Category Archives: 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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Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- general, 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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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

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

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

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