2014 – A Year in Reading

Illustration by Charlotte Runcie

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language. And next year’s words await another voice. And to make an end is to make a beginning.”  

T.S. Eliot,  (from: Little Gidding)

While I am definitely thinking about all of the great reading ahead in 2015, I very much wanted to share with you my favourite reads from 2014.


Lists are always subjective…I recognize this, but I read some truly wonderful books last year and I wanted to record these stand-outs. Maybe this list will help you discover some new reads, or prompt some interesting conversations; I hope it will do both!

The 5-Star Reads:


All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews. I read this book back in March. It’s still sitting with me, burrowed into my being, taking up space in my heart. How Toews gets into the grit of family – and does it so beautifully and with such humour – is continually and amazingly impressive to me. This is my top fiction read for 2014.

The Wars, by Timothy Findley.  A work of classic (contemporary) Canadian fiction. Blew. My. Mind. This is a 200-page epic – how did Findley do that? The discussions in an online book group really added to the read for me too.

Sweetland, by Michael Crummey. I LOVE MICHAEL CRUMMEY! Crummey carries the better part of the second part of this novel with only one character. How?! Because he’s the master! That’s how.

Fifth Business, by Robertson Davies. Another contemporary classic Canadian book, this was an awesome reread. As with The Wars, mentioned above, this novel is fantastic, and benefited from some really wonderful discussions with an online book group.

* The Transcriptionist, by Amy Rowland. I found this debut novel to be fantastic. Rowland has done a tremendous job giving us fully realized worlds – both the inner and outer lives of main character, Lena. I also felt this new novel to be different – a bit of a new story, that reminded me of nothing else I have ever read. It’s very well-written and well imagined.

The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey. I just really like this novel. This was a reread for me – I loved it on first reading in 2013. At the beginning of 2014, I reread this novel because one of my book groups was reading it. The Snow Child held up wonderfully! This is a perfect winter read: it’s moody and lovely and a bit of a fairy tale for adults.

Winter Sport: Poems, by Priscila Uppal. I really enjoyed this collection. I mean… who knew you could create such compelling poems about winter events at the Olympics? Perhaps I really hadn’t actually thought about it – but I am so glad to have read this wonderful collection from Uppal.

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5-Star Nonfiction:

The Empathy Exams: Essays, by Leslie Jamison. I really loved the way Jamison wove some fairly different topics together through the theme of empathy. This book is my favourite nonfiction read of 2014.

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert. This is just a damn good book. Smart and interesting, it also allows the reader to be a bit of an armchair traveller as we go with Kolbert on her research missions.

Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened, by Allie Brosh. I loved this book right into my heart. I loved it hard. Brosh is so open about her depression, but she’s also – particularly if you are a dog-owner – laugh-out-loud funny.

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4-Star Reads, Worth Honourable Mentions:


* Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent. Overall, I found this to be a very impressive debut novel from Australian Hannah Kent (who has been mentored by Geraldine Brooks). It makes a lot of sense, this pairing. Both tell great historically-based tales and perform, it seems, fairly monumental research. There’s also an effective simplicity to their prose. Kent really brought Iceland to life in this novel too, something I really enjoyed.

* The Miniaturist, by Jessie Burton. This is another wonderful debut novel, and another work of enjoyable historical fiction. At the time of reading this book, I was in dire need of an excellent, escapist read – The Miniaturist completely fit the bill. Burton’s research appears to be solid, and gaining a fictional perspective on Amsterdam in the late-1600s was a true reading pleasure.

* We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler. This was such an interesting and different read. I loved the premise, and Fowler’s style. I have also realized that this should maybe be bumped up to a 5-star rating. The novel has sat with me for quite a while now, and I find myself thinking about it often.

* The Lobster Kings, by Alexi Zentner. This was an interesting and evocative read – at times I could feel and smell the cold, wet sea. This will be a great summer, or vacation, read for many people.

* Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Adichie’s writing is great – she’s evocative and engaging. Everything is quite vivid, and I could easily see, hear and feel the places she describes. If I had not read any of Adichie’s previous novels…this probably would have been a 5-star read for me. In Americanah, I found quite few similarities to her other books – similar characters, similar situations, similar challenges. So while the writing was great, I felt like she had recycled some stuff. If you have not read Adichie before, this is definitely the book I recommend I recommend as your starting point.

* Curiosity, by Joan Thomas. Thomas did a great job evoking the time and the setting, and conveying the challenges Mary Anning faced. There is a line in the story that really stood out to me: “Oh, she’s a history and a mystery, our Mary.” While i know only a little bit about Anning, I hope that Thomas’ fictional portrayal is embraced and enjoyed by many readers. Anning did not receive the recognition she deserved in her lifetime, given the divide between men and women, as well as the class divide, and Anning’s lack of formal education and training. So, this book is definitely a tribute to a remarkable woman, and I am so glad I finally took the opportunity to read it!

* The Magician’s Assistant, by Ann Patchett. Sometimes you read the exact right book at the exact right time. That happened for me with The Magician’s Assistant. Patchett handles the themes of love, loss, grief, family dynamics, how the past defines a person, and improbable relationships so wonderfully. There is a grace to her writing that pulls me in and, at moments, stops me in my tracks as I admire her prose. The ending was a bit of a disappointment, so I couldn’t (didn’t) give this a full 5-stars.

* can’t and won’t: (stories), by Lydia Davis. All I can say about this collection is it is quirktastically wonderful. I had a lot of fun reading this book, and was pleased to find another short story author I enjoy. (I was already a fan of Davis’ translation work. Her edition of Madame Bovary is excellent!!)

* Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley. Such a fascinating read – and probably not what you think it’s going to be if you are only basing your opinion on film or stage adaptations. I had some issues with certain points in the story feeling like padding. Shelley is also a bit clunky with her writing – but she was so young when she wrote this novel. It’s quite an accomplishment for a 19yo’s first book – a story that has endured and been loved for such a long time. This specific edition the one I recommend. I enjoyed Elizabeth Kostova‘s introduction a lot. (Which I read it after I finished the novel itself, and it did add to my enjoyment of the story.)

* Mãn, by Kim Thúy. The partnership of author Kim Thúy and translator Shiela Fischman is truly a thing of beauty! They are both so wonderfully talented! Thúy’s prose is so rich and nuanced, and it often feels lyrical when I am reading her books. (I felt the same way about Ru.) I enjoy how Thúy plays with memory in her writing, and how she is able to generate visceral responses.

* The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride. This novel really grabbed my attention – I found it so interesting and creative, and it got me very curious about the real events upon which it is based. As well, the style of the story is hugely entertaining. McBride is a funny guy, I think. And while this novel is dealing with a serious subject, I loved the moments of levity included. I think this is a novel that can be appreciated by many readers.

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4-Star Nonfiction:

* The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese, by Michael Paterniti. What a great read! I enjoyed this book so much and loved that, while the story really is about a very special cheese, it’s a book about many different things in life – things we all wonder about, and struggle with: belonging, family, friendship, our path in life, our own truths, storytelling, love. Some big subjects, to be sure, but Paterniti does a great job.

* Saint-Exupéry, by Stacy Schiff. Schiff did a great job with this biography of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the man most well-know for writing The Little Prince. It was clear to me that extreme care was taken with the research for the book. Saint-Exupéry was an interesting and odd fellow. He was emotionally needy, and immature in many, many ways. But he was also, it seems, quite intelligent. This was a great look at his life.

* Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World, by Matthew Goodman. This was such an enjoyable story – and a perfect book to read during the summer. I really liked being an armchair traveler with Bly and Bisland on their around-the-world adventures. Goodman did a great job presenting the race, and I appreciated that he also included historical context and sidebars for what was going on in the world in 1889 and 1890. As well, Goodman provided brief looks at the women’s lives post-race.

* Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital, by Sheri Fink. An absolutely fascinating and challenging read. I am already quite interested in bioethics and, in particular, how ethics are used (or not) in hospital settings, so Fink’s book is a great complement to this field of study and research. There were so many infuriating moments during this read – not because of Fink or her writing, but rather because of what went on during Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. I tend to believe i am a fairly upbeat/optimistic person, and though I have curmudgeony moments, I also tend to believe the best about people. And yet…I was continually angered by the behaviours shown in Fink’s investigations. As Fink notes in the book, it is very hard for most of us to know how we would respond or act under the circumstances faced in New Orleans. It was a many layered disaster, but I hope people have learned, and continue to learn, from what was endured.

* Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune, by Bill Dedman. During the read, many worries surfaced over whether Huguette Clark’s caregivers and advisors were taking advantage of her financial generosity. I don’t want to give away too much and spoil it for those who may read it, but I will say that I liked how Bill Dedman presented the information. As a reader I went back and forth on the idea, as circumstances were developing, trying to decide what I truly believed. I kept feeling as though Huguette Clark would make for an awesome subject to fictionalize, the way Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald or The Paris Wife did, with the lives of Zelda Fitzgerald and Hadley Hemingway. I really loved Dedman’s biography of Clark, but there are many unknowables not addressed in the Empty Mansions, and I think it could be fun to fill in the spaces, imagining the whys and hows. Empty Mansions has been optioned for film rights – I think with the right team, this could make for a wonderful adaptation.

* The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky and Death, by Colson Whitehead. I may have curmudgeonly predispositions sometimes. I may have a literary crush on Colson Whitehead. Whatever. I enjoyed this. The last bit of the book wasn’t quite as strong as the rest, and it seemed abrupt at the end. But I had a lot of fun reading it. It’s a great summer read, or a bit of an escapist read for any time, really.

* Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, by Lawrence Wright. The narrative is compelling and utterly fascinating. And not just a little bit freaky. Scientology is a world that seems so out there, to me (which would probably please L. Ron Hubbard to no end). I stumble – wondering how seemingly intelligent people can end up so deeply involved in practices and beliefs that don’t make sense. Wright makes a lovely case for the fact that there is – of course – faith required in all religions, and all religions employ magic or unnatural events that can’t be explained…but with scientology, that faith seems mistakenly placed. And wright offers plenty of evidence to support this concern. Interesting to note that a documentary adaptation of this book is completed, and HBO has a team of 160 lawyers prepared and ready for the notoriously litigious ‘church’.


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My Year In Reading – Stats:

books read: 99
pages read: 34039
international: 30
canadian: 25
american: 44
in translation: 8 (boo!)
fiction: 76
nonfiction: 23
female author: 63
male author: 36
longest read: 826p. (New York)
shortest read: 122p. (Winter Sport: Poems)
average pages: 344p.
publication dates:
– 79 of the books <2000
– 3 in 1800s
– 3 between 1900 and 1940
– 14 between 1940s – 1990s

1-star: 3
2-star: 27
3-star: 28
4-star: 31
5-star: 10


I am not a planner with my reading. I very much read by mood. Sometimes I wish I could create a reading plan and stick with it, but it just never works for me.

In 2014, I did pay attention to reading more women authors, as part of the Year of Reading Women, which was declared for 2014. And I also did focus, for a while, on reading the 2014 longlist for the Women’s Prize in Fiction. I have managed 10/20, so far!

One thing I did notice, in reviewing my year in reading, was an unintentional focus on empathy as a theme. I know many believe that reading helps develop and further one’s empathy, but I actually had many books dealing specifically with the idea of empathy. So that was very cool to notice.


So there you have it – the best of my year in reading!! I am sorry this is such a long post – though my hope is you will discover some new reads of great interest.

Please let me know about your favourite reads in 2014 – I would love to hear your recommendations. (And I would also like to hear if you are a mood reader, or plan your reading. Heck, just talk to me about your reading – book talk is rarely bad talk!)


Happy New Year, and may 2015 be filled with lots of wonderful books!


Illustration: Jane Mount, My Ideal Bookshelf


My Favourite Reads of 2013


“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language. And next year’s words await another voice. And to make an end is to make a beginning.”

~ T.S. Eliot, (from: Little Gidding)

While I am definitely thinking about all of the great reading ahead in 2014, I very much wanted to share with you my favourite reads from 2013. Lists are always subjective…I recognize this, but I read some truly wonderful books last year and I wanted to record these stand-outs. Maybe this list will help you discover some new reads, or prompt some interesting conversations; I hope it will do both!

I have broken out my list into four categories (but the books are not listed in any particular order):

  • Literary Fiction Published in 2013;
  • Contemporary Literature.;
  • Classic Literature; and
  • Nonfiction.

I. Literary Fiction Published in 2013:

1. Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, by Therese Anne Fowler. This is a wonderful novel of historical fiction. It is well-researched and Fowler has beautifully imagined (and, maybe, at moments recreated certain aspects of) the life of Zelda Fitzgerald, beyond just the wife of the famous/infamous F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fowler show Zelda forging her own identity while fighting her own personal demons and Scott’s, too? With brilliant insight and imagination, Therese Anne Fowler brings us Zelda’s irresistible story as she herself might have told it.

2. Kicking the Sky, by Anthony De Sa. I read this book in October, 2013, and shared my thoughts at that time. Three months later, I still find myself thinking about this story and wowed by De Sa’s talent.

3. The Flamethrowers, by Rachel Kushner. This was my first time reading Kushner, and she blew my mind. I loved everything about this novel – it was tough, edgy and sensitive.

4. The Painted Girls, by Cathy Marie Buchanan.  This novel ticked all the boxes for me: ballet, belle époque Paris, Degas, Zola, La Figaro.  While fictional, I loved the way Buchanan wove the history of the real events throughout this story. I read the book quickly – two very late-night reading sessions that kept me up way, waaaay past bedtime. The subsequent daytime sleepiness was well worth it though.

5. The Crooked Maid, by Dan Vyleta. The Crooked Maid is many things – historical fiction, mystery, literary fiction, homage. Vyleta’s doing a lot with this novel, which could be a worry – but it’s very good, and Vyleta can really write. His ability with description is pretty stellar.

6. The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert. The only word that keeps rolling around in my brain, concerning Gilbert’s new novel, is: LUSH – this book is so lush and enveloping. It was pretty delightful from start to finish. And if you know me, you know I don’t really use the word ‘delightful’! This novel may have been my most surprising read this year.

II. Contemporary Literature:

1. Indian Horse (2012), by Richard Wagamese. I managed a 5 word review, after I read this novel in February, 2013: “Stunning. Beautiful. Heartbreaking. Required reading.” Wagamese’s book affected me very deeply. For all its heartbreak, it was also very much a hopeful story. This is a book that can, and should, be read by everyone.

2. The Wreckage (2005), by Michael Crummey. My love for Michael Crummey’s writing runs fairly deep – I think he is brilliant. He wowed me again with The Wreckage. Reading this novel made me want to spend some time in Crummey’s brain…or, at the very least, take a writing class with him.

3. Sweetness in the Belly (2005), by Camilla Gibb. I read this book for the third time in 2013, and man, it’s great!  Gibb is a fantastic storyteller and through her prose I could truly see, hear, smell and touch the places she created in this book – Lilly’s life in Harare, and her life in London were both so vivid.

4. A Complicated Kindness,(2004) by Miriam Toews.  Another third reading. (2013 was unusual in that regard, I don’t generally re-read much at all.) I LOVE THIS NOVEL SO HARD!  I think this books gets better with each reading. The way Toews captures the voice of 16-year-old Nomi is incredible. Sure she’s wise and precocious, but she’s also still a kid and Toews gets her voice so right.

5. The Round House, (2012) by Louise Erdrich. What a great novel! It’s evocative and hard but using a 13-year-old boy as the protagonist adds a layer of nuance that would be missing in an older main character (I think – given the arc of Joe’s story.) I really loved Erdrich’s perspective on family, love and justice. The supporting characters are all very interesting and well developed, and served to make this a very tightly woven novel.

6. Arcadia (2011), by Lauren Groff. I loved Arcadia a lot. i viscerally responded to the settings and people Groff created here, and i am kinda floored by Groff’s talent. I was totally caught up in Bit’s life. I loved the timeline and following him along life’s path.

7. The Snow Child (2012), by Eowyn Ivey. What a fantastic debut novel! It’s a magical and sometimes heartbreaking story, perfectly set for a wonderful winter read.

8. The Savage Detectives (1998), by Roberto Bolaño.


bow-lah-nyoh-verr;  noun

1. weird physical and emotional effects caused by reading the works of Roberto Bolaño. symptoms may include: confusion; anger; awe; dry eyes; headache; idolatry; exhaustion; the strong desire for alcohol, drugs or both; feelings of filthiness and the need to shower to remove the grit; wonder; sadness; curiosity; the unexplained urge to pimp out a 1970s impala. symptoms may ease with time or they may worsen.

2. a thing that has survived from the past.

III. Classic Literature:

1. Two Solitudes (1945), by Hugh MacLennan. What a dense, wonderful important novel. This was a re-read for me, but I had lost so many details over the years it was like a new experience. Following the strands of story arcs concerning ‘two solitudes’, through this novel was amazing. MacLennan wrote about so many important issues and brought heart and humanity to the telling. Certainly a canadian classic, and a book that should continue to resonate for generations to come.

2. Persuasion (1818), by Jane Austen. Late in the book there is this quote:

“Minutiae which, even with every advantage of taste and delicacy which good Mrs. Musgrove could not give, could be properly interesting only to the principals.”

And when I read that line it made me think of the details in Austen’s writing and how, in fact, the minutiae present with her manner of storytelling sucks me right in every time. But…with Persuasion I feel this is very much a novel of Anne’s restraint and resolve, as much as it is a tale of different persuasions. So given Anne’s nature, though we aren’t privy to her inner workings in great detail, I was seeing everything through her eyes and completely immersed in her world.

3. The Grapes of Wrath (1939), by John Steinbeck. Oh for the love of humanity — is there any family as hard done by as the Joads??? The Joads’ humanity and hope, in the face of utter hopelessness, is incredible. And the way Steinbeck conveyed this balance throughout the novel is brilliant. The man was a genius. But i don’t really know what I could possibly say here that hasn’t been said earlier, and better, by others? Read it! Do it!

4. To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), by Harper Lee. I made it all the way to page 317 without crying…even though I felt like I could a couple of times earlier on. But page 317 did me in, the bastard! Heh. (I am not really a person who cries while reading – though Grapes of Wrath last week (see above) and this book tonight are turning me into a liarface on this front.) Now, I am all teary and soppy, and I ugly-cried and I got the hiccups and I have to try and write something here that conveys how brilliant this book is to me. So how about this: Harper Lee is so freaking amazing she will make you ugly-cry!  Yeah? Cool!

5. Twelfth Night (1602), by William Shakespeare. A re-read (again with the re-reads!!) after many years, and still as great as I remember it to be. Shakespeare can be lots of fun.

IV. Nonfiction:

1. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (2012), by Susan Cain. I am an introvert. But I am not shy. So I have been trying to explain the difference to people for years. Instead, I should just carry around copies of Cain’s great, great book. Being an introvert and having a good and thoughtful understanding of what this means, I still learned a lot from Quiet. Cain’s research seems very well done (and so interesting), and her style is very engaging. I think this is one of those books that everyone should read as it will likely help open some eyes and minds, and allow people to better understand and respect one another.

2. The Truth About Luck (2013), by Iain Reid. Sometimes you read a book and it becomes something you connect with so personally and deeply that it becomes nearly impossible to detach from it to assess or review it constructively. That happened with this amazing book by Iain Reid. But, I  thought about it for quite a while, and i think – my personal attachment aside – the strength of Reid’s writing, the flow of the story, and his ability to make us care about what he and his grandma are up to make this book totally worth its 5-star rating. (I wrote about the book in more detail, in March, 2013.)

3. Belonging: Home Away From Home (2003), by Isabel Huggan. This book is wonderful – and was my #1 favourite read for 2013! The majority of the book is a memoir of place – the search for home. Not just the physical: the location and the structure, but also the feeling. Feeling one is home is a big deal. At least it is to me, anyway. And it’s something I have been hoping to find my whole life.  Huggan gives voice to this search, this sensation, and does it so beautifully and naturally. There’s a lot of excavation of memory that goes on in the telling, and it felt very much like I was just listening to Huggan in conversation. Also contained in the story are small snippets of Huggan’s writing life, something I really appreciated.

4. The Arctic Grail (1988), by Pierre Berton. What a great book!!! Pierre Berton is an excellent storyteller and, it would seem, he is also an impeccable researcher. But that’s not really a surprise!! Shamefully, this is the first time I have read a Berton book. OOPS!! He definitely came up during my time in elementary and secondary school, but we were never actually given any of his books to read/study. Weird, right?? I was so amazed by the overwhelming lack of preparedness with which the majority of the expeditions undertook their quests. The British expeditions were stubbornly and fatally wrong-headed in not learning from their inuit contacts, and judging the Inuit, while useful to them, ‘savages’ and ‘unintelligent’.

5. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (1997), by David Foster Wallace.  Each essay in this collection has its own strength (and each is fairly brilliant), but overwhelmingly evident, when taken as a whole, is DFW’s ability to assess and read people, and analyze a situation or instance in the context of a bigger picture. It’s uncanny, really.

6. My Ideal Bookshelf (2013), by Jane Mount & Thessaly La Force. Or, as I like to call it, porn for book lovers! This is just a beautiful book to look at, and it also gives great satisfaction on the ‘snooping the bookshelves’ front.

7. Bottomfeeder (2007), by Taras Grescoe.  LOVE THIS BOOK!! Seriously; it’s fantastic. It should be required reading for everyone. Grescoe has a wonderful ability with delivering the facts and science in a very engaging and approachable way. The structure of the book is fantastic: each chapter is like a little case study. A species is examined – the supply, the demand, the problems and the science – and explained. Grescoe travelled the world while researching this book and is clearly very passionate about the seafood industry, and about the choices he makes for his diet.


So, there you have it – all of the absolute stand out books I had the pleasure of reading in 2013.  Altogether, I read 121 books last year. This was definitely not usual. Generally, I average somewhere between 60 and 70 books per year. I am not really clear on what happened in 2013 to cause my pace to double, but it was quite the adventure and I will look back fondly on ‘that one crazy reading year’.

A few stats:

  • Total books read: 121
  • Total pages read: 41,839
  • 71 female writers
  • 49 male writers
  • And 1 collection featuring male and female writers
  • 12 works in translation

You can view my full reading list on Goodreads.

Thank you for visiting Literal Life, and continuing to be interested in the books I am reading and talking about.

As always – please feel free to share your favourite reads with me – I would love to hear about them

Happy reading!

No Gentle Segue…

I have taken a break from the daily blogging – recovering from the Olympic adventure & working on some fiction writing – but jump back into the blogosphere today. There really isn’t a gentle segue as I move into my prime areas of interest: writing and reading. If I couldn’t have my books and, well, words really as an outlet, I would be a mess of a woman. It seems to be a genetic trait as many in my family are also voracious readers and there are several writers in the fold.

My latest undertaking is an on-line book group at Goodreads. This social networking web site is to books and writers what MySpace is to music and musicians. I have been using Goodreads for about one year now and I love it.

The Goodreads group I have created, along with my friend Nathaniel, is called Bookish. We hope it becomes a wonderful forum to exchange great book ideas and news.

In other book-related happenings today, the Canadian Booksellers Association (CBA) has announced the nominees for the 2010 Libris Awards. In contention for Fiction Book of the Year are: Galore by Michael Crummey, The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon and The Bishop’s Man by Linden MacIntyre.

I read Galore in December, 2009 and it was my favourite book of last year. It is an epic novel set in Newfoundland. These two ideas are enough to earn my interest, but the incredible story and the poetic language Crummey has crafted turned me into a drooling faniac. Stephen Galloway, author of The Cellist of Sarajevo wrote this review of Galore for The Globe and Mail (spoilers included):

“Galore opens with a group of people in the fictional Newfoundland outport of Paradise Deep, slaughtering a whale that has inexplicably beached itself. Young Mary Tryphena watches as the body of a man, pale and stinking, is cut from the whale’s belly. Her grandmother, an old crone named Devine’s Widow, defies the town oligarch, King-me Sellers, and has the man carried up the hill to prepare him for a proper burial.

The man, it turns out, is in fact alive, though he cannot speak a word. In the spirit of compromise and illiteracy, he is given the name of Judah. He never does utter a word, and he never loses his stench, but his presence ignites a spark in Paradise Deep that sustains the story for multiple generations.

Crummey’s prose is flawless. He has a way with the colloquial that escapes many writers, an ability to make the idiosyncrasies of local speech an asset in creating an image in the reader’s mind.

“They’d scaled the whale’s back to drive a stake with a maul, hoping to strike some vital organ, and managed to set it bleeding steadily. They saw nothing for it then but to wait for God to do His work and they sat with their splitting knives and fish prongs, with their dip nets and axes and saws and barrels. The wind was razor sharp and Mary Tryphena lost all feeling in her hands and feet and her little arse went dunch on the sand while the whale expired in imperceptible increments. Jabez Trim waded out at intervals to prod at the fat saucer of an eye and report back on God’s progress.”

I have, for example, never heard the word “dunch” in my life. But still I know what it means, and have even from time to time felt it in my own rear side. There are writers who can send you scowling for a dictionary, and writers who throw you laughing into language. I went to the dictionary only because of this review, and “dunch” wasn’t there. It doesn’t need to be.

I believe that books, or at least good books, have a voice. I’m not talking about narrators or characters or that sort of thing; what I mean is that the book itself feels alive and it has a personality and sound all of its own, independent of whatever other stylistic devices are at play within its pages. In this respect, Galore succeeds brilliantly. It’s a book that will live in the minds of readers long after they’ve turned the final page.

Where Crummey’s first two novels took one or more characters and placed them in a historical context that allowed readers to see both the characters and Newfoundland, which is how most historical novels work, Galore achieves a far more difficult effect. The characters, plot and setting have been fused, in that this book isn’t so much about the people and the events and places that affect them as it is the folkloric sum of Newfoundland, and the characters, as individual and real and compelling as they are, are, for all their strangeness, archetypes, an odd and wonderful mash of biblical and pagan touchstones. It’s an incredibly difficult task to make characters such as these work as human beings as well as elements of folklore, and Crummey does it with as much skill and grace as Gabriel Garcia Márquez does in One Hundred Years of Solitude , a novel very much the forebear of this book.

We eventually follow the descendents of young Mary Tryphena through the years, watch as Paradise Deep flourishes and flounders, see the ripples of events that happened years before, see history repeat and morph and repeat again. In Galore , the ghosts are real and the real people live as ghosts. Things that shouldn’t happen do. You could, I suppose, call the book a sort of magic realism, though I’m not sure if that doesn’t confine it in a way I’m not willing to do. There’s something about the term “magic realism” that suggests that magic isn’t real, and besides that, the magic that takes place in Paradise Deep isn’t really magic, it’s simply a part of the known world, like gravity or rainfall.

We have, in Canada, a handful of writers who are able, in the minds of readers, to define a place. While I’ve never lived in, or in some cases been to, the Miramichi, Comox Valley, Cape Breton or Montreal, I’ve read David Adams Richards, Jack Hodgins, Alistair MacLeod and Mordecai Richler. As a result, those places live as vividly in my imagination as many places in which I’ve spent more time and about which I know more factually. Perhaps even more vividly.

Michael Crummey is without a doubt one of Canada’s finest writers. I won’t thrust the mantle of the voice of Newfoundland on him, as he may well in the future write about other parts of the world, and I will be happy, as a reader, to follow him there. Throw a rock on the Rock, burning or not, and you’ll hit a good writer (please don’t actually throw rocks at writers, or anyone). But the Newfoundland that exists in my imagination – the one that may not be real and if it ever was real likely doesn’t exist today – smells and tastes and sounds like Galore.”

I highly recommend Galore and sincerely cheer for Crummey to triumph and win the Libris Award.