Category Archives: Newfoundland author

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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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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Hysteria, by Elisabeth de Mariaffi

hysteriaI hesitated for a moment over whether to class this as “historical fiction.” I mean, it obviously is; it’s set in the past, but sometimes people slap an arbitrary definition of how many decades before the time of writing qualifies a book as historical fiction, and I’m not sure if everyone considers the 1950s “history.” But it is, and in fact, as this book illustrates, it can feel so distant it’s like another world.

Hysteria actually begins in the aftermath of World War Two, when young Heike and her younger sister Lena escape the devastated city of Dresden on foot. Heike makes it to the safety of a Swiss convent where she is cared for by nuns, but Lena is lost in the forest (not a spoiler; this happens in the first couple of pages of the book) and this loss — not just of home and family and past life, but of a child she loved who was in her care) haunts Heike throughout the book and lays the foundation for much of what happens to her within the story.

Still, when we meet Heike ten years later as the main plot of the novel begins, she seems to be relatively well-recovered from her trauma (there’s actually even more trauma in Heike’s post-war experience than the escaping-Germany flashback reveals, but this takes time to come out). She is living in upstate New York with her doctor husband, the mother of a little boy named Daniel, living a life of comfort and leisure with few expectations on her. Her marriage does not seem entirely happy, but she takes great comfort in her son. The fact that her husband is heavily focused on developing and experimenting with new psychotropic drugs doesn’t seem terribly sinister … at first. 

But of course, it is.

Things start unravelling for Heike when she and her son, on a day’s outing, meet a little girl with whom her son plays, who doesn’t seem to be entirely real. The encounter has Heike questioning her own memories and senses, a process helped along by a husband who clearly appears to be gaslighting her.

Although the “historical” aspect of this novel is relatively recent, it’s actually one of those settings that seems most distant and difficult for me to read about — the world of upper-middle-class white women in post-WW2 America, women who lack jobs, independence, purpose or agency, who are often manipulated by their husbands or other men in their lives. Heike seems so passive throughout much of the book, and even after a shattering loss threatens her child, her reactions seem out of sync with what we’d expect or find normal. Why doesn’t she swing into action, take control of events, start solving her problems? At this point the reader may want to shake Heike, but the backdrop for her bizarre passivity has been well laid — by the trauma of her past, by what we know about her husband and his profession, and also by the systemic sexism of the world in which she lives.

I read this book, which I can best categorize as a literary psychological thriller, very quickly, and found the plot compelling and often hard to put down. If your pleasure in a thriller depends on being surprised by an unexpected plot twist, you may have a problem with this one: there’s a fairly huge twist, but it’s one that I and a lot of other readers figured out way ahead of the reveal (and trust me, if I figure out a twist, it’s not hard to figure out, because I am the dumbest reader when it comes to figuring out the curves and bends in a plot. I never know whodunit). However, figuring out the big twist didn’t diminish my pleasure in this book — rather, I was reading to find out if I was right about what I thought I’d figured out, and if so, why? How? Did all the pieces fit together in a way that gave me that satisfying “Aha! It all makes sense now!” reaction? And I found that it did — the ending was both satisfying and hopeful. 

If you like a twisty psychological thriller with some literary flair and some serious thoughts about how trauma and sexism can interact to keep a woman a virtual prisoner, you should pick up Hysteria.

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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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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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