The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald


It took me four reads before I finally fell in love with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great American novel, The Great Gatsby. I might not have ever read it again after the last time (a couple years ago my book club had a ‘year of classics’) had it not been for the fact that I am teaching grade twelve this year. Often referred to as the quintessential American novel, its place in literary canon is certainly undeniable, but I just never bought in. The Great Gatsby  is my daughter Mallory’s favourite novel and she was understandably flummoxed as to why her English teacher geek of a mother never really liked the book. Now we’re on the same page. If you believe that a classic is a book that never runs out of things to say, this book certainly qualifies. I guess I’m just late to the party.

how-whimsical-2006-great-gatsby-book-coverNick Carraway, the novel’s narrator, moves from the mid-west to Long Island’s West Egg to take a job on Wall Street. Across the bay in East Egg lives his cousin, Daisy Buchanan, and her husband, Tom, an old Yale classmate of Nick’s, a man so “enormously wealthy” he’d brought  “down a string of polo ponies from Lake Forest.”  Nick comments “It was hard to imagine that a man in my own generation was wealthy enough to do that.”

Despite their wealth, Daisy and Tom don’t seem particularly happy and on his first visit with them Nick discovers that Tom is having an affair.  When it comes to the Buchanans, all that glitters is not gold.

Next door to Nick’s little house, and directly across the bay from the Buchanans,  lives Gatsby. His mansion is “a colossal affair by any standard.” Gatsby throws lavish parties every weekend  – huge glittering affairs attended by the who’s who of New York and “In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.”  On the first night Nick attends a party at Gatsby’s he is “one of the few guests who had actually been invited.” Soon after meeting his charming and enigmatic host, Nick finds himself drawn into a compelling love affair between Daisy and Gatsby, a love affair that had actually begun five years earlier.

The Great Gatsby operates on two very distinct levels: as a love story and a social commentary on the decadence and decay at the heart of the American Dream.

Gatsby’s single-minded devotion to Daisy, his desire to wipe out the present and reclaim their shared past drives him to create a sort of fantasy life. Everything Gatsby does is for Daisy and Nick remarks on his “extraordinary gift for hope,” his “romantic readiness such as I have never found in another person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again.” But Nick also acknowledges that perhaps Gatsby wants “too much” of Daisy and cautions him  that “You can’t repeat the past.”

On another level, Fitzgerald’s novel captures the glittery, frenetic 20s. A generation of young men had returned from the Great War, Wall Street was booming and in Fitzgerald’s version, anyway, people cared about little else except having fun.   Underneath the façade, though, there is rot and corruption. No one works except for Nick. They just drink and laze about. Nick sees it and when the veil is pulled back he tells Gatsby, “They’re a rotten crowd….You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.”

The Great Gatsby is a beautiful novel, I see that now. I am sorry it took so long to believe in the dream.




Off the Shelf

Listen here.


I’ve discovered Litsy. It started as an app for Apple but is now available for android and if any of you are book nerds (and, really, if you aren’t what are you doing here?)  it’s awesome…except for the whole it’s on your phone thing. Basically, it’s a community of passionate readers who talk about books – they share short reviews, or just general comments about what they are reading. Lots of pictures of cats and books because we readers love our cats – but basically a nice place to hang out. It’s very user friendly and the site tracks your reading – pages and books read, offers virtual shelves to store books and has a simple thumbs up/down review system. You also gain Litfluence points when people interact to your comments.

This is where I heard about a cool thing they do in Halifax and I would LOVE it if some local establishment would consider a similar thing. Good Robot, a local brewery in Halifax offers a silent reading night once a month. Patrons come with their books and at the appointed time the bar is silent and they just read – no conversation, no cell phones, just your beer and your book. Reading is such a solitary activity – but how cool would it be to share your reading with fellow bibliophiles before and after the reading period.

So I am back at Harbour View which means that I am reading a lot more YA again – I generally take a little break in the summer. So this morning I am going to share one terrific YA title and one general title, but both of these books were un-put-down-able.

let you goFirst up is Claire McIntosh’s novel I Let You Go. A mother is walking home in the pouring rain with her young son. Just at the road across the street from their home, he lets go of her hand and runs across the street. Out of nowhere, a car comes barreling down the street and hits the boy. From this point on, I Let You Go is a grab-you-by-the-throat suspense thriller that follows Jenna Gray as she goes to the Welsh coast to escape the tragic death and the police detectives, Ray and Kate, who are trying to find the driver behind the wheel.

Lots of these types of books out there these days, many of them being compared to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, which I guess is just a way to sell more books, really. I guess it’s a helpful comparison if you are a fan of suspense thrillers, but, really, not everything is going to be Gone Girl – nor should it. Anyway. I Let You Go works really well as both a police procedural and as a meditation on grief and then, the whole narrative turns on its ear and you’re left there going, hold on, what just happened. But in a good way. Nail-biting fun.

My YA title is All the Rage by Courtney Summers. I am a fan of Summers, who is a courtney-summers-all-the-rageCanadian writer and a while back I spoke about her zombie apocalypse title This is Not a Test. All the Rage is an important book because it tackles the issue of consent and victim-shaming. It’s about a girl called Romy who is raped by the sheriff’s son, but she doesn’t report it because she lives in a small town where most everyone is beholden to the sheriff and his wife, who owns a business that employs a lot of people. Romy is trying to sort through this horrible event, when she wakes up on the side of the road with absolutely no memory of what has happened to her and, of course, this causes tremendous anxiety, but it also further distances her from her family ( a very sympathetic mother and her equally lovely boyfriend) and a potential new boyfriend. I won’t be able to adequately express how important this book is because it tackles a lot of issues that young women cope with every day: the right to say no. The right to dress the way they want and still say no. Bullying. It’s just hot-button topic galore. It’s won just about every prize known to the world of YA, if you care about that sort of thing. It’s timely and gut-wrenching, but I think it has a place on library shelves.



Coventry – Helen Humphreys

On November 14, 1940, Coventry, a city in England’s West Midlands, was devastated by a German bombing raid that  leveled two thirds of the city, including the city’s cathedral, which was built in the 14th century.


This event is the backdrop of Helen Humphrey’s 2008 novel, Coventry. The novel captures the horror and chaos of that night as seen through the eyes of Harriet Marsh, a 44-year-old woman who is acting as a fire-watcher on the cathedral rooftop and Maeve, an artist whose 22-year-old son, Jeremy,  is also acting as a fire-watcher the evening the Germans dropped 500 tonnes of explosives on the city.

coventryWith the exception of a flashback to introduce us to Harriet’s husband, Owen, and to allow Harriet and Maeve to briefly meet, the novel spends its time during the ten-hour raid. Although it might be hard to imagine the scene, Humphreys does capture the horrible chaos of that night in simple, unembellished prose.

The bombing shakes the ground so that people fleeing through the streets stumble as though drunk. The trembling earth shifts them one way, and then the other, and Harriet finds herself reaching out to steady herself on walls that are no longer standing. She falls in the street, picks herself up from the shaking ground, and falls again.

Nearly 600 people were killed on that night; over 1000 more were injured. It’s perhaps not easy to imagine the chaos, but Humphreys does manage to capture it as Harriet and Jeremy make their way through the city to their respective homes. The horrors of war are all around them: people who have been fatally wounded, people buried under rubble, animals wandering aimlessly. Maeve leaves the shelter of the pub and heads home, but she and Jeremy miss each other.


The British were known for their stoic resilience during the Second World War. Some of that resilience is seen on display in Coventry. In one particular scene, Harriet and Jeremy happen upon a makeshift first aid station and while Jeremy jumps in to help, Harriet wanders off to see if she can’t rustle up some tea. C’mon! It doesn’t get any more British than that.

How did these people cope? They just did what they had to do and when it seemed like they couldn’t go on, they did that, too.

I am a fan of Helen Humphreys. I loved her novel The Lost Garden  which I talked about here.  I also really enjoyed Afterimage, which I read before I started this blog. What I admire about her writing is her ability to capture moments so perfectly. Perhaps that ability comes from having started her writing career as a poet.  I just know that she is one of those rare writers who make you pause and nod your head in agreement.

Coventry is a short novel that, nevertheless, captures the horror and the unexpected beauty to be found amidst  chaos.

To Be Sung Underwater – Tom McNeal

Judith Toomey’s life “swerved” (her word) when she was forty-four. At the time she is a  Los Angeles film editor, married to a successful banker, Malcolm, and mother to a teenage daughter, Camille. Life is okay. Sometimes better than okay.underwater

…there were  whole hours and even days when Judith was visited by a dull ace that in spite of its unspecific origin seemed symptomatic of yearning, but there were also whole hours and days of productivity, good cheer, and reasonable warm fellow-feeling that she presumed she should, to be fair about it, call happiness, or something within inches of it.

But then one day, the “bird’s-eye maple bedroom set, handed down to Judith’s father by his grandparents, and by Judith’s father to Judith, and by Judith to Camille” ends up in a heap by the pool, ready to be collected and disposed of, and something in Judith unfolds, “a slow blossoming of resentment.”

To Be Sung Underwater is the story of a woman who suddenly finds herself in a life she doesn’t understand anymore. It’s not that she doesn’t love Malcolm or Camille, it’s just that a choice she’d made twenty-seven years earlier is something she can no longer ignore. Instead of allowing the furniture to be taken to the dump, Judith rents a storage facility and recreates her teenage bedroom. The space becomes an oasis for Judith –  a place where she can dream and sleep and remember.

And what Judith remembers is her time living with her father in Nebraska. Judith’s parents are separated because, as her father says “Our marriage, like all marriages, was happy until it wasn’t.” Judith’s mother is a free-spirited woman and her lifestyle irks Judith, so she eventually joins her father, an English professor at a small college. They live a quiet existence, sharing music and literature and stories from her father’s past.

Then, when Judith is sixteen, she meets Willy Blunt. He calls her “dangerous” and “his eyes, reaching in, exerted on Judith what felt like a subtle but actual pull, which alarmed her.” A year later, when they meet again, there is no denying their connection.

To Be Sung Underwater resonated with me in ways I am not sure I will be able to articulate. Judith makes her living piecing frames of film together to make a coherent whole, but the pieces of her own life no longer make sense to her. She wants to go back, but as Thomas Wolfe famously said, “You can’t go home again.” She wants to see Willy, and we know from the prologue that she does.

It has been a long time since he has seen her, a very long time, but he would have known her in a second. A fraction of a second. For a moment he feels he might soon waken from a dream, but for once, at last and after all, it is not a dream.

Reading that again, after having spent a few hours with Judith and Willy, is deeply moving. I loved everything about Willy. I loved his wry sense of humour and his deep and abiding love for Judith. I loved Judith, too. She’s smart and thoughtful; she cares about the past. I loved how McNeal’s book  tapped into the everyday moments that make up a life: eating and reading and sleeping and falling in love.

To Be Sung Underwater magnificently captures that very human impulse to revisit what we have lost and to try, where possible, to make ourselves whole again. This is a beautiful novel and I highly recommend it.

Mercury- Margot Livesey

When I was about twelve,  I wanted a horse. Don’t ask me why; I certainly couldn’t tell you now. I’ve had three horseback riding experiences in my life – none of them involved me racing along a forest path or a stretch of beach, one with the horse. The one common theme of those riding experiences is me being terrified. In two instances, the horse decided to run (trot? gallop?) and I was unable to stop the bloody beast. In my 40s, while working for The Canadian Antiques Roadshow, I spent a freezing May afternoon  with some of my colleagues at a ranch outside of Lethbridge. A two-hour trail ride left me with bruises on the inside of my legs. I couldn’t sit comfortably for a week. So horses, after all, not my thing.


That’s me in the middle. I am only smiling because we haven’t started our journey.

I tell you these stories so you’ll understand why I didn’t relate at all to Viv, one of the two narrators in Margot Livesey’s novel Mercury. Viv and her husband, Donald (the second, and predominate, narrator) live in a rural community outside Boston. Don is an optometrist; Viv runs a stable with her best friend, Claudia. They have two children.

28446368The first section of the novel is narrated by Don, a somewhat stoic Scotsman, who is still grieving over the loss of his father whom he admits he missed “in every way imaginable.” Perhaps this is meant to explain how things at home start to shift without him noticing: finances, his son’s trouble at school, his wife’s growing obsession with Mercury, a new horse being boarded at the stable.

Mercury, true to his name, was unmistakably hot-blooded. The lines of his body, the arch of his neck, the rise and fall of his stride, were, I agreed with Viv reluctantly, beautiful.

And obsession just about sums it up, too, as Viv tries to jumpstart her dream of competing with Mercury. Even though the horse doesn’t belong to her, Viv feels a kinship with him.

At the gate Mercury fixed his large dark eyes on me a nickered softly.  Then he scraped the ground, twice, with his right front hoof, choosing me.

Sadly, for me, I didn’t feel this kinship. Mercury is a novel with a billion things going on and a cast that, even though I read the book over the course of a handful of days, had me flipping back to figure out who they were. And all these characters have stories, too. There’s Don’s mom, feisty widow ready to love again; Jack, a blind (literally) professor who takes up with Hilary, owner of Mercury;  there’s Charlie, stable-girl who also covets the horse; Bonnie, a blip on Don’s devoted husband radar. The only thing keeping all these threads pulled together is Livesey’s prose. I’ve been a fan since Eva Moves the Furniture.

And, yeah, I get the whole Don’s an optometrist (irony!) but doesn’t actually see his wife. And I get that Viv’s devotion to Mercury blinkers her to everything else. And I also understand that Viv feels that Don’s grief over his father is isolating. But for me, there  wasn’t any emotional center in Mercury. I just didn’t buy that a horse could cause such a fuss.

I thank HarperCollins for providing me with my review copy and TLC Book Tours for inviting me to participate in this book tour.


The House at the Edge of the World – Julia Rochester

Twins Morwenna and Corwin have grown up on the Devon coast with their unhappy parents, John and Valerie, and their paternal grandfather, Matthew. They are eighteen when the novel begins and their father has just fallen off a cliff to his death. Morwenna, the narrator of Julia Rochester’s compelling novel The House at the Edge of the World says “He was pissing into the brine at Brock Tor on his way home from the pub and fell headlong drunk into the spring tide with his flies open.”

house-edge-worldMorwenna draws us into a gothic landscape where people use language with scalpel-like precision and the characters are not particularly sympathetic.

Take Morwenna herself. I can’t remember the last time I read a book with a first-person narrator that I didn’t really like. Morwenna is prickly and often cruel. Her employer that eighteenth summer tells her she is “a bad-tempered, foul-mouthed little smartarse.” He’s not wrong. The only person she seems to even remotely care about is Corwin, her beautiful and enigmatic twin.

After the death of their father, Corwin leaves Thornton and heads to India where he says he is going to “move water.” Morwenna goes to London, first to school and then to a job as a book-binder. It’s incongruous to her personality – the care she takes to make these beautiful hand-crafted books with their embossed leather covers and beautiful end-papers.

Then Morwenna tells us “For seventeen years after my father’s death nothing much happened and then a pigeon flew through my window.” It’s a sign, surely. Corwin comes home and the siblings, again in each other’s orbit, start to pull at the thread of their family history.

Much of this history is captured in the map their grandfather, Matthew, has been painting for as long as they can remember. The map captures both the landscape and the history of their ancestral home and soon becomes an important clue in the mystery of Morwenna’s father’s life and death.

Even more intriguing to me is the relationship between Morwenna and her brother. To say it’s complicated would be the understatement of the year. His arrival back in England after a long absence offers Morwenna only “one last  lazy unspoiled afternoon” before Matthew’s map and their childhood home spills its secrets.

I really liked The House at the Edge of the World. The language is beautiful. There is an element of idioglossia between Morwenna and Corwin.  They are endlessly compelling even if you don’t particularly like them. The same is true for the rest of the characters. Only Valerie, when she finally moves away from Thornton, seems to manage a modicum of happiness.

I am not satisfied with the way I am talking about this novel. Gah! It’s probably because I don’t want to give anything away and I also have all these conflicting emotions about it. So let me just say this:

Highly recommended.



The Dogs – Allan Stratton

Cameron and his mom have been on the run for as long as Cameron can remember. the_dogs_uk_cover_med_frontCameron’s dad is dangerous and they’ve never been able to stay in one place for very long. This last move takes them to a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, outside of a small town called Wolf Hollow.

“Whoa! Somebody! Put this place out of its misery.” That’s how Cameron describes the two-storey, ramshackle building he and his mom are going to call home. Mom notes the two staircases and says “It’s good to have more than one escape route…in case of fire.” Mr. Sinclair, the old farmer who owns the house, is secretive and slightly menacing.

But Cameron’s creepy father isn’t the only creepy thing going on in Allan Stratton’s YA novel The Dogs. Cameron discovers some drawings and a photograph in the coal room and the discovery connects him to a strange mystery that has haunted the farmhouse for decades. One of the drawings depicts “a pack of wild dogs ripping things apart.” Further investigation reveals that the previous owner, Mr. McTavish, was ripped apart by his dogs after his wife and son, Jacky, ran off with another man.

The clever things about The Dogs is that it operates on many different levels. As Cameron spends more and more time trying to figure out what really happened in the farmhouse all those years ago, he also begins to question his own memories of his father. Is his mother telling him the whole truth or is she leaving out essential details? Is his dad really as bad as his mother says?

Cameron’s traumatic childhood makes him especially suggestible and readers will share every spooky bump-in-the-night incident with him as he tries to reconcile his memories with what is happening in the house. Is he crazy, as his mother worries he might be, or are the things he sees and hears really happening?

“It’s not my fault I picture things, or talk to myself. If I try to keep all the stuff in my head inside, I’ll explode,” Cameron explains to his mother.

The Dogs is written in straight-forward prose, which will appeal to many young readers particularly reluctant readers. I think any reader will enjoy the book’s eeriness and honest portrayal of a teenage boy who despite his own difficulties shows tremendous resilience. I know I did.