Category Archives: Newfoundland author

What The Oceans Remember, by Sonja Boon

This was storm book #2, and what an engrossing, lovely read it was. Author, academic, and musician Sonja Boon explores her complicated family roots (she often describes herself as “Dutch-Canadian” for simplicity’s sake, but the reality is much more complex) in a book that at the same time a personal memoir, a family history, and an exploration of archival material relating to slavery and colonialism in Suriname, where many of Boon’s ancestors came from.

The resulting book is thoughtful and absorbing. It’s also a visually beautiful hardcover (this is one I’m glad I didn’t read as an e-book; it was given to me as a Christmas gift and the physical book is a true pleasure). There are photographs interspersed throughout the narrative, though never as many as I wanted (sometimes photographs are described in the text, as the author looks through archival or family materials, but not all of these are reproduced in the book). I also wished, very much, for a family tree to be included, as I wanted to map the relationships of the various grandparents and great-grandparents and great-great grandparents she writes about. Regardless of the things I’d like to have seen more of, I loved reading this book, and thought it was such an insightful take on the idea of “family history.”

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Filed under Canadian author, Newfoundland author, Nonfiction -- memoir

One For the Rock, by Kevin Major

I’ve been reading through all the books nominated for this year’s NL Reads awards because, as last year’s winner, I get to be one of the defenders this year (more on the wonderful book I’ll be defending in a later blog post). Kevin Major’s mystery novel One for the Rock is one of the nominees, a short and relatively light mystery novel set in contemporary St. John’s.

The premise is good: our hero is a cantankerous middle-aged man named Sebastian Synard who runs high-end hiking/dining tours of St. John’s for wealthy mainland tourists. Sebastian has a very sweet gig going (and the details of both hiking and dining in St. John’s are well-researched and absolutely spot-on, as they should be), but he is Bitter and Cynical because he’s a middle-aged man whose wife has left him for another, and also the world doesn’t seem to be giving him everything he thinks he deserves (I realize I may be a teeny bit Bitter and Cynical myself about the trope of middle-aged dudes in fiction and in mysteries specifically. Lighten up, man!).

Tragedy (but not much tragedy because it happens to an unlikeable character we barely know) strikes on one of Sebastian’s hikes when a tour group member perishes in a way that’s suspicious enough that almost everyone in the group might be a suspect. And, wouldn’t you know it, the police officer investigating the death is the very same guy that Sebastian’s wife ran off with, so Sebastian is Bitter, Cynical and Unwilling to Co-operate With the Investigation (at first, anyway).

From this premise, the mystery unfolds pretty quickly, with some wry humour along the way and lots of plot twists (some of which are more neatly tied-together than others: there were a couple of loose ends I wasn’t sure about). If you like mysteries and contemporary Newfoundland fiction (and don’t mind the odd grumpy middle-aged man), you should definitely check out this book.

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

The Innocents, by Michael Crummey

This book, nominated for the Giller Prize, features the brilliant clarity of language, deft characterization and description you’d expect from a Michael Crummey novel. The subject matter is as harsh and bleak as the landscape where it’s set, and how you feel about that subject matter may determine how much you enjoy reading this book.

Sometime early in the 19th century (this is not specified, but you can work out the general time period from context clues), a pre-teen brother and sister are left orphaned in a Newfoundland cove so isolated that they are the only family there. Their parents and a baby sister have died, and at first their only choice seems to be to get aboard the next ship that puts into their cove and go to the nearest community to throw themselves on the mercy of whoever might take them in. But having inherited the fierce and stubborn independence of their parents, the siblings decide not to leave their parents’ land, choosing instead to try to survive alone. Through the cycle of the year they fish, make fish, keep house, cut wood, feed themselves and generally try to survive — assisted on occasion by a few visitors from the outside world, but for the most part relying only on themselves and each other.

Crummey does a wonderful job of capturing the innocence of these innocents — all the things they experience without having words or context for them. The language is beautiful here, as you would expect, the rhythms of speech perfectly captured.

If you’re thinking that this is the story of a brother and sister who age from about 12 to 15 during the time of this story with no other people around most of the time, and you’re wondering whether sex is one of those things they don’t have words or context for and whether the story is going to go in an incest-y direction … well, you’ll have to read it and see, but remember I told you it’s bleak, and there’ll definitely be some disturbing passages. This is probably not going to sit alongside Galore and Sweetland as one of my favourite Michael Crummey books, but I have to stand in awe of the brilliance of his writing.

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

Son of a Critch, by Mark Critch

I knew this book was going to be funny — it’s a memoir by our most beloved local comedian, for cryin’ out loud — but I did not expect it to be this funny. And I know I’ve said this before, especially about books by performers, but trust me with this one: you have to listen to the audiobook. You have to hear Mark Critch read this, especially when he does the voices of his mother and his (also locally-famous, at least to people of my generation) radio newsman father, Mike Critch. In fact, he does voices for absolutely everyone in the book, so that it feels like a full-cast recording, except the whole cast is Mark Critch.

Critch is a few years younger than I am, and while there are things about our upbringing that were very different (Catholic school, for example) and things that are pretty much unique to him and absolutely no-one else (e.g. growing up in a house next to the VOCM building, so far out on Kenmount Road that he had literally no neighbours or playmates), there are also so many things about childhood in the 1970s that were completely relatable — except transformed into utter hilarity not only by Critch’s writing but by his delivery of every story. Please, please listen to this audiobook. You won’t regret it.

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Filed under Audiobook, Canadian author, Newfoundland author, Nonfiction -- memoir

Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club

This is a book people have been recommending to me since literally before it was even finished (I first heard about it when author Megan Coles visited my podcast along with Robert Chafe, who made a point of getting her to promote the book she was, at that point, still working on). Everyone I know who’s read it has described themselves as having been overwhelmed or found it breathtaking, even though they also often describe it as “difficult.” And, indeed, the terse and cryptic author warning — “This might hurt a little” — on the page usually reserved for an epigraph, is absolutely a relevant warning for anyone opening the pages of this novel.

The setting is contemporary St. John’s, on a stormy Valentine’s Day when snow, high winds, and rolling blackouts keep most of the sensible townies indoors. The un-sensible ones, in this novel, are largely the staff and patrons of a hipster downtown restaurant called The Hazel. This novel has a large cast of characters, with point of view shifting frequently between them, and the author is not about to spoon-feed the reader any explanations about who these characters are and how they connect with each other. I will admit that I spent a lot of the first third of the book trying to figure out how everyone connects, weaving together the various threads of backstory we are given, and wading through some incredibly complex extended metaphors to get to “Who is this person and how do they relate to the other six people I just read about?”

Once that initial learning curve is mastered, which for me was about one-third of the way through the novel, the pace picks up as we begin to see how all these various characters connect and how their stories will converge on a stormy night in the only restaurant that stays open in the storm.

Violence and power are recurring themes as Coles ruthlessly puts the relationships among this group of people under the microscope. The characters range from nearly-innocent victims to brutal predators (the “hunting” analogy of the title threads throughout the book and is one of the novel’s more successful metaphors), but almost all are portrayed with empathy, thoughtfulness, and nuance, even those who are pretty obviously bad people — we see, at the very least, some of the reasons why they are bad people, or at least the fears and the past experiences that lead them to choose to do bad things, to victimize others.

The only exception (at least among the point-of-view characters) to this compassionate gaze, is the (fictionalized) mayor of St. John’s, who is portrayed as an absolutely cartoon villain without a shred of interest in his humanity, which I thought was an interesting choice, given how many (on the surface) “worse” characters are given at least the dignity of motivations. I don’t think this is in any way accidental: the author may be suggesting that the powerful and wealthy decision makers at the top of society’s pyramid (nearly always rich white men) are truly apex predators of this food chain, and less deserving of our empathy even than rapists and abusers.

Yes, there is rape and abuse in this novel, and both the acts and their aftermath are portrayed with an unflinching and often painful gaze. Remember, we were warned this might hurt a little. It does. A brutal gang-rape is placed next to an apparently consensual affair to show us how, though the two sexual acts are very different, power and powerlessness lie at the core of both. Women, as the narrator tells us in one searing passage, have so very little power. And some women have less power than others — poor women, indigenous women, rural woman, uneducated women, are the ones who, over and over, end up as the small game being hunted here. One passage — it’s hard to tell whether it should be described as the character’s internal monologue or the narrative voice, as it blends both — in which the potential consequences of reporting a rape are considered, is absolutely harrowing to read because we recognize its truth at the core, from the countless times we’ve seen the scenario play out. That passage alone should be required reading for everyone.

It goes without saying that neither the urban St. John’s downtown of the story’s present, nor the rural communities where the characters’ past lives are revealed in flashbacks, bear much resemblance to the tourist-commercial version of what our license plates once called “The Happy Province.” This is the dark underside of our culture, of every culture, and it’s displayed and dissected here in its most raw and relentless form.

Both in subject matter and in style, Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club is by no means an easy read, but it is one that is worth a reader’s time and attention. I ended up by being unable to put it down.

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Even Weirder Than Before, by Susie Taylor

Even Weirder Than Before is a quiet, introspective coming of age story set in a Toronto suburb in the late 1980s. As the book opens, Daisy is a Grade Eight student struggling with the breakup of her parents’ marriage and the normal adolescent “where-do-I-fit-in?” questions. The novel is  not long, but it unfolds over the next four years: by the time the story ends, Daisy is finishing Grade Twelve and has learned a great deal about her family, her friends, and, of course, herself.

Despite covering so many years in a relatively short book, the story is, in a way, slow-paced, in the sense that it’s more episodic than plot-driven. It’s a coming of age novel that is just that: the story being told is simply the story of Daisy growing up, dealing with all the issues that growing up entails. It’s fascinating to watch her relationships with those around her change. We see that change within her family, as her mother copes with single parenthood and a new relationship, and her older sister seeks her own path in life, and her father settles in with the younger woman he left for. We also see it, perhaps even more so, with her friends. The most important of these relationships is with her childhood best friend Wanda: the shape and fabric of this friendship stretches and changes over the years of high school as both girls grow up, and as other friendships and crushes bloom and fade, but Wanda remains a constant in Daisy’s life.

The book is filled not only with beautiful, understated moments of self-realization, but also with wonderful period detail. I am about half a generation older than the author — at my first job out of college I was teaching students Daisy’s age — and I was keenly aware of the story manages to feel both contemporary and like a period piece, a throwback to that time when teenagers managed to meet up and hook up without cellphones or Snapchat. The pains of adolescence are, to some extent, universal and timeless, yet deeply rooted in the popular culture of the years during which you’re a teenager. Daisy’s world is a completely believable one anchored in a very specific time and place, but also in the growing pains that we can all, to some extent, relate to.

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Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- general, Newfoundland author, Young Adult

Something for Everyone, by Lisa Moore

somethingforeveryoneLisa Moore is almost certainly the most nationally celebrated and critically acclaimed author to come out of the Newfoundland literary scene in my generation, and of the four of us who are up for this year’s NL Reads award, she’s the only one who could be considered a literary household word. Her latest collection of short stories, Something for Everyone, provides what her readers have come to expect: stories whose insight into the human experience (centred almost always in contemporary St. Johns, though there is, unusually for Moore, one historical piece in this collection) is mediated through richly layered metaphor and detailed observations. Some of her short stories feel as much like prose poems as like short fiction.

There are times, in the midst of a Lisa Moore story, when I feel I’m almost drowning in sensory detail. I can find myself submerged in paragraph after paragraph of incredibly detailed description of — to pull one example from a story in this collection — a hotel caretaker using a long-handled net to pull debris from an outdoor pool, a description so minute it includes the sentences: “The pole he has is made of sections joined by plastic cuffs that screw together. Some blue sections, some silver, joined together without consideration for alternating colour.” Swimming through sentences like that in the midst of four paragraphs of the caretaker cleaning the pool (that’s four paragraphs just at that point in the story — Moore will bring us back to this description later, more than once) can leave a reader a little breathless. You can love the attention to detail but also wonder if this story is going anywhere or whether it’s just flowing from one visual image to the next in non-linear fashion. Then, two-thirds of the way through the story that contains the pool caretaker, you’re suddenly reminded of a tiny detail in the first sentence of that story, a detail you almost forgot: “Orlando, Florida. I’m here with a conference of twenty thousand librarians from all over North America, two weeks after the Pulse massacre.” When you’re suddenly reminded of the when and where of this story and (at least part of) the why, it’s like being yanked out of that warm pool of sensory detail, gasping for breath in the sudden sharp air of human tragedy.

Possibly because I generally prefer novels to short stories, my favourite part of this collection was the last story, Skywalk, which is really a novella in five chapters. It begins with a chance encounter between two young university students: the girl, newly come to St. John’s to study nursing, is nervous about crossing the parkway skywalk at one a.m., and asks a boy standing nearby to call her and stay on the phone till she’s made it safely across. From that single brief encounter, the story spirals out like the arms of a starfish, reaching backwards into the girl’s past, and the boy’s, forward into their futures, each piece of the story unfolding gradually against the backdrop of a series of horrific crimes being committed in St. John’s. Every character, every encounter, every piece of dialogue, and yes, every lovingly-detailed sensory description, is note-perfect in this piece.

Maybe it’s just because so many of these stories are set on the same streets where I live and work and walk every day, and those streets and the people who frequent them are so vividly depicted (though sometimes with jarring changes presumably for fictional purposes — I wasted far too much time trying to figure out where Chelsea’s bus stop was, sure it was in my neighbourhood but that it couldn’t logically exist within the parameters given, until I reminded myself that Lisa Moore has a poetic license and the right to use it), but to me the strength of these stories is how real some of the moments within them feel. They feel like slices of life that seem to be lifted directly from a spot right next to me, where I might have been standing a moment ago. 

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