Giller Prize-winning novelist and physician Vincent Lam and playwright Anusree Roy are among the finalists for the 2012 Governor General's Literary Awards.

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CBC foreign correspondent Nahlah Ayed is nominated in the GG non-fiction category for her book A Thousand Farewells. (Canada Council)

Toronto-based Lam is among the fiction nominees for his latest novel The Headmaster’s Wager, while fellow Torontonian Roy will see her Dora Mavor Moore Award-winning play Brothel No. 9 contend among the drama finalists.

Journalists Noah Richler and Nahlah Ayed are among the authors shortlisted in the non-fiction category, for What We Talk About When We Talk About War and A Thousand Farewells, respectively.

The Canada Council for the Arts, which administers the annual literary honour, revealed the nominees Tuesday morning. The English-language finalists include:

Fiction

  • Siege 13 by Tamas Dobozy (Kitchener, Ont.).
  • Dr. Brinkley’s Tower by Robert Hough (Toronto).
  • The Headmaster’s Wager by Vincent Lam (Toronto).
  • The Juliet Stories by Carrie Snyder (Waterloo, Ont.).
  • The Purchase by Linda Spalding (Toronto). 

Both Siege 13 and The Juliet Stories are linked short stories. The other three contenders all are historical fiction.

The Sweet Girl not submitted

New Westminster, B.C. writer Annabel Lyons's The Sweet Girl, considered a fiction contender for major literary prizes this year, was not submitted for a Governor General's Literary Award according to the Canada Council.

It is a follow-up to Lyons's The Golden Mean, which was nominated for a GG, the Giller Prize and Writers' Trust Fiction award in 2009, winning the Writers' Trust prize.

Lam's The Headmaster’s Wager is the story of Chinese family in Vietnam and their changing fortunes during the Vietnam War in the 1960s, while Hough writes about the 1930s in a tiny Mexican border town about to be transformed by the advent of radio.

The Purchase outlines the struggle of conscience experienced by the young Quaker father in the 18th century and how the lives of slaves and slave-owners become entwined over a generation. Writer Linda Spalding says the story was based on tales of her own family history.

"It was a question that I had as a child." she told CBC News. "I knew that my paternal relatives when they came to North America were Quakers, and I knew that a generation later they were slave owners. I thought, what would explain that?

"It’s me trying to put myself into the mind of a Quaker in 1798 who buys a slave."

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The Purchase by Linda Spalding built on a scrap of family history. (McClelland & Stewart)

Spalding said she studyied Quakerism as a teenager and knew the faith was at the forefront of the abolition movement.

There wasn’t much solid evidence for the family stories, but Kansas-born Spalding says she knew one of her ancestors had moved to Pennysylvania, and she figured out had been ostracized for marrying a Methodist (his second wife). The rest is a work of imagination.

"The poor guy, he had to take all of his children and his new wife and go find another place to live," she said. "It’s hard to imagine a world where so much is taken for granted."

Non-fiction

  • A Thousand Farewells: A Reporter’s Journey from Refugee Camp to the Arab Spring by Nahlah Ayed (Toronto).
  • The Pursuit of Perfection: A Life of Celia Franca by Carol Bishop-Gwyn (Toronto).
  • Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest by Wade Davis (Vancouver).
  • Leonardo and the Last Supper by Ross King (Woodstock, U.K.; originally from North Portal, Sask.). 
  • What We Talk About When We Talk About War by Noah Richler (Toronto). 

Ayed's book is a memoir of her own journey from life in a refugee camp to a life covering the world's hot spots for CBC News.

Dance historian Bishop-Gwyn gives a brutally frank account of the life and accomplishments of National Ballet of Canada co-founder Celia Franca, while Richler examines Canada's new-found militarism in What We Talk About When We Talk About War.

Davis, a mountaineer as well a ethnobotanist with National Geographic Service, began his book on climber George Mallory and the early British expeditions to Everest well before Mallory’s body was found in 1999 after 75 years on the mountain.

"I had the notion to link the fate of these men on the mountain to their experience in the war, which is the essential original idea," Davis said. 

Mallory's body discovered

The discovery of the body led to flood of books on Mallory’s death and the three 1920s expeditions to Nepal by a group of 25 British geographers and adventurers. Most made no reference to their war record and Davis soon concluded that no one had dug very deeply into the backgrounds of those early climbers.

He eventually spent 12 years researching Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest and discovered an unsung Canadian surveyor who actually found the route up the mountain that all climbers use to this day.

Oliver Wheeler had served in France before surveying parts of the Himalaya in 1921 with Mallory, and Davis says one key to understanding the war connection was gaining access to Wheeler’s journals from his son, currently living in Vancouver.

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Wade Davis spent 12 years researching Into the Silence. (National Geographic)

"When it came time to assault the North Col, to go higher than anyone had ever done, other than his friend Guy Bullock, the one guy [Mallory] takes is Olivier Wheeler, because he knows he is the best climber," Davis said.

"It is a beautiful scene where Wheeler says, 'The wind was so ferocious he thought he was going to suffocate and the only way he dealt with it was to remember how he’d survived artillery fire on the Western front by slowing down his mind, slowing down his breath, breathing between the gusts and breathing between the explosions of the shells.'"

Davis's book, which is also nominated for the Samuel Johnson prize in the U.K., is competing against one other history, Leonardo and the Last Supper, King's examination of the artist's great fresco and the powerful man who commissioned it.

The Last Supper through Leonardo's eyes

"What I wanted to do was rewind to 1494 when he first began it and before it became the icon that it’s now become and to revisit it and see it through the eyes of Leonardo and his contemporaries.  The behind the scenes, up on the scaffold story of how he got the commission and how he went about painting it," King said.

In focusing on a period 500 years ago and a storied artist, King said he was very aware of the "huge omissions" there are in knowing how Leonardo worked and how he thought.

"One of the things I’m trying to stress in the book is the difference of his time to our time and enormous difficulty we have to understand the value system that he was operating by and the world that he inhabited," he said.

He also focuses on Lodovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan who commissioned the painting, a Machiavellian character who would plunge his people into a war involving France and Naples that he ultimately could not control.

"If you were a court painter, a courtier like Leonardo, caught up in among the powerbrokers of Milan in the 1490s, he and his works were not going to be immune to the political forces.," King said.

King  has been nominated for a GG twice before and won in 2006 for The Judgment of Paris.

Drama

  • It is Solved by Walking by Catherine Banks (Sambro, N.S.).
  • The Romeo Initiative by Trina Davies (Vancouver).
  • Drama: Pilot Episode by Karen Hines (Calgary). 
  • Lost: A Memoir by Cathy Ostlere and Dennis Garnhum (Calgary).
  • Brothel #9 by Anusree Roy (Toronto). 

Poetry

  • Monkey Ranch by Julie Bruck (San Francisco; originally from Montreal).
  • Li'l Bastard by David McGimpsey (Montreal).
  • The New Measures by A. F. Moritz (Toronto).
  • Any Bright Horse by Lisa Pasold (Toronto).
  • Sailing to Babylon by James Pollock (Madison, Wis.; originally from Ontario).

Children's Literature, Text

  • Seraphina by Rachel Hartman (Vancouver).
  • Under the Moon by Deborah Kerbel (Thornhill, Ont.).
  • The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen by Susin Nielsen (Vancouver).
  • The Umbrella by Judd Palmer (Victoria).
  • The Grave Robber’s Apprentice by Allan Stratton (Toronto).

Hartman’s Seraphina and Stratton’s The Grave Robber’s Apprentice are both  fantasy novels, while The Umbrella is an uplifting story of love between an umbrella and the human being told for readers as young as seven.

The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen is Nielsen’s story of a family blown apart by an incident of violence.

Bullying and rage

"Henry is the surviving sibling. His 15-year-old brother… was relentlessly tormented at school by one boy in particular, in a fictional town on Vancouver Island and went to school one day with his father’s hunting rifle and shot his tormentor and then himself," Nielsen said. "The story is really about 13-year-old Henry and his family trying to pick up the pieces of their lives and start over."

Henry and his family relocate to Vancouver and he tries to fit in at a new school, careful not to give his last name, until his new classmates learn something of his family’s tragic history.

"It is a much darker underlying tragedy than either of my two previous novels, but there is dark humour in the book, largely because it is told from a 13-year-old’s perspective," says Nielsen, who says she likes to use humour in her writing.

Kerbel’s Under the Moon is about a girl who’s lost her ability to sleep and boy who’s lost his dreams and the 26 nights that change their lives.

"It’s a book that touches on themes of friendship and greeting. At the heart of the story there is a question, what is it that we really need to survive," Kerbel says.

The main character is sleepless throughout most of the book after a tragic loss and her night wanderings lead her to meet Ben, a night worker who is keeping secrets about himself.

"He’s got something going on and together they work it out. It’s really about human connection, letting yourself be close to other people."

Kerbel , daughter of Gordon Pape, writes exclusively for young adults.

Children's Literature, Illustration

  • Virginia Wolf by Isabelle Arsenault (Montreal), text by Kyo Maclear.
  • Big City Bees by Renné Benoit (St. Thomas, Ont.), text by Maggie de Vries.
  • House Held Up by Trees by Jon Klassen (Los Angeles; originally from Niagara Falls, Ont.), text by Ted Kooser.
  • In the Bag! Margaret Knight Wraps it Up by David Parkins (Lansdowne, Ont.), text by Monica Kulling.
  • Picture a Tree by Barbara Reid (Toronto), text by Barbara Reid.

Translation, French to English

  • Ru, Sheila Fischman (Montreal), English translation of Ru by Kim Thuy.
  • Mafia Inc.: The Long, Bloody Reign of Canada’s Sicilian Clan, Michael Gilson (Saint-Lambert, Que.), English translation of Mafia inc. Grandeur et misère du clan sicilien au Québec by André Cédilot and André Noel.
  • The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs & Thinking of Yu, John Murrell (Calgary), English translation of La petite pièce en haut de l’escalier and Je pense à Yu, suivi de Entrefilet by Carole Fréchette.
  • Mai at the Predators' Ball, Nigel Spencer (Montreal), translation of Mai au bal des prédateurs by Marie-Claire Blais.
  • The List, Shelley Tepperman (Montreal), translation of La liste by Jennifer Tremblay.

Now in their 76th year, the Governor General's Literary Awards honour the best English-language and French-language books in seven categories: fiction, non-fiction, poetry, drama, children's literature (text), children's literature (illustration), and translation.

This year's winners ($25,000 for the winner of each category) will be announced in Montreal on Nov. 13, with a formal presentation ceremony to follow at Rideau Hall on Nov. 28.