Archive for October, 2013

Going Home Again, by Dennis Bock

October 30, 2013

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Purchased at Indigo.ca

The “guy” novel is a sub-genre that tends not to show up on Giller Prize shortlists for years — and then when it does, it seems there is always more than one. By way of example, the last appearance (which, truth be told, was only two years ago in 2011) featured Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers and Lynn Coady’s The Antagonist, both of which centred on very male males.

While Coady is back on the list this year with the story collection, Hellgoing, most of those stories have heroines, not heroes. Two of her competitors for this year’s Prize, however, are very much “guy” novels. I’ve already reviewed Craig Davidson’s Cataract City which features two males raised in the laboring class of Niagara Falls who choose opposite sides of the law — and find themselves involved in very “guy-like” pursuits such as dog-fighting and bare-knuckle boxing.

Going Home Again again is a different example of the genre — the two brothers featured in this novel are very much part of the upper middle-class. Like Davidson’s heroes, they have been estranged for a number of years. Unlike his, however, they are facing the same challenge: the break-up of a long-established marriage has left both in a male version of no-man’s land.

11shadow logoFor author Bock, Charlie Bellerose is the one who is “going home again” and is the more important of the two. He is introduced in a prologue which takes place a year after the bulk of the story — effectively, the prologue is a high-level outline of what is to come in the book. After a year spent in Toronto where he was raised, Charlie is back in Madrid for his daughter Ava’s birthday party which also involves a maybe-hopeful reunion with his wife, Isabel.

The fact that Ava was turning thirteen probably made a bigger impression on me than it made on her. It almost felt that night as if I were stepping into a finished painting, and all I had to do to figure out what that painting meant was get to the other side of this weekend. Ava was excited, of course — she was the one getting the presents and blowing out the candles. But my first year as a bachelor in two decades was just coming to a close, and now like magic, as if time had snapped its fingers, it came to me that I was in the middle of a life I hadn’t really paid much attention to. My old self was buried in the irretrievable past, the world had continued, and suddenly my baby daughter was a teenager.

Charlie has been in a holding pattern for a year and, in that pattern, his devotion to his daughter has come to represent the centrepiece of what he hopes his future would be. Charlie owns four language academies in Spain and Ireland — his decision to open a fifth in Toronto has provided the rationale for setting down in his old home town while he tries to figure out what to do with the rest of his life.

One of the costs of that choice will be coming to terms with his brother Nate whom he hasn’t seen for thirteen years — a visit by Nate to Madrid in 1992 ended in a drunken near brawl between the two and they didn’t even speak for three or four years. While Charlie and Isabel are separated but still tolerant of each other, Nate’s marriage is in even worse shape — his wife Monica tossed her wedding ring into the Toronto harbor a few months earlier, moved in with “a Swedish man who owned what he described as a multidimensional sports-and-entertainment complex for the modern adventure-seeking kid” and started very messy divorce proceedings.

Despite the thirteen-year estrangement, Nate meets Charlie at the airport and drives him into the city:

There were no awkward silences between us that day. As he drove me into the city — we were riding in air-conditioned comfort in a big white Escalade that afforded us a bird’s-eye view of the laps of the drivers in the next lane — he mentioned his kids three or four times, how great they were, what they did for fun, how he liked nothing more than hanging out in the backyard and grilling hot dogs and burgers for them. Sticking to the upside of my life, I told him that Ava was an athletic and popular kid, almost twelve years old at that point, a kid who loved to read, did great in school and had a knack for languages. “Can you believe it? Us as dads,” he said. “The mind boggles.”

Given their marital problems, “being a dad” is one thing the two do have in common — and the love for their offspring is about all that either has to serve as an anchor to the recent past. Charlie, however, soon finds himself transported to an even more distant past when the two brothers and Nate’s sons Titus and Quinn head to a book festival event where Titus’ favorite author will be signing books. It is the author’s minder who suddenly brings Charlie up short:

I was watching people flowing past, taken by the simplicity of the moment and the warm sun on my face, when in the crowd I saw the woman I had dated and lived with back in my university days. Her name was Holly Grey, and she had been my first love.

It was very clearly her. I knew this with absolute certainty, though people passed between us and her back was partially turned. It helped, I suppose, that she’d neither gained nor last any weight, and her hair was much the same, despite being cut shorter now than I remembered it. I was suddenly in another time and place. And then after an instant I was back again.

And so the elements of Charlie’s year-long quest for what his future life will be are in place: Holly as the avatar for his long-ago youthful past, his separation from Isabel and his daughter as the reason for his present and his hopes for Ava as the symbol for his future.

The most successful part of Going Home Again is the way Bock deals with Charlie’s challenge in bringing those three threads together. He isn’t a particularly attractive character, but he is in many ways a sympathetic one as he tries to come to terms with the kind of middle-age crises that many men face.

Unfortunately, for this reader, that was not enough to overcome the weaknesses of the novel. While Nate is meant to be a sort of “compare and contrast” version of someone facing similar issues to Charlie, he never really comes to life and serves more as a convenient caricature than concrete character. And the children whom both Charlie and Nate are devoted to come off even worse — Ava (and to a lesser extent Titus and Quinn) ends up being one of those know-it-all pre-teens who makes brilliant observations that serve the author’s needs rather than being a realistic part of the story.

The result is a readable novel, but not a memorable one. Without giving too much away, a forced dramatic ending left me with the impression that Bock had written himself into a box that he needed to get out of — had he succeeded in creating a cast of real characters, it would not have been necessary. For my tastes, The Sisters Brothers, The Antagonist and Cataract City are all better examples of the “guy” novel than Going Home Again is.

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Kimbofo reviews The Orenda, by Joseph Boyden

October 29, 2013

UK cover

UK cover

Regular visitors here will be aware that the Shadow Giller Jury, for the first time in its 19 year history, has chosen to call-in a title in addition to the Real Jury shortlist, Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda. Kimbofo is the first of us to post a review of our call-in novel — here are her opening paragraphs (you can find the full review here):

Joseph Boyden is a Giller Prize-winning author — his second novel, Through Black Spruce, won the prize in 2008. His third novel, The Orenda, was long-listed for this year’s Giller, but did not make the cut when the shortlist was announced earlier this month. The Shadow Giller Prize Jury made the unusual decision of “calling in” the title and we will be considering it alongside the five books on the official list vying for the prize. This means we may well decide that The Orenda is worthy of the Giller, even if the official jury overlooked it.

I have to admit that out of all the books I’ve read on the shortlist so far, this is by far my favourite. I loved it on many levels — indeed, I was completely enraptured by it — and almost three weeks after having finished it, the story still lingers in my mind.

But I must post a warning here: this book includes many gruesome and violent scenes. They are not gratuitous, but they are visceral, and some readers may decide this really isn’t for them. That, however, would be a great shame, because this is a terrific novel about the “birth” of Canada as a nation and the subsequent struggle between two starkly different belief systems: that of several First Nations tribes and that of the French Jesuits trying to convert them to Catholicism and a western way of life.

Set in the 17th century, The Orenda plunges the reader into the vast wilderness of Eastern Canada and takes us on a sometimes terrifying, occasionally humorous, but always fascinating journey following members of the Huron nation as they go about their daily lives over the course of many seasons.

This natural world is brought vividly to life through Boyden’s beautiful prose — indeed, every time I opened the pages of this book it was like stepping into another world, so vastly different to my own, but so wonderfully rich and evocative that I would feel a sense of dislocation whenever I closed the book and went about my normal life.

The story revolves around three main characters: Bird, a Huron warrior mourning the loss of his wife and daughters killed by the Iroquois; Snow Falls, an Iroquois child, kidnapped by the Huron and brought up by Bird as his new daughter; and Christophe, a French Jesuit missionary, determined to convert the savages to Catholicism. Each character takes their turn to tell their story in alternate chapters — and each is written in the first person, present tense, which provides a sense of urgency and immediacy. A fourth character, Gosling, a medicine woman features heavily, but does not narrate her story.

The Crooked Maid, by Dan Vyleta

October 28, 2013

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Purchased at Indigo.ca

In his Acknowledgements at the conclusion of the Giller Prize shortlisted novel, The Crooked Maid, author Dan Vyleta offers some thoughts that I feel supply potential readers of the novel some valuable context — and in no way do they spoil the book:

When I set out to write The Crooked Maid, I had contracted the Balzacian bug: I wanted to write a world, not a book. All the same, the world must be assembled piece by piece. The train ride came to me early, as did the theme of patricide, both in conscious homage to Dostoevsky, whose books I love. Other, less conscious, Dostoevskianisms have crept in, further proof that books are dangerous things: you read them and they impose on you not just their words but a whole sensibility; not incidents but a mode of seeing reality.

Vyleta goes on to cite Dickens as another influence: “[his] daring in stacking incident upon incident (and coincidence upon coincidence); his ability to connect characters high and low through crime, family scandal, and the brittle threads of chance…”

(In offering those quotes, I hasten to add that Vyleta is not comparing himself or this novel to Balzac, Dostoevsky or Dickens. He is merely citing some well-known authors with well-known styles whom he feels had an impact on his writing. I do think knowing that in advance is helpful, not harmful, to the reader.)

11shadow logoThe “world” that Vyleta is writing about is Vienna, 1948 — a confused, disrupted city that is trying to find not just its own post-war character but also a community in “moral transition”. While the abuses of the Nazi regime have ended, the code that will replace them is still a work in progress. Like Berlin, the four Allied powers each have their own sector — unlike Berlin, the central sector is jointly administered. Most of the novel’s action takes place here, a neighborhood run sometimes by four powers, sometimes by only one and all too often by none as the challenging circumstances of postwar daily life simply fall through the cracks.

Like Dostoevsky and Dickens, however, the author does not address that big picture directly — rather, he creates a sprawling cast of characters and an equally sprawling series of incidents which take place in that “work in progress” world. I’ll offer thumbnail sketches of the circumstances of four of those characters as the basis for this review.

  • We are introduced to Anna Beer on a train from Paris to the city (that’s the train ride in Vyleta’s quote above), nine years after fleeing it when she discovered her psychiatrist husband was having a homosexual affair. She is now in search of him — he may or may not be in Vienna. He was sent to a concentration camp during the war (Freud, sexual preference or politics would each supply a reason) where he apparently survived by “treating” the camp commander. While Anna wants to confront him, she does not even know if he is alive, let alone back in Vienna.
  • Anna is sharing a compartment with an eighteen-year-old boarding school boy, on his way home after spending the war years at school in Switzerland. As an example of Vyleta’s prose style and attention to detail, here is how he introduces us to Robert Seidel:

    In fact, there was nothing about his person or his clothes that have marked him as a boarding school boy — he might have been a clerk, or an apprentice undertaker — had not the satchel and cap that were stowed in the netting above his head proclaimed him as precisely that, the student or recent graduate of an institution that thought highly enough of itself to affect a crest with lions and a motto in Ciceronian Latin. He also owned a knapsack and what looked to be a lady’s hat box. At intervals he would stand up on his seat and pull a wrapped sandwich out of the former, then sit eating it with obvious relish. He was tidy and handsome and really quite short.

    Robert thinks he is returning to his stepfather’s sickbed — in fact, the stepfather is already dead. A wealthy factory owner who collaborated with the Nazis to survive and prosper, he either fell or was pushed to his death from an upper storey window in the family’s luxurious villa. The authorities not only believe he was pushed, they have arrested Robert’s stepbrother Wolfgang and charged him with murder.

  • Eva Frey is the “crooked maid” of the title, working for the Seidel family:

    It was her back that was twisted: not hunched, but spun like a twist of hair around a finger. It was as though she’d been caught in a perpetual pirouette, one hip higher than the other, the right shoulder leading, an odd sideways prancing to her ever-shuffling feet. If she could but unscrew herself: throw her chest out, gain some range of movement in that stiff and leaning neck; tuck in the shoulder blade that stuck out like a broken flipper.

    Given the novel’s title, the reader suspects from Eva’s first appearance that her back is not the only thing about her that is “twisted”. Vyleta takes some time revealing just what the other twists are so you will have to read the book to find out.

  • And finally (at least for the purposes of this review, since there is a host of supporting characters), there is an enormous stranger whom Anna first glimpses from the window of her flat when she arrives and thinks might be Anton, the husband she is seeking. Shortly after, he invades it, stumbles about and fall down snoring.

    It wasn’t Anton.

    Distraught, not daring to wake him, she slipped down next to him; sat on the floor, with her back leaning against the sofa, and measured herself out against his long and sprawling legs. The man was enormous, a full foot taller than herself. Something gave in her, physically gave, a sense of tension that had run from rib cage to the dimple at the base of her throat; snapped, recoiled onto itself, pushed out a hoarse, impatient grunt. Her husband could not have grown this much: there wasn’t a rack (not even in Russia!) that would account for the extra height. All at once she grew angry, jumped up, and started kicking him awake. She wore no shoes, bruised her toes upon his greatcoat’s buttons; put a heel into his face and pushed it over, startled him awake.

    “What?” he asked, shook himself, tried to focus, eyes gone bleary with the booze.

    “Who the hell are you?”

    It will be a few hundred pages before that question is answered — suffice to say that along the way, Anna, Robert and Eva each find it convenient to give the very large stranger a particular identity.

  • Those sketches should offer some hints about the Dostoevskian elements that will come into play in the story — and yes there are lots of Dickens-like incidents and coincidences that Vyleta draws upon to fill out the body of his narrative.

    A number of crimes, not just the death/murder of Robert’s father, occur along the way and most of them get resolved, if not solved. The author uses each one to develop the details of another piece of the puzzle that is the morality, code of behavior, new rule of law that Vienna 1948 is in the process of developing.

    For this reader (who likes Dostoevsky but is not a Dickens fan), Vyleta succeeds in creating a sense of “world” that he says he aspired to when he sat down to write the novel. The Crooked World is a challenging read, but a rewarding one — as confusing as the narrative gets, the characters are fully developed and consistent. In the final analysis, the book is not about the incidents, events or even the people who populate it — it is a picture of the city and society to which each of them has come on a search. The Vienna of 1948 is every bit as much involved in a collective search for what it is to become as they are in their individual quests.

    It should be noted that Vyleta’s last novel, The Quiet Twin, set in Vienna in 1939, features some of the characters who appear in this book. I have not read The Quiet Twin and did not find that to be a problem, although I am sure I would have found some additional elements in this book if I had. I do plan to pick it up and am sure that I will find elements of this novel useful when I do — from reviews that I have read, I get the impression that the two are “companion” works, rather than successive ones.

    Trevor reviews Caught, by Lisa Moore

    October 26, 2013

    2013 mooreTrevor has posted his review of Caught, by Lisa Moore (click here for his full review) so all three Shadow Juror blogs have now looked at that novel. Scroll down for the first paras of Kimbofo’s review and links to both her full review and mine. Here is how Trevor starts his thoughts:

    On to my third book of this year’s Giller Prize shortlist, and again I find myself confronting a familiar name: Lisa Moore. Her books Open and Alligator were each shortlisted for the Giller Prize, and her previous novel February was longlisted for the Booker Prize. So her name is familiar to me, but I have never read any of those books. And while I enjoyed Caught (2013), I’m afraid it’s not a book that makes me anxious to go read more Moore.

    I’m surprised I didn’t like Caught, actually. It was one of the titles on the shortlist I was most looking forward to. A seasoned author writing about a fated criminal. But there was something in the gravity of Moore’s prose that didn’t fit. I’ll try to explain.

    But first, a bit of the setup: The book begins in Nova Scotia in 1978. On the evening before his twenty-fifth birthday, David Slaney is escaping from a prison where he’s been for four years on drug smuggling charges. As he makes his way from the prison, he knows he needs to run but feels he should stay still, and vice versa he knows he needs to stay still but feels he should run. Certain he’s going to get caught, he’s amazed that he actually gets away. On the outside, his old friend Brian Hearn has set up an escape plan, and they’re planning to meet up again to do one last big job: two-tons of marijuana from Colombia to Canada.

    Hot on his tail is Officer Patterson. In fact, we soon learn that the police are trailing Slaney — let him escape successfully, in fact — so they could catch their bigger prize: the friendly, deceptive Hearn.

    Kimbofo reviews Caught, by Lisa Moore

    October 25, 2013

    2013 mooreHere are the opening paragraphs from Kimbofo’s review of Lisa Moore’s Giller shortlisted novel, Caught. You can find her full review here — KfC’s appeared a few months back and can be found here.

    If Lisa Moore’s latest novel Caught was a film it would be described as a “road movie”.

    Indeed, as I read it I couldn’t help thinking that it had all the right ingredients for a Hollywood blockbuster — a young prisoner on the run, a down-at-heel cop on his tail, a pretty girl (or two or three) and an ambitious pot-smuggling plan involving sail boats, hurricanes and all manner of dodgy drug runners — but as a novel I struggled to properly engage with it. Throughout its entire 326 pages, I felt as if I was an observer and not a participant.

    The book has a dramatic opening. It is June 14, 1975 — the eve of David Slaney’s 25th birthday.

    He has just escaped prison and is heading to Guysborough, Nova Scotia, where a fellow prisoner has arranged a room for him. He hitches a ride with a trucker bringing a shipment of Lay’s potato chips to Newfoundland, and, keeping his head down, he slowly makes his way to Montreal and then Vancouver.

    But his ultimate plan is to head to Colombia to finish the task that landed him in prison in the first place — smuggling two tons of marijuana into Canada.

    His success is wholly reliant on meeting up with Brian Hearn, his childhood friend and partner-in-crime, who jumped bail last time round and has reinvented himself as a PhD student.

    And it will also depend on evading capture, which is where a third character, Patterson, comes into the story. A jaded staff sergeant in the Toronto Drug Section, he has been passed over for promotion too many times but has been promised an advancement if he can nab Slaney.

    Trevor reviews Hellgoing, by Lynn Coady

    October 23, 2013

    Purchased at Indigo.ca

    Purchased at Indigo.ca

    While we did not plan the scheduling, Trevor has checked in with his review of Lynn Coady’s story collection, Hellgoing, the day after I posted mine — and I would say we had similar impressions. Keep scrolling down to find my thoughts — here are the opening paragraphs from Trevor’s review (you can find the full version at his site here):

    In 2011, Lynn Coady’s novel The Antagonist was shortlisted for the Giller Prize (my thoughts here), and it was one of my favorites of that year. Looking back on my post, I see I almost had it in my first-place spot. I was excited, then, to see that she made the shortlist again this year with a collection of short stories, Hellgoing (2013). This is my second book of this year’s shortlist, and though I liked it, there’s something vague in my response. I’m hoping it isn’t in my top spot for this year’s prize.

    Hellgoing is comprised of nine energetic stories. I say energetic because Coady employs a kind of hip, sardonic voice in most of the stories that really makes them hum along. The characters rarely want to take things seriously — even serious things.

    For example, in the title story, Theresa, a forty-four-year-old mother is visiting friends, telling them about how her father had recently said she was fat. Theresa sees this — and Coady makes this explicit — as the punchline to a joke:

    “She didn’t tell her friends about anything else — the climax of the story had been told: Put on a few pounds, didn’t ya? Ba dum bump. Punchline!”

    She’s venting to her friends but telling them in such a way that it comes off as slightly humorous. Of course, she’s deeply offended by what her father said. Of course, it’s easier to make him look ridiculous rather than deal with her dire relationship with the man.

    This tone works well in “Hellgoing,” where Theresa is also trying to deal with her brother, a brother who always used to be a kind of slacker enemy but who now seems to have everything together and under complete control. Her brother has even managed to tame their father in some ways. Theresa doesn’t tell her friends about her brother, nor does she get into what’s really bothering her: the fact that her own life feels so out of control.

    Hellgoing, by Lynn Coady

    October 22, 2013

    Purchased at Indigo.ca

    Purchased at Indigo.ca

    Lynn Coady came to serious literary attention when her novel, The Antagonist, was shortlisted for the 2011 Giller Prize. The central character in that one, Rank, is a former hockey bully, now a middle-aged teacher. Rank’s distinguishing characteristic, beyond his critical review of his own upbringing, is a current rage at just about everything around him, but most particularly his father and a former college buddy who intends to write a novel based on those days (The Antagonist is structured as a series of angry e-mails to that buddy).

    That description hardly promises a “literary novel”, so Coady’s success was a bit of a surprise. I thought at the time that what made her premise succeed was her ability to develop the novel as a series of set pieces — and those set pieces were uniformly good.

    All of which implied that she might be a very good short story writer, so I was not totally surprised when her collection, Hellgoing, showed up on the 2013 Giller longlist (and has now advanced to the shortlist). I’ll cut right to the chase: the collection confirms that she is a “good” short story writer but I am not at all sure that this collection is good enough to deserve the shortlisting.

    11shadow logoMost of the stories in Hellgoing feature a female central character who is undergoing “relationship” issues — be that with a lover, family or friends. The various relationships are in a period of tension, not yet shattering but a growing one that does carry threats. And in most of these stories the growth in tension comes when one set of “relationships” starts to overlap with another.

    The title story opens with 44-year-old Theresa informing a hen party of friends that her recent Thanksgiving visit home was most notable for her father’s opening observation that she was “fat” — and that has plunged her into a review of her family relationship. Her mother died a few months ago and her brother, the recently-divorced Ricky (whom she never got along with), has moved in with her father — it was Ricky who asked Theresa to make a Thanksgiving visit home.

    She had expected the worst when [Ricky] decided to move in with their father after their mother’s death and Ricky’s divorce. She had expected the two men, who were so alike already, to simply merge into one horrific masculine amalgam. And end up one of those bachelor pairs of fathers and sons that she knew so well from back home, finishing each other’s sentences, eating the same thing every day — cereal, cheddar, toast, bologna with ketchup — pissing in the kitchen sink because the bathroom was too far away, wiping their hands on the arms of chairs after finishing up a meal of cereal and cheese. Served on a TV tray. A TV tray never folded and put away, never scrubbed free of solidified ketchup puddles, never not stationed in front of a chair.

    What she discovers is far different: “Theresa arrived in her childhood home to finds things neat, dust-free and zero TV trays in sight. Their father was expected to come to the table when his tea was ready — he didn’t get it brought to him, like their mother would have done.” Far from finding this a pleasant surprise, Theresa moves into a mode of questioning her own self-confidence, one that gets worse when her father refers to her weight (“I have had babies! Put on some pounds? I’ve put on some pounds?“)

    The story takes a different turn when Coady reveals that Theresa has been telling this story to her friends, obviously looking for sympathy, and they respond by telling their own stories rather than commiserating with hers.

    She was the Assistant Chair of her department. She had a paper coming out in Hypatia. She was flying to Innsbruck, Austria, in the spring to deliver that very paper. There would be another conference in Santa Cruz a few months later where she was the keynote motherfucking speaker. She was being flown down there. I am being flown down there, she’d hacked, asphyxiating on the rest of the sentence.

    Relationship issues aren’t the source of Theresa’s identity problem — they just bring it into sudden focus.

    The story “Body Condom” features Kim, another woman in middle-age, who a few months ago “agreed to be in love with Hart.” The two are just-getting-by musicians but don’t have much else in common:

    At first, deciding to be in love felt to Kim like a process of having to explain to Hart, in different ways, every day, that she was nothing like him. And Hart not believing her, and her having to convince him. Then one day the process came to an end — Hart abruptly agreed to consider each one of them as individual people with separate experiences and different points of view.

    “You’re not as gregarious as I am,” Hart announced one day after failing to drag her to a friend’s open mic event. “You don’t need as much social stimulation.”

    The relationship tension escalator in this one is a visit to Vancouver Island to meet Hart’s divorced parents — his mother and brother live in Port Alice on one end of the island and his father (whose “girl friend” is Kim’s age) lives an eight-hour drive away on the other (it is a big island, after all). Hart knows there may be problems, so they will be camping rather than staying with either parent — and he’s arranged both a two-day yoga retreat and one day of surfing lessons (the “body condom” of the title is a reference to the “two-inch-thick elephant skins of neoprene” they wear for surfing) to offset whatever family-based stresses might arise.

    As in “Hellgoing”, most of this story is about the heightened identity issues for Kim that all this brings into focus — her love affair is shaky at best, adding in the family issues only makes that worse. End of story.

    As I said earlier, these stories (and the other seven in the book) read just fine. If I had come across any of them in the New Yorker (just about the only source with short stories that I come across except for collections), I’d finish each one with a “that was okay” and move on to the next article.

    The problem is that a truly successful story does more than that: despite its lack of length, it plants itself in memory and causes the reader to invent his or her own twists and turns that are based on the story. Coady’s stories don’t do that, they slip away. I finished reading the book a couple weeks before sitting down to write this review and had to check the opening of each of the nine to remind me what they were about — and even the two that I chose to feature (because I did remember them best) needed re-reading before I started to write the review since neither had grown or even lived on in memory.

    The Real Giller jury features some talented short story writers so they obviously discovered more in the collection than I did — I can’t help but wonder if female readers may find more in the characters than landed with me. I am more than happy that the jury has again put on short story collection on the short list because the genre deserves promotion — equally, however, I can’t help but think they could have found a better example.

    Kimbofo reviews Going Home Again, by Dennis Bock

    October 21, 2013

    1aabockKimbofo has checked in with her review of Dennis Bock’s Going Home Again, so the flood of Shadow Giller Jury reviews has started. You can read her full review here — in the meantime here are Kim’s opening paragraphs from that review:

    I’ll admit that I was in two minds about reading Dennis Bock’s Going Home Again, which has been shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize. I wanted to read it, because I generally like stories about repatriation; but I also didn’t want to read it, because I know Trevor, from The Mookse and The Gripes, didn’t like it. [Trevor’s review is here.]

    Yet, when I opened this book on Saturday afternoon, thinking I’d just read a couple of chapters, I found myself completely absorbed by this tale of two divorced men and their fragile relationships with those around them, and before I knew it I had almost finished the entire novel.

    The story is narrated by Charlie Bellerose, a Canadian who has spent the best part of 20 years living in Madrid, where he is married with a 12-year-old daughter. But things are not as cosy as they first seem. Charlie and his Spanish wife are estranged, and Charlie has made the decision to return home to Toronto, where he plans to open his fifth foreign language school and start his life afresh.

    And it is here in Toronto that he re-establishes contact with his older brother, Nate, with whom he has a troubled relationship. The last time he saw Nate was a decade ago — and the two have not been on speaking terms since. But things are different now — Nate seems older and wiser, even if he is going through a rather messy divorce with his wife, Monica, and he is sharing responsibility for bringing up their two sons, Titus and Quinn.

    Over the course of a year, we follow Charlie’s ups and downs: his struggle to adjust to life without his daughter, whom he adores; the joy of taking on a fatherly role to Titus and Quinn, often looking after them while Nate is away on business; his reconnection with Holly, an old girlfriend, who is now happily married; and the happiness of finding a new girlfriend. As these events unfold, Bock uses flashbacks to tell Charlie’s back story: his upbringing by a kindly uncle after his parents were killed in a car crash; his life at university in which his best friend — Holly’s boyfriend — jumped off a bridge and died; his subsequent meanderings through Spain and how he met his wife; the tense, stressful — and wary — relationship he has with Nate.

    Shadow Giller Jury announces call-in title

    October 16, 2013

    11shadow logoFor the first time in its 19 year history, the Shadow Giller Jury has decided to include a call-in title when it considers this year’s shortlist: The Orenda, by Joseph Boyden. The decision was unanimous — two members of the Shadow Jury have read it and found it excellent, the other two (one of them is KfC) are looking forward to it.

    Boyden has already won the Giller in 2008 for Through Black Spruce, volume two in a projected trilogy. When the longlist was announced (and The Orenda had just been released) I mistakenly said it was the third volume — it is not.

    1aaboydenThe Shadow Jury will treat The Orenda simply as a sixth title on our short list. You will eventually see reviews here as well as at Reading Matters and the Mookse and the Gripes — Alison will offer her thoughts on one of our blogs.

    As usual, the Shadow Jury will make its deliberations transparent. In the event that the call-in title wins our Prize, we will conduct a second vote that is limited to the five titles of the Real Jury shortlist.

    None of us has yet reviewed The Orenda. In the meantime, here is the publisher’s description of the novel:

    A visceral portrait of life at a crossroads, The Orenda opens with a brutal massacre and the kidnapping of the young Iroquois Snow Falls, a spirited girl with a special gift. Her captor, Bird, is an elder and one of the Huron Nation’s great warriors and statesmen. It has been years since the murder of his family and yet they are never far from his mind. In Snow Falls, Bird recognizes the ghost of his lost daughter and sees the girl possesses powerful magic that will be useful to him on the troubled road ahead. Bird’s people have battled the Iroquois for as long as he can remember, but both tribes now face a new, more dangerous threat from afar.

    Christophe, a charismatic Jesuit missionary, has found his calling amongst the Huron and devotes himself to learning and understanding their customs and language in order to lead them to Christ. An emissary from distant lands, he brings much more than his faith to the new world.

    As these three souls dance each other through intricately woven acts of duplicity, small battles erupt into bigger wars and a nation emerges from worlds in flux.

    The 2013 Real Giller Jury is already under intense scrutiny as a result of its decision to leave Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, winner of the Booker Prize, off the Giller long list. I have read it — and it certainly would have made my shortlist. The Shadow Giller Jury’s decision to add another call-in can only further lead to questions about the ability of this year’s Real Jury. Your comments and thoughts, as usual, are more than welcome. And if our call-in title does win the Shadow Giller, I will be encouraging my fellow jurors to read Catton’s Booker winner and offer yet another vote on the best “Canadian” book of the year.

    2013 Booker Prize winner

    October 15, 2013

    Check KfC's review by clicking here

    Check KfC’s review by clicking here

    Eleanor Catton has won the 2013 Booker Prize for her 832-page doorstopper, The Luminaries. In one sense, it was a victory for Canada, our second international prize in less than a week after Alice Munro’s Nobel. On the other hand, to check the national chauvinism just a bit, while Catton was born here, her contacts since have been minimal — she grew up in New Zealand (where she now lives) and wrote this book while she was at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. At the very least, we have to share the honor with our New Zealand friends. Only 28 years old, Catton becomes the youngest ever winner of the Booker. The Luminaries is her second novel — her first, The Rehearsal was equally impressive if you go back to my review. She is an exceptional writer who promises to deliver even more in the future.

    The Luminaries is a Victorian melodrama/mystery. It opens with a death and an apparent suicide attempt, the arrival in a west New Zealand port of a stranger, and the gathering of a cabal of locals who are all somewhat involved in the deaths. We know all that early — Catton spends most of the novel sketching in the background and delays until the end the full details of her story.

    It is also worth noting that the author uses two other devices within the novel. One that I did understand was the use of the golden mean of mathematics — each chapter contains half as many words as the previous ones. That means the first chapter is 360 pages — the last three (of twelve) total 17. Yes, it is a gimmick — but it does add momentum as we come to the conclusion in the novel’s final 150 pages. Her other device, a consistent reference to astrological symbols and relationships, completely passed me by — and I will admit I have read no review that explained why it added to the novel.

    booker logoThe Luminaries would have been my second choice of those I have read on the Booker shortlist (I’ll be reading Lahiri’s The Lowland later; Ozecki’s A Tale for the Time Being has no appeal for me), after Jim Crace’s Harvest — and I will admit that one had a particular personal appeal as you will discover if you read my review. Certainly, I have no quarrel with the Booker Jury’s decision, although it is a surprise. By way of example, on Trevor’s Booker forum, the Crace had 11 out of 14 first place votes — Catton had only one.

    Every bit as interesting for we Canadians, however, is what the Real Giller Prize Jury will have to say. The Luminaries was eligible — and did not even make the long list. I’m guessing, but I would suggest that Catton’s authorly “gimmicks” (I mean that as descriptive, not judgmental) landed well with the Booker Jury, but were a big problem for the Giller threesome.


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