2013 a good year on the page

Chad Pelley
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Top picks from the publishing year

It’s been a great year for books, particularly books by big-name local authors. ‘
All across the country, when people speak of Newfoundland authors, the first names out of their mouths are “Lisa and the two Michaels,” meaning Lisa Moore, Michael Crummey, and Michael Winter. All three of these literary powerhouses released new work in 2013.

Lisa Moore’s novel, “Caught,” is arguably the Canadian book of the year.

Lisa’s novel, “Caught,” is arguably the Canadian book of the year. It was up for two of the country’s three major literary awards, and has everything a reader could want: pace, plot, first-rate characterization, and Moore’s penchant for sizzling sentence-level writing.

Her novel opens with a man escaping from prison, years after his incarceration for the biggest pot-smuggling operation in Newfoundland history, and follows this man as he tries to do it all over again. Readers are whisked along on an adventure full of the wild, brazen dreams of youth, complicated love and loose morals.

As for the Michaels, Michael Winter’s “Minister Without Portfolio” tells the story of a guilt-ridden man named Henry as he tries to rebuild his life (and a house in Renews) after a crushing breakup, and the sudden death of a friend he can too easily blame himself for.

It’s not long before Henry’s dedication to his friend extends beyond caring for this friend’s house to caring for his wife as well.

Like any Michael Winter book, his strength is his style. There is a calculated cadence and flow in these paragraphs that effortlessly seats readers in the story. Essentially, the novel is a character study of a man who’s been nicknamed a “Minister without Portfolio.” The term’s literal meaning is a politician with no specific responsibilities or causes. It was the last thing this friend said to him before dying, and Henry struggles with what it means, what his friend meant, and if it’s true.

Many readers who love and rightfully adore Michael Crummey’s novels do not seem to know he was a successful poet for years before publishing any fiction.

These same readers should know that Michael’s poetry is as accessible and delightfully readable as his fiction.

His new collection of poems, “Under the Keel,” is first in a decade, and was well worth the wait.

A single poem in this collection packs more punch than most poets can muster in an entire collection. The way he can affect a reader with such casual yet masterfully rendered language is a rare gift.

This is the kind of poetry you nod your head at while you read, line after line. These poems will register well with readers of all kinds because he tends to be conversational in his poetry, and that makes it personal, sure, but in a way that makes it very human and universal as well.

We see ourselves in many of these poems about youth, love, lust, loss, wonder, and the other things that bond us. And when you’re done with Crummey’s collection of poetry, try out an equally impressive offering from Carmelita McGrath, called “Escape Velocity.” She’s one of the province’s finest poets, ever, and this collection shines.

Speaking of collections, it’s been the year of the short story in Canada: Alice Munro won herself a Nobel peace prize, and the country’s most glamorous literary award, The Giller Prize, went to a collection of short stories called “Hellgoing.”

In terms of local books of short stories, as always, “The Cuffer Prize Anthology” has to make the list of the best books of the year. Each year, The Telegram and Creative Books put out a call for local writers to submit very short stories set in Newfoundland, and every year the resulting anthology gets stronger and stronger. Its 35 eclectic offerings include the winner of 2012’s Cuffer Prize, “Nancy Drew,” by Wanda Nolan.

Nolan’s writing shows remarkable restraint and sophistication; it’s a very clean piece of writing.

Another great collection of shorts this year came from the return of Ed Kavanagh. Ed’s new book of shorts is called “Strays,” and features “10 memorable stories that explore the lives of those who find themselves adrift.”

What good is a best-of list without mention of some dazzling debuts? This year’s most notable non-fiction release was firecracker Vicky Murphy’s “Motherfumbler.”

It’s the biggest dose of laugh-out-loud levity written by a modern mom that you’ll ever, ever find. Every too-true, overly earnest, and delightfully delivered line will shock a smile across your face, in the good way.

The other great debut of 2013 was Claire Wilkshire’s “Maxine.” This novel will have you laughing out loud and really rooting for her people.

Alongside the humour is a clean, crisp diction, that’ll make you feel for the novel’s well-crafted characters.

Most of the humour in this novel stems from the fact the heroine, Maxine, is delightfully neurotic, and placed in some funny-awkward scenarios we can all relate to. Maxine’s best friend has died, suddenly and unexpectedly, and it’s jolted Maxine into wanting change. It is essentially the story of a woman’s unexpected friendship with her kid neighbour, and her quest to write a novel (which isn’t going so well).  

Two more notable 2013 releases would have to be Wayne Johnston’s “The Son of a Certain Woman” and Mary Dalton’s “Hooking,” as each is notable for the bravery of its authors to enter new territory.

Dalton created her poems by hooking together the lines of other peoples’ poems: every line in every poem in “Hooking” is a line from a poem by, say, Sylvia Plath or Anne Simpson stitched into a line from, say, Al Purdy or T.S. Eliot, and so on.

As for Wayne’s new novel, it has to be a Canadian record that, since the inception of The Giller Prize, Johnston’s novels have always been nominated for the award.

His new one will please fans who enjoyed Wayne’s debut novel, “The Story of Bobby O’Malley.” Like his debut, his latest is full of religious satire, and focuses on the everyday familial struggles of a single family in St. John’s.

Unlike his first novel, this one treads into a very unique, taboo-rich territory, which serves up an unforgettable cast of characters, most notably the mother-son duo of Percy and Penelope. Percy was born with port wine stains covering his face, and with goofily large hands and feet.

As a result, he’s an outcast in his school and neighbourhood. This leads to some questionable longing for his mother’s affections, a woman to whom everyone else in town, men and women, are also desperately attracted.

One more novel suggestion comes from a fabulous local author more people need to know about: Nicole Lundrigan.

In the opening pages of Lundrigan’s fifth novel, “The Widow Tree,” three young friends stumble on a bag of buried treasure in a cornfield. What they find, while they’re supposed to be harvesting corn, is a bag of Roman coins.

Their discovery polarizes them. It could buy them a dream life, or it could buy them trouble. This is a richly rendered literary mystery with well-wrought characters, and each afflicted with complicated personal strifes.

As always with Nicole’s work, this is an emotionally intense study of strained relationships, but this time she’s embedded the mysteries of the human heart in a solid mystery.

It’s a fabulous fifth novel by an author more people ought to be reading.

And one last vital mention: “The Breakwater Book of Contemporary Poetry.” Al Pittman. Michael Crummey. Agnes Walsh. John Steffler. Tom Dawe. Patrick Warner. Mary Dalton. Ken Babstock. Richard Greene. Carmelita McGrath. You’re either quite familiar with these names, or you should be, hence this carefully curated and wonderfully packaged new anthology.

It was edited by two writers whom anyone in the know would cite as among the island’s finest poets, Mark Callanan and James Langer. This anthology is a celebration of Newfoundland’s vibrant and varied poetic voices.

Chad Pelley is an award-winning writer, as well as a musician and photographer, from St. John’s. His debut novel, “Away from Everywhere,” was a Coles bestseller, and a film adaptation in underway. His second novel, “Every Little Thing,” was released last March. Pelley is president of the Writers’ Alliance of Newfoundland and Labrador, and runs Saltyink.com, a book P. His newest project is “The Overcast,” an

alternative newspaper, and he plans to publish the first issue in February.

Organizations: Story of Bobby O’Malley, Alliance of Newfoundland and Labrador

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Renews, Canada Nobel

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