Category Archives: Newfoundland author

The Greatest Hits of Wanda Jaynes, by Bridget Canning

wandajaynesThis is one of several recent novels by Newfoundland writers (and one upcoming one) that I had the privilege of reading before it was published, when I got to judge an unpublished novel contest a few years ago. The Greatest Hits of Wanda Jaynes was one of the very strongest contenders, and it’s terrific to read it in its finished form.

Wanda Jaynes is a youngish Newfoundland woman, an adult-ed instructor whose job is about to be budget-cut out of existence, and is in a long-term relationship with attractive and charismatic musician Ivan. Her life is pretty average — until the day she goes to the supermarket at the same time as a man with a gun, and finds herself in the unexpected position of stopping a mass shooting.

Overnight, with the help of a viral video, Wanda goes from being a nobody to being a local hero — a position she’s not at all comfortable with. The novel explores serious issues — post-traumatic stress, the dark side of internet fame, random acts of violence — yet manages to be wickedly funny, largely due to the wry voice of Wanda as the point of view character. There’s also a wealth of great detail here about contemporary St. John’s life that really rings true.

This connects to something I said about the last Newfoundland novel I read, Berni Stapleton’s This is the Cat: if you’re going to introduce fantastical or hard-to-believe elements into a realistic story, the realistic bits really have to ring true. The Greatest Hits of Wanda Jaynes contains no talking cats or restless ghosts, but Wanda does find herself catapulted into a realm of experience most of us don’t share: we rarely get to take out a would-be mass murderer with a well-aimed can of coconut milk, nor do most of us become the focus of overnight online fame. But as Wanda moves through these unlikely events, the everyday details of her life feel completely believable and lived. It was those everyday details that drew me into the story originally: I, like Wanda (and, I believe, like the author) teach in an adult-education program, and while I wasn’t personally affected, I vividly remember the round of real-life budget cuts to our sector that, in Wanda’s fictional world, kicks off her horrible, no-good, very bad day. Details like this ground the reader in Wanda’s world and make it easy to follow her into her less likely adventures.

To draw yet another parallel to a book I’ve read lately, the details about Wanda’s internet fame, from her viral YouTube video to the way she becomes an instant meme, are very much grounded in the social media world of the mid-2010s, in the same way the use of teen slang and hip-hop music grounds Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give in the year it was written. Like Thomas’s YA novel, Canning’s book will feel “dated” in a few years, but I think that’s fine, because it’s a snapshot of what it means to “go viral” and become famous at this specific moment in time. It’s not meant to be a universal experience, because the way the world reacts to Wanda’s sudden notoriety is unique to this time and place.

What is universal is the way Wanda’s life starts to unspool in the face of trauma, the way the cracks in her relationships and her own view of herself can no longer be ignored once the pressure is on. Bridget Canning has written a funny, serious, fast-paced, thoughtful contemporary novel that remains light while exploring heavy subjects. This is an extremely readable and enjoyable book, and I hope to read more from Bridget Canning soon.

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

This is the Cat, by Berni Stapleton

ithisisthecatEven the most compulsive overreader would be hard-put to read every book published by a Newfoundland author every year, but I try to get through a good cross-section of local fiction. One thing that always mystifies me is why some books seem to fly under the radar, getting far less acclaim and attention than (I would think) they deserve. Berni Stapleton’s This is the Cat is one such book. Most Newfoundlanders probably know Stapleton best as an actor, comedian, and playwright, but her fiction debut shows she’s got significant talent in this area as well. 

This is the Cat tells, in short chapters and snippets of e-mail, the story of Bridie Savage, who lives the life of a modern-day Newfoundland artist, existing from contract to contract strung together with long threads of Employment Insurance to keep her balancing in between. She’s currently in an ongoing argument with Service Canada because they claim that her benefits are “exhausted,” although, as Bridie points out, her benefits aren’t nearly as exhausted as she is. Interspersed between chapters from Bridie’s point of view and her emails with Service Canada and others are chapters narrated by one of Bridie’s two cats, who is enjoying the latest in her long series of incarnations, and happy to have finally found a means to communicate with the outside world through Bridie’s Come-Pewter (the cat’s syntax and grammar leave much to be desired, but her insight and wit are on-point). Oh, and let’s not forget the ghosts inhabiting Bridie’s downtown St. John’s house, and the prostitutes camped out at the end of her street — all these characters and many more parade through this vividly detailed, funny and poignant story.

I think one of the keys to writing a story with quirky, fantastical elements (like ghosts, and cat narrators) is to keep the real-life elements as believable and grounded as possible, and this is where I feel Stapleton really shines. Anyone who has had a protracted battle with any kind of bureaucracy will be able to relate to Bridie’s Service Canada emails, but beyond this, the fact that Stapleton has lived the life of a working artist in this city for many years really shines through — even when the details of Bridie’s working (or non-working) life are clearly exaggerated for humourous effect, the author’s knowledge of the world she’s writing about shines through. It doesn’t necessarily come across as autobiographical but as “write what you know” in the best and truest sense: take what you know well and use it as a jumping-off point to explore the fantastical, including a cat who once lived with Cleopatra and is now using your computer to create an online dating profile for you without your knowledge.

The quirky main human character and her animal narrator invites, in my mind, comparisons to Jessica Grant’s Come Thou Tortoise, another witty and unusual local book that won acclaim and awards when it was released a few years back. I’m surprised This is the Cat didn’t get the same level of attention, as in my mind it certainly deserved it. While I know that Stapelton keeps pretty busy on stage, I hope that she (and possibly her cats) find the time to return to the Come-Pewter for more fiction before too long.

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Found Far and Wide, by Kevin Major

Layout 1Years ago, I noticed the interesting fact that one of Newfoundland’s greatest maritime disasters — the great sealing disaster of 1914, in which nearly 80 men perished when stranded out on the ice for two nights — occurred in 1914, a few months before World War One started and hundreds of Newfoundland young men went overseas, many to die in the trenches on the Western Front. I wondered if any men who were survivors of the sealing disaster subsequently went off to fight and die in the war, and thought of how interesting it would be to write about a character whose life intersected with both these events.

In fact, the life of Kevin Major’s main character in Found Far and Wide, Sam Kennedy, touches not just on these two events, but also on the 1920s era of Newfoundlanders working on the high steel in New York City, run-running during the US Prohibition years, and Sir Wilfred Grenfell’s work in Northern Newfoundland and Labrador. Sam’s a bit of a Newfoundland Forrest Gump in that sense, on the scene for so many key events of our history, but he’s no happy-go-lucky schumck like Gump. Sam’s a pretty intense guy, and it’s sometimes hard to get a handle on what motivates him. The events he lives through and experiences are depicted in vivid and memorable detail (I especially liked that the war experience we see up-close through Sam’s eyes is not the Battle of Beaumont Hamel, which has been written about so much by Newfoundland writers including Major himself in other works, but the earlier and lesser-known Gallipoli battle). The man himself, at the heart of these great occurrences, remains a bit of an enigma — perhaps to himself as much as to the reader.

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

Art Love Forgery, by Carolyn Morgan

artloveforgeryCarolyn (no relation) Morgan’s first novel, Art Love Forgery, illuminates a little-known true story from Newfoundland history, embellished with details from the author’s imagination.

The facts: a European artist named Alexander Pindikowsky painting murals on the ceiling of the governor’s mansion in St. John’s, in the 1880s. Pindikowsky was in prison at the time for forging cheques, and was permitted to reduce the term of his sentence by carrying out artwork for the governor — under guard, of course. At some point, Pindikowsky married and had a daughter with a Newfoundland woman named Ellen Dormody. Little is known beyond that, but you can see how that would be more than enough to pique a novelist’s imagination and get her itching to create the rest of the story.

In fact, author Carolyn Morgan has only recently come to fiction, having been for most of her career a visual artist. Her background not only explains her knowledge of and interest in Pindikowsky’s story; it also shines through in the lovingly detailed descriptions, not only of Pindikowsky’s murals but also of Ellen’s millinery creations, and most tellingly, the process of creation for both characters. For a story that takes a little-known oddity of local history and fleshes it out into a story with fully rounded characters and period detail, Art Love Forgery is a great read.

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

The Money Shot, by Glenn Deir

Layout 1The Money Shot is one of several novels coming out in the next few months or so that I have some insider knowledge of: it was one of the strongest entries in an unpublished-novel contest that I had the honour of judging a couple of years back. Glenn Deir’s tale (although I didn’t know it was Glenn Deir’s then, as the contest was blind-judged) of an unscrupulous, back-stabbing local news reporter was a wickedly fun romp from start to finish. When I found out that the author was someone who had considerable experience in that world of local journalism, I knew that even if The Money Shot is not a roman a clef about the local CBC station (and you kind of hope it’s not, because you’d hate to think your evening news is being brought to you by anyone as awful as Deir’s antihero, Sebastian Hunter), still, there’s got to be some kernels of truth there.

The Money Shot is a scathing, funny, wicked look at the world of local TV news: more cut-throat than you might think. It’s a page-turner and a thoroughly enjoyable read from start to finish.

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

Allan Square, by Shirley Murphy

allansquareStill with my project (see the review, below, of Greg Malone’s You Better Watch Out) of reading through memoirs about growing up in St. John’s, Shirley Murphy’s Allan Square was another one that made me pause and read it all the way through rather than skimming. This was not because, as with Malone’s book, it was a such a well-constructed piece of literature. Murphy’s prose style is breezy, conversational, and anything but literary — but it is compelling and highly readable.

When this book was first published it caught my attention (though I didn’t read it at that time) because my husband also grew up on Allan Square in downtown St. John’s, albeit a couple of decades later than Shirley Murphy did. Pretty much any story of growing up in that neighbourhood is going to be a story of growing up in at least some degree of poverty, and in Murphy’s case that poverty was sometimes extreme during the years of the Depression and the Second World War. She is also pretty frank about describing her family dynamics, which ranged from neglectful to downright abusive. What kept me interested is that there’s no sense of “Oh, poor me, I survived a childhood of such hardship” in this memoir. Rather, the breezy and often funny tone seems to suggest, “Life on Allan Square was pretty awful a lot of the time, but that’s life, isn’t it?” Interwoven with perceptive and sometimes funny details of everyday life at the time, Murphy’s story was a surprise hit with me.

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Filed under Newfoundland author, Nonfiction -- memoir

Writing Out the Notes, by Bob Hallett

writingoutthenotesAlthough (see my last post) I had been on-and-off reading a memoir by Alan Doyle, Bob Hallett’s “Great Big Sea” bandmate of many years, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to pick up Hallett’s Writing Out the Notes if I hadn’t been looking specifically for books about life as a musician in St. John’s. There aren’t a lot of such books, and the glimpses Hallett provides into his early life and musical influences were really helpful to me as I was researching the local music scene for my own current book.

This is not a memoir in the same sense that Doyle’s Where I Belong is; readers looking for a detailed account of Bob Hallett’s life are looking for a book he didn’t write. Writing Out the Notes is, instead, a collection of short vignettes, mostly about music and the influence both listening to and playing it has had on Bob Hallett. In the edition I read, the subtitle was Life in Great Big Sea, and a sticker had been added with the words and other musical misadventures. As you can see from the cover image here, it seems that a subsequent edition of the book corrected the subtitle without the need of a sticker. If you’re looking for behind-the-scenes tales about life in Great Big Sea, you’ll find very few of them here (although the tale of the band’s German tour, early in their career, will offer a few good laughs). Rather, you’ll find a working musician’s thoughtful reflections on listening to and playing music, and probably (if you also love music) a few things you can relate to.

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