Archive for the ‘2013 Giller Prize’ Category

2013 Governor-General’s fiction winner is…

November 13, 2013

2013 cattonThe Luminaries, Eleanor Catton’s Victorian-style tale of a complicated nineteenth century murder mystery/conspiracy, set in the gold-mining country of western New Zealand. My full review of the 800-plus page novel is here.

It is the second major prize win for The Luminaries which copped the Booker Prize last month. Catton’s novel defeated a very strong field in this latest contest:

  • The Orenda, by Joseph Boyden: Another historical story, this one set in seventeenth century southern Ontario, with the warring Huron and Iroquois tribes and the even more ominous arrival of the French in the form of Jesuit priests. The Orenda was this year’s Shadow Giller winner and my personal choice as best Canadian novel of the year.
  • The Hungry Ghosts, by Shyam Selvadurai: As a young Sri Lankan immigrant in Canada prepares to return home to visit his failing grandmother, he flashes back to memories of growing up there — the racial tensions, the pressure to join the dodgy family business and the discovery of his own sexuality. The novel also explores his difficulty in adapting to his new home in Canada.
  • The Lion Seeker, by Kenneth Bonert: A debut novel that chronicles the experiences of a Jewish Lithuanian family who emigrate to South Africa in the 1930s. I have not yet read it but do have it on hand and intend to get to it soon — it comes highly recommended by David whose thoughtful comments are much appreciated by everyone who visits this blog.
  • A Beautiful Truth, by Colin McAdam: The husband of a woman who is depressed because she cannot bear children adopts a baby male chimpanzee, opening an exploration of the relationship between human and animal nature. While the premise has no appeal to me, many who have read the novel say that it is very well done.
  • What Catton’s G-G win has certainly done is put another log on the fire of just what is going on with juries, particularly the Giller, in this year’s Canadian literary prize season. Despite her Booker win, Catton did not even make the Giller longlist — indeed, of the five books on the G-G shortlist only Boyden found any Giller recognition at all — and The Orenda was gone when the shortlist was announced.

    The final fuel will be added next week with the Rogers Writers’ Trust winner — neither Catton nor Boyden are on the shortlist, so there will be no new data for either of those titles. Lynn Coady’s Giller-winning story collection, Hellgoing, is there, as is her fellow short-listed colleague, Lisa Moore, for Caught. Those two are joined by Colin McAdam’s A Beautiful Truth from the G-G and two titles that did not make either the Giller or G-G lists: The Eliot Girls, by Krista Bridge and A Bird’s Eye, by Cary Fagan.

    I have speculated in comments that the politics of the Penguin/Random House merger and its effect on Canadian publishing could be one explanation for the widely varying lists. All five of the G-G finalists came from Penguin/Random House imprints. Three of the five Giller finalists did — but the surprise winner was from House of Anansi, Canada’s leading independent. Of the Writers’ Trust five, only A Beautiful Truth comes from a Penguin/Random House imprint — perhaps an indication that writers do not think much of the consolidation of Canada’s publishing business.

    For what it is worth, as a reader here is what my ranking of the various titles I have read would be: 1. The Orenda 2. The Crooked Maid, by Dan Vyleta 3. The Luminaries. While all three have historical settings, that is about all they have in common — except for being very good books and well worth putting on your Christmas list or considering as a gift for reader friends whom you know.


    The Orenda, by Joseph Boyden

    November 7, 2013

    Purchased at

    Purchased at

    The Orenda was the Shadow Giller Jury’s unanimous choice as this year’s Prize winner — and we had to call it in since it did not make the Real Jury’s shortlist. So this is obviously going to be a positive review. Having said that, The Orenda is not for everyone — it has a narrative complexity that can be frustrating and there is a continuing thread of graphically-realistic violence that can be testing. I’m hoping this review will show why it is worth readers coping with those challenges — because they are essential to appreciating what is truly an outstanding novel.

    Let’s start with an overview of the four global forces that are at play in Boyden’s novel, set in southwestern Ontario (yes, if you are an Alice Munro fan, this is very close to Munro country, only it is three centuries earlier):

  • The narrative takes place in the territory of a Wendat (Huron) settlement, close to the shore of Lake Huron (known as the Sweetwater Sea in the native language). The group are a trading nation — they raise the three sisters (corn, beans and squash), trade them for furs with a native nation from farther north and then trade those furs with the Iron People, the French who have just arrived in North America. Much of that trade is useful items like pots and axes — they also aspire, however, to acquire “the shining wood”, the rifle that is far more deadly than their bow and arrows.
  • Trading with the French involves a high-risk, lengthy, multi-canoe summer convoy through the territory of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) nation — the wars between the two have extended for generations and developed their own theatre of capture, killing and torture (known as “caressing” in a particularly brutal simile). There are regular violent sorties between the two (it is a coming-of-age rite for young warriors); fairly often this erupts into a full-scale battle. This has been going on for so long that the memories — which influence the present — have grown into legend that is part of concrete, present-day reality.
  • And then there are the “Crows” — Jesuit missionaries who, while committed to converting heathens to Christianity, are pretty much the advance guard of the invading French. Dependent on their trade with the Iron People, the Huron effectively have no choice but to admit these disruptive influences to their settlements. The “crows” don’t come with weapons in the conventional sense, but they do arrive with even more devastating ones — small pox, influenza and a host of other diseases to which the native people have not built up immunity.
  • And finally there is the most powerful force of all, Mother Nature. Huron history recognizes this — every force or object in nature has an orenda (spirit) that serves to represent its value. To cite just one example, a summer where the orenda does not bring rain means the three sisters yield no crop, a disaster far more damaging than any Iroquois raid — not just in eliminating trade for a year, but also bringing starvation into play. Obviously, the idea that every object has its own spirit stands in conflict with the Jesuit doctrine of One Great Voice.
  • Those four over-arching forces are ever-present in The Orenda but Boyden has chosen to tell his story through three individual narrative voices which represent them. While it takes some time to get used to these three (patience is an often frustrating constant of North America’s aboriginal people — it is a talent, natural or acquired, that is essential for readers of this novel), these voices become the “orenda” of the novel — distinctive, thoughtful, both contemplative and active. Once I came to be comfortable with them, each provided a distinctive dimension to the story, effectively making the printed page a concrete three-dimensional sculpture.

  • Bird is a warrior elder of the Wendat tribe. We meet him on his way home from a hunting excursion (the missionary Christophe is with Bird’s party) after encountering and killing all but one of an Iroquois group they had come across (“…they were close to starving. And by the lack of dog prints I knew what their last meal had been.”). Bird is a much more complete character than the following excerpt illustrates, but I include it here to supply an example of the violence that is crucial to the novel, but may be disturbing for some:

    I took no pleasure yesterday in killing the last two women. They were already so wounded we knew they wouldn’t survive the trip home. Even though I asked Fox [Bird’s best friend and essential fighting ally] to do it, my asking is the same as if I myself had done it. Fox cut their throats with his knife so that they’d die quickly, ignoring the taunts of Sturgeon and Hawk and Deer to make it slow. When the three called Fox a woman for making the first leave so fast, he positioned the second woman, who was quite pretty, so the blood from her throat sprayed their faces. That shut them up, and despite feeling badly for these dead, I laughed. For all I knew, it was this group who was responsible for the slow and awful deaths of you, my wife, and you, my two daughters. There’s been no peace since. I no longer care for peace.

    Bird is certainly an effective warrior and trader, but he is much more than that. He is aware that the “crows” are not just individuals his tribe is forced to accept as visitors, they foreshadow a change that is beyond the control of the Wendat. The Iroquois are an enemy that Bird understands — the “crows” are part of a new destructive force which will not go away that is beyond his comprehension.

  • Snow Falls is a young Iroquois, the only survivor of the deadly incident in the above excerpt. One element in the long history of Huron-Iroquois warring is that the taking of hostages to replace family that one has lost has become quite acceptable — Bird is bringing the young girl home as a new daughter to replace the two he has lost:

    Despite her slowing us down all night and as her people pursue us this morning, I still don’t regret taking her. She contains something powerful. This has become more and more clear in the last while. I’m willing to take this great risk because of the promise of what’s inside her. And if the Crow is able to not only keep up with my hunters but also keep the girl alive, he will have proved to me that both of them have something worth studying.

    Snow Falls becomes a wonderfully realized character as the novel proceeds. Sometimes she serves as a representative of her people, an Iroquois hostage in a Huron community. Sometimes she is just an angry girl growing up — such as when she urinates on Bird’s sleeping robe as a gesture of protest. Sometimes she is the young, developing medicine woman who “contains something powerful”. And in all those guises and more, she is a symbol of the next generation that will have to cope with all the conflicting forces that dominate the present day of the novel.

  • And then there is Christophe, the Crow. The portrayal of Jesuit missionaries in Canadian fiction has pretty much been a contrast of two poles — the martyr version of Father Brebeuf (in his acknowledgements Boyden cites several sources that chronicle the Jesuit story) or the personification of secular evil (smallpox-ridden blankets, residential schools, etc.). To Boyden’s credit, Christophe incorporates elements of both those extremes and everything in between — like Snow Falls, he grows into a thoroughly three-dimensional character, sometimes worthy of worship, sometimes an obvious fool, sometimes evil personified. The author signals this ambiguous nature early on, in Christophe’s first narrative portion of the book, an introspective stream of conscience report to his God as he carries Snow Falls back to Huron territory, his task after the battle where her family was killed:

    You seem to be very far away here in this cold hell, and the Superior’s attempts to prepare me before I left France, before my journey to this new world, seem ridiculous in their navïeté. You will face great danger. You will almost certainly face death. You will question Jesus’ mercy, even His existence. This is Lucifer whispering in your ear. Lucifer’s fires are ice. There is no warming your body and soul by them. But Superior doesn’t have any idea what true cold is, I realize, as I allow myself and the girl to be swallowed by the darkness of trees that the bitter sun fails to penetrate.

    Christophe’s faith is under challenge as the book opens and it will only become more so as it continues. And yet, even in this aspect of the novel, Boyden finds a way to inject some humor into what overall is a very, very serious book. Later in the novel, when Christophe has two fellow Jesuits with him, the three are having trouble getting their “converts” to pay attention — until one of them discovers the Huron are captivated by the priests’ chiming clock. In no time, it becomes Captain of the Day — and the Jesuits don’t hesitate to ascribe a prescriptive purpose to the hourly chiming (“Captain of the Day says it is time to pray.” “Captain of the Day says it is time to go home to the longhouse.”)

  • We know from more than three hundred years of history that those four forces I described in the opening of the review have never arrived at final resolution — they continue to exist in a state of tension that ebbs, flows, strengthens and eases to this day. What Boyden has done in this outstanding novel is give us one version of how they might originally have come into play — and he does it through the voices and portrayals of three of the most well-developed characters I can remember finding in a contemporary novel.

    I have hinted at some of the challenges I found in reading this novel. Indeed, for the first two-thirds (it is 490 pages), I could not read more than 50 or 60 pages at a sitting — the story and images were simply too powerful for me to go further without pausing to absorb what I had read. So when I sat down with 200 pages to go, I figured that I had at least three, probably four, days of reading ahead of me — and then finished it all in one go. Bird, Snow Falls and Christophe were all so firmly established in my mind that I moved easily from one to the other — and even the reading of the truly horrific extended battle at the end of the novel could not be interrupted.

    This is already the wordiest review in the history of this blog (yes, I am trying to sell the reading of this novel) and I’m having trouble phrasing an appropriate conclusion — mainly because I’m trying to find my own version of what my fellow Shadow Giller Juror Kimbofo has already captured in her summary of The Orenda when we announced our 2013 winner. So I’ll just borrow her words as a perfect capsule of the impact that The Orenda had on me as well:

    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.”

    I can think of no higher praise for any novel — this is what a truly great book is meant to do.

    And the Real 2013 Giller Prize winner is…

    November 5, 2013


    Hellgoing, Lynn Coady’s nine story collection.

    While I have not spoken to my fellow Shadow Jurors, I would say we are surprised, perhaps even stunned. On our six book shortlist (including The Orenda) she finished fifth of six, beating Dennis Bock’s Going Home Again by a single point. The collection was fourth of five with Boyden not included — it edged Bock by two points on that ballot.

    All three of us with blogs have reviewed Hellgoing — you can find Kim’s review here, Trevor’s here and mine here. None of us actively disliked the collection, but neither were we particularly impressed — the stories read just fine, but were not particularly memorable. What is interesting about that similarity of opinion is that Trevor is a genuine short story aficionado, Kim says she doesn’t like the genre (until she actually has to read a collection) and I am somewhere in-between (always feeling guilty that I don’t read more story collections). Three very different starting points, but we all had pretty much the same response.

    This is a victory of significance for Canadian publisher House of Anansi and their new Astoria imprint. Introduced just this year, Astoria is devoted to short fiction with the promise of publishing at least three titles a year (Theodora Armstrong’s Clear Skies, No Wind, 100% Visibility and Peter Behrens’ Travelling Light were the other volumes in 2013). In a year where Canada’s queen of the short story, Alice Munro, won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Anansi has come up big with its decision to support a genre that many feel is deliberately overlooked by major publishers.

    All book prize juries (including ours) develop their own personalities and I am not going to speculate on what lead the Real Jury to make this choice — anyone willing to do that in comments is more than welcome and I’ll certainly offer an opinion then.

    When the original Shadow Jury started its deliberations 19 years ago, we did promise that if our selection did not win the Real Giller we would match the Prize (then $25,000, now $50,000), subject to funds being available. Ann-Marie MacDonald (Fall on Your Knees) chalked up our first debt in 1996 and Wayne Johnston (The Colony of Unrequited Dreams) became the second creditor in 1998. There have been a few others since and they are now joined by Joseph Boyden. Alas, for Shadow Giller winners who did not win the Real Giller, funds have never been available to enable us to make good on our debts. I have no desire to calculate what our total amount owing currently is.

    For those who did get to watch the CBC broadcast, I think they did an excellent job — viewers were given a very good idea of what each book was about and what each author was trying to accomplish. From my point of view, it was the best Giller broadcast in memory.

    That’s it for Giller 2013. I promise we will be back (and probably as far off the mark) again next year.

    The 2013 Shadow Giller Prize winner is…

    November 4, 2013

    11shadow logo

    Canadian cover

    Canadian cover

    UK cover

    UK cover

    The Orenda, Joseph Boyden’s story of the trials, tribulations and struggles of a Wendat (Huron) tribe in southwestern Ontario in the seventeenth century. The novel features three voices — Bird, a warrior elder; Snow Falls, an Iroquois girl he takes as a hostage and adopts as a daughter; and Christophe Crow, a Jesuit missionary who brings both Christian faith and devastating plague to the native community. It was the unanimous choice of the four Shadow Jury members.

    I’ve included both the Canadian and UK covers in this post because I think they illustrate two quite different (and legitimate) responses which the cover designers had to the book. While it is hard to see in the electronic version, those are birch trees on the Canadian cover — nature as both a nurturing and threatening force is very much a character in this novel. The UK designer, on the other hand, opted for a dualistic image that portrays both a warrior face and the metaphorical crow of the Jesuit — a stuffed raven also features as an orenda that Snow Falls finds in her search acknowledging her arriving womanhood, so this version captures images for all three voices.

    As Giller followers know, The Orenda will not be winning the Real Giller — for the first time in its 19-year history, the Shadow Giller Jury opted to call-in a title that was not on the official Giller shortlist. Both Kim and Alison had read Boyden’s novel before the shortlist was announced and felt strongly that it should be included; Trevor and Kevin were eager to add it into our consideration.

    That late addition means only Kim and I have posted a review at this date — you can find Kim’s here and mine here. Trevor’s should be posted in a few days (I’ll amend this post with links when it is up).

    Some summary thoughts about The Orenda from Shadow jury members:

  • Kim: “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.”
  • Trevor: “I can’t understand why the jurors left such a finely written, alive story off the shortlist. After all, this book should win the Giller Prize this year! I loved the setting, the scale, even the violence. Boyden’s work is delicate. While I enjoyed the real Giller shortlist to some degree, this was the only book I loved and am proud to recommend. In the past years, I’ve collected Joseph Boyden’s books, anxious to read them but, for whatever reason, saving them. Finally pushed into reading one, I’m even more excited to read the rest of his work. This is the only book that made me anxious to read more by the author.)”
  • Kevin: “Boyden takes a while to establish the voices of his three narrators, but once he did I was completely enthralled in the story. As he moved from one to the other, my own mind came to join in the orenda (the Wendat spirit) of each and appreciate the challenges, losses and joys that each faced — with the ever present constant of an often hostile nature a common factor for all three. The concluding section of the book is the most engrossing, dramatic and heart-breaking reading that I have experienced all year.”
  • With six titles on our shortlist, this year I asked each of the jurors to take 120 points and spread them across the six books. Here were our results:

    1. Trevor: The Orenda, Boyden 34; The Crooked Maid, Vyleta 27; Cataract City, Davidson 21; Caught Moore 17; Hellgoing, Coady 16; Going Home Again, Bock 5.
    2. Kevin: Boyden 30, Vyleta 24, Davidson 21, Bock 17, Coady 14, Moore 14.
    3. Kimbofo: Boyden 50, Vyleta 30, Bock 15, Davidson 12, Coady 8, Moore 5.
    4. Alison: Boyden 40, Vyleta 30, Davidson 15, Moore 15, Bock 10, Coady 10
    5. Total: Boyden 154, Vyleta 111, Davidson 69, Moore 52, Coady 48, Bock 47

    Purchased at

    Purchased at

    That voting summary not only shows our strong preference for The Orenda, it also indicates a unanimous agreement from the Shadow Jurors on our choice from the Real Jury shortlist, Dan Vyleta’s The Crooked Maid. Just for the record, I asked the jurors to spread 100 points among the five titles without Boyden’s book and here are the results:

    1. Trevor: Vyleta 33, Davidson 25, Moore 19, Coady 18, Bock 5.
    2. Kevin: Vyleta 30, Davidson 24, Bock 18, Coady 14, Moore 14
    3. Kimbofo: Vyleta 40, Bock 20, Davidson 17, Coady 13, Moore 10
    4. Alison: Vyleta 30, Davidson 20, Moore 20, Bock 15, Coady 15
    5. Total: Vyleta 133, Davidson 86, Moore 63, Coady 60, Bock 58

    Summary comments for Dan Vyleta’s The Crooked Maid:

  • Kim: “Ambitious in scope, it recreates Vienna in 1948, peoples it with a sizable collection of well-drawn characters, connects them all in a myriad of brilliant and unexpected ways, then throws in a murder mystery, a missing person case, a courtroom trial, several love affairs and a scandal or two.”
  • Trevor: “Much like The Orenda, The Crooked Maid has remarkable scale, and Vyleta controls all of the characters and mysteries nicely, giving a propulsive (yet intricate) narrative in a setting I love: post-war Vienna.”
  • Kevin: “Author Vyleta says he set out to create “a world” and I think he succeeded. Vienna in 1948 is a city in search of a new morality and code of conduct — each of the central characters is involved in his or her own search, collectively they represent the confusion and quest of the capital emerging from war and Nazi abuses. The Crooked Maid is one of those complex, intriguing novels that serious readers will find to be a triumph.”
  • Kim, Trevor and I have all reviewed The Crooked Maid — you can find links in the side bar on the right.

    And so all that remains now is to sit back and await the Real Jury decision from a list that we obviously felt missed the best book. I speak for all four of us in saying that we felt this year’s Giller reading was much better than last year’s — there may have been stronger long and short lists in the Giller’s 20 year history, but this one is a vintage that can hold its head high.

    Finally, again from all four of us, our thanks to all who followed our deliberations. We look forward to next year.

    Going Home Again, by Dennis Bock

    October 30, 2013

    Purchased at

    Purchased at

    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.

    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

    Purchased at

    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

    Purchased at

    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.

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