Who is Frances Rain? by Margaret Buffie

Who is Frances Rain?
Margaret Buffie
(University of Toronto Press, Toronto: 1987)

READ: December 2007

Back in the days of Scholastic book fliers, I ordered this (gr. 5? gr. 6?). I've read it a few times since then, and it remains one of my favourite childhood books.

Elizabeth is going to her grandmother's cottage on Rain Lake, north of Winnipeg, for the summer, like she does every summer. Although this time, instead of it being just her, her little sister, and older brother, her mother and her mother's new husband have decided to come along. In an attempt to avoid the family strife, Elizabeth goes wandering, and she stumbles across a haunted island, of sorts, with a mystery to be solved.

It's a wonderful, short read, and while I can now see more clearly the gaps in the plot and the short-cuts sometimes taken by the author to meet certain conventions of the genre, it remains a magical, fantastical, and riveting story sure to impress and inspire kids. I highly recommend it.

Red China Blues: My Long March from Mao to Now by Jan Wong

Red China Blues : My Long March from Mao to Now
Jan Wong
(Doubleday Canada, Toronto: 1998)

READ: December 2007

For those of you who, like me, always thought Jan Wong was just a writer of fluffy, though amusing, columns in the Globe & Mail (lunch with Jan Wong, anyone?), this will set you straight.

I stumbled across this book in a second-hand shop in Ottawa, when I'd walked in intending to get something nice and light-hearted to read over lunch one day. Remembering how fascinated and curious I'd been to learn more after reading Ian Johnson's Wild Grass, I decided to pick this up. And - WOW! It's an amazing book. It's eye-opening, elucidating, and entertaining. Or to put it more bluntly, it will knock your socks off.

I don't think I can hook you any better than by posting here the publisher's blurb (from the Chapters website):

Jan Wong, a Canadian of Chinese descent, went to China as a starry-eyed Maoist in 1972 at the height of the Cultural Revolution. A true believer -- and one of only two Westerners permitted to enroll at Beijing University -- her education included wielding a pneumatic drill at the Number One Machine Tool Factory. In the name of the Revolution, she renounced rock and roll, hauled pig manure in the paddy fields, and turned in a fellow student who sought her help in getting to the United States. She also met and married the only American draft dodger from the Vietnam War to seek asylum in China.

Red China Blues begins as Wong's startling -- and ironic -- memoir of her rocky six-year romance with Maoism that began to sour as she became aware of the harsh realities of Chinese communism and led to her eventual repatriation to the West. Returning to China in the late eighties as a journalist, she covered both the brutal Tiananmen Square crackdown and the tumultuous era of capitalist reforms under Deng Xiaoping. In a wry, absorbing, and often surreal narrative, she relates the horrors that led to her disillusionment with the "worker's paradise." And through the stories of the people -- an unhappy young woman who was sold into marriage, China's most famous dissident, a doctor who lengthens penises -- Wong creates an extraordinary portrait of the world's most populous nation. In setting out to show readers in the Western world what life is like in China, and why we should care, Wong reacquaints herself with the old friends -- and enemies -- of her radical past, and comes to terms with the legacies of her ancestral homeland.

Do not pass Go, do not collect $200. Go to your nearest bookstore or library and read this book. You won't be sorry.

The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks

The Player of Games
Iain M. Banks
(Orbit, London: 1989)

A Culture Novel

READ: November-December 2007

I picked this up, mostly out of curiosity because Randal has been singing Iain M. Banks' praises for a while now. Though when he found out I was reading it, he said he would have recommended others of his books, rather than this one.

It was fine, but for someone who is only moderately familiar with the genre, Banks' particular mix of science fiction and fantasy, at least in this book, didn't really do it for me. The Player of Games tells the story of Gurgeh, a renowned game-player from the Culture, a super-advanced galactic civilization. He is sent, through a strange set of circumstances, to the Empire of Azad to participate in the Empire's ultimate tournament, a series of games which, for Azadians, determine job positions and social ranks.

While it was an interesting read, I found it a little long and ponderous at times. The story did have many parallels in today's world, especially in how its overall "point" (so to speak) was about racism and sexism, but I found it handled a little clumsily at times. Randal says I need to read more books in the genre to gain a better appreciation of what SF&F authors may be trying to do in similar cases, and he's probably right. That said, I'd be interested in reading more Banks because I can tell he has better things to offer.