An orphan in the mid-1800s is diverted from the gallows to a school for girls, gets her high school education, and graduates to become an operative for a special investigating Agency of women run by the heads of the school.
What I Liked
The story has a very strong “Anne Perry” historical fiction feel to it, but without the constant discussion of Jane Austen-style society. The mystery is solid, the characters are rich, and the investigator — Mary Quinn — is inexperienced, which shows in some of her actions. I didn’t guess the outcome, although I suspected some of it, and the hint of romance improves the flavour as it goes. She is more active than the Anne Perry-style heroines, and it shows as she breaks into various places.
What I Didn’t Like
Her age is a bit distracting as she is 17 passing for 20, which no one really believes.
A young girl uses stolen books to distract herself from the reality of living in Nazi Germany in WWII while hiding a Jewish man in her basement.
What I Liked
It is incredibly difficult to know how to review this book. The second half moves along at a much quicker pace and with much higher stakes. The book is narrated by Death / Grim Reaper, and the chapter headings give glimpses of what is to come. There are some red herrings near the end, implying one ending while leading to another, but overall it is pretty solid. The characters are lively, the girl is outstanding, and there are glimpses of her family that offer rare moments of joy and love. And it moved me to tears at the end.
What I Didn’t Like
It is hard to accept the implied message that “most Germans were good / nice”, it was just the Nazis that were bad people. And even the storyline written by the Jewish man in the basement is that it is all because of the Fuhrer, that Hitler is the only truly evil one. There are parts of it that read like almost an apology for Nazism rather than a sense of accountability for the nation’s deeds. The extra materials at the end tell how the author was inspired by his grandparents’ accounts of the ordinariness (in some ways) of the war in Germany for Germans – something that happened around them, or to them, not committed by them. In terms of the writing, the first half is a bit slow and dull, and the constant foreshadowing is repetitive and annoying at the start, less so at the end. The caricature of the mother is ridiculous; she only becomes human near the end. Finally, and this is a bit of a spoiler, the story ends rather abruptly, leaving out a huge opportunity to tell some more story. I know this book is aimed at teens and is hugely popular, but I would not wants someone relying on this book as their only source of history.
A house in the country has some hidden secrets as do some of the people who visit the house throughout 150 years of history.
What I Liked
The overall story is awesome, despite some accessibility challenges with the structure (see below). You get to see pieces of the long story in the 1850s with one character as a young girl and another as a young boy; period two is an outing a number of years later when a bunch of artists descend on the house for a seminal event in their history; later occupation of the house by a woman who runs a girls school there; transformation of the house into a museum much later, to honour one of the artists from the fateful summer; occupation of the house by a young family during WWII; a visit to the house by a man and a woman years later; and finally a visit by an archivist in the present day, trying to find out some of the history from those various periods. She has some of the clues about the various timeframes and is trying to piece together more information about the fateful summer.
What I Didn’t Like
I didn’t like the constant jumping around in time and point of view, which is the structural problem I mentioned above. There are at least seven separate timeframes for the house, and even a couple more in there that are alluded to through reminiscing, but some of the timeframes are not indicated very precisely. You kind of have to figure a couple out as you go. In addition, while the author is a master of lyrical prose, you know some of the story is going to be a bit weird when early on you see an event from the point of view of a satchel that is being opened. Yes, the actual satchel, as if it is alive. It is not the only fantastical element in the book, but the rest would be too much of a spoiler to reveal. A bigger problem I had was that in one timejump, the new PoV is in the head of a woman who has a name VERY similar to that of another character; so much so that I was ten pages into the section before I realized that it wasn’t the woman I thought it was, and the timeframe was VERY different as a result. I often read books that have timeline issues that are way more complex than here, but even I had trouble following some of the hops. I also found part of the ending left things a bit hard to understand with one person acting very out of character and the final piece being a bit open-ended.
The Bottom Line
Great prose, wonderful saga, but difficult structure.
This textbook-sized book includes ten case studies across America where former big box stores – Walmarts and Kmarts – have been put to new use after the store left or closed.
What I Liked
I was drawn to the premise of the book as I have frequently seen large big box stores in Canada, anchoring malls and plazas, move out and languish empty for a number of years. Sometimes it is a short time and another retailer moves in. Sometimes it is a long time, and it looks like urban blight. Rarely have I seen much in the way of “good news” around these sites, and I was intrigued with the idea of a series of case studies where the stores aren’t just languishing empty, but have been put to reuse.
From a policy perspective, the first thing that jumped out at me was that the stores were not all empty because the store “failed”. While the Kmarts closed, most of the Walmarts moved to larger facilities…instead of trying to renovate an existing space (and losing revenue while it was being renovated), they built a whole new store, sometimes just across the road. Secondly, I liked some of the challenges and opportunities that go with the store’s design…they are primarily utilitarian empty boxes. Which means they can be anything you want them to be, except perhaps attractive (usually). Beyond these first two, some other issues that I liked were some of the restrictions the former store put on future use when selling the land (lease restrictions to prevent competition for instance); local ordinances that were hard-learned lessons about responsibilities of the owner when the boxes are being built with a view to future reuse (accessibility, divisibility of the interior space, extra doors, etc.) or eventual removal if it sits empty too long; the short-term reuse by other types of businesses (like an indoor racetrack) until the lease restrictions ease at 10 years and the subsequent eviction of those temporary tenants in favour of larger more profitable retailers; the use of some of the properties as “land banks” to use the land for SOMETHING while waiting until the value increases; the importance of time frame for assessing success as some of the reuses look great initially but weren’t sustainable; the importance of interior and exterior aesthetics to the new users and the public; the consideration of the location not just as a “building” but as tied to the infrastructure around it – utilities, parking, accessibility to good transportation routes, etc; and the potential for complicated types of real-estate deals in place to address if you want to reuse something – current lease holder, building owner, and a land owner.
I think my favorite chapter was one that looked at a reuse of a Walmart box by three seniors services organizations who co-located into one building, and the place was thriving. Equally, I saw potential in the reuse by a few Charter schools and a couple of other “startup” organizations who couldn’t afford to build their own building, at least not initially, but could afford to lease a space, get up and running, earn some revenue, save up, and then buy the building, while slowly expanding their use throughout the space. A library project took the “challenge” of being in a big box and turned it into a way to engage the community (a common challenge to face together, which built support for the project). Finally, there is a chapter on converting the box store into a church, and not just in one location, it has happened in lots of places.
What I Didn’t Like
I was a bit disappointed that the book only looks at Kmart and Walmart stores, as they all have a very specific type of footprint, which would in some ways limit their reuse. Multiple sizes of stores might have more interesting reuses. I was also disappointed with the lack of much other context – how does big box reuse compare to gentrification of factory districts, how do the issues that crop up with historic buildings compare with the issues of more modern box stores, how do they compare with issues when converting schools or churches to other uses? A couple of the chapters are throwaway chapters for me as they are not truly reuse. One looks at a courthouse that took over the space, but just razed the building and built something new; another only used the parking lot; and another just had other types of retailers in the space.
The Bottom Line
An interesting series of case studies for a common modern-day problem.
This book is an anthology of women’s experiences in Canada during World War II. The anthology is a collection of first-person narratives from 57 women who served in various branches of the armed forces, auxiliaries, private industry in Canada during World War II. Each of the narratives have similar chronologies and approach – what the women were doing before the war, how they joined the Armed Forces or supporting occupation, their experiences during the war (both personal and professional), their life-in-brief after the war, and, finally, a chance for them to pass some judgement on “what did it all mean” for them or for women in general.
What I Liked
Although I know the editor, and hence added the book to my reading list for that reason, the stories and subject matter are compelling to me in their own right. I can remember reading an USA Today article back in 2001 about the efforts of some U.S. organizations to capture oral histories of their WWI and II survivors, archiving them at the Library of Congress and elsewhere. Volunteer organizations set up sample questionnaires and encouraged young Americans to interview their grandparents about their experiences in the war, recording them and sending them off to be archived. Distributed processing of oral histories is a great technique that works with limited resources, and I remember getting excited about it, wondering what we were doing for Canadian histories? As it turns out, quite a bit.
The Department of Veterans Affairs has a website that captures a lot of this for Canada and has some great materials available to all online. This book though captures the often-missed histories of women during that time. The individual stories are compelling and varied in place of origin, type of occupation, impact, and all the elements that comprise the story of each woman, presented in their own words. It is an amazing collective resource for anyone doing research on the era, and would serve as both a stand-alone text as well as a supplement to the experiences of others (mostly men) during the Second World War that are covered elsewhere. And it includes all the things people would expect, which I won’t cover in detail, as well as some surprising elements that transcend the ordinary.
First and foremost, the book does a fine job of avoiding over-stating the impact of WWII on the women’s movement…the tendency in many publications of this sort would be to say “this era is important, these women are important, and therefore this time was the sole catalyst for changing the world forever for women”. However, as many of the stories note, a lot of changes were already underway. This doesn’t discount the impact or added impetus of the time, but also places it in a larger context, where women were no longer only being considered as second class citizens. Many of the women left decent jobs to join the Armed Forces, putting a lie to the often-popular view that the women simply “left the house” for the first time during WWII. Second, the small details from individual stories are particularly riveting, golden nuggets of their experiences:
the lack of common knowledge about the true horrors of the concentration camps until much later after the war – while lots of organizations try to argue or advocate that people in other countries knew but sat and did nothing to prevent the atrocities, they make that argument with the wisdom of hindsight, forgetting that while rumours ran wild, very few people believed the true level of catastrophe when they heard those rumours…only after the reality was truly known and documented could people look back and say “that particular rumour there” was true, and we should have believed it. Without a reference point, lots of people would not – and maybe could not – believe that such atrocities were possible. Even today, it is hard for people to accept genocide as a real event even though it’s happened before (Jacqueline Laplante, p.22, Elizabeth Hunt, p.142) yet there was some official recognition of the problems as many Jewish people were told to change their identifications before fighting overseas (Nano Penefeather-McConnell, p.126-127);
the experience of women’s rifle training and teams (Jacqueline Laplante, p.28);
the role played by French priests in some family decisions in Quebec, with many of the priests trying hard to prevent the women from joining up or calling them home claiming their birth certificates were forged (Mary Saunders, p.28, et al);
the commonplace / matter-of-fact way of dealing with notifications of deaths in the family (Ruth Ralston, p.72); the drafting of women in England (Elizabeth Hunt, p.134);
the impact on the economy in Quebec in 1939 with many farming families suddenly having boosts in their family income with many sons and daughters working in factories, and for families in general with work plentiful and banks willing to give loans again (Olive Villeneuve, p.166); and,
the two government employees explaining to them in 1941 that there were going to be new deductions from their wages for something called “income tax” and “unemployment insurance” (Olive Villeneuve, p.168).
My favourite though is the impact of reading Lorna Stanger (p.161) talking about VE-Day in Europe. For the first time since the war started, they could have the lights in the city on at night, and had it all lit up. For the youngest children, many had only known black-outs and air-raid sirens, and seeing the lights at night actually scared them.
What I Didn’t Like
My biggest complaint is self-inflicted – I did not follow the advice of the Chief Archivist for DND who recommends in the introduction that people should read a few stories at a time rather than plowing through them. My challenge was simply that I borrowed the book from the library, so with limited time, I did plow through them. And hence probably had a lessened impact than if they were read properly.
As a result, I found myself in some places confusing stories with the previous one, thinking “how did she do that? Wasn’t she in Europe by then?” and then paging back to realize it was a different woman with a similar occupation. In others though, I find myself struggling with the format – the stories appear one after another, seemingly ungrouped in any way. I can’t help wondering if there would be more impact if the stories had been arbitrarily grouped to convey a stronger message.
For example, by province of origin – would those who were born in Ontario have a different experience than those in Winnipeg? Ordering by service branch would be an obvious option but might negate some of the commonalities across branches. One could organize by a dozen other possibilities too, such as their posting, occupation, age at induction, future careers, whether they went overseas, etc.
In the end, the challenge might just be the biographical genre. Given the wealth of information, I found myself wanting to see some analysis across the anthology that you could digest and pull out, rather than just the raw text. But that would be a different text then, perhaps one more for academics to produce. And absent the analysis, I wanted to see different ways of sorting – but that too would be a different publication, more of a database than a book.