Category Archives: Canadian author

Lost in September, by Kathleen Winter

lostinseptemberKathleen Winter’s Lost in September both is, and isn’t, a novel about General James Wolfe, the English commander who died in battle on the Plains of Abraham in 1759 after securing victory for England over the forces of New France, more or less ensuring that Canada would be an English-speaking country with a large and unhappy French minority for the next few centuries. It’s a novel about Wolfe, narrated through the eyes and voice of a young man in modern-day Montreal who may be … the ghost of James Wolfe? A time-travelling James Wolfe? A reincarnation of James Wolfe? A traumatized veteran of the Afghanistan war who just happens to be fascinated with and haunted by James Wolfe?

None of this is clear for much of the book, nor does it need to be. The multilayered memories of James Wolfe and Jimmy Blanchard weave in and out of one another on a surreal quest rooted in very real and vivid detail. It’s a quest that ranges from Montreal to Quebec City to the Gaspe Peninsula, a quest to understand the mind and motives of a long-dead man as well as to uncover the life and purpose of one who is still living.

This novel was weird, but I loved how it immersed me in its mystery and plunged me into the troubled mind of its narrator. The shambling, shamanic quest builds to a poignant conclusion with the reminder that whether in the eighteenth or twenty-first centuries, war is brutal and leaves men shattered in its wake. Some die “heroically” on the battlefield; some live on to try to rebuild their lives afterwards. This is a story of both kinds of men in one man, and it’s fascinating and eerie and beautiful.


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Rock Paper Sex by Kerri Cull

 rockpapersexKerri Cull is a fellow Newfoundland writer whose book Rock Paper Sex has held onto an unshakeable position atop the regional bestseller lists for months. Some of this may be due to the fact that she peels back the curtain on a world few know much about but many are curious about. But it’s also a tribute to the fact that Cull has done a great job of interviewing a variety of people involved in sex work here in St. John’s, Newfoundland, and then stepping aside to let them tell their stories.

The interview subjects come from a variety of backgrounds and engage in sex work in many different ways. Whatever stereotypes you may have of sex workers — from desperate, abused prostitute servicing clients for drug money, to empowered woman managing sex work with entrepreneurial flair — you’ll find them all, to some degree, represented here, with enough variety and heart to remind you that the people involved with sex work are, indeed, human beings and not stereotypes. No matter where you stand on the legalization or morality of sex work, reading this book will be instructive in helping you remember that important truth: this is about human beings. Cull has done a wonderful job of allowing her interview subjects to speak in their own voices about the complex and often-misunderstood world they inhabit.

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Goodbye from London, by Jennifer Robson

goodnightfromlondonGoodbye From London explores the experience of am American woman reporter stationed in London during the Second World War. Beginning during the London Blitz, Ruby’s time in London stretches out to encompass the entire war and even brings her to France in the wake of the D-Day invasion. Along the way, she not only experiences and reports on the reality of war on the home front, but also finds her own identity (not to mention, as you might guess from the cover, true love). While this novel wasn’t as emotionally intense as some WW2 books I’ve read recently, it did give a good overview of the British experience from the unique experience of a woman journalist, and it made me want to learn more about real female war correspondents in that era.

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The Conjoined, by Jen Sookfong Lee

conjoinedThe Conjoined has about the most perfect set-up for a page-turner that I’ve ever read. Jessica and her father are cleaning out her mother’s belongings after her mother’s death when two long-undisturbed deep freezers turn out to hold a body each. And it just so happens that 28 years ago, when Jessica was a child and her saintly mother Donna was hosting two of a long string of foster children … two girls who were in Donna’s care disappeared, presumed to have run away.

From this chilling beginning the story unfolds in several timelines. Jessica, who has always loved her mother and also felt a bit intimidated by Donna’s ostentatious goodness, has to rethink everything she thought she knew about her mother — which also leads to her rethinking a fair bit of her own life and her work as a social worker. We also see the backstory of the two foster girls, Casey and Jamie Cheng, and the troubled family situation that led them into foster care. 

This is a fascinating story written with great care and detail. I had two quibbles with it: first, I was very surprised when, midway through the book, I realized that the timeline of the story required Jessica to be in her late thirties. She seemed to me to be portrayed far more like someone in her late twenties — her attitudes towards her parents, her boyfriend, her work, her own life, seem much more believable if she’s 28 than 38. Also, I had some issues with the ending. I understand what Lee was doing with it and probably why, but it left too much unresolved for me. However, not every reader will share my preference for a more resolved ending, and if you are not reading this book mainly for the “whodunit” aspect but for the delicately observed character development, I don’t think you will find it jarring.

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The End of Music, by Jamie Fitzpatrick

Layout 1Jamie Fitzpatrick’s latest book has been on my to-read list for awhile, since we share a publisher and our books were both part of Breakwater’s fall 2017 list, so we even shared a launch event. So it was a pleasure to finally be able to sit down with this fine novel, in which two parallel stories unfold decades apart.

One is the story of Joyce, a young outport girl who comes to Gander, Newfoundland in the 1950s, drawn by the thriving little airport town’s promise of jobs. For a brief time in the mid-20th century, this small central Newfoundland town become a hub of transatlantic air travel, and people like Joyce forged new lives there far from the fishing-centred villages they had come from. As Joyce tries to forge a life and an identity for herself, she comes in contact with a shifting array of characters from around the world who pass through the airport town.

Interspersed with Joyce’s story is the story of Joyce’s son Herb Carter, whose tale unfolds decades later when his mother is an elderly woman in a nursing home and Carter (who’s generally referred to by his surname in the novel) is a middle-aged graduate student with a wife and son, thinking back to his brief stint as a minor rock star. His old bandmate and lover, Leah, is dying, and Carter gets drawn into a project to try to revive and re-release some of their old music, which inevitably pulls him into re-examining some aspects of his own past. Music is a common theme between his story and his mother’s, as Joyce used to sing for a dance band in her early days in Gander. Both characters are well-developed and interesting, and the glimpses of Gander’s history, so different from what we normally think of as “Newfoundland history,” are really fascinating.

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We’ll All be Burnt in our Beds Some Night, by Joel Thomas Hynes

burntJoel Thomas Hynes’s Governor-General’s Award-winning novel was by far the wildest literary ride I’ve been on so far in 2018. I started the book with a healthy dose of skepticism. There’s no doubt Hynes is a great writer; one of the best contemporary Canadian writers we have today. I enjoyed his first novel, Down to the Dirt, and liked the follow up Right Away Monday, although I felt that it was a bit of a repeat in that while the plot was different, the main character seemed essentially the same person.

Not that there’s anything wrong with an author finding the thing they do well and doing it in different books. I do that myself; I can see certain tricks and tropes that come up over and over in my own work, and I see it in the work of others. It may seem a little more ubiquitous in Hynes’ case simply because he is an actor as well, and the character who appears in his books is also pretty much the same character he always plays on-screen –whether the show he’s appearing in is set in contemporary St. John’s or Toronto or back in the 17th century, it’s always the same sleazy little street-smart tough guy. So when I heard he had a new book out and that the blurb for it began: “Scrappy tough guy and three-time loser Johnny Keough is going a little stir-crazy awaiting trial for an alleged assault charge ….” my immediate thought was: is this the same JTH story once more, only going across Canada this time?

Well, yes and no. Johnny Keough is recognizably cut from the same cloth as Keith Kavanagh, Clayton Reid, and every character Hynes has ever played on your TV screen (and the character he’s going to play in the upcoming series Little Dog). But the depths to which Hynes takes this character, and the dexterity with which he brings Johnny to life, is a staggering achievement. It’s not often I read the Governor-General’s award-winning novel and think, “Yes, this probably IS the best book published in the country this year,” but I felt that (and so many other things) after reading We’ll All Be Burnt in our Beds Some Night.

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First Snow, Last Light, by Wayne Johnston

first snowFirst Snow, Last Light, is Johnston’s latest installment in a possibly-trilogy that began with The Colony of Unrequited Dreams. I read and enjoyed that book when it was first released years ago (loved the stage adaptation even more) but did not read the follow-up book, The Custodian of Paradise. This may be just as well, since in First Snow, Last Light Johnston’s best-known and most beloved character, Sheilagh Fielding, claims The Custodian of Paradise is a story she made up, an alternate history she concocted for herself. Fielding is back First Snow, Last Light, as memorable as ever, and although the story that surrounds her may not be as powerful as Johnston’s version of the Smallwood story in Colony, Fielding remains one of the great original characters of Canadian literature.

Johnston is doing something tricky and admirable with historical fiction in these novels — writing a version of relatively recent history that includes real-life characters like Joey Smallwood, Sir Richard Squires and many others, alongside fictional characters. Sometimes the fictional characters, like Sheilagh Fielding, are purely the product of Johnston’s imagination; real historical characters like Smallwood (who doesn’t really appear in First Snow) are re-imagined as fiction. Then, somewhere in the middle ground in between, are fictional characters who are obviously inspired by real people, like Ned Vatcher, the main character in First Snow, Last Light.

Ned is the son of Edgar Vatcher, a boy from a poor family on Shea Heights who wins a scholarship, makes good, marries an Englishwoman who never settles into Newfoundland life, and winds up working for the widely-loathed prime minister Squires. On a snowy winter day in 1936, teenaged Ned comes home to find his parents gone. This is odd enough, as his mother rarely leaves the house — but far stranger is the fact that they never return, and stranger still, no trace is found — of them, of their bodies, of the car they drove off in.

Ned grows up to manhood under the shadow of this mystery, watched over by his father’s odd and angry extended family, by his priest and athletic coach Father Duggan, and by the enigmatic Fielding, who Ned believes his father might have been in love with. Ned goes away to the US for college on an athletic scholarship, decides to get rich, comes home to start a magazine inspired by the American tabloids, and eventually starts Newfoundland’s first TV station. And this is the point at which, if you hadn’t already realized it, it dawns on the reader who knows Newfoundland history that you’re reading about a fictional character whose life is at least loosely based on that of one of our most famous, larger-than-life real characters, Geoff Stirling. (If you’ve never heard of Geoff Stirling, please read this).

Obviously, the parallels aren’t exact. Presumably Johnston wanted to take more liberties with his Stirlingesque character than history allowed him to take with his Smallwoodesque Smallwood character, so Ned Vatcher is not Geoff Stirling. Stirling, whatever he was driven by, was not driven to solve the mystery of his parents’ disappearance, as Ned Vatcher is. (And my father, who remembers most of the real-life characters here and knew them personally, pointed out to me that some aspects of Ned Vatcher’s life in the novel are borrowed not just from Stirling but from Joseph Butler, Sr., another Newfoundland media pioneer. Ned Vatcher’s pilot’s license and habit of flying along the Newfoundland coast solo are a tip of the hat to Butler, who died in a plane accident in 1954). But Stirling is the most obvious real-life antecedent to Ned Vatcher, and to me, the only real weakness in an otherwise fine and beautifully-written piece of historical fiction is that the fictional creation is a pale shadow of the historical original. 

You probably could write a character as bizarre, outsize, larger-than-life as the real Geoff Stirling — Wayne Johnston certainly has the talent to do so — but Johnston hasn’t done it here. For all his personal quirks and tragic history, Ned Vatcher often remains somewhat of a cipher at the heart of this novel, never as fascinating as the real character that inspired him. Once again, as in Colony, it’s Fielding who steals the spotlight, and whose character arc from the previous book (or books if you read Custodian) reaches an unexpected and, for me, quite satisfying resolution here. We also find out the solution to the mystery of the Missing Vatchers, as the conclusion to this glimpse into a long and turbulent period of Newfoundland history.

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Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- historical, Newfoundland author