Tag Archive | 2016

All the books – 2016 edition

I am not one for making New Year’s resolutions, but I do enjoy a little bit of reflection. I like to think back on the year and contemplate what changes I might make to make my life, and the lives of those around me, better. The world seems to be moving faster and I think we could all benefit from taking a breath. Reading is one of the ways that I do that. I also think we need a lot more kindness in the world. I have a wonderful opportunity to model kindness every day in my classroom and I think showing tolerance, compassion and empathy is the only way forward. It’s the direction I am taking at any rate.

Once again, thanks to Jamie over at The Perpetual Page-Turner for starting this survey seven years ago and for sharing her questions and graphics. If you’d like to take a peek at her survey and see what loads of other readers read this year, you can do that here.

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Number Of Books You Read: 60
Number of Re-Reads: 1
Genre You Read The Most From: Fiction

 

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1. Best Book You Read In 2016?

Hands down: Everything I Never Told You – Celeste Ng

I can’t even begin to describe how moving I found this book.

2. Book You Were Excited About & Thought You Were Going To Love More But Didn’t?

A Head Full of Ghosts – Paul Tremblay 23019294

I was really looking forward to this book. Stephen King loved it and I trust his taste. It just didn’t do it for me. Maybe I missed the point because although the writing was good (and I would certainly read Tremblay again), I just felt like the book was trying to be too many things and I never really settled in to the narrative.

 3. Most surprising (in a good way or bad way) book you read?  

GOOD

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The Girl With All The Gifts The Girl With All The Gifts – M.R. Carey

I was actually quite surprised with how much I enjoyed this book. I didn’t know it was a zombie book when I purchased it and had I known I might have left it on the shelf. That would have been  too bad because I really like it.

 

BAD

winterThe Winter People – Jennifer McMahon

This is the second post Promise Not To Tell book I’ve read by McMahon. I loved  Promise Not To Tell, but haven’t liked anything else I’ve read by her. The Winter People was a hot mess.

 

 4. Book You “Pushed” The Most People To Read (And They Did)?

I urged a lot of people to read Tim Johnston’s fine novel Descent. I really liked this book a lot and the people I suggested it to also enjoyed it. Of course I encouraged everyone to read Everything I Never Told You and I also suggested I Let You Go by Clare McIntosh to a lot of readers who like a page-turner.

 5. Best series you started in 2016? Best Sequel of 2016? Best Series Ender of 2016?

This is always a hard question for me to answer. I kinda hate series, to be honest. That said, I did promise my daughter that I would start Harry Potter this year and I did, but I only made it through Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and half way through Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban before I got sidetracked by other books. I did read the first of C. J. Daugherty’s Night School series and I really liked it. I would have read more, but they are almost impossible to find. I also read Tammara Webber’s novel Breakable, which is a companion to her novel Easy.

 6. Favorite new author you discovered in 2016?

I think I would read anything by Celeste Ng. I’ll definitely read more of Jennifer Niven.

7. Best book from a genre you don’t typically read/was out of your comfort zone?

The Girl With All the Gifts – M. C. Carey

Vampires – yes. Zombies – no. But this was terrific in every way.

 8. Most action-packed/thrilling/unputdownable book of the year?

I actually read several thrillers this year of the can’t-put-it-down variety. Top of the heap goes to I Let You Go by Clare McIntosh. That book had an early twist that had me scrambling back to the beginning and then racing like a demon to the end. Tim Johnston’s Descent was also a pulse-racing, page-tuner. I also had a hard time putting down The Book of You by Claire Kendall

 9. Book You Read In 2016 That You Are Most Likely To Re-Read Next Year?

Hahahahahaha. I often re-read books that I teach, but other than that I have too many books on my tbr pile to make a plan to re-read anything.

10. Favorite cover of a book you read in 2016?

th9H5NVHJNI was attracted to the cover of In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware.  I’m sure there are prettier or more dramatic covers than that, but I liked the black and white. That said, I also loved the cover of Martin Short’s memoir, I Must Say, probably because Short is on the cover and just seeing his face makes20604377 me smile. As soon as I see him I start thinking about all the characters he’s played over the years: Ed Grimley, Jiminy Glick, Franck from Father of the Bride and then I have to go watch some clips on YouTube. Be right back.

 

11. Most memorable character of 2016?

Gosh – this is tough because I have encountered some truly memorable characters during this reading year.

Honourable mention goes to Ryan Dean West from Andrew Smith’s terrific YA book Winger.

Another character that deserves a mention is Melanie from The Girl With All the Gifts. She was a beautifully complex character.

Tied for the win: Finch and Violet from All the Bright Places. I just fell madly in love with these two damaged, smart and beautiful characters.

 12. Most beautifully written book read in 2016?

Egads – another tough category. Or maybe it’s just that I read a lot of terrific books this year. Gotta be Everything I Never Told You, though. The writing wasn’t overwrought or ornate, but so much of that book felt like a punch to the gut. Simple and beautiful.

13. Most Thought-Provoking/ Life-Changing Book of 2016?

Im+Thinking+of+Ending+ThingsPerhaps I would slot Iain Reid’s mind-bending novel I’m Thinking of Ending Things in this spot. It wasn’t a life-changing read, but it sure was thought-provoking and one of those novels that you really had to puzzle your way through. It was also the kind of book that you wanted to pass on, so you could have a conversation with another reader about the book’s wtf qualities.

 14. Book you can’t believe you waited UNTIL 2016 to finally read? 

If I have to choose a book for this category, it’d have to be Harry Potter just because I probably should have read them (or started to read them) way before now.

 15. Favorite Passage/Quote From A Book You Read In 2016?

“You loved so hard and hoped so much and then you ended up with nothing. Children who no longer needed you. A husband who no longer wanted you. Nothing left but you, alone, and empty space.” – Celeste Ng, Everything I Never Told You

16.Shortest & Longest Book You Read In 2016?

The Grown-Up by Gillian Flynn, 64 pages

Pretty Girls by Karin Slaughter, 688 pages

 17. Book That Shocked You The Most

(Because of a plot twist, character death, left you hanging with your mouth wide open, etc.)

I Let You Go had a jaw-dropping twist. I’m Thinking of Ending Things and Descent both had some shocking moments, too.

18. OTP OF THE YEAR (you will go down with this ship!)

(OTP = one true pairing if you aren’t familiar)

Finch and Violet from All the Bright Places. Hands down.

Runner up: Ryan Dean West and Annie from Winger.

19. Favorite Non-Romantic Relationship Of The Year

Melanie and Helen Justineau from The Girl With All the Gifts

20. Favorite Book You Read in 2016 From An Author You’ve Read Previously

That would have to be All the Rage by Courtney Summers courtney-summers-all-the-rageThis was my third book by this Canadian author and once again Summers proved herself to be a fearless writer. Not an easy book to read, but certainly an important book.

21. Best Book You Read In 2016 That You Read Based SOLELY On A Recommendation From Somebody Else/Peer Pressure:

I don’t really have a book for this category. I don’t generally run out and buy books other people recommend because my tbr pile is too big. I do, however, add them to my tbr list and I might get to them sooner than other books. That said, I was pressured into getting on the Harry Potter series. I told my daughter I’d read the whole thing in the summer, and only got one and a half books finished before I got distracted by other books.

22. Newest fictional crush from a book you read in 2016?

Well, it’s not a new crush but I continue to be enamored with Lucas from Tammara Webber’s books Easy & Breakable.

23. Best 2016 debut you read?

Everything I Never Told You. C’mon, whose debut is as good as that!?

24. Best Worldbuilding/Most Vivid Setting You Read This Year?

7507908The Girl With All the Gifts did an excellent job of putting the reader right into a post-apocalyptic future. I also thought Breanna Yovanoff created a super creepy world in her novel The Replacement.

25. Book That Put A Smile On Your Face/Was The Most FUN To Read?

I Must Say by Martin Short. I could hear all his characters in my head when I read the book. Love him.

26. Book That Made You Cry Or Nearly Cry in 2016?

I love a book that makes me cry. Everything I Never Told You and All the Bright Places both made me cry. Tom McNeal’s underwaterTo Be Sung Underwater definitely put a lump in my throat on more than one occasion.

27. Hidden Gem Of The Year?

I wonder if many people read Bittersweet by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore. rielI really liked that book a lot. New Brunswick writer Riel Nason’s second novel All the Things We Leave Behind also fits into this category because she certainly deserves to be read.

28. Book That Crushed Your Soul?

Everything I Never Told You. Absolutely wrecked me. So did All the Bright Places.

29. Most Unique Book You Read In 2016?

The Dead House by  Dawn Kurtagich was pretty unique as it incorporated journal entries, police and psychiatric reports, transcribed found video footage, etc.

30. Book That Made You The Most Mad (doesn’t necessarily mean you didn’t like it)?

Maybe I would stick really hyped books that just fell short in this category: The Husband’s Secret & Pretty Girls spring to mind.

book-blogging

1. New favorite book blog you discovered in 2016?

Fictionophile She’s a prolific reader and she’s from my neck of the woods. What’s not to love?

2. Favorite review that you wrote in 2016?

Looking back over the reviews I wrote last year…I’m pretty happy with the majority of paristhem, but I’ll mention The Paris Wife by Paula McLain, just because I haven’t included the book anywhere else and it’s worth a look.

3. Best discussion/non-review post you had on your blog?

I celebrated eight years of blogging back in September and I invited readers to tell me about their eight favourite things about my blog or list their eight favourite books. I got some awesome comments.

4. Best event that you participated in (author signings, festivals, virtual events, memes, etc.)?

litsy_logo_horizI joined Litsy this year. The downside is that it’s an app so I have to do everything on my phone, but the upside is that it’s all books all the time. One of the Littens, BookishMarginalia, organized a #secretsantagoespostal event. We were all sent the name of someone else and we had to send a bookish gift. Then, on December 21, we all opened our presents and found out who our Secret Santa was. Fun!

5. Best moment of bookish/blogging life in 2016?

My book club read Nina de Gramont’s novel The Last September. At our gathering tolastsept discuss the novel, one of our group suggested something about the murder of the narrator’s husband (not a spoiler – we know he’s been killed on page one) that launched a huge debate. The next day, I tracked the author down on the Internet and put the question to her. She sent a lovely reply. That was cool. In fact, any interaction I have with an author is cool. Also – read The Last September. It’s terrific.

6. Most challenging thing about blogging or your reading life this year?

I actually think I did a pretty good job keeping up with my blog this year. I also didn’t set a reading goal for myself, but still managed to read 60 books in 2016.

7. Most Popular Post This Year On Your Blog (whether it be by comments or views)?

I always get a lot of hits the morning that I do my book column on CBC’s Information Morning. That’s generally the day with the heaviest traffic. You can listen to all the columns I’ve done over the past couple years  by visiting the links provided on the right side of my blog under the heading Off the Shelf.

8. Post You Wished Got A Little More Love?

Well, I always wish I had a little more interaction with people, but that isn’t what drives my blog. Mostly, it’s a record of what I read.

9. Best bookish discover (book related sites, book stores, etc.)?

Litsy. You should all join. I am @TheLudicReader

10.  Did you complete any reading challenges or goals that you had set for yourself at the beginning of this year?

I always do the 50 Book Pledge. Anything after 50 always feels like a bonus.

looking-ahead-books-2015

1. One Book You Didn’t Get To In 2016 But Will Be Your Number 1 Priority in 2017?

Nope. Not gonna say. Because I don’t know. It’s not the way I read, to be honest. That said, I will try to read some more Harry Potter to appease my daughter.

2. Book You Are Most Anticipating For 2017 (non-debut)?

I am looking forward to reading Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien. It won the 2016 Giller and the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction and it was shortlisted for the Man Booker and longlisted for the 2017 Andrew Carnegie Medal.  I am not usually dazzled by prizes, but this book appeals to me and I got a hardcover for $15 on Boxing Day!

3. 2017 Debut You Are Most Anticipating?

No clue. Haven’t even looked to see what’s coming out.

 4. Series Ending/A Sequel You Are Most Anticipating in 2017?

Nada

5. One Thing You Hope To Accomplish Or Do In Your Reading/Blogging Life In 2017?

I am pretty happy with my reading life.

6. A 2017 Release You’ve Already Read & Recommend To Everyone:

Can’t help you. But I am looking forward to seeing what everyone else suggests.

Check out my reading year as an infographic here.

I wish you all a wonderful 2017 filled with good company and good books.

All The Bright Places – Jennifer Niven

Not all YA books are created equal. When I was a teen in the 70s YA was barely a thing. Basically I went from reading The Bobbsey Twins and Trixie Beldon to reading Jane Eyre and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The Scholastic flyer at school offered some options and I can all-the-bright-places-jktspecifically remember reading and falling in love with S.E. Hinton’s That Was Then, This is Now (a book I loved way more than I loved The Outsiders), and Judy Blume’s Forever, but the reading choices certainly weren’t as varied as they are for teens today.  I read a lot of YA now because I teach teens. Lots of it is mediocre. Lots of it is good. Then, every so often, you read a book you just want to tell all your students about. You want every single teen you know on the planet to read it. Jennifer Niven’s All the Bright Places is one of those books.

Theodore Finch is seventeen. He begins his story by asking “Is today a good day to die?” He’s considering this question from “a narrow ledge six floors above the ground.” That’s when he sees the girl, Violet Markey. “She stands a few feet away on the other side of the tower, also out on the ledge…”

This is how Niven begins to tell the story of Finch and Violet. Finch ‘rescues’ Violet, but because he has a reputation as being a freak, a loser, and unstable, the rumour around school is that Violet saved him. From this unlikely scenario, a beautiful friendship springs.

After Finch talks Violet off the ledge he asks her: “Do you think there’s such a thing as a perfect day?…A perfect day. Start to finish. Where nothing terrible or sad or ordinary happens. Do you think it’s possible?”  Just typing that now makes me feel as though I want to cry.

Violet doesn’t seem like a likely match for Finch. She’s “cheerleader popular” and dates Ryan Cross, a movie star handsome baseball star. Still, when the two are paired to participate in a “Wander Indiana” project (part of a course in U.S. Geography), they discover a kinship neither expected. As they travel to various points of interest, they start to trust each other. Violet begins the painful process of shedding the grief of a tragic accident and Finch finds more and more reason to stay “awake.”

One of the things that makes a YA novel great for me is characterization. I want the teens to feel authentic, not like stereotypes. Finch and Violet are beautifully crafted creations, and the people who circle their lives (parents and siblings and friends) are also well-drawn and nuanced. Finch’s mom is broken from her failed marriage; Violet’s parents are over-protective. As a mom of teens myself, I like to see parents in YA portrayed as real people – flawed and messy and trying to do the best they can even when can’t fix anything at all.

The other element of the novel that Niven handles so well is the issue of mental illness. All the Bright Places is not a “sick lit” book. Finch’s struggles are authentic and nuanced and painfully rendered in prose that is a joy to read. I can’t remember the last time a character has broken my heart, but Finch most certainly did.

I can’t recommend All the Bright Places highly enough. Buy it for every teen you know. Buy it for yourself.

 

 

All the Things We Leave Behind – Riel Nason

towndrownedA few years back, my bookclub read Riel Nason’s debut novel The Town That Drowned and we all fell in love with Ruby and her younger brother, Percy, inhabitants of a little town called Haventon. Nason’s story drew from actual events: the area was flooded after a dam was built. Anyone who lives in New Brunswick, Canada, where Nason’s story is set, will be familiar with the landscape and many of the place names, even if they don’t quite remember the flood that drowned the town.

All The Things We Leave Behind revisits the Saint John River Valley, this time a fictional town called Riverbend, circa 1977. On this occasion, our narrator, seventeen-year-old Violet, is taking care of the family business while her parents are on a road trip looking for her older brother, Bliss, who disappeared just after his graduation from high school.

The book starts ominously enough as Violet recalls the “boneyard deep in the woods.” She and Bliss discovered the place when they were kids even though “the boneyard’s location is supposed to be secret.  This is the final resting place for the moose and deer that have killed up and down the Trans Canada rielHighway.   When Violet recalls the time she and Bliss had stumbled upon the boneyard, aged nine, she also recalls how Bliss had tried to protect her from the gruesome sight. He assures her they’re never going back, but he also tells her “we can’t let it wreck the whole forest for us.”

Nason weaves Violet’s recollections of her brother into a narrative which is mostly concerned with Violet’s summer-time responsibilities, tending The Purple Barn, her family’s roadside antique store, literally  “an enormous rectangle, a hundred-foot-long-barn, painted purple.”  Violet isn’t too young for the gig

I know what I’m doing and I’m almost an expert on antiques from hanging around the store and listening to my father my whole life. I can rattle off statements like, “It’s a late Victorian, Eastlake period piece, factory made, ash not oak, but excellent quality.”

Violet takes her job seriously, but she is also prone to melancholy and introspection. She is not exactly a typical teenager; she is certainly not partying her way through the summer despite the fact the she is sharing a cabin at Seven Birches Campground and Cabins with her best friend, Jill,  and despite the fact that she promised Jill she’d try to have a fun summer.

All the Things We Leave Behind is a quiet novel of growing up and letting go – even when you don’t really want to do either. Nason adeptly evokes a specific time and place, but the novel’s themes are universal in scope. Even though I didn’t quite settle into the book’s rhythms in quite the same way as I settled into The Town That Drowned and even though I wasn’t totally satisfied with some of the denouement’s machinations, I would still recommend All The Things We Leave Behind because Nason’s prose is consistently good and the novel has many charms.

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 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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