Ten – Gretchen McNeil

There are enough diversions and red herrings in Gretchen McNeil’s YA mystery Ten to tenkeep attentive readers on their toes. The straight-forward narrative and familiar characters (the mean girl, the jock, the good girl) will certainly be appealing to readers of a certain age, but there isn’t much on offer here for anyone else.

Meg and her best friend, Minnie, have been invited to a weekend party on Henry Island, one of the islands off the coast of Washington State. Meg’s not really the party type and she’s already anxious about the fact that they’ve “lied to [their] parents and gone to a house party in the middle of nowhere.”

The party comes on the heels of the discovery of a gruesome discovery at a rival high school – “the charred remains of a body found in the locker room.”

When the girls arrive (by ferry), they find the rest of the party guests: T.J. Fletcher, hunky football player and Meg’s not-so-secret-crush; Ben, the new boyfriend of their hostess, Jessica (who never shows us); Gunner, surfer dude; Kumiko, Gunner’s new girlfriend (Minnie was his former girlfriend); Vivian, seemingly sensible; Lori, random girl; Nathan and Kenny; token Neanderthals.

The festivities start with a few beers and then things start to go whacky. First of all, Ben almost dies from anaphylactic shock. Then, the group watches a strange and disturbing video that claims : “Vengeance is Mine.”  Someone tosses the room Meg and Minnie are sharing. Meg finds a strange diary. And then, one by one, people start to die.

Alliances and nerves start to fray as the teens realize they are cut off from civilization (no cell service or Internet) and that no one knows where they are. The most they can hope for is that Jessica arrives, as planned, on the next ferry.

McNeil keeps the action ticking along. The third person narrative is focused pretty tightly on Meg – but who hasn’t heard of an unreliable narrator before? There’s not a lot of opportunity for character development, not that it really matters. I think most teens will enjoy the straight ahead action, the creepy deaths and Meg’s valiant attempt to figure out who the killer is before it’s too late.

For the record: I didn’t get it right.

 

Last Minute Gift Ideas

Listen here.

Okay, I admit it, with one exception, I haven’t even started Christmas shopping yet.  I think I must need a little bit of snow to get me in the holiday spirit.  That said, I thought I would offer up some gift suggestions for the book lovers out there.

For the teenage boy on your list:

winger-smithWinger by Andrew Smith

Winger is the story of fourteen-year-old Ryan Dean West, a super smart kid who attends a ritzy boarding school in Oregon. Now, although I am neither 14 nor a boy, I think I can say – based on my day-to-day dealings with them that Smith accurately captures the vernacular of the species.  Ryan Dean is so smart he’s already in Grade 11. He’s a good kid, but he’s been moved into Opportunity Hall, the residence where the kids who have gotten into trouble live. (He got caught hacking a teacher’s cell phone so he could make long distance calls.) He places rugby, thus his nickname) and is in love with his best friend, Annie. Smith’s book is filled with all sorts of cartoons that Ryan Dean draws as a way of sorting out all his feelings about just about everything. This book won loads of awards, but I should point out that there is loads of swearing (although Ryan Dean would never swear out loud, he’s writing so he can) and sex talk (although nothing super explicit.) More importantly, Ryan Dean is kind and sensitive and is just trying to do the right thing, even when he does exactly the wrong thing. Beautifully written, well-drawn characters. This is a winner.

For the teenage girl on your list:

Vanishing Girls – Lauren Oliver vanishing-girls-jacket

Lauren is a well-known YA author. She penned the Delirium series, but Vanishing Girls is my first book by her. This is the story of sisters Nick and Dara and the aftermath of a terrible accident. It’s told via dual first person narratives, police reports, diary entries, illustrations etc  so there’s a bit of a multi-genre approach.  Nick and Dara are super close, but they are also very different and the novel tracks their relationship which post-accident has hit a rather bumpy patch. Dara has actually disappeared. Then, with the disappearance of another young girl, Oliver takes us down a full-on thrill-ride. It’s got a little something for everyone, really: mystery, suspense, a love-interest, family drama. And it’s well-written to boot. No real caveats for this one although it’s definitely for older teens.

achildofbooksFor the young reader on your list:

I recently picked up a beautiful book at Indigo – not really as a gift, but I think I know who I will give it to. It’s called A Child of Books and it’s by Oliver Jeffers and Sam Winston. It’s a whimsical book about the love of books – so you can see how it would appeal to me. A little girl  takes the hand of a little boy and they wander together through their imaginations which are fed, of course, by books and words. It’s so pretty and positive. Maybe it’s the gift I will give to myself this year.

 

For the reader who’d appreciate a book by a local author: riel

I would suggest picking up Riel Nason’s sophomore effort, All The Things We Leave Behind. Readers might remember Riel’s first novel The Town That Drowned and her second novel is also very evocative of small-town NB circa 1970s. In this novel 17-year-old Violet has been left to look after the family business – antiques sold out of a purple barn up past Fredericton. I actually met Riel before she became a novelist – she was actually in the antiques business and so I worked with her because of my job with The Canadian Antiques Roadshow. Anyway, in this story, Vi’s older brother Bliss is missing and her parents have gone looking for him. This novel is a little darker than The Town That Drowned, but it will be  wonderfully familiar to anyone who has spent any time upriver.  Older teens could certainly read it, too.

567For anyone who likes poetry:

I can’t claim to understand the poems, but if you like poetry and you want a challenge – check out Robert Moore’s latest collection, Based on Actual Events. You might need to read it with a dictionary close by – but even without one, you’ll probably get some of Bob’s dry wit. For those of you who don’t know, Bob is a prof at UNBSJ and I am guessing you can pick up a copy of Based on Actual Events at Tuck, the story his wife Judith Mackin owns.

 

 

For those who like a suspenseful read: lastsept

The Last September by Nina de Gramont

This would be a great gift to give to someone who likes suspense with a little meat on its bones because it’s not actually a suspense thriller – even though it sort of reads like one. It’s the story of Brett who falls in love with her best friend Eli’s older brother, Charlie.  When Charlie is murdered  – no a spoiler – we learn Charlie is dead by the end of the first sentence, Gramont spins the story back in time to let us discover how Brett’s love story unfold. Our book club had a great time debating this one – especially when there was some dissention over whodunit. I actually wrote to the author for clarification and she wrote me back, too. It’s a great little book for a stormy winter afternoon.

 

2016adventcalendar_3Finally, plan for next year and order:

The Short Story Advent Calendar – I ordered this for my son this year. It’s a box of short stories you open one at a time on the days leading up to Christmas. Really cool.  And Canadian!

Order early, though

Happy holidays and happy reading!

Winger – Andrew Smith

It is so much easier for me to read YA books that are geared for girls, but since it’s often the boys who are reluctant readers in my classes, I really make an effort to buy and read books I think might appeal to them. Andrew Smith’s book Winger is one book which has garnered copious praise – and it is definitely a book I can highly recommend to those boys who say they don’t like to read.

Ryan Dean West attends a private school called Pine Mountain in Oregon. He’s in Grade Eleven winger-smitheven though he’s only fourteen. He’s super smart. He’s also a talented artist (many of his drawings, cartoons and graphs are included in this novel) and he’s also a terrific rugby player. His nickname, “Winger”, comes from the position he plays on the team.

But despite a whole list of things in Ryan Dean’s plus column, there’s a few things on the negative side. For one, this year he’s living in Opportunity Hall, O-Hall, where they stuck him “after they caught me hacking a cell phone account so I could make undetected, untraceable free calls.” Living in O-Hall sucks for two reasons: 1. Ryan Dean isn’t living with his two best friends Seanie and J.P. and 2. His new roomie is Chas Becker “a friendless jerk who navigated the seas of high school with his rudder fixed on a steady course of intimidation and cruelty.”

The one thing in Ryan West’s life that is both blessing a curse is Annie Altman.  Annie is also in grade eleven, but she’s sixteen. She’s Ryan Dean’s best friend, but he is also desperately in love with her.

…most people would think there couldn’t possibly be anything between us beyond a noticeable degree of friendship, even if I did think she was smoking hot in an alluring and mature “naughty babysitter” kind of way

This year at Pine Mountain turns out to be a year of firsts for Ryan Dean, but it is also a year when he makes a lot of mistakes. He capitulates to teen pressure and drinks for the first time. He gets into fist fights. He makes out with another guy’s girlfriend. But through it all, he remains self-deprecating. In his words: “I am such a loser.”

Ryan Dean is just one of the many lovely things about Smith’s book. I am not a fourteen-year-old-boy, nor have I ever been, but Ryan Dean’s voice feels authentic to me. He is constantly walking that fine line between making a smart choice and doing something he knows he shouldn’t. His narrative is filled with inappropriate talk about sex (just about every girl/woman he encounters makes his acute sexual radar) and expletives which he only ever uses “in writing, and occasionally in silent prayer.”

Winger is filled with laugh-out-loud moments – mostly due to inappropriate sex-talk, but also really lovely moments between Annie and Ryan Dean and Ryan Dean and Joey, another guy on the rugby team who also happens to be gay.

You couldn’t pay me to be a teenager today. But spending time with them is always a delight, even when they break my heart.

Highly recommended.

26 Letters – Ross DeMerchant

I am not going to ‘review’ Ross DeMerchant’s book 26 Letters, so much as tell you about it26letters and perhaps share some of my own memories. The reason is because Ross is my cousin and I likely wouldn’t have ever read this book ( which is part memoir, part self-help, part spiritual)  if not for that fact.

My dad, Edgar, was the youngest of four. He had three older sisters: Alice, Dorothy and Barbie. There was eleven years between Barbie, the youngest daughter,  and my dad, which meant that most of my cousins were a lot older than my brothers and me. They also didn’t live near us when we were growing up, so unless we went back to my dad’s home town we didn’t really get to see them very much.

seven

L-R: My grandmother, Muriel; I am not sure who the lady is just behind Grammy; my Aunt Barbie, with her arms around my dad; Aunt Alice; Aunt Dorothy. I am going to say this is the mid-forties as my dad was born in 1937.

 

My father grew up near a really small town about four hours up the St. John River from where I now live.  Ross explains that “On one side of the river was one community called Perth. On the other side of the river was another community called Andover. Obviously, the two communities became joined by a hyphen, making it one town called Perth-Andover.”

I always remember thinking of it as Perth and (wait for it) over. Ha.Ha.

My dad grew up just outside of Perth-Andover on a farm in South Tilley. Although I am not sure of the history of the exchange, the farm came to be in the hands of my Aunt Barbie and Uncle Bernard and so that is where Ross and his siblings Douglas, Diane, Mark  and Paul grew up.  Mark kept the farm running until 2013, but it’s a tough business and he just couldn’t do it anymore, so he sold it.

When I was a kid, going to the farm was magical. Back then it was hundreds of acres (they farmed potatoes) and I have very specific memories of visiting. I remember that there was a one room schoolhouse at the end of their driveway and that is where my aunts and father attended school. My cousin Diane had a sweet little playhouse filled with miniature dishes and furniture and I thought that was the coolest thing ever. There was also a sort of attic (although I may be remembering that wrong) filled with books like The Lennon Sisters and Cherry Ames. If we were lucky to go there in the winter, we could go out on the snowmobiles. That was a blast because there were endless fields to ski-doo through. My Aunt Barbie was a great cook. I specifically remember these raspberry squares she used to make.

family23

My dad, me, and my younger brothers, James and Mark at the farm.

One of the things I was most looking forward to when I picked up 26 Letters, was Ross’s recollections of growing up on the farm. I was hoping for some stories that I might have remembered, too. I guess I am at the age where I am feeling sort of nostalgic about these special places and people from my childhood.

Sadly, Ross’s stories were mostly unfamiliar to me with one notable exception –  the accident his little brother, Paul, had as a toddler.

It was during the potato harvest season when life is incredibly busy exciting on the farm. Potatoes are hauled from the fields and placed in large holding bins within the “potato house.”  The in-ground bins were twelve to thirteen feet deep and large enough that trucks would actually drive onto the platform over the bins and unload from there. It was in that setting that Paul wandered unnoticed onto the platform of the bins. Someone noticed that Paul was missing, and the frantic search by the entire crew began.

Paul was found at the bottom of one of the empty bins. He remained unconscious for two weeks, and as Ross tells it “his first word was in response to me standing at the foot of his hospital bed. He looked up and said, “Ross.”” He had to have a metal plate put in his head and I remember that we were all told we had to be careful around him when he was a kid.

12-22-2009_307

L-R: My cousin Mark, me, my brother Tom (in the brown suit) my brother Mark, my mom tucked behind, Aunt Dorothy and her daughter, my cousin Brenda, my grandmother, Muriel, Aunt Barbie and Uncle Bernard.

Some of Ross’s stories conjured up memories of places in Perth-Andover. Everyone knew York’s for instance. It was world famous for its food, a zillion courses of home cooking. I don’t recall ever once going there as a kid, though. It was too expensive and we never had any money.

I loved his description of how directions work. “In those days,” he says, “mile markers were such things as barns, railway crossings, houses known by the family’s last name and unique places you wouldn’t find listed on any map, like “the gravel pit” or “the four corners.”

That reminded me of a summer many years ago, when my kids were little, and we’d planned a family reunion at the farm. I was confident I could remember the way, but I got us totally lost and we eventually had to stop in a little country store and ask for directions. We weren’t even on the right side of the river and we arrived at the farm at least 45 minutes after everyone else. I was the butt of everyone’s joke that day.

My children loved the farm. They loved Mark’s son, Mitchell, who back then was probably 13 or 14. He was a beautiful kid with white blonde hair and a dark tan that can only come from spending hours working in the sun. He was sweet to my kids, too.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

My daughter Mallory and son Connor with Mitchell at the farm.

He took them on the atv and the tractor and taught them how to dig potatoes.

26 Letters is Ross’s way of encouraging people to have meaningful conversations with the people who matter in their lives. He’s spent his career working  with young people and adults.

“We don’t talk well in our culture. In a world of unparalleled convenience, we struggle more than ever to communicate with each other, ” Ross says.

I don’t disagree. And worse, our shared history is often lost. That’s why I love spending time with family. My cousin Suzanne was home from England a couple summers ago and she, her brother, John, and I went up to Fredericton to visit with our cousins Diane, Brenda and our aunts Dorothy and Barbie. We laughed a lot that afternoon and my aunts shared stories, many of which I had never heard before. At one point, Barbie started to play the piano. John and I looked at each other, stunned.

“Did you know Aunt Barbie could play the piano?”

“Nope. Did you?”

I am fifty-five. John is older than me.

Ross’s motivation for writing 26 Letters was “so that I could leave for my children and grandchildren my understanding of those things that helped shape the person I am.”

I can think of no better legacy than the stories we share with the people we love.

walker3

Back: Brenda, Diane, Grammy holding my brother Tom, Douglas holding me, my cousins Colin and Ross.

 

 

The Last September – Nina de Gramont

Brett loves Charlie. He’s the older brother of lastsepther best friend, Eli. She and Eli are students in Colorado and one stormy night they attend a party and Charlie is there, too, his flight delayed because of the storm.

That day, the first day I ever saw him, he had three days’ worth of stubble. He wore a thin black thread around his neck, beaded with a smooth lapis stone that matched the color of his eyes.  When I looked at him, his lips slid up at the corners. My heart lurched. I don’t know why. It lurched toward him and refused – stubbornly – to ever lurch away.

Nina De Gramont’s book The Last September takes zero time to hook you by the throat and it doesn’t let you go until the very end. I really couldn’t put this book down. On the surface it’s a love story. But it’s a love story that goes horribly wrong because by the end of the first sentence we learn that Charlie is dead. Brett tells us “Because I am a student of literature, I will start my story on the day Charlie died. In other words, I’m beginning in the middle.” By the end of the first page we’ll know that Charlie has been murdered.

Their love story unfolds in flashback. When the novel opens, Charlie, Brett and their toddler daughter, Sarah, are living in Charlie’s family cottage at Cape Cod Bay. Brett is finishing her PhD dissertation; Charlie is doing odd jobs.  On this particular day, Brett is frustrated with Charlie, a feeling not at all out of place in most marriages. When Charlie mentions that Eli had called and that he wanted to come for a visit, Brett is reluctant to see her old friend because “the last time we saw Charlie’s brother he’d dropped an enormous amount of weight and begun scribbling notes on his jeans and forearms.”

I have guilty reading pleasure buttons and, I have to say, The Last September hit every single one of them. Angsty love affair. Check. Unbearable suspense. Check. Heartbreak. Check. Check.

What happened to Eli? What happened to Charlie? What happens when Ladd, Brett’s former fiancé arrives back in town? If this sounds suspiciously like Peyton Place, you’re not wrong. But, omg, The Last September is so much fun to read. The writing is luminous and so even when I didn’t 100% buy the plot twists, it didn’t matter because I just wanted to find out what had happened to Charlie and I wanted to know that Brett was going to survive the grief.

Highly recommended.

 

Books for what ails you

Like everyone else in the free world, I watched the recent American presidential election with my heart in my throat. I finally put my phone down at around 12:30 a.m. on the night of the election feeling pretty certain that the impossible had happened. I woke up a handful of hours later and my fears were confirmed.

Back in the day I used to watched The Apprentice. We’d mock Trump as he got off his private jet, that impossible hair flapping in the wind, his mouth like a little anus. He just seemed like a caricature. And now he’s the president of arguably the most powerful country in the world. It’s a terrifying notion to a left-leaning person like me. I hope Trump will surprise us, but I still don’t think he’s qualified for the job.

globalcitizenI have to admit that I was feeling a little smug because, y’know, I’m Canadian and Justin Trudeau is our Prime Minister. He’s not perfect, certainly, and we’re not perfect as a nation, but c’mon. And then Kellie Leitch, one of the people running for the leadership of our national Progressive Conservative Party (as if the national  PC Party is actually ‘progressive’) hitched her star to Trump’s wagon saying we needed to vet our immigrants more carefully. Seriously? I blame Stephen Harper for creating a climate where someone could say something like that in a country that was freakin’ built by immigrants. (Okay, truthfully, I blame Harper for lots of things; I just don’t like the man.)

All the vitriol has me thinking about the world – which is in dire need of some perspective. And some hope. And where do we get it?  Books.

One of the things I always tell my students is that reading allows us to walk in someone else’s shoes.  How can we be sharing this planet and not understand that, fundamentally, we are the same, not different? Sometimes we all live in our own little bubble – me included –  and so we only have a couple options to help us see over our own personal walls: travel and books. I love both, but traveling is expensive, so I guess it’s books (and truthfully, the way I buy books – also expensive).

I thought I’d share some books that might help you see your fellow human differently. If we can’t (try to) understand each other, if we’re not open to listening to someone else’s point of view – even if we don’t agree, if we don’t at least grasp the concept that we are all in this together or we all suffer, well, we’re doomed. I’m a glass half full sort of person, so I would like to believe that perhaps Trump’s victory is a wake-up call to us all that the world is on a precipice. We can either take a step back in love or jump off into the abyss with hate.

I choose love.

These books are about experiences I have never had and all of them got me to ask questions and see people and countries in a new way. Some made me uncomfortable, some made me feel ignorant and blind. All of them were profoundly moving. If we are going to make this world better we need to practice our empathy skills. Books help with that. As Atticus Finch so wisely put it, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

So go on. Start walking.

The Cellist of Sarajevo – Stephen Galloway 9780307397041

Spend a few hours with Kenan as he braves the streets, making a treacherous journey to the brewery to collect fresh water for his family. He’s a father who only want to keep his children safe, feed and clothe them.

Never Fall Down – Patricia McCormack neverfalldown

Reading Arn’s story has reminded me again of the priviledged life I’ve lead and of the absolute power of literature to crack open the insulated world in which we often live.

 

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe – Bejamin Alire Saenz aristotle_and_dante

I was the age of these characters somewhere around 1976. I didn’t know anyone who was gay. Okay, looking back – of course I did, but we didn’t talk about it. It wasn’t acknowledged. As far as I know, they weren’t out. I am profoundly grateful as a teacher and a parent, just as a human being, that books like this exist.

The Book Thief – Marcus Zusak

the-book-thiefLiesel is extraordinary. She and Hans bond late at night, when Liesel’s nightmares wake her, and Hans teaches her to read. Books and words are central to Liesel’s story. So is her friendship with Rudy, the boy next door. Through their eyes we see Hitler and Nazi Germany; we experience the atrocities and the small kindnesses. Zusak’s story is mostly about everyday things: hunger, pettiness, laughter, hope, cruelty and kindness.

 

Bel Canto – Ann Patchett bel-canto1

For me, though, this is a book about love- how it shapes us and changes us, how beauty transforms and transports and how you just might take a risk if you thought it might be your last opportunity to do so.

 

totally joeTotally Joe – James Howe

Joe is totally self-aware. It’s one of the pleasure of Totally Joe, really, that he is a person who understands and accepts himself. That doesn’t mean he’s not susceptible to the taunts of others.

 

Alia’s Mission: Saving the Books of Iraq – Mark Alan Stamaty  alia

When the fighting starts in Iraq, Alia feels compelled to save the books in the library. When she can’t get her own government to help her, she starts moving the books herself.

everythingEverything I Never Told You – Celeste Ng

Everything I Never Told You is an astounding, complex and heart-breaking look at the secrets we keep, not only from our families but from ourselves. Why we keep them, and the damage caused because of it, is just part of what happens in Ng’s book.

 

 

 

A Head Full of Ghosts – Paul Tremblay

23019294Paul Tremblay’s novel A Head Full of Ghosts has been sucking up all the oxygen on the Internet for the past few weeks and even Stephen King said that it scared the “living hell” out of him. As you might imagine, that’s probably pretty hard to do and therefore high praise.

The Barrett family are kinda sorta normal in a completely dysfunctional way. Dad, John, has just been made redundant at the job where he’s worked for the last nineteen years. Times are tough and he hasn’t been able to find work since. Mom, Sarah, is tense and cold. Then there are the daughters: fourteen-year-old Marjorie and eight-year-old Meredith or Merry. The story is actually narrated by Merry, aged 23. She is sharing what happened to her family the year she was eight with best-selling author Rachel Neville but she is unsure how to proceed because she doesn’t “know how to explain to her that [her] sister hasn’t aged at all in fifteen-plus years and there never was a before everything happened.”

Despite the six year age gap, Marjorie and Merry are close. They share made up stories and have a sister-speak  shorthand. When Merry visited Marjorie’s room “she was convinced that [she] was going to grow up exactly like Marjorie, entering her room was like discovering a living, breathing map of [her] future.”  Lately, though, Marjorie has begun to act strange.

She tells Merry that the posters on her walls “disembodied hands, legs, arms, hair and a pair of eyes” were like that when Marjorie had woken up. She writes Merry a note that tells her:

I sneak into your room when you are asleep, Merry-Monkey. I’ve been doing it for weeks now, since the end of summer. You’re so pretty when you are asleep. Last night, I pinched your nose shut until you opened your mouth and gasped.

Merry isn’t the only one concerned about Marjorie. She’s seeing a psychologist and then John decides he needs to get the church involved. That’s how the Barrett family find themselves at the center of a reality television series, The Possession. No one could have predicted how it would all turn out, least of all Merry, but when she agrees to talk to Rachel Neville, the veil of what really happened in the Barrett house is lifted.

Or is it?

A Head Full of Ghosts is not scary, let’s just get that out of the way. It’s creepy and mind-bending and certainly capitalizes on the whole reality TV phenomenon. But full out pants-wetting scares are in short supply.

Truthfully, I am not sure how I feel about this book. I didn’t love it. I found it odd and unsettling, for sure, and neither of those things are bad necessarily, but I wasn’t enthralled. I kept changing my mind about what I thought was really going on  – which also isn’t a bad thing. I don’t need my fiction to be tidy.

I guess how I feel about A Head Full of Ghosts is that despite its numerous accolades, I wouldn’t tell everyone to read it, but I definitely would read another book by Tremblay. How’s that for wishy-washy?