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It’s a pleasure to introduce this guest post by my friend Naomi MacKinnon, whom I met online several years ago through an Anne of Green Gables readalong hosted by Lindsey Reeder. Naomi lives in Truro, Nova Scotia, about an hour’s drive from where I live, in Halifax. Since that first meeting online, we’ve seen each other in person many times, often at meetings of our local Project Bookmark Reading Circle, where we discuss fiction and poetry with the goal of identifying and recommending short passages set in specific places that could be marked with a Bookmark plaque. (If you’re interested, you can read more about our Reading Circle on the Project Bookmark website.)

Given our shared interests, Naomi and I weren’t surprised when we happened to run into each other at Anne of Green Gables – The Ballet, performed by Canada’s Ballet Jörgen in Halifax in 2019. Naomi attended with her daughters and her mother-in-law, and I was there with my daughter and my mother—and it was a delightful surprise to discover that Naomi’s mother-in-law and my mother have known each other for years. (Yes, it often seems that all of Nova Scotia is one small town….)

In the fall, when I was writing about the way my love of reading has served as an anchor during these last few years of challenges and uncertainty, I decided to ask some of my friends to write guest posts in which they talk about books they’ve read recently and want to recommend to others. Naomi’s is the first in this new series. When I asked her for a bio, she wrote that she’s “the mom of three human kids and five furry ones.” She added, “I have always lived in Nova Scotia, with the exception of the four years I spent in Sackville, NB, studying Biology at Mount Allison University. I love to read, walk, and eat cookies.”

I’m always keen to find out what Naomi’s discussing on her fabulous blog, Consumed By Ink, where she writes about Canadian books, especially those set in Atlantic Canada. Recent posts have featured Ducks, by Kate Beaton (which Barack Obama named as one his favourite books of 2022, and which Mattea Roach of Jeopardy! fame will be defending on Canada Reads this year); Emily Urquhart’s collection of essays on fairy tales and folklore, Ordinary Wonder Tales; and Steven Laffoley’s “irreverent histories” of food and drink in Nova Scotia.

Please help me give a warm welcome to Naomi! Here’s her guest post on “Reading Close to Home.”

When Sarah invited me to write a guest post for her blog I was delighted. I always love the opportunity to talk about good books.

As followers of my blog know, I love reading literature close to home—and, for me, that means Atlantic Canada. I enjoy reading about familiar settings. It makes me feel as though I know the characters intimately, that I might bump into them on the street someday. Or on a ferry, or at the beach, or in a bookstore. I could ask Mrs. Ward how her son is making out. Or I could ask Dot if they’ve gotten any new cats in at the animal shelter. I could go to the piano recital at the seniors’ home up the street and whisper into my friend’s ear about how unprepared Darcy was for his recital this year and be relieved it wasn’t my own child. I could say hello to Herring and Gerry while I’m down at the wharf buying fresh lobster.

Let’s start with one of Nova Scotia’s best short story writers, Alexander MacLeod, and his newest collection Animal Person. This is a book that Sarah has written about, too, saying, “Line by line, the whole book is brilliant.” Every sentence has been considered carefully to create well-crafted stories. When I think of this collection, I think of two sisters spread-eagled, face-down in the water, all you can hear is the breath through their snorkels. I think of a man using a stranger’s toothbrush then placing it back into the suitcase. I think of young Darcy at his piano recital, worrying about his performance as he sits listening to the others. And I think of a man and his rabbit and their unlikely companionship.

The other short story collection I want to recommend is The Love Olympics by Claire Wilkshire of St. John’s, Newfoundland. This collection is so relatable—it made me laugh and nod my head with recognition. With a strong focus on women, the book is full of memorable characters who weave their way in and out of these stories. I especially liked “The Dinner” in which four women gather together in the evening: women who are tired and looking forward to a much-needed break away from their families; women who are coping with the unpredictable nature of middle-aged hormones; women who have remained friends and supported each other through all their years of motherhood and marriage.

It’s more unusual to come across a good book about a friendship among a group of men. Jim McEwen’s Fearnoch might be stretching the boundaries of what some might consider Atlantic Canadian, but I am claiming it as ours. (McEwen is from a small town outside of Ottawa, which is also where his novel is set, but he graduated from St. John’s Memorial University Master of Creative Writing program and his book is published by St. John’s Breakwater Books.) Fearnoch focuses on three men who grew up together as friends, but many years later wonder if they’re still able to call themselves that. They’re grown now with partners, children, jobs, health issues. This book explores the nature of friendship and how it grows and changes and supports and disappoints and falls short and overcomes. I thought it was beautiful.

Set in Prince Edward Island where the author is from, Some Hellish, by Nicholas Herring, is another novel I read this year about male friendship—in this case between two men who may not even think of themselves as friends. They spend a lot of time together as lobstermen, but I don’t think they realize how important this time together has become for them. A hard book to read in many ways—as the title indicates—but there’s some humour to lighten things up, and I dare you not to get attached to the characters despite their tendency to make all the wrong choices.

There’s a younger male friendship in The Wards, by Terry Doyle. Although not at the heart of the novel, the friendship helps us to see the family members from an outsider’s perspective. The Wards—who live in St. John’s, NL—are an ordinary family with ordinary challenges, but the characters’ voices bring this book to life—characters you get to know so well that “you’re never surprised by their actions, even when their actions surprise you.” The kind of characters you’ll miss when the story is over.

In a similar vein, The Remembering, by Susan Sinnott, is a story about a mother and her three grown daughters (who also live in St. John’s, and who have possibly passed The Wards on the street or in the frozen foods section of the grocery store). It’s told from the perspective of the family members, with some humour and a lot of compassion. When one of the sisters is assaulted, we see how the situation is handled by the others, and how the incident influences their lives over the course of many years, into the next generation.

Set in the Halifax area, Decoding Dot Grey, by Nicola Davison, is a story about a family that has dwindled from three down to two, and Dot is a girl who is learning to cope with the loss of a parent. I adored this book. I loved Dot and her dad. I loved the animals with their unique personalities. The animals provide some humour and light moments in a book about grief. A tender story with a lot of heart, gentle humour, and some fun word-play. The world needs more books like this.

I love a good setting. A setting you can picture, even if you have never been there. But even better—for me—is one that I already know and love. Bird Shadows, by Jennie Morrow, takes place close to my hometown of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. Mavillette—where most of the book is set—is my favourite beach. It felt like we could run for miles on that beach. But the most delightful thing is that I was just as taken with the story as I was with the setting. The book explores themes of faith, family, and feminism, and does it well.

Mavillette Beach

Cape Forchu, the Yarmouth light

Bird Shadows takes place where I grew up, but Birth Road, by Michelle Wamboldt, takes place where I live now, in Truro. Although the story happens in the 1930s and 40s, the town is still recognizable and it’s fun to compare the accompanying map with what the town looks like now. I liked the familiar setting, and I also liked the fact that the story is a page-turner. At the beginning you learn that Helen is about to give birth, then the story takes you back to her childhood when her father was drunk all the time, her mother was stern, and her only friend was hiding something. Birth Road was inspired by the author’s grandmother.

The library in Truro, which in the 1930s and 40s was the Normal College.

Lastly, the book that made me laugh the most, Fishnets & Fantasies, by Jane Doucet (a Halifax-based author), is a delight from beginning to end. What would people think if someone opened a sex shop in a small, UNESCO World Heritage Site like Lunenburg, NS? Do yourself a favour and find out. It might even make you want to open one yourself!

Lunenburg, Nova Scotia

The best thing about all of these books is the love the authors clearly have for their stories and characters. It fills my heart and sends me straight to my next reading journey in the hopes that it will be just as rewarding.

Happy Reading!