February 22, 2009

And the winner is...

Now, having read all 5 books that were shortlisted in 2008 for the Giller Prize awarded for Canadian fiction, here is the order that I would rank them in...

Drumroll please...

1.  Through Black Spruce - Joseph Boyden
2.  Good to a Fault - Marina Endicott
3.  Barnacle Love - Anthony De Sa
4.  Cockroach - Rawi Hage
5.  The Boys in the Trees - Mary Swan

So I agree with the judges, who also chose Through Black Spruce as the top book of the year.  It was a brilliant book, and I have since purchased Boyden's first book, Three Day Road, and look forward to reading it - watch for future postings.  And the story and characters of Good to a Fault have stayed with me beyond the first reading - I will probably go back and re-read it in the future - the sign of a good book.

Interesting to note that two of the shortlisted books this year deal with the "Immigrant Experience".

And I am doing my very best to forget The Boys in the Trees.  It has not grown on me with time.

This year, I should try to read all of the books after the shortlist is compiled, before the winner is announced!

Barnacle Love - Anthony De Sa

This is the fifth and final Giller nominee, my reading of all of the shortlisted books having been interrupted by a few library books.

This book is different from the others, in that it is a collection of 10 interconnected short stories - each one can be read independently of the others, but read together they form the portrait of a family.  In the first half of the book, the head of the family, Manuel, arrives in Newfoundland in the mid-1950s after being "lost overboard" from a Portuguese fishing boat and gradually builds a life for himself in his adopted country.  His background is gradually revealed - his abuse by the parish priest as a child, his mother's reluctance for him to move away from his village and her rejection of his wife, and Manuel's eventual rejection of his mother.

The second half of the the book is set a few years later in the late 1970's as Manuel's children struggle to live a double life - as "normal" Canadian children when out of the house, while being the children of immigrants when at home.  This is where the tone of the book focuses.  Manuel's hopeful ideals of his new country are being shattered, as he comes to grips with the lack of reality of his dream.  I think that is where the crux lies - Manuel always had a "dream" of a life in Canada, but that dream was never defined, not even to himself.  So an undefined dream can never be fulfilled.

Very good writing in this book, and an interesting plot and characters, but the story probably won't stay with me beyond the reading.  It was a great story while I was reading it, but somehow, it just wasn't that memorable (and I only just finished it an hour ago).  And I also found the ending to be very clumsy.  Almost as if the writer was thinking "In writing school, they told us that ambiguous endings would make the readers think, and therefore your book will make a greater impression."

Now on to sum up the nominees....

February 16, 2009

The Enchantress of Florence - Salman Rushdie

I must confess that the first Salman Rushdie book that I read was The Satanic Verses, and that reading was inspired by the controversy that the book itself had inspired.  But in reading The Satanic Verses, I discovered an author whose books I continue to enjoy.

The Enchantress of Florence is his latest book, published in 2008 and winner of the Booker Prize.  It is vintage Rushdie, with all of the elements of Phantasie (deserving of the old-fashioned spelling), ambiguity and time-bending of his other books, drawn together by beautiful writing.  I think that is what I enjoy most about Salman Rushdie's books - he is a true craftsman with the English language, with not a word misplaced.  A few excerpts, describing Jodha, the phantom queen created by the Emperor Akbar:

"The creation of a real life from a dream was a superhuman act, usurping the prerogative of the gods.  In those days Sikri was swarming with poets and artists, those preening egotists who claimed for themselves the power of language and image to conjure beautiful somethings from empty nothings, and yet neither poet nor painter, musician nor sculptor had come close to what the emperor, the Perfect Man, had achieved."

"She was a woman without a past, separate from history, or, rather, possessing only such history as he had been pleased to bestow upon her, and which the other queens bitterly contested.  The question of her independent existence, of whether she had one, insisted on being asked, over and over, whether she willed it or not.  If God turned his face away from his creation, Man, would Man simply cease to be?"

The story is a good old-fashioned fairy tale - a princess abducted from the Mogul court who ends up in Persia, the Ottoman empire, Florence, and finally the New World.  There are phantoms, magic, and witchcraft galore.  The tale is not told in a linear manner but rather jumps back and forth in time and locale.  I'm sure that the book isn't to everyone's taste, but I thoroughly enjoyed it!

Now back to finish up my Giller Prize read-athon...

February 1, 2009

The Other Queen - Philippa Gregory

It has been a while since my last posting, and that is because it has taken me this long to finish this tedious book.  What a disappointment!  It is the 6th book in the series that began with The Other Boleyn Girl - a series that I began reading while living in Tanzania, and continued to track down once I was back in Canada because I found them interesting - fluffy, but a good read.

Each book takes a historical character from Tudor England, and tells their story, usually from the point of view of someone close to them.  In this case, the historical character is Mary, Queen of Scots, and the chapters alternate between Mary, the Earl of Shrewsbury (her jailer), and his wife, Bess of Hardwick.  Interesting idea, but in reality it made the book tedious.  The story seemed to go in circles, alternating between the different characters, and never seemed to go anywhere.  And the story didn't have a proper ending - just a chapter randomly tacked on at the end, set 15 years after the rest of the book, on the day of Mary's execution.

Bess of Hardwick was the most believable of the main characters - she came across consistently as a woman who, in her own words "made the most of myself, and getting the best price for what I could bring to market ... a self-made woman - self-made, self-polished and self-sold - and proud of it."  Her husband George, the Earl of Shrewsbury is indecisive one minute, loyal to the Queen of England the next; trusting his wife one minute, betraying her with the Queen of Scots the next.

And Mary, Queen of Scots is the least believable character in the book.  In the author's note at the end of the book, the author writes that "I believe she was a woman of courage and determination who could have been an effective queen even in a country as unruly as Scotland.  The principal difference between her and her successful cousin Elizabeth was good advice and good luck."  However the character in her book is unpredictable, changeable as the wind, and inconsistent in her behaviour and reactions.  One minute she is strong and courageous, scaling down the wall of a castle to escape; the next time we see her she is hysterical, and taken to bed with hysterical pains.  She is manipulative and a 2-faced lier, and yet she seems unable to make a decision for herself.  So annoying to read about!

It took me 2 1/2 weeks to finish this tedious book - and it is only 400 and some odd pages.  I'm glad that it is a library book, and I can now return it.  I have been flogging myself to finish so that I can move on to something more interesting!