Kathleen Winter’s novel about a hermaphrodite child born in Labrador in the 1960s, inspired by a true story told to her by an acquaintance, was the only novel to have made the shortlist for three of the country’s most prestigious book awards this year: The Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and the 2010 Governor General’s Awards.
According to local writer and literary blogger Chad Pelley, “Annabel” could also be given the distinction of best Newfoundland and Labrador book of 2010.
Pelley, who is an award-winning author himself, for the 2009 novel “Away from Everywhere,” runs Salty Ink, a blog dedicated to promoting Atlantic Canadian fiction and poetry. The blog has been featured in in publications like The Globe and Mail and The National Post as well as on the CBC, and is touted as one of the best regionally focused blogs online.
“It’s a spotlight on Atlantic Canadian writers, but it ends up that 85 per cent of the content is on Newfoundland and Labrador writers,” Pelley explained. “We are the finest writers in the country, and I’m not even biased; I could read exclusively Newfoundland and Labrador writing.”
Pelley gave The Telegram his picks for the top 10 books written by local authors this past year, and Winter’s headed up the list.
Winter’s third book, “Annabel” tells the story of a child who was surgically altered at birth and raised as a male, sent out to hunt with his father. As he grows up, however, he comes to identify with Annabel, the girl hidden inside him.
“Her writing is so evocative and elegant, and every sentence is kind of perfect, but it’s the story, too,” Pelley said. “When you read the back cover, you think it’s predictable, the struggles and that sort of thing, but each character in the novel is complicated in their own way. It’s universal and very human and I’m drawn to that.”
A talent for writing might lie in the Winter family genes, at least in Pelley’s opinion — his choice for No. 2 book of the year is “The Death of Donna Whalen,” by Winter’s brother, Michael. It could be argued that the book isn’t really a novel, but is what the author calls “documentary fiction,” based on the 1993 murder of Brenda Young, and Randy Druken’s subsequent wrongful conviction. Michael Winter wrote the book after sifting through a six-foot tall stack of court transcripts.
“When I interviewed him about it, he said he curated it, which is an interesting way to look at it,” Pelley said. He took what he thought was relevant and stacked it in a way so that when you read the novel, you see all these contradictions that kind of make you feel that you’re part of the jury. You don’t know who’s guilty and who’s not, and I found that really interesting.”
The book might be a bit of a difficult read because of its unique structure, Pelley said; somewhere between a novel and non-
“It’s innovative, and that, to me, is exciting,” he said.
Third on Pelley’s list is Larry Mathew’s “The Artificial Newfoundlander,” described by publisher Breakwater as “a witty, playful tale of contemporary St. John’s.”
“Larry Mathews is one of the province’s most undersung writers,” Pelley said. “He’s got more wit and story per chapter than most writers unleash in a full novel. This book is full of gut-busting moments and an unforgettable cast of characters.”
“It’s a spotlight on Atlantic Canadian writers, but it ends up that 85 per cent of the content is on Newfoundland and Labrador writers. We are the finest writers in the country, and I’m not even biased; I could read exclusively Newfoundland and Labrador writing.” - Chad Pelley
Also on Pelley’s list are:
• “Glimpse,” by poet George Murray; a collection of 409 aphorisms. “It’s not often someone writes a book of poetry this accessible and enjoyable to people who don't like poetry,” Pelley said. “You can respect it as a form of poetry, or you could see it as a gag book that you have on your coffee table. A lot of (the aphorisms) are really funny, and a lot are really insightful. I think it’s a good gateway for a lot of people into poetry.”
• “Blood Relatives,” by Craig Francis Power; a darkly comic novel about a 31-year-old office cleaner whose life has gone out of control after the death of his father. “This one emerges as the best first book of the year,” Pelley said, noting the novel’s unexpected imagery.
• “This Ramshackle Tabernacle,” by Samuel Thomas Martin; a collection of short stories set in fictional towns in northeastern Ontario. “Raw and emotionally engaging short stories that leave you sometimes laughing and sometimes shocked,” Pelley said.
• “The Widows of Paradise Bay” by Jill Sooley. “At times funny, at times wrenching, it’s an exploration, through three women, of the many trajectories a marriage can take; the highs we all want to get back to when down in the inevitable lows,” Pelley said.
• “Where Old Ghosts Meet,” by Kate Evans. The novel is Evans’ first book, and is based on the true story of her grandfather, who disappeared from Ireland, leaving his young family behind.
• “Flight,” Darren Hynes’ story of a woman on the province’s northeast coast who’s about to leave her abusive husband.
The 10th spot on Pelley’s list goes to The Telegram’s editorial page editor Russell Wangersky, for his novel “The Glass Harmonica.” Set on a fictional St. John’s street, the book goes in and out of a row of houses, discovering the owners’ intertwined dirty secrets.
Pelley said he admired Wangersky’s guts and ambition in writing the novel, which ends up with a dozen or so narrators that click together to form a grand subplot.
“I’m always blown away by Russell’s writing,” Pelley said. “It’s crystalline — the cadence and rhythm is almost poetic. That’s his strongest feature as a writer.”
Pelley, placed on several “Best of the Year” booklists in 2009 for “Away from Everywhere,” for which he won the CBC Emerging Artist of the Year award, and was shortlisted for the Canadian Authors Association Emerging Writer of the Year award, and the 2010 ReLit award. He was the winner of The Telegram’s 2009 Cuffer Prize for a short story called “Holes to China.”
Earlier this month, Pelley finished his second novel, “Falling and Not Landing,” which he expects to be published in the next year or so.
“It’s kind of a love story gone all wrong. I seem to be fixated on the complexities of relationships in my writing,” Pelley said with a chuckle.
“It’s fast-paced. I try to have something big happen in every chapter, versus saving it for the middle of the book.”
Salty Ink can be found online at www.saltyink.com.