Category Archives: Scotiabank Giller Prize Nominees

Book Review: Us Conductors by Sean Michaels

9780345815767Us Conductors 

by Sean Michaels
ISBN: 9780345815767
Random House, 2014

Odd questions crossed my mind when I was reading Us Conductors. 

How long did Sean Michaels spend coming up with “DZEEEEOOOoo” as the proper translation of the theremin sound? It captures perfectly the eerie sound of the instrument invented by the novel’s main character, Lev Sergeyevich Termen.

Under what circumstances did Michaels receive the inspiration to add Kung Fu to Termen’s list of interests? That one aspect to his character strikes me as . . . out of character.

And why haven’t I heard of the many inventions and exploits of the “Russian Edison”, a man who seemed to be able to invent on demand? We have him to thank for everything from motion-activated lights to a clear picture on our televisions.

The breadth of those questions summarizes my overall impression of this novel.

First, Michaels is not a poetic writer, but he has a knack for encapsulating an image or feeling. The theremin sound is one example, and later in the novel when Termen has to brush off rusty musical skills after a lengthy and harrowing imprisonment in a Siberian gulag, he writes: “I was about to wrench open an overgrown gate.” Perfect.

Second, bits and pieces of the novel perplex me, because they don’t seem to fit. The Kung Fu is curious. And Termen’s first wife is there—and not there—in an inexplicable, and mildly annoying way.

Finally, it enlightened me. I learned so much. This book is fiction, but based on real people and real events from history: Russia at the time of Lenin, New York City in the Jazz Age and later the market crash of 1929, and then the harsh Siberia of Stalin’s time.

Michael’s double-edged epigraph at the beginning of the Giller Prize-winning book is prize-winning in itself: “This book is mostly inventions.” It lets the reader know that the author intends to play fast and loose with facts, which Michaels does, but it also refers to the many brilliant inventions of the main character.

The Lev Sergeyevich Termen of this book is scientifically brilliant and socially inept. Unable to navigate his way to a meaningful loving relationship, unable to leave either Russia or America behind, and unable to manage such banalities as personal finances, the man is the master of his own demise.

This book won’t warm your heart. You won’t come to the end of it, close it with a sigh and hold it close to your chest. Aspects of it might frustrate you. But if you read it, you have the opportunity to admire some insightful writing, and you probably will learn something.





Book Review: The Orenda by Joseph Boyden

theorendaThe Orenda 

by Joseph Boyden
ISBN  978-0-670-06418-2
Hamish Hamilton Canada, 2013

We own a cottage in Huronia (central Ontario, Canada), so for decades I have frolicked in the geographical area where the  less-than-frolicsome historical events from which Joseph Boyden drew his inspiration took place. We canoe for pleasure on the same waters where First Nations people and the French engaged in life-saving trade and life-ending battles. We spend touristy afternoons at Sainte-Marie among the Hurons, a reconstruction of the 17th-Century French Jesuit mission where the peaceful coexistence and treacherous torture took place.

Perhaps familiarity with the area and the history helps me to visualize this novel. Perhaps the life force—the orenda—of the time lives on through the Canadian Shield granite upon which those people walked. Whatever the reason, The Orenda resonates with me.

Joseph Boyden uses three narrators to tell of the first encounters of Jesuit priests with the Wendat people and of the conflict between the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) and the Wendat (Huron). The three narrators cover all angles of the story: Snow Falls is an Iroquois teenager who becomes the victim of a revenge kidnapping by the Wendat, Bird is the Huron warrior who kidnapped her, and Christophe is a Jesuit priest who wants to convert these “sauvages.”

Boyden’s story has no “good guys” or “bad guys.” In their pursuit of revenge, conquest or conversion, all his wonderfully complex characters perpetrate acts of kindness and villainy. Thanks to Boyden’s skill at characterization and his instinct to honour the integrity of a story, we understand his characters’ acts of villainy in those circumstances, even if we could not condone them in today’s society.

We all know how the story ends—the big-picture story of First Nations and European relations in North America—and that knowing flows like an unseen undercurrent in the reader’s mind. When Bird questions how the “crows” (the priests in the black wool cassocks) will effect his people, when Wendat warriors struggle with alcohol, and when Samuel de Champlain’s men hand over the first gun, we know. It adds an eerie shadow effect to the reading.

The only concern I have about this book—the only thing that made me stop reading and step outside of the magic of the story for a moment—is the use of present tense by Christophe in certain circumstances. I like present tense stories, and it worked beautifully for Snow Falls and Bird, who we imagine relating their version of events via the ancient oral storytelling traditions of the First Nations. Christophe, however, writes to his superior in France or in a diary. Him we imagine writing, so he needs past tense. When he is pulled under water by the sodden weight of his heavy wool cassock he could not have been scribbling notes at the time, so a first-person, present-tense account doesn’t work.

My stickiness about implausibilities of tenses aside, I admire this novel. Boyden never shies away from gory details, so when you read his books, expect the brutal truth. The Orenda has torture scenes that might alarm and repulse some delicate sensibilities.

But then the true events of history often do. 


I recommend any book by Joseph Boyden. Through Black Spruce is my favourite. Three Day Road is harrowing but worthy.

Book Review: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

0771019130The Luminaries

by Eleanor Catton
ISBN: 978-0-7710-1913-5
McClelland & Stewart, 2013

This book put me in mind of an Agatha Christie mystery—something like The Mousetrap perhaps—but without the clever twist ending. It has the same “people running in and out of doors” feeling, and the same layers of conspiracy and secrets kept or told when they shouldn’t be.

Set in the mid-19th Century gold rush in a wild part of New Zealand, the book details a suspicious death and the intersecting involvement of a diverse cast of characters. Catton tells the story from multiple points of view with new plot details unveiled with each telling and new character insights revealed. The multiple points of view reinforces one of her main themes: we can never know the whole story or see the full picture. “. . . never underestimate how extraordinarily difficult it is to understand a situation from another person’s point of view,” she writes. The character Walter Moody says: “I am trying to decide between the whole truth, and nothing but the truth . . .. I am afraid my history is such that I can’t manage both at once.” Catton’s goal, I believe, is to keep readers on their toes, always second-guessing the characters and what they are capable of. She creates a New Zealand town that is “. . . a perfect hive of contradictions,” where characters both shine with gold and “muck and hazard,” just like the goldfields that surround them.

This book won its many awards because of this gift with character development and because of Catton’s rich use of irony. For example, the governor of the gaol states, as he is exacting revenge: “Revenge . . . is an act of jealousy, not of justice. It is a selfish perversion of the law.”

Catton constructs her book around astrological charts and the phases of the moon, to the extent that the structure determines the telling of the story, rather than the story determining the telling of the story. I felt her structure did a disservice to her characters and the narrative. She uses “In which . . . ” chapter headings, and by the end of the book, in order to stick to the structure she created for herself (not for the story), the chapter headings unfold more plot than the chapters do. Ineffectively, I might add. I expect her choice of structure wowed the prize juries, but to me it felt contrived, unnecessary and, worst of all, harmful to the story.

I read an e-version, because I took with me on my vacation, and I didn’t want to pack an 800+-page tome in my suitcase. This presented two problems for me. First, it is more difficult to flip back and refresh memories of past events and characters in an e-book, and the convoluted plotting of this book required some flipping back. Second, the dialogue was not properly laid out from time to time in my version, so I was confused more than once about who was speaking. If you plan on reading this book, I recommend paper.

I’ve come to believe that book prize juries seek something your average reader doesn’t want or need. A prize-winning book should entertain, inspire, and carry readers away. Readers should set the finished book down with a sigh of satisfaction. They should want to keep the book forever. They should want to read it again someday.

I understand why this book received the prizes it did. The irony, the characters, the astrological chart/moon structure appealed to the artistic sentiments of the jurors. But I found the structure frustrating and the ending unsatisfying. I set the book down thinking, “Huh?” I don’t need to keep the book, and I don’t want to read it again.

Catton has proven her ability to develop characters, create suspense and touch that perfect irony funnybone. I hope she writes her next book using all of those skills but without restricting the story to unnecessary confines.


Book Review: The Crooked Maid by Dan Vyleta

9781443407731The Crooked Maid

by Dan Vyleta
ISBN: 9781443407731
HarperCollins, 2013

I can’t describe this book as a page-turner, but I couldn’t have stopped reading it before the end either. None of the characters are particularly likeable, but they’re not irritating either. The setting in post-war Vienna is not heartwarming, but it’s not off-putting either; a city dealing with a Nazi past is intrinsically compelling.

I picked up this book because it made the Scotiabank Giller Prize 2013 list of finalists and the Globe and Mail 100 selection.

In The Crooked Maid Vyleta recalls some of the characters from his earlier book The Quiet Twin.  (You don’t need to have read the earlier book. This book shares characters but stands alone.) The lives of these characters overlap and intersect in an intricate, but not confusing plot. Vyleta never creates any “gimmes” in his plot development. Many pages into the book I still wondered, “Where is he going with this?” The events take a long time to unfold and a subsequent short time to resolve themselves.

The appearance of the book cover suggests a bleak story, and it is somewhat bleak, as stories about war-damaged citizens dealing with lingering cruelties, suspicions and resentments must be. But it has enough literary flow, stimulating imagery and plot twists to keep readers engaged.

Book Review: Inside by Alix Ohlin


by Alix Ohlin
ISBM: 978-1-77089-207-1
House of Anansi, 2012

The first three chapters of Inside read like self-contained short stories. Each chapter features characters and settings with no apparent connection to those in the others. By chapter three, I asked myself, “Did I pick up a short story collection here?” and I checked the cover to confirm that Inside is a  novel. Indeed, it is, but we don’ start to see the connections until chapter four. Ohlin takes a risk with this approach; readers disconnect if not fed well enough, soon enough.

I hung in there to see how everything would connect, but would everyone? 

The book describes the intersecting lives of a Montreal therapist, her ex-husband, and one of her patients. Each story line involves people inserting themselves into the lives of another (invading?) in a way that feels uncomfortable, even unnatural, even unbelievable to an introvert like me.

None of these people lead happy, fulfilled lives. They seek compensation for their flaws through needy and manipulative interactions with others. By the end of the novel, they don’t evolve much despite living through circumstances that could have provided valuable life lessons.

I was left feeling unsatisfied, like I had never really stepped inside the characters to learn to understand them, never mind like them.

This book received good reviews in The Globe and Mail and Quill and Quirebut The New York Times eviscerated it. All are right in their own way. This book has weaknesses, and I didn’t love it, but this book has strengths, and I didn’t hate it. Read it yourself to see which way you fall.

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