Monday, August 26, 2013

Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918

The title: Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918
The authors: Gina Kolata
Publication: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999
Got it from:  The library

I have been wanting to read a book about the influenza epidemic of 1918 and this one was recommended as one of the best.  Unfortunately it doesn't actually go into as much detail as I'd like about the actual epidemic.  It's almost entirely about what happened after, which is itself a fascinating story.

In recent years there has been more interest in studying this flu, but until the 1990's (ie, in living memory), it was almost as if it never happened.  But the facts are shocking: more people died of the flu in just a few months than were killed in World War I.  What made the disease so horrifying was that it most often struck and killed young adults (aged 20-40).  Until recently, no one knew what it was and what caused it.

The author goes into great detail about the lives of the scientists who in the years after searched for the killer virus.  This is a timely subject for those of us living today, having just gone through the 2009 swine flu epidemic and will probably be facing another one in a matter of years.  The problem was that in 1918 doctors and scientists weren't equipped with the tools and knowledge to combat the virus, let alone to figure out what was causing it.  Modern-day scientists had to do some serious detective work to track down the extinct virus.  In a few cases, they used tissue samples taken from victims and stored in paraffin, in other instances they traveled to the Arctic and unearthed the bodies of victims from permafrost.

Reading this makes me want to know more about the social history of the effects of this disease.  How could 40 million people (most of them in the prime of life) just disappear without it affecting the course of history?  There is some hint at the ripple effects on people's psyches, such as the 1976 American vaccine debacle where scientists and politicians rushed to vaccinate people because they feared another 1918.  Perhaps these are questions to be answered by another book.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The House on Durrow Street

The title: The House on Durrow Street
The authors: Galen Beckett
Publication: Spectra, 2010
Got it from: Amazon b-day money 2012 (thanks sis!)

The House on Durrow Street is the sequel to The Magicians and Mrs. Quent (my review can be found here.)  There are some minor spoilers for the first book in my review below.

The narrative splits the three main characters and separates them for most of the 700-page novel.  Having married Mr. Quent in the last book, Ivy, her sisters and new husband take up residence at the Lockwells' old house on Durrow Street.  It is currently under renovations to restore it to its former glory, and the workmen uncover several secrets about the house, chief among them a set of doors which had formerly been walled up.  Some of the most interesting scenes in the book involve Ivy's investigations into the life of the house's original owner, Dratham, and his work as a magician.  Another key in the form of her father's journal is uncovered, which provides Ivy with more clues to the house's secrets as well as her father's younger years.  Meanwhile, Mr. Quent's work for the government sees the family rising in rank.  Ivy suddenly finds herself moving in more exalted circles and making friends with nobility.

While this is going on, Rafferdy is still in love with Ivy and trying (unsuccessfully) to get over losing her to Mr. Quent.  He finds some distraction in taking his father's place in parliament, which provides the reader with an insight into the political machinations of Altania.  Rafferdy also joins a secret magician's cult that is not as it seems.

And then we have Garritt, who has taken up a relationship with the illusionist Dercy and is supporting himself and his sister through his work as a church clerk.  Garritt slowly uncovers his talent for illusions while nursing a dream of entering the priesthood.  His ambitions are stymied by the fact that both illusionists and gay men are banned from the priesthood.

Once again I was drawn into the author's well-crafted world.  This is not by any means a page-turner.  It is meant to be read slowly and savoured like a twelve-course banquet.  The messages are subtle and the action is all character-driven.  Beckett is the master at dropping intriguing little hints at things but not quite following up with definite answers.  For instance, in a book Ivy reads, it's suggested that their world once had regular days like ours instead of days of varying length - will we discover that this novel actually takes place in the future?   There's also some suggestion that Altania was once a more matriarchal society, with women/witches having strong ties with the Wyrdwood.  In fact, I loved how focused this book was on the Wyrdwood, the ancient forests of Altania (and clearly a reference to the old forests of England).  I love the idea of the Wyrdwood having almost human-like sentience and the power to defeat enemies.  Basically I love trees and wish I could communicate with them like Ivy.  It seems way cooler than just being a regular old (male) magician.

There's so many little things in this book that I could talk about that I almost could have done chapter-by-chapter blogging.  However, I will leave it at this and say that if you enjoyed the first book, you will undoubtedly love this one.  Can't wait for number threee.

And speaking of which:

My predictions for The Master of Heathcrest Hall

Rafferdy will continue to wear awesome outfits and carry his vanity cane.

Sashie will jump off a cliff.  (Just kidding.  Although I wish that were true).

Mr. Quent is going to die.  This is unfortunate because I quite like him.  But I'm sorry, the man is toast.

Garritt will finally catch a break.

The man in the Black Mask will turn out to be Dratham.

The people of Altania will stop fighting, band together, and defeat the Ashen with the help of the Wyrdwood.

Ivy and Rafferdy will finally resolve their unresolved sexual tension.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

British things

I am close - very close - to having some new reviews up soon!  In the meantime, I have been thinking a lot about how so many of the books I read and shows I watch are British.  I've been a huge Anglophile ever since my family lived in England for a year when I was little.  There's something about fiction set in Britain that just appeals to me.  I love their mysteries, their histories and especially their sense of humour.

In honour of absolutely nothing, I thought I'd pull together a list of my favourite British movies and TV shows.  This is not a list of ones I consider "the best," just ones I happen to love.  I'm hoping to do one for British books soon too.  So brew yourself a nice cup of English tea and enjoy!

(This list is not in any particular order!)

Pride and Prejudice 1995

It's become kind of a cliche to admit you love this version of P&P, but it really is excellent.  Forget all the wet-shirt Darcy nonsense and enjoy Jennifer Ehle's performance as an intelligent and thoughtful Lizzy.  The 1980 version with Elizabeth Garvie and David Rintoul is also really well done and often overlooked in the shadow of its more famous counterpart.

Downton Abbey

Again I'm stating the obvious here, but this soap opera is very addictive.  My favourite is the first season.  The second season was okay and the third season pretty much jumped the shark for me - but I keep coming back anyway.  I especially loved the feminist Lady Sybil and her Irish revolutionary chauffeur romance storyline from Season 1.


I first saw this show on a visit to England in 1999 and I've loved it ever since.  (By the way, the episode I saw was the infamous Puritans vs. the "rude turnip.")  The series set in the Regency period is absolute perfection.  Rowan Atkinson and Tony Robinson are delightful as the sarcastic and exasperated Blackadder and mentally unstable dogsbody Baldrick, respectively.  And forget House - Hugh Laurie is at his best as the insanely dim-witted Prince of Wales.  Stephen Fry also has a wonderful cameo as a bullying Duke of Wellington.  The episode "Dish and Dishonesty," where Baldrick gets elected as an MP, is one of my favourite episodes from any show, ever.

Doctor Who  (New series 1-4)

I will admit up front I've never seen the original Doctor Who and I had no interest in the show after series 4.  However, I loved the Christopher Eccleston/David Tennant years.  Even though there were some seriously dark moments in the show,  it never lost its sense of fun.  Highlights for me include the introduction of Donna in "The Runaway Bride" and the three-story arc of the Master's return at the end of series 3.

Sense and Sensibility 1995

Not surprisingly, there are a number of Jane Austen movies on this list.  This version of S&S was my first introduction to the world of Jane Austen when I saw it in the theatre as a thirteen-year-old.  I instantly fell in love with the Regency era through this movie.  I still enjoy watching it - not just for the great story, but for the wonderful settings and costumes.  (Fun fact: I got a private tour of Montacute House, where the Palmers live, on a visit to England in 2006).   Although many people think of Snape when they think of Alan Rickman, for me he will always be Col. Brandon.  And speaking of Alan Rickman -

Love, Actually

It's hard to believe it's been ten years since I first saw this warm and fuzzy movie in the theatres.  Describing its many tangled plotlines is almost impossible if you haven't seen it, but here are some highlights: Bill Nighy playing a hilarious and awful aging rock star, Colin Firth having his heart broken and mended in France; Martin Freeman being adorable and Martin Freeman-y; Hugh Grant playing a prime minister who falls for one of his household staff.  And that leads me to...

Bridget Jones' Diary

Even though I'm not a fan of chick lit and bumbling heroines, I just can't help loving this movie.  I  always end up rooting for Bridget, who is a screw-up but less awful than everyone else around her.  The wimpy fight between Colin Firth and Hugh Grant toward the end gets major bonus points, as does the fact that the story is based on Pride and Prejudice.  Bonus points also to Colin Firth for being so cute as Mark Darcy and James Callas for playing Bridget's flamboyantly sassy guy pal.  And yes, I even love the sequel that everyone hates and will watch it every time it's on TV.

Black Books

Honestly, everything Graham Linehan does is pure gold and I can't decide which of his creations I like best, so I'm just sticking them all on this list.  In Black Books, Dylan Moran plays a disheveled (and that's putting it nicely) bookstore owner, whose only contact with the outside world are his customers and his friends, alcoholic Fran (Tamsin Grieg) and cheerful assistant Manny (Bill Bailey).  My favourite episode is Locked Out, where Bernard has to survive one night in the outside world and ends up working for a fast-food restaurant, Fran goes ga-ga over a deep-voiced man, and Manny has to resort to eating bees to survive.  It's even crazier than it sounds.

The IT Crowd

I was only introduced to this show recently, and already it's in my top 10.  In The IT Crowd, Graham Linehan proves he's the master at finding ensemble casts that compliment each other perfectly.  Katherine Parkinson plays Jen, an IT manager who knows nothing about IT, but is great at reining in her wayward employees and wearing fabulous outfits.  Her two uber-nerd employees are Roy (Chris O'Dowd), a scruffy and somewhat lecherous Irishman, and Moss (Richard Ayoade), who is a technical genius but can't comprehend the real world.  Expect lots of insanity and comedy of errors.

Father Ted

Graham Linehan's first show isn't technically "British" but the humour definitely is.  Dermot Morgan plays a disgraced priest who is banished to Craggy Island, a remote parish off the west coast of Ireland, as punishment.  There he must share a parochial house with two deranged priests: Father Jack, who is constantly drunk, angry, and insane; and wide-eyed man-child Father Dougal (Ardal O'Hanlon).  My favourite episode is "Speed 3" but it's too ridiculous to even describe.  If you like your humour beyond absurd, you'll love this.

Hot Fuzz

I can't even talk about how much I love this movie.  My brain pretty much imploded with laughter the first time I saw this and I haven't gotten it back yet.  All I'll say is: if you love traditional British murder mysteries, but love seeing traditional British murder mysteries turned on their head even more, you need to watch this movie.  I think I've seen it five times now and I'm still catching new jokes that fly fast and furious.  I'm impatiently waiting for The World's End.

Northanger Abbey (2007)

Of all the newer (post 2000) adaptations of Jane Austen, this one is my favourite.  NA is my second favourite Jane Austen, and this is a fun adaptation.  JJ Feild plays a teasing and flirtatious Henry Tilney, and  Felicity Jones strikes just the right note as the daydreaming Catherine Morland.  Look out for a pre-famous Carey Mulligan as the scheming Isabella Thorpe.

Emma (1996)

In my opinion Kate Beckinsale's version of Emma is better than Gwenyth Paltrow's.  It felt truer to Austen, more British and less "Hollywood."  I re-watched it a few years ago when I re-read the book and enjoyed it just as much as when it originally aired.

The Vicar of Dibley

This is not just one of my favourite British shows, but one of my top three favourite shows of all time.  It's my ultimate go-to, cheer-me-up comfort show.  Dawn French plays a female vicar who goes to work for a sleepy little English village called Dibley.  She ends up being the only sane woman in a village of loveable loonies.  Let me just say that I want to live in Dibley in general and the vicar's house in particular.  Not to spoil anything if you haven't seen the show, but Richard Armitage shows up at the end as a handsome stranger and - SWOON!

The Office 

 Even though Ricky Gervais's character makes you extremely uncomfortable, I was hooked on the original version of this show.  Tim and Dawn's will-they-or-won't-they romantic storyline had me on the edge of my seat.  The Tim vs. annoying co-worker Garth sub-plot was also extremely funny and so true to real life.


Okay, so maybe I have saved the best for last after all.  This show could hardly get more perfect in terms of cast, script and setting.  The British have done their duty to women the world over by giving us extremely excellent chocolate and the combination of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.  And on behalf of women everywhere - thank you, England!

There are so many other great British TV shows and movies that I enjoy, but that's all I have time for now.  Please let me know if I've made any huge omissions!

ETA:  I can't believe I forgot to add The Supersizers!  My favourite documentary series.  Giles and Sue are so funny and great together.  The perfect mix of hilarity and history!