Hot reads for cold winter nights

Chad Pelley
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It’s been, as always, a great year for books by Newfoundlanders. Poets turned novelists, novelists trying poetry, the return of big names like Ed Riche and Wayne Johnston, and, like every year, some stunning new voices.

I was struck by the work of a lot of Newfoundlanders this year, and the best thing was, I was struck for so many different reasons. I couldn’t rank them if I tried. You can’t compare apples and oranges, you can just appreciate each for what they are, and eat them up.

So, in alphabetical order, here are 11 books to read over the winter:

•   “A World Elsewhere” by Canadian icon Wayne Johnston. In addition to releasing this novel this year, Wayne won the prestigious, $25,000 Engel/Findley Award, which recognizes the high calibre of a writer’s whole body of work.

Fans of his biggest bestseller, “The Colony of Unrequited Dreams” will love this one, as it’s another tale of big dreams by outsiders, and an unlikely romance.

There’s a reason Wayne is one of our best-known writers, and if you’ve missed out to date, this one’s a good start.

•  “The Cuffer Prize Anthology, Volume III.”

It’s a collection of the top 35 short stories submitted to The Telegram’s annual Cuffer Prize last year.

At three pages each, these are very short and stunning stories, they’re all set in the province, and they feature award-winning names like Joel Thomas Hynes, Samuel Thomas Martin and Leo Furey, alongside shorts by amazing emerging writers, like Randy Drover, who is one of my favourite writers in the country. 

•   “Deluded Your Sailors” by Michelle Butler Hallett. She’s earned a reputation for writing books that no one else would have conceived of and written. This one’s about whether we’re a product of our pasts or a product of our desires.

When Nichole Wright lands a commission to write a play for a tourism project, she stumbles onto some documents that will derail the whole deal. The story she found unfolds into a second, parallel narrative of a fiercely spirited, early 18th-century daughter of a prostitute, and her book-worthy life.

•   Award-winning poet Pat Warner published his debut novel, “Double Talk,” in the spring, but any expectations that, as a poet, Warner would approach this story with a poet’s voice are not there. This novel is piercing and raw and full of barb-wired honesty. It’s a love story, in reverse, that takes a scalpel to the idea of marriage and shows, with shocking precision, how easily dissected it is. It’s also dryly hilarious. Warner ought to be a stand-up comedian on the side. 

The story is a truthful look at the potholes any two people in love are going to hit along the way, until they break down, or patch up who they are to each other. He uses alternating chapters of third-person Violet and first-person Brian to show how differently two people can experience the same moment, hammering home the notion that there is no right and wrong in a lovers’ quarrel, just conflict.

•   Ed Riche, best known in Newfoundland for his novel, and feature film, “Rare Birds,” is back this year with “Easy to Like.” It’s a scathing, gut-busting satire of modern tastes in film, TV and wine.

Ed crowns himself as the country’s king of satire with this one. It tells the hilarious story of a Hollywood screenwriter turned winemaker, who is trying to save his vineyard and the CBC. Funny as this book is, there’s no nonsense when it comes to what’s being knocked, which adds poignancy to the punchlines.

•    Gerard Collins has been winning short-fiction awards in St. John’s for a decade. His debut collection, “Moonlight Sketches,” finally came out this year, and showcases that talent. It’s a compelling collection with strong, lasting images. Collins knows the recipe of his own work: when to add nuanced comedic relief to a dark story, and when to add a closing line that clangs like a gong.

•    Joel Thomas Hynes released a book of journal-entry style “poetic reflections on life” called “Straight Razor Days.” In his own words, it’s a collection of “intimate little observances” on life and his own personal relationships, mainly with the men in his family, including his son. It exposes the poet, the insightful, intelligent observer of the human condition that normally hides out behind the grittier aspects of Joel’s fiction. I loved it.

•   Newfoundland bestselling author Trudy Morgan Cole has a new book out called “That Forgetful Shore.” This woman has a seriously big cult following in Newfoundland. They’ll be happy to hear she has a new one, then, that I personally think is even better than her last one.

Interestingly, it was inspired by postcards she found in a 150-year-old house in Coley’s Point. It tells the story of Triffie and Kit, who and grew up with the same dreams and ambitions, but life dealt them different outcomes. As Kit explores life and the wider world, Triffie is left behind, living the life she never wanted with the man she swore she’d never marry.

• Kenneth J. Harvey. You never know what to expect. His latest, “Reinvention the Rose” set a Canadian record by being the first novel to be an international bestseller before coming out in Canada. He’s got a serious following in Russia.

This book had me gripped right away, with that a signature narrative hook of his. It starts off quite normal, with a likeable painter being charmed by a dreamy real estate guy — until she buys an old house in Bareneed, and things go very eerie.

I was reading the thing, all alone, outside a neighbourless cabin, in the pitch black night, and like a little girl, ran inside and turned on all the lights. He’s got a way of mastering point of view that puts his story under your skin and your nerves on edge.

•   Kate Story’s second novel, “Wrecked upon This Shore,” is fantastic. It’s a novel about Pearl, who is “wild, charismatic and damaged,” but it is told through the eyes of her son, Stephen, and the girl she fell in love with as a teenager. 

Stephen is 30 as Pearl is dying of cancer, and in a skilful twist of plumbing darkness to find a shinning gem of redemption, her cancer changes Stephen’s life for the better. Like the back of the book says, it is a novel about “life’s most significant tests: loving and dying, broken relationships, and the drive to heal.”

•    The debut of the year goes to CBC’s Jamie Fitzpatrick, for “You Could Believe in Nothing.”

His novel won the Fresh Fish Award, which is an award for an unpublished manuscript that’s become a real beacon for burgeoning talent in Newfoundland. The real goal of a first book is to show potential, and he scored that goal before the end of the first chapter.

Fitzpatrick’s language, wit, and honest portrayal of human beings dealing with love, loss, life, aging, family secrets and plain keeping our chins up is fearless, brisk and endearingly human. And his portrayal of St. John’s is refreshingly honest and spot-on, too. Also: the book is extremely witty and funny and a pleasure to read. It pokes a fun-yet-poignant stick at the mid-life crisis.

It’s a novel about a 41-year-old with a lot left to discover. His girlfriend has just walked out on him, and his half-brother has just waltzed back into his life, stirring up some family secrets, forcing Derek to recalibrate his understanding of everything and everyone around him, himself included.

 

Chad Pelley is a multi-award-winning writer from St. John’s, and the founder of Salty Ink.com. His first novel, “Away from Everywhere,” won the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council’s CBC Emerging Artist of the Year award, and was shortlisted for the 2010 ReLit Award and the Canadian Authors Association’s  Emerging Writer of the Year award. He has taken first and third place in previous Cuffer Prize competitions and his story “What the Difference Is” won second place in the Cuffer Prize 2011.

Organizations: CBC, The Telegram, Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council

Geographic location: Newfoundland, The Colony, Hollywood Coley Canada Bareneed

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