The 2016 Giller Prize winner

November 8, 2016 by

donotsaywehavenothing-canadianedition

Congratulations to Madeleine Thien whose novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing was named the winner of the 2016 Giller Prize last night.

You will recall from our Shadow Giller announcement on Saturday that we thought very highly of Thien’s novel — we have reviewed it here and here — but after much discussion we chose  Catherine Leroux’s The Party Wall as our winner. Both titles, we would argue, are brilliant books deserving of your attention.

Do Not say we have nothing British edition

To see Thien’s (rather touching) winning speech, please visit the CBC Books website.

 

Sadly, that’s the end of the Giller Prize season for another year. We hope you’ve enjoyed following our Shadow Giller proceedings, reviews and tweets over the past two months. We’ve had a brilliant time doing it and read some wonderful books in the process. Thanks so much for your support.

The 2016 Shadow Giller winner

November 5, 2016 by

Well, it took a bit of deliberating, across time zones, provinces and continents, but we are delighted to reveal the winner of the Shadow Giller:

Read the rest of this entry »

Links to all the 2016 Shadow Giller reviews

November 4, 2016 by

Shadow Giller logoThis weekend we plan on announcing the winner of the Shadow Giller. It’s hard to believe that eight weeks ago we were trying to make up our mind as to whether to continue this venture without Kevin, our chairman, at the helm. I’m so glad we did. This year’s books have proved to be sometimes challenging, often daring and always intriguing reads.

While we three jury members — Alison, Naomi and myself — busy ourselves trying to choose which book should win, here are the links to all our reviews, both on this site and our own blogs.

13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl by Mona Awad

Yiddish for Pirates by Gary Barwin

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

The Party Wall by Catherine Leroux (trs. Lazer Lederhendler)

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall

Which book would you like to see win the prize?

Kimbofo reviews Yiddish for Pirates

November 2, 2016 by

yiddish-for-piratesHmm, what an interesting book this one proved to be!

This is from my review:

I’ve never read a book so jam-packed with word play and creative use of language as this one. I would describe it as a kind of literary vaudeville; a mesmirising act of vocabulary, idioms, metaphors, puns and similes. And, if that’s not enough, it’s narrated by a 500-year-old parrot with a penchant for jokes and scathing one-liners. Yes, really.

The story is essentially a boy’s own adventure set during the Spanish Inquisition involving the aforementioned parrot — an African Grey called Aaron — and a Jewish man called Moishe, whose shoulder he perches on.

Fleeing persecution, this “odd couple” is helped in part by an underground network of Jewish sympathisers as  they endeavour to save a rare library of important Jewish texts. Along the way they fall in with Christopher Columbus and set sail for the New World. Their journey is ripe with adventure, piracy, danger, violence and revenge.

Unfortunately, I had some issues with this book. Too clever, too knowing, just too much creativity going on, basically.

To read my review in full, please visit my blog, Reading Matters.

Naomi reviews Do Not Say We Have Nothing

November 1, 2016 by

donotsaywehavenothing-canadianedition Naomi has now completed her Shadow Giller reading with this fine review of Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing, a book she describes as:

…one (extended) family’s experience during the cultural revolution in China. More deeply, it’s about what happens when people don’t have the freedom to live the way they want; to choose their work, where they live, and even who they live with.

Naomi found a lot to like in the book, including its scope, the narrator in the present and the passion brought to bear on the subject by the author. She also found it deeply moving.

But was there anything she didn’t like about the book?

Let me start by saying that it took me a full week to read this book, and I didn’t even mind; most of the time I was completely absorbed. But… there were a couple of parts that I felt were lagging, particularly in the development of the relationships between Sparrow, Zhuli and Kai and their many trips to the conservatory and their many practice sessions. This review at The Walrus suggests that the book is too wordy, however I think that might be a matter of taste; some people seem to have loved every word while others felt the book was too long. So don’t let this stop you from reading the book – it’s an experience that you won’t want to miss.

To read Naomi’s review in full, please visit her blog Consumed by Ink.

Naomi reviews 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl

October 27, 2016 by

13 Ways of Looking at a Fat GirlNaomi has continued her good work reading all the shortlisted titles for the Giller Prize. Earlier this week she reviewed Mona Awad’s 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, a book she describes as almost crushing her with hopelessness for all those people who are slaves to dieting and to the gym.

I believe in healthy living, but that is not what it should look like. This book is a plea to change the way we see and represent women; a plea to let women be themselves and to feel good about it.

Naomi says the author has succeeded in putting “us inside the head of a woman with poor body image”:

Elizabeth is so preoccupied with the way she looks that there is no room in her head for anything or anyone else, leading to dire consequences in her daily life and relationships.

And while Naomi has some small issues with the book, she says:

I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it because of all the important and insightful things it has to say about body image in our culture and how crippling it can be.

To read Naomi’s review in full, please visit her blog.

The Best Kind of People, by Zoe Whittall

October 25, 2016 by
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Review copy courtesy of House of Anansi Press

Imagine if someone close to you was accused of a sexual crime. Would you stick by them? Throw them to the wolves? Bury your head in the sand? Be perplexed and question just how well you really know them?

This is the premise behind Zoe Whittall’s The Best Kind of People, a fast-paced and timely novel about rape culture that has been shortlisted for the 2016 Giller Prize.

The story kicks off with the arrest of George Woodbury, a popular science teacher who has been accused of sexual misconduct with three female students under his charge on a school ski trip. The allegations are particularly shocking because Woodbury is something of a local hero and has won Teacher of the Year year after year.

When he is detained by police, his family —  his 17-year-old over-achieving daughter; his adult son, who is a lawyer; and his beloved wife, a dedicated and much-loved emergency room nurse — are immediately thrown into disarray. The novel focuses on the outfall on these three characters (their stories are told in alternate chapters), which makes for a gripping and thought-provoking read.

Interestingly, we never hear George’s side of the story, nor do we hear from his accusers. This means the reader is cast in exactly the same position as George’s family, never quite sure of his guilt or innocence, and never finding out the specific details of the allegations.

As the story unfolds it’s interesting to see the effect on George’s loved ones as doubts about his innocence begin to creep in. From the outset his wife, Joan, is steadfast in her belief, telling her not-always-supportive sister: “You don’t stop loving someone in an instant because somebody accuses them of something despicable. Nothing is that black and white.” But later, when she entertains the idea that maybe, just maybe, he might have done something wrong, she tries to find excuses for such abhorrent behaviour:

If George was guilty, and she was far from convinced, then he could be sick. She took a sip of black coffee and contemplated this. She understood sick. Everyone is generally pleased to reduce a complicated situation to the notion of evil. Or a typical sleazeball man. He’s just evil. Evil is a word that’s lost its meaning recently, like bully. Overused, and weakened. She dissolved an antacid tablet in a glass of water. If it’s a sickness, it would not be his fault. There could be an undiagnosed tumour in his orbitofrontal lobe, causing him to have no control over his impulses.

Later still, she asks herself whether it’s “possible to be an intelligent human being — perceptive, intuitive — and also be married to someone who fools you so intensely, who is entirely a fraud, and you have no idea?”

George’s daughter, Sadie, is less sure from the start. She knows the girls involved — she goes to school with them — and isn’t sure why they’d make something like this up. She’s afraid that if he’s guilty, she is guilty by association. Whatever the case, the damage is irreparable.

If only she could have the privilege of believing him entirely. What kind of person, what kind of ungrateful daughter, doesn’t believe her own father? She had never doubted him before. She never thought he was anything but moral and civilized. She wasn’t even sure what those words meant. But if someone puts the possibility of something terrible in your head — and people around you believe it — you can’t go back to thinking it completely inconceivable. The possibility is there whether or not you choose to believe it, and you can’t go back to not knowing that the possibility exists.

His son Andrew is slightly more sympathetic to the situation, not least because as a gay teenager he has firsthand experience at being cast as a social pariah. He’s also very much aware that his first sexual relationship — with a man much older than himself and in a position of power — could so easily have been misunderstood by other people had they been aware of it. But even so, he also goes through moments of doubt, never quite sure of his father’s guilt or innocence, preferring instead to be practical about things and using his legal know-how to help George’s case.

Despite The Best Kind of People being an issues-based novel — it embraces everything from teenage romance to feminism, gay rights to white privilege — this story is nothing short of a page turner. It’s a compelling read for so many reasons — will George be convicted? Will he go to prison? Will the family stay together, or fall apart? Will the local community ever accept the Woodbury family ever again or cast them out into the wilderness forever?

Admittedly, I thought some of the view points and characters presented here were well-worn tropes — the wronged wife, the loyal son, the busy-body interfering sister-in-law — and that some of the writing fell into cliché. But then Whittall would  include a sentence that would make me sit up and take notice. Here’s just two examples:

By his second glass he felt the balm of his arrogance returning, like a sly old lover slipping him a hotel key card.

And:

Improbable as it seemed, they settled into a new routine during this holding pattern — like when you’ve put gauze on a wound, and you’re waiting it out, hoping no infections seep in.

By the end of the book I realised it was nothing short of a stunning character study, for Whittall takes three seemingly normal and ordinary people — albeit white, privileged and living distinctly upper middle class lives  — and shows what happens to them when their worlds are turned upside down through no fault of their own.

What I liked most, however, was that it generates more questions than answers — book groups are going to have an absolute field day with it! — yet one thing is abundantly clear. Regardless of George’s guilt or innocence, the human toll — on his family, himself and his community — is irreparable. Once an accusation like this is out in the open, you can never make it disappear. That, I think, is the real message behind this exceedingly good novel.

For another take on this novel, please see fellow Shadow Giller jury member Naomi’s review.

This review has been cross-posted on Reading Matters.

A couple from the longlist

October 23, 2016 by

willem-de-koonings-paintbrush-canadian-editionAs you may recall way back when the Giller Prize longlist was announced in early September (where does the time go?), there were 12 books on the list. Of course, not all of them could proceed to the next round, but that doesn’t make them any less worthy of our time.

Shadow Giller jury member Naomi has read a couple of the longlisted books that didn’t make the cut. Both just happen to be short story collections.

She describes Willem de Kooning’s Paintbrush by Kerry Lee Powell as “fantastic” in terms of stories and prose style. Her review highlights a handful that particularly stood out, including the title story, which is inspired by de Kooning’s “Woman” series of paintings. And from what she’s written in her review (which you can read in full by visiting Naomi’s blog), the book does sound rather brilliant.

Ditto for the second longlisted book Naomi has read: The Two of Us by Kathy Page. The Two of Us“This is a strong collection that kept my interest throughout,” she writes.

Among these 16 stories that vary from 4 to 20 pages, you will come across spouses growing old together, a child and her mother battling it out at the dinner table, a hairdresser and a cancer patient, a lonely mother who has alienated herself from her son, old lovers, new lovers, a woman struggling with weight issues, homeless people trying to find a place to call home,  a swim coach and his protégé. There is nothing outrageous about them; they are snapshots of people’s lives, so many different lives. It’s in reading stories like these that I realize how varied we are, yet still fundamentally the same; we feel pain, love, hurt, betrayal, fear, joy, loneliness, shame. And we all long for the same things: to matter, to belong. “United by her characters’ primal desire for intimacy, these stories reflect our yearning for meaningful connection.”

To read Naomi’s review in full, please visit her blog.

Naomi reviews The Wonder

October 22, 2016 by

The Wonder by Emma DonoghueWith just over two weeks to go until the winner of the 2016 Scotiabank Giller Prize is announced we, here, on the Shadow Jury are heading into the final straight — most of us have nearly finished reading all the titles on the shortlist, so expect a small flurry of reviews over the next fortnight as we play catch up.

Naomi has just reviewed Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder, which I reviewed a few weeks back — and which you can read here if you missed it first time round.

In this story of a young Irish girl, who is apparently surviving on nothing but air, Donoghue sets up an intriguing narrative that Naomi says immediately pulled her in. But pacing was a problem, because “there was a bit of a lag in the middle” before it picked up again. Overall, however:

This is a good book; the history, the religious politics, the setting, and the characters. In particular, I found the attitudes and beliefs of the characters the most interesting aspect of the story. The doctor was hoping to make a great discovery; the possibility of human existence without the need for food. Anna’s family seemed paralyzed by their religious beliefs. And Nurse Lib was an interesting character; she made mistakes and held a prejudice against the Irish – one that represented the feelings about them in other parts of the world at the time (“What a rabble, the Irish. Shiftless, thriftless, hopeless, hapless, always brooding over past wrongs.”). But she was also strong and passionate about her cause, and a good nurse. “Good nurses follow rules… but the nest know when to break them.”

To read Naomi’s review in full, please visit her blog, Consumed by Ink.

Has anyone else read this book? What did you think?

The Party Wall, by Catherine Leroux

October 16, 2016 by
The Party Wall

Purchased from Amazon.co.uk

“I guess we’ll never really understand where we come from.” So says one of the characters in Catherine Leroux’s The Party Wall, a quote that basically sums up the entire premise of this Giller Prize shortlisted book.

In this complex, multi-layered story — or set of stories bound together by common themes and characters who are connected with one another — there is a strong focus on kinship, biological parentage and the ties that bind siblings together.

Reviewing the book in any great detail, however, isn’t an easy task, because, as my fellow Shadow Giller jury member Naomi has explained, the less you know about it, the more rewarding it is to read. I concur entirely.

Structurally, the book is divided into four sets of characters — sisters Monette and Angie; husband and wife Ariel and Marie; siblings Simon and Carmen; and mother and son Madeleine and Édouard — whose stories are told in interleaving chapters.

Each narrative thread hinges on a revelation that leaves the characters reeling. These revelations all revolve around secrets associated with family history.

While each set of stories (two chapters per pair, though Monette and Angie get seven much shorter chapters) is strong enough to be read as a standalone, the fun is working out the connections between characters in different stories. But this task isn’t entirely straightforward, because the stories are set in different time periods. When the pennies begin to drop, however, it’s quite a mind f**k.

Along with the aforementioned focus on kinship, biological parentage and siblings, there are other common themes relating to pairs — twins, polar opposites, “spitting images”, different halves, duality — running throughout. For example:

The world is an unjust place where the good go bad from never being rewarded, where the truly wicked are very rarely punished and where most folk zigzag between the two extremes, neither saints nor demons, tacking between heartache and joy, their fingers crossed, knocking on wood. Every person split in two, each with a fault around which good and evil spin.

And:

We were on the track that splits the Great Salt Lake exactly in two. Because of the railroad ballast, the lake is divided in half, and the composition of the water isn’t the same in both halves. The northern side is full of wine-red algae, but on the southern side it’s green. The clouds were perfectly mirrored on the surface and took on the colours of the lake. The train rolled along slowly. The air was warm and soft. There was no sound; it was as if the universe had come to a standstill. Right then, I had the feeling that I would never again be hungry or cold or in pain or afraid.

As those extracts may demonstrate, Leroux’s prose style, ably translated from the French by Lazer Lederhendler, is sublime, often filled with vivid imagery, startling similes and universal truths. I found myself highlighting a quote on almost every single page, because there was so much here that surprised me or struck a chord.

I loved all the characters, too. Each story is peopled by deeply flawed humans, all of whom are good-hearted but struggling to come to terms with past hurts or slights. I so enjoyed accompanying them on their individual voyages of self discovery that I felt slightly bereft when I reached the final page. Interestingly, the author explains that most were based on real characters, or inspired by them, but that her characters “should not be regarded as copies of actual persons”.

All in all, The Party Wall is an often startling book about identity and self-discovery, and the things that connect or separate us. It’s an intelligent, innovative and exhilarating read.

This review has been cross-posted on Reading Matters.


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