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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction (2017 Shortlist)

The shortlist for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction was released today.  Three titles are on the list:

Image result for andrew carnegie medalMoonglow by Michael Chabon
A young writer listens in breath-held astonishment as his ailing grandfather, whose lifelong reticence has been vanquished by strong painkillers, tells the hidden stories of his hardscrabble boyhood, WWII military service, obsession with moon missions, and love for a French Holocaust survivor.

Swing Time by Zadie Smith
Two "brown girls" growing up in London public housing share a passion for dance, but follow divergent paths which lead to adventures in America and Africa, and raise complex questions about family, friendship, race, creativity, and celebrity.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Whitehead reimagines the Underground Railroad in this powerful tale about smart and resilient Cora, a young third-generation slave who escapes the brutality of a Georgia cotton plantation and seeks sanctuary throughout the terrorized South.  (See my review:

The Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction was established in 2012 to recognize the best fiction books for adult readers published in the U.S. the previous year. The winner will receive a $5,000 cash award.  The winner will be announced January 22.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Paul Beatty Wins Man Booker Award

Paul Beatty was named as the winner of the 2016 Man Booker Award for his novel The Sellout. He is the first American to win the award.

Born in the "agrarian ghetto" of Dickens―on the southern outskirts of Los Angeles―the narrator of The Sellout resigns himself to the fate of lower-middle-class Californians: "I'd die in the same bedroom I'd grown up in, looking up at the cracks in the stucco ceiling that've been there since '68 quake." Raised by a single father, a controversial sociologist, he spent his childhood as the subject in racially charged psychological studies. He is led to believe that his father's pioneering work will result in a memoir that will solve his family's financial woes. But when his father is killed in a police shoot-out, he realizes there never was a memoir. All that's left is the bill for a drive-thru funeral.
Fuelled by this deceit and the general disrepair of his hometown, the narrator sets out to right another wrong: Dickens has literally been removed from the map to save California from further embarrassment. Enlisting the help of the town's most famous resident―the last surviving Little Rascal, Hominy Jenkins―he initiates the most outrageous action conceivable: reinstating slavery and segregating the local high school, which lands him in the Supreme Court.

The Man Booker Prize for Fiction, worth £50,000, is open to writers of any nationality, writing originally in English and published in the U.K. between October 1, 2015, and September 30, 2016.  

Madeleine Thien Wins Governor-General’s Award for Fiction

Image result for governor general awardIt was announced today that Madeleine Thien won the 2016 Governor-General’s Award for English Fiction for her novel Do Not Say We Have NothingThe Globe and Mail quotes Thien saying that this literary award is the one that means the most to her:  “The G-G is the prize that’s closest to my heart. Because of its age. Because of the way it’s shaped our thinking about Canadian literature – about what we read, how we read, how we imagine ourselves. So to be included on that short list was a huge deal for me. It’s the short list that made me cry instantly ” (

Thien is also a finalist for the Man Booker Prize (winner to be announced later today) and appears on the shortlist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize (winner to be announced November 7).

Thien’s novel is one of 14 books, in English and French, to receive a prize; the winners, who each receive $25,000, will be celebrated at Rideau Hall on Nov. 30.  For a complete list of all winners, go to  This year marks the 80th anniversary of the Governor General's Literary Awards.

Review of THE WITCHES OF NEW YORK by Ami McKay (Today's New Release)

3.5 Stars
The Witches of New York by [McKay, Ami]
This novel is a follow-up to The Virgin Cure, though it can certainly be read as a standalone.

In 1880 in New York, Adelaide Thom (Moth of The Virgin Cure) and Eleanor St. Clair open a teashop.  Together, they provide services to their female clients:  tarot readings, potions, herbal remedies for contraception and abortion.  They are joined by Beatrice Dunn who comes looking for a job but soon becomes an apprentice when she demonstrates an ability to see ghosts and talk to spirits.  Of course, danger lurks in a male-dominated society that views unconventional women with suspicion.  The Salem Witch Trials are history, but there are people who are still obsessed with discovering the witches among them.

Adelaide and Eleanor are witches, but they are not servants of the devil.  They are women empowered by magic; they possess special skills and wisdom which has been passed down to them.  “Witches see to things best sorted by magic – sorrows of the heart, troubles of the mind, regrets of the flesh.”  Several times Beatrice is identified as the “first witch not born but made.”  I had difficulty with this description because it is obvious that Beatrice has magic within her; Eleanor even tells her, “’The magic working within you is more powerful than most.’” 

The evil that exists is found not in the witches but in other people.  There’s a scorned husband who uses his wealth and power to exact revenge on the woman whom he believes led his wife astray.  And there’s the religious zealot, Francis Townsend, a puritanical and sadistic preacher who has made it his life’s mission to find witches and either reform or destroy them.  Unfortunately, these villains, including Sister Piddock, are more caricatures than convincing characters. 

What the three women are is intelligent and independent in a time when those characteristics in women were viewed by many as threatening.  People were told to beware of women “touting intelligence over righteousness” especially if they were “the healer, the fortune teller, the academic, the suffragist.”  This is the aspect of the book I found most interesting – its portrayal of how 19th-century society reacted to strong, confident women. 

At the end of the novel, there are some unanswered questions.  What exactly happens to Lucy Newland?  What about Bart Andersen and Sophie Miles?   What is the fate of Adelaide’s mother?  These characters play significant roles, but then they are just dropped.

The novel is rather slow-paced.  Gradually suspense is introduced, but the outcome in cases of real danger is predictable.  What stands out is the portrayal of life in the time period of the novel, especially the curtailed life of women.  Incorporating the erection of Cleopatra’s Needle into the story conveys the period’s interest in Egyptology.

In the Author’s Note at the end, McKay refers to a book published in 1893 which she identifies as a “call to action, a rallying cry to women to reclaim the word ‘witch.’”  McKay’s book can be seen in the same way, especially because she even states, “Get ready world, something witchy this way comes.”  McKay suggests that “there’s still plenty of work to be done” so women can take their true place in society; she wants women to speak out, to assert themselves so they cannot be dismissed.  I could not help but be reminded of Donald Trump’s reference to Hillary Clinton as a “nasty woman.”  May all women be witchy, nasty women!

Note:  I received an ARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

A New Middle-Earth Romance by J. R. R. Tolkien

Beren and Lúthien, a J. R. R. Tolkien story about a romance between a man and an elf, will be released next year.  It is edited by Christopher Tolkien and illustrated by Alan Lee.

The Middle-earth tale tells of the love between Beren, the mortal man, and Lúthien, the immortal elf.  Lúthien’s father, an Elvish lord, is against their relationship, and so gives Beren an impossible task to fulfil before the two can be married.  The two must rob "the greatest of all evil beings, Melkor, called Morgoth, the Black Enemy."

The couple's love story is referenced in The Silmarillion, a collection of short works by Tolkien that expands the mythology and history of Middle-earth. “Among the tales of sorrow and of ruin that came down to us from the darkness of those days there are yet some in which amid weeping there is joy and under the shadow of death light that endures. And of these histories most fair still in the ears of the Elves is the tale of Beren and Lúthien,” writes Tolkien in The Silmarillion.

The story obviously meant a great deal to the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.   The author’s wife, Edith, has the name Lúthien on her tombstone, while Tolkien has Beren engraved on his.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Digital Archive of Victorian Illustrations of Shakespeare

Image result for william shakespeare

In the past I’ve posted about art inspired by Shakespeare:  Today, I thought I’d write about a new digital archive which includes over 3,000 Victorian illustrations of The Bard’s plays.  The Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive is the PhD project of Michael Goodman, a doctoral candidate in Digital Humanities at Cardiff University.  Goodman’s site hosts over 3,000 illustrations taken from four major UK editions of Shakespeare’s Complete Works published in the mid-19th century.  The illustrations are organized for easy access. 

See the archive at to see how the plays communicated differently to various Victorian artists.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Banned Shakespearean Speech Advocates for Refugees

Because of the war in Syria and because of the election in the United States, immigration is very much in the news.  Canada has welcomed 25,000 Syrian refugees, but in the U.S. there is a lot of opposition to allowing Muslims into the country.  I was therefore interested in how a Shakespearean speech is being used to advocate for refugees.  Those unwilling to help refugees are found guilty of “mountainish inhumanity.”

Image result for the book of st thomas more “Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation”
                                The Book of Sir Thomas More (Act II, scene iv)

Xenophobia swept through England as 64,000 foreigners arrived in the country between 1330 and 1550 in search of better lives.  Locals blamed them for taking their jobs and distorting their culture.  Tensions reached a zenith on May 1, 1517, when riots broke out in London and a mob attacked the immigrants and looted their homes.  Thomas More, then the city’s deputy sheriff, tried to reason with the crowd.

This day, known as Evil May Day, is portrayed in a play titled The Book of Sir Thomas More written by Anthony Munday between 1596 and 1601.  Then Shakespeare, along with three other playwrights, was brought in to revise the script.  Shakespeare’s additions include 147 lines in the middle of the action, in which More addresses the anti-immigration rioters.  The Master of the Revels, Edmund Tilney, whose role included stage censorship, refused to allow the play to be performed because he was worried that the play’s depiction of riots would provoke civil unrest especially since England was experiencing another immigrant crisis with the arrival of French-speaking Protestant asylum seekers from France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

Interestingly, this is the only surviving play script to contain Shakespeare's handwriting. The manuscript can be seen at the British Library.