Category Archives: 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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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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The Boat People, by Sharon Bala

boatpeopleIf there’s one book by a Newfoundland-based author — in fact, if there’s one book by a Canadian author — that you’re going to hear buzz about this year, it’s going to be Sharon Bala’s novel The Boat People. It’s already been chosen as a selection for this year’s Canada Reads competition, and I’m sure we’ll be hearing more about it when awards season rolls around.

I had the privilege of reading an earlier version of The Boat People in 2014, when I judged the Percy Janes First Novel Award and picked it as the winner out of a strong field of contenders. I loved it even more on reading the final, published novel. This is an important and timely novel about immigration, racism, violence and fear, but most importantly it’s a novel full of real people who I came to care deeply about.

The background for this story is a real event: the 2010 arrival of a boat full of Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka to Canada’s west coast. Earlier waves of immigrants, including irregular arrivals like boat people, had been welcomed warmly to Canada, but by 2010 the combination of fears of terrorism and the Conservative government then in power, combined with the shock effect of 500 refugees arriving at once, guaranteed these Tamil refugees a far less friendly reception. Many remained in detention for months as their claims were processed through the system. The novel’s main character, Mahindan, is a widowed father who only hopes for a better life for his son Sellian. But Sellian and Mahindan are separated, with adult men going to one detention centre and women and children to another, despite the fact that there is no mother to care for Sellian. Mahindan’s fierce love for his son and the ache of separation is a thread that runs through the novel.

But there are other characters, all equally well developed: Priya, the young law student who is unwillingly pulled into the refugee claimants’ case during her articling year; Priya’s Sri Lankan family, whose own journey to Canada decades ago hides many secrets; career civil servant Grace, daughter of Japanese-Canadians interned during the Second World War, who now finds herself adjudicating the refugees’ hearings, trying to decide which ones should be allowed to stay in Canada and which, if any, pose a danger to the public safety.

The danger, though it is used by the federal government to score political points, is not entirely illusory. Through the flashbacks of Mahindan’s story, we recognize that the Tamil Tigers are indeed a group capable of horrific acts of violence, and that while the refugees are fleeing the chaos of civil war in the country, many of them, Manhindan included, had been drawn into taking sides in that conflict in one way or another. The flashback scenes are what give the novel its power and poignancy: through these scenes we see Mahindan’s “normal” life when he was married to Chitra, their love and hope during her pregnancy, his grief when she dies in childbirth, and then how the world they shared is shattered by war and Mahindan reduced to a homeless, desperate man on the run. When the ship arrives in Canada he believes his suffering is over and a new life is beginning, but the reality is more complicated.

There is so much happening in this novel that is complex and real and relevant: the plight of refugees, the fear of terrorism, the tendency of one generation of migrants to fear the influx of newer arrivals and safeguard their position by saying things like “We came to this country legally; why can’t they go through the process like we did?” (I cannot tell  you how many American friends I have heard say this in the current refugee/immigration debates). But the characters are never just caricatures representing different groups of people or different positions; they are all drawn with humanity, depth and insight.

One of the strengths of this novel, I think, is that it’s topical without being too topical. Right now, our fears about immigration and terrorism (at least here in Canada, but I think for the most part in the US and Europe as well) are so focused on groups like the Syrian refugees and the fear of ISIS-style Muslim extremism, that we’ve almost forgotten Middle Eastern Muslims are far from the only group of people on the planet to have produced both terrorists and refugees. The author’s own family roots in Sri Lanka no doubt made the story of the Tamil refugees an interesting one for her to explore, but it also allows the reader the opportunity to explore the problems posed in this novel at one remove from the heat of current debates. In addition, it gives a much needed correction to the smugness we liberal Canadians often feel about what a welcoming and inclusive country ours is. Sure, we may look good compared the US right now, but we’re not perfect. Canadians are as susceptible to fear, suspicion, paranoia and racism as any other country — and that includes Canadians of all backgrounds.

Hauntingly real and unforgettably personal, The Boat People is a novel that will linger with most readers for a long time. It certainly will with me. Yes, it’s topical, it’s relevant, it has its finger on the pulse of current debates, but at it’s heart this is a story about human beings just longing for what we all want: a safe place to call home.

 

 

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The Last Half of the Year, by Paul Rowe

lasthalfWhen it comes to judging books by their covers, I couldn’t have gone in with a more positive opinion of a book than I did of The Last Half of the Year, because I am SO IN LOVE with this cover. I also have a very high opinion of the author, Paul Rowe, an intelligent and kindly writer who, along with his partner Mona, came to my studio for a lovely podcast chat a few weeks ago. In the end, though, a book has to be judged on its own merits, regardless of how pretty the cover or how charming the writer. And I’m glad to say that The Last Half of the Year holds up in its own right.

This novel tells three parallel stories, switching back and forth fluidly between them. Jason Dade grows up as a golden child in a small Newfoundland outport, brilliant at school, good at everything beloved by all. The story of his father Saul, who served in the merchant marine in WW2 before settling in the little town of Birthlayn, is told through flashbacks. But we also flash forward to the story’s present, when the promising and beloved little Jason Dade has become a university dropout, apparently without direction or purpose. As his own and his father’s stories unfold in the past, present-day Jason sets off on a question that looks as if it might hold the key to his future — but his road trip takes a dark and unexpected turn.

This is the kind of book where you start out thinking you’re reading one type of book about one type of character, and then things twist 90 degrees and you realize that a lot of what you assumed about the story and the character is wrong. That things are not what they seem to be. Hop into the back seat behind Jason Dade and enjoy the twisting road ahead … and behind.

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Crying for the Moon, by Mary Walsh

cryingforthemoonCrying for the Moon is the first novel by celebrated Newfoundland actor and comedian Mary Walsh, and it is as gritty, memorable, and deeply rooted in the culture of St. John’s as anyone familiar with Walsh’s work would expect. The novel tells the story of Catholic schoolgirl Maureen Brennan, whose already-difficult life as the child of poor and sometimes abusive parents goes even further off the rails after a school choir trip to Expo ’67 in Montreal. 

Maureen is a great character, though I didn’t feel the writing was always completely consistent in portraying her — there’s a bit too much of Walsh telling us what Maureen is like, whereas the novel’s greatest strengths are always when she simply shows us. Maureen gets pregnant, drops out of school, falls through a series of unpromising relationships, and then almost accidentally commits a major crime, at which point the novel takes a sharp turn away from coming-of-age drama and into a sort of crime fiction. It’s Maureen’s voice and perspective, her dogged yet so often doomed determination to rise above the narrow downtown streets where she was raised, that propel this novel forward, even through some unlikely plot twists.

For anyone who grew up in St. John’s, there’s so much here that’s rich, relatable, and vividly drawn that Crying at the Moon was a pleasure to read. I am about 15 years younger than Maureen, Protestant and middle-class where she is Catholic and working-class, and while all those things make a difference, her world is still one in which many of the details are familiar to me. The fact that those details were so lovingly depicted made it all the more jarring the few times I stumbled across a detail that was anachronistic or geographically inaccurate; I wish I wasn’t bothered by those things, but I can’t help it. However, it didn’t diminish my enjoyment of a novel with a truly memorable heroine growing up in a very real place and time.

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