.

    Us Conductors, by Sean Michaels. Us Conductors was the Shadow Giller Jury’s choice for 2014 — it is safe to say we were as stunned as anyone else when the Real Jury agreed with our selection. It is the fictionalized biography of Lev Termen, a Russian scientist and inventor, who invented and promoted the theremin, an electronic instrument that opened the field of synthesized music which we hear so often today. Termen’s initiative was promising enough that his Soviet masters sent him to America — under the umbrella of promoting the theremin, his minder conducted assorted spying initiatives. They did not work out well and, of course, Lev was blamed. His later time in the Gulag is the least attractive part of the book — author Michaels saves it with a delightful, if somewhat absurd, conclusion where Lev applies his inventing talents to spying on Moscow-based U.S. diplomats. An excellent read, one that I think compares favorably with Jean Echenoz’s equally inventive fictionalized biographies (Tesla, Ravel, and Zatopeck) which you can also find reviewed on this site.

    2014 miller The Tivington Nott, by Alex Miller. Alex Miller is another Australian author who frequently visits the “frontier” story, but this one is set in England, based on his own experiences as a stock boy there before he left for Australia. The “nott” of the book’s title is a stag without antlers — the story is about a crew of Devon and Somerset “hunters” who are obsessed with tracking it down. Miller succeeds in making all of them (not the least himself, the stock boy) fully developed characters who have their own charms and failings. I think Miller is one of the most under-recognized authors writing in English (I am reading his entire catalogue at the rate of one a year) — The Tivington Nott is an excellent example of his strengths.

    2014 zentner The Lobster Kings, by Alexi Zentner. I am pretty much out of step with the rest of the Canadian literary community and bloggers in my admiration for this one — reviews were not impressive and it failed to make any Canadian prize list. The Kings are a lobster-fishing family who have pretty much run Loosewood Island off the coast of New Brunswick and Maine for almost 300 years. In the current time of the novel, they are facing challenges from both poachers and drug runners — and that produces some disastrous consequences. Okay, some of the plot developments are entirely too predictable and verge on the hackneyed, but I found that Zentner produced a cast of characters who came fully to life in a different kind of “frontier” story.

    2014 hustvedt The Blazing World, by Siri Hustvedt. The Blazing World makes a surprise appearance here — I would not have read it were it not one of the first American-written novels longlist for the Booker Prize and if you visit my review you will find that I was ambivalent about it at that time. It has improved in memory. It is the story of Harriet Burden, the widow of a prominent New York dealer who feels her own artistic abilities are overlooked and sets out on a series of interesting ruses to prove her point. While that central theme carries the book, Hustvedt (the spouse of Paul Auster) shares her husband’s interest in producing novels that have a wealth of story lines — some of them didn’t work for me when I first read The Blazing World but they have bloomed with life in the months since.

    2014 flanagan The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan. This year’s Booker Prize winner was another novel that had its flaws for me, but those have receded over time and the exceptionally powerful middle section of the book has become even more impressive. Dorrigo Evan is a Tasmanian who is one of the Australian prisoners-of-war who are ruthlessly used by the Japanese to build the Siam to Burma railway — he survives the experience and becomes a national hero, even though he is a deeply flawed individual. I still wish that Flanagan had spent more effort in developing those flaws in the post-war period — I can’t fault the Booker jury for acknowledging how well he captured the horrors of the POW experience.

    2014 mitchell The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell. This one is a collection of six connected novellas, centred around the character of Holly Sykes. We meet her first as a 15-year-old in Gravesend, are told some of her early paranormal experiences and are introduced to a number of characters who will show up in later sections. As in other Mitchell novels (think Cloud Atlas or Ghostwritten), succeeding sections move on to Cambridge, the Swiss Alps and the global author promotion world, before the author heads off into resolving the paranormal issue (my least favorite of the sections) and then concludes with a post-apocalyptic section set mainly in Ireland. I prefer Mitchell’s penetrating analysis of current conditions (he is a brilliant satirist) to his “bigger” themes — for my money The Bone Clocks has plenty of both.

    Tell, by Frances Itani. Set in the small town of Desoronto, Ontario in 1919, this novel is an exploration of the trials and tensions in a post Great War community, far removed from the conflict itself. Kenan Oak has returned from the war badly damaged (his entire left side pretty much useless) and he and his wife Tress are struggling to re-establish their relationship. What made the novel work for me is the way that their story is contrasted with that of his Uncle Am and his wife — in a way similar to The Tin Flute, Tell is the exploration of a community and its values and the way the “ordinary” experience the waves of “great” events.

    The 2014 Real Giller Prize winner is…

    November 10, 2014

    The Real Giller jury actually agreed with the Shadow Giller jury — what more can I say?

    Then again, they read all the books and we read all the shortlist, so maybe the decision(s) shouldn’t be such a surprise — although I certainly was when I heard the announcement.

    Keep scrolling to discovery how the Shadow Jury reached its decision. And you will find links to both Kimbofo and my reviews of Us Conductors.

    The 2014 Shadow Giller Prize winner is…

    November 9, 2014

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    2014 michaels

    …Sean Michaels, for Us Conductors.

    Before offering some thoughts on the (surprise) winner, allow me to digress briefly on this year’s deliberations. Alison Gzowski, a Shadow Jury veteran of more than 10 years, prefaced her original vote submission with the following: “I have to say this was the toughest Shadow Giller yet. There is no standout, I have not been impressed by the list and not sure of my opinion as reading one book hit close to home.” I think the other three of us would agree with that sentiment: this year’s list was characterized by good (perhaps even very good) but not great books, all of which had their flaws as well as strengths. And given that there was no obvious standout (as The Orenda was last year), the way that finalist books hit a particular personal chord (or prejudice) influenced every juror.

    In fact, after two rounds of voting, we came down to a virtual tie between Us Conductors and Frances Itani’s Tell — Kimbofo’s enthusiastic support for Sean Michaels’ book and the fact that it is his debut were enough to lead me as chair to suggest we give it the nod.

    Us Conductors is a fictionalized biography of the Russian engineer and physicist Lev Termen, inventor of (among many other things) the theremin, which is sort of a precursor of the Moog synthesizer. The first section of the book takes place in upscale New York — Termen is promoting his instrument from a suite at the Plaza, with concerts at Carnegie Hall. Things start to go downhill (more from hopeless financial mismanagement than anything else) and the naïve scientist slips into a role as a spy. That leads to section two of the novel: Termen’s spell in the gulag, since his spying career was hardly stellar and he is a convenient scapegoat. And finally, section three takes place in Moscow — he is still a prisoner, but now he is back to being an inventing scientist as well.

    You can read Kimbofo’s recently posted review in full here — this is how she concludes it:

    At times [Lev] seems alarmingly trusting — for instance, he leaves all his business decisions to a man he knows little about and then seems unfazed when he’s barely got a dime to rub together. But just when you have Leon pegged as being a passive character, he does something completely left of field (I can’t reveal it here, because it’s a bit of a plot spoiler) and you realise you should never under-estimate him.

    This is what makes Us Conductors such an intriguing read. But it’s also an intriguing read because it’s so ambitious in scope and theme. It’s a story about music, invention, emigration, science, love, espionage, money, fame, crime and punishment. It’s part New York novel, part prison memoir, part espionage tale, part romance. But, most of all, it’s epic, life-affirming — and fun.

    I’d say that is a fair summary of what the rest of us thought, perhaps a bit more enthusiastic. As Trevor said “it has its ups and downs” and I concluded my review of it last spring (you can find the full version here) with:

    I’d like to quote Michaels’ “Author’s Note and Acknowledgements” as an indication of the spirit of the novel. While it is based on known facts about Termen’s life, “it is full of distortions, elisions, omission, and lies”. In the real life, the author saw the elements of a good story — and at least in the first half, he certainly delivered on it.

    As usual, the Shadow Giller Jury wishes to be totally transparent in how it reached its conclusions. As chair, I followed the same approach that we had used in the past three years, giving each juror 100 points to spread among the six shortlist titles. Here is what that produced:

    Kim: Michaels 38, Itani 26, Bezmozgis 11, O’Neill 10, Toews 9, Viswanathan 5
    Alison: Bezmozgis 32, Toews 32, Michaels 15, Itani 11, O’Neill 5, Viswanathan 5
    Trevor: Itani 24, Bezmozgis 20, O’Neill 18, Michaels 17, Toews 16, Viswanathan 5
    Kevin: Itani 28, Michaels 26, Bezmozgis 19, O’Neill 13, Viswanathan 9, Toews 5

    Total: Michaels 96, Itani 89, Bezmozgis 82, Toews 62, O’Neill 46, Viswanathan 24

    As you can see, we were spread all over in our opinions of the best book — O’Neill and Viswanathan had no support, but all the other four did.

    (A brief aside on Miriam Toews All My Puny Sorrows. I have confessed to not liking it at all — it is a book about suicide with the central story being one sister’s struggle with how to help her sibling successfully kill herself when she has failed many times before. As is well known in the Canadian publishing community, it is a fictionalized account of the author’s own recent experiences. Toews is an engaging, popular person in that community and I suspect that has influenced the critical response. The book obviously succeeds for some people (see Alison’s total). For the other three of us — who are primarily readers rather than members of the literary community — it was far less impressive).

    We headed into a second ballot — this time I asked that 100 points be spread between Michaels, Itani and Bezmozgis. Alas, Alison was on a board retreat and out of touch (for an organization founded by her father, the Peter Gzowski Invitational golf tournaments which raise more than $1 million a year for literary organizations in Canada — so she was very much present in spirit), so this one only had three jurors voting. The results:

    Trevor: Itani 36, Michaels 32, Bezmozgis 32
    Kim: Michaels 50, Itani 40, Bezmozgis 10
    Kevin: Itani 40, Michaels 34, Bezmozgis 26

    All three of us agreed that we would be happy with any of the three as a winner — I explained above how it came to be Michaels.

    Given that even in that second ballot Itani’s Tell was the favorite of two of us, it hardly seems fair to end this year’s Shadow Jury deliberations without some acknowledgement of it. In my review, I called it a Canadian version of the “Irish village” novel — the story involves two couples, each with there own set of difficulties, in a small Ontario town in the aftermath of the Great War. Here is what Trevor had to say about it when he submitted his vote:

    I was not anxious to read this book when I read about its plot. War novels are dime a dozen, and this year I received dozens of World War I books in the mail. There are masterpieces out there, but I unfortunately tend to refuse the books the benefit of the doubt. I was shocked at how much this book suited my desire for an introspective look at community. I loved the writing itself — slow, detailed, delicate — as it grew increasingly complex. And I’m a freak for small-towns!

    As he notes, it has been a big year for Great War novels and for many readers (you can include me) that has produced some “war fiction fatigue”. Rest assured, Tell is a very good novel that is worth the read: you can find Kim’s review here and KfC’s here.

    Our congratulations to Sean Michaels — Us Conductors was a most rewarding read for all of us. And now, the Shadow Jury will sit back and await the Real Jury’s decision. For what it is worth, we are not expecting them to agree with us — our prediction is that Miriam Toews will be picking up the $100,000 cheque tomorrow night. (The Globe and Mail this Saturday reported on a poll of 30 “industry” people and their predictions of the winner: Toews 19, Bezmozgis 4, Itani 3, O’Neill 2, Viswanathan 2, Michaels 0. Obviously, the Shadow Giller readers are out of touch with the industry consensus.)

    Finally, I realize that my reading has run ahead of my reviewing and three of the shortlist (All My Puny Sorrows, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night and The Ever After of Ashwin Rao) have not yet been reviewed here. They should be up within the next two weeks.

    Kimbofo reviews The Betrayers

    November 4, 2014

    1aaa bezmogis Kimbofo and I are both trying to get as many Giller shortlist reviews posted as possible before next Monday’s Gala and prize announcement — and she is doing a better job than KfC is. Here are the opening paragraphs to her review of David Bezmozgis’ The Betrayers — you can find her full review here and KfC’s here.

    David Bezmozgis’ The Betrayers has been shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize. It’s not the first time he’s made the cut — his first novel, The Free World, was shortlisted in 2011.

    This new book is also focussed on Russian Jews but is vastly different. Set in current times, and spanning just 24 hours, it focuses on two aged men — a Russian dissident turned Israeli politician, who is embroiled in a sex scandal, and a 70-year-old Soviet exile, who is in poor health and struggling to make ends meet — whose paths cross in Yalta, a holiday resort on the Crimean peninsula.

    The book is divided into four main parts — the first focuses on the politician, Baruch Kotler; the second on Vladimir Tankilevich, the Jew who informed on Kotler 40 years earlier; the third on their reunion; and the fourth on the outfall of their meeting.

    In a nutshell, the story goes something like this: in his role as a cabinet minister, Kotler has taken a stand against the destruction of West Bank settlements and has refused to be blackmailed into keeping quiet. As a result, photographs of him in a compromising position with his young assistant, Leora, have been published in the papers. Kotler and Leora decide to lay low by taking a short vacation in the Crimea, where they rent a room from a Russian woman. By coincidence, it turns out that the Russian woman is married to Tankilevich. The two men meet, have a long conversation about their past, and then Kotler and Leora return home to face the consequences of their actions.

    Of course, it would spoil things to outline the detail of the conversation between Kotler and Tankilevich, which makes up the bulk of the book, but suffice to say it largely fleshes out the novel’s theme, which — as the title would suggest — is very much focussed on betrayal and its long-lasting repercussions. This betrayal is not only between the two men at the heart of the story, but also on other characters, including Kotler’s betrayal of his longstanding wife Miriam (by taking up with Leora) and Leora’s betrayal of Kotler’s daughter, Dafna, with whom she is very good friends ( by taking up with her father).

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