Friday, 13 October 2017

The Diary of a Young Girl / Anne Frank

4 out of 5 stars
I finally got around to reading this heart-warming and heart-wrenching document.  I attempted it as a much younger person and didn’t get very far, perhaps because I was a teenager myself with my own angst to deal with.

There’s no doubt that Anne was right about her own writing abilities.  If she had lived, I think she definitely had a chance to become a significant author.  She could have edited her own diaries to begin with and perhaps written more about the Jewish experience during WWII.

I think her father (the only surviving member of those concealed in the Annex) was a brave man to allow her journals to be published.  He and his wife do not always come out of them looking good.  However, we, as readers, are continually reminded that the people confined in this small space are bound to clash with one another repeatedly.  Imagine having no space to truly call your own, having to share cooking & food supplies, not having easy access to a toilet and not being able to flush during certain hours, and having to be quiet during the workday so as not to alert the employees working below them!  Prisoners in jails have better living conditions!

I am also impressed by the courageous Dutch folk who hid their Jewish friends and kept them supplied with the necessities of life for so long.  That’s a big commitment and they fulfilled it for two years with very few glitches (health problems for all of them sometimes made for erratic food delivery).  How many of us would have the fortitude and the bravery to attempt such a feat?

The saddest part of the book was definitely the afterword—Anne’s last entry is absolutely ordinary (in an extraordinary circumstance) and then they are betrayed and sent to concentration camps.  They had lasted so long and the end of the war was just a year away (although they had no way to know that).  I was left with the melancholy question of what might have been.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children / Ransom Riggs

4 out of 5 stars
A mysterious island. An abandoned orphanage. A strange collection of curious photographs.

A horrific family tragedy sets sixteen-year-old Jacob journeying to a remote island off the coast of Wales, where he discovers the crumbling ruins of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. As Jacob explores its abandoned bedrooms and hallways, it becomes clear that the children were more than just peculiar. They may have been dangerous. They may have been quarantined on a deserted island for good reason. And somehow—impossible though it seems—they may still be alive.


  I chose this novel to fill the “Chilling Children” square of my 2017 Halloween Book Bingo.

I was pleasantly surprised by this young adult fantasy. An interesting amalgam of “found” photographs and a fantastical tale and the two work very well together. Jacob Portman has had an uneasy relationship with the stories that his grandfather, Abraham, tells about his childhood orphanage and its occupants. We get to share in his confusion, as he attempts to ascertain which elements of the story are true and which are tall tales.

In many ways, we all have to perform this task—examine the family stories and family history and see how much of it is useful or relevant to those of us in the present. I’m a family history researcher, so perhaps I see value where others don’t, but I don’t feel that any family information is useless. If nothing else, it tells us where our family attitudes and habits come from. At best, it can show harmful family patterns that a person can discern and avoid. No need for a young woman to marry an abusive man and learn the hard way—examine your ancestress’ lives and either find a caring man (or woman) or choose to stay single.

I also liked Jacob’s father, who was lured to the Welsh island by potential birding opportunities. I’d be right there beside him! If I have any complaints, it would be the lack of resolution at the book’s end, requiring the reader to move on to the next volume for closure (and since there’s a 3rd book, I’m sure the same will be true of the second book).

The Secret Life of Germs / Philip Tierno

3 out of 5 stars
They're on everything we touch, eat, and breathe in -- on every inch of skin. And despite the advances of science, germs are challenging medicine in ways that were unimaginable ten years ago. No wonder the world is up in arms -- and using antibacterial soaps.
From the common cold, E. coli, and Lyme disease to encephalitis, mad cow disease, and flesh-eating bacteria, Tierno takes readers on a historical survey of the microscopic world. Rebuffing scare tactics behind recent "germ events" Tierno explains how the recycling of matter is the key to life. Yes, he'll tell you why it's a good idea to clean children's toys, why those fluffy towels may not be so clean, and why you never want to buy a second-hand mattress, but he also reveals that there is a lot we can do to prevent germ-induced suffering. You'll never look at anything the same way again.


I chose to read The Secret Life of Germs because I have often heard the author on CBC radio, brought in as an expert on microbial issues. It was published back in 2001, so some of the information it contains is out-of-date, though it was cutting edge at the time.

There is still plenty of good info in this volume. If nothing else, the author’s attention to prevention of disease was an excellent reminder as the cold & flu season approaches. I’m washing my hands more often and for longer than I had been—its so easy to get lazy about this! And handwashing goes so far towards keeping us healthy.

If I have any quibbles, it is with referring to all microbes as “germs.” To me, a germ is a disease causing agent, not a benign or helpful microbe. But I am sure that this title caught a bit more attention through using “germs” in the title than it might otherwise have garnered.

If you are interested in microbiology, may I recommend I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life, which offers more recent information, also in an easy to read format.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Northanger Abbey / Jane Austen

4 out of 5 stars
'To look almost pretty, is an acquisition of higher delight to a girl who has been looking plain the first fifteen years of her life, than a beauty from her cradle can ever receive'

During an eventful season at Bath, young, naïve Catherine Morland experiences the joys of fashionable society for the first time. She is delighted with her new acquaintances: flirtatious Isabella, who shares Catherine's love of Gothic romance and horror, and sophisticated Henry and Eleanor Tilney, who invite her to their father's mysterious house, Northanger Abbey. There, her imagination influenced by novels of sensation and intrigue, Catherine imagines terrible crimes committed by General Tilney. With its broad comedy and irrepressible heroine, this is the most youthful and and optimistic of Jane Austen's works.


I chose this novel to fill the “Gothic” square of my 2017 Halloween Book Bingo.

In Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen turns the gothic novel inside out, having some fun with all of its parts. Catherine Morland, our main character, is not a stereotypical gothic heroine—she isn’t tremendously beautiful, she isn’t sophisticated or educated, and she’s not even too bright! But she does read gothic romances, like The Mysteries of Udolpho to use as a guide for her behaviour. Unfortunately for her, her frenemy Isabella turns out to be a gold-digger, her visit to Northanger Abbey produces no murders nor secret passages, and there turn out to be no impediments between her and the man of her choice. The most ungothic of gothic romances!

I do have to wonder a bit about Henry, who is obviously intelligent and amusing, if only Catherine had the wits to understand him! I’m afraid he will be singularly bored, unless she can be enlivened a bit.

Down and Out in the New Economy / Ilana Gershon

3.5 out of 5 stars

Finding a job used to be simple. You’d show up at an office and ask for an application. A friend would mention a job in their department. Or you’d see an ad in a newspaper and send in your cover letter. Maybe you’d call the company a week later to check in, but the basic approach was easy. And once you got a job, you would stay—often for decades.

Now . . . well, it’s complicated. If you want to have a shot at a good job, you need to have a robust profile on LinkdIn. And an enticing personal brand. Or something like that—contemporary how-to books tend to offer contradictory advice. But they agree on one thing: in today’s economy, you can’t just be an employee looking to get hired—you have to market yourself as a business, one that can help another business achieve its goals.


An anthropologist’s view of the job seeking/hiring process. It makes me extremely happy that I am close to retirement. There’s been a sea-change in how people look at the process:
…in the mid-twentieth century, corporations believed that shareholder value depended on the ways in which a company contributed to stable careers and stable communities. Since then, corporations have changed their philosophies—their present concern is with keeping their stock prices as high as possible.

With this change in orientation, companies have encouraged job seekers to change their self-view as well. Instead of the “renting your time to your employer” model that has held sway since the Industrial Revolution, job hunters are now encouraged to think of themselves as their own businesses, “Me, Inc.” They must now seek to show that they are the “best fit” business-wise for a potential “partner.”

This basically means that each of us is an independent contractor, responsible for our own health care and retirement costs. The unequal nature of the relationship renders employment unstable at best, temporary at worst.

For the most part, consideration and respect for job seekers was thin on the ground, and having a thick skin for being treated shabbily is a necessity for people actively looking for work these days.


After reading this volume, I am quite skeptical of LinkedIn as a venue to find employment. All I can do is repeat what I said above: Thank goodness that I’m only a few years from retirement!

Help for the Haunted / John Searles

3 out of 5 stars
It begins with a call in the middle of snowy February evening. Lying in her bed, young Sylvie Mason overhears her parents on the phone across the hall. This is not the first late-night call they have received, since her mother and father have an uncommon occupation, helping "haunted souls" find peace. And yet, something in Sylvie senses that this call is different than the rest, especially when they are lured to the old church on the outskirts of town. Once there, her parents disappear, one after the other, behind the church's red door, leaving Sylvie alone in the car. Not long after, she drifts off to sleep only to wake to the sound of gunfire.

Nearly a year later, we meet Sylvie again struggling with the loss of her parents, and living in the care of her older sister, who may be to blame for what happened the previous winter.

As the story moves back and forth in time, through the years leading up to the crime and the months following, the ever inquisitive and tender-hearted Sylvie pursues the mystery, moving closer to the knowledge of what occurred that night, as she comes to terms with her family's past and uncovers secrets that have haunted them for years.


I read this book to fill the “Haunted Houses” square of my 2017 Halloween Bingo card.

As in any good ghost story, there is a lot of ambiguity in this tale of family strife and striving. Can Sylvie’s father see ghosts or not? What are her mother’s capabilities? Are they helping people or just fooling their clients and themselves?

Sylvie is a typical “good kid.” She is co-operative, obedient, studious—even when she doesn’t want to be any of those things. And her sister Rose is the typical “bad kid.” She questions everything, does what she wants to, and makes life as miserable as possible for the rest of the family. Rose and their father clash a lot—probably because they are a lot alike. That’s generally how these things work. My father & I butted heads occasionally because we were both quiet people with strong ideas and more that our share of stubbornness. Other than that, I was pretty much the stereotypical good kid, so I could relate to Sylvie quite well.

I had to wonder about what kind of person would choose a career of helping those with supernatural difficulties. Why would you put your own family into such a situation, where your own children often took a backseat to the children of others? It’s almost a truism that preacher’s kids will get in trouble, often as a way to plead for attention from their parents and that seems to hold true with any of the religious & quasi-religious professions.

In the end, it seemed that it maybe wasn’t the house that was haunted, but the family. Haunted by things left unsaid, paths left untrod, people left behind.

Monday, 2 October 2017

And I Darken / Kiersten White

4.5 out of 5 stars
No one expects a princess to be brutal. And Lada Dragwlya likes it that way. Ever since she and her gentle younger brother, Radu, were wrenched from their homeland of Wallachia and abandoned by their father to be raised in the Ottoman courts, Lada has known that being ruthless is the key to survival. She and Radu are doomed to act as pawns in a vicious game, an unseen sword hovering over their every move. For the lineage that makes them special also makes them targets.

Lada despises the Ottomans and bides her time, planning her vengeance for the day when she can return to Wallachia and claim her birthright. Radu longs only for a place where he feels safe. And when they meet Mehmed, the defiant and lonely son of the sultan, Radu feels that he’s made a true friend—and Lada wonders if she’s finally found someone worthy of her passion.

But Mehmed is heir to the very empire that Lada has sworn to fight against—and that Radu now considers home. Together, Lada, Radu, and Mehmed form a toxic triangle that strains the bonds of love and loyalty to the breaking point.


Another “young adult” book which hooked me from its first pages and left me wanting more at the end. And, handily enough, there is another book! So I will get another hit of this historical fantasy set in the Ottoman Empire and Wallachia. It’s a time and place that I know little about, so its interesting just to absorb the historical details.

But, Lada! Oh Lada! A strong girl, a fighter, ruthless and tough. What a heroine! Determined to chart her own course and not to belong to any man. Her handsome brother Radu, who probably should have been a girl, but who eventually finds his own way to be a powerful man. And Mehmet, the sultan’s son, who befriends both Wallachian children and eventually assumes the throne, changing their lives forever.

Having read this novel in close proximity to The Darkest Part of the Forest, I was struck by the parallels in the brother/sister relationships in both books. The girl being the tough fighter and the boy being hesitant about grasping his talents. Both being in love with the same person. Is this a common trope in young adult literature?

In any case, I will look forward to reading Now I Rise. I am pleasantly surprised, as I read the author’s Paranormalcy back in April and did not find it anywhere near as compelling.