Friday, 20 April 2018

The Good Women of China / Xinran

3.5 stars out of 5
When Deng Xiaoping’s efforts to “open up” China took root in the late 1980s, Xinran recognized an invaluable opportunity. As an employee for the state radio system, she had long wanted to help improve the lives of Chinese women. But when she was given clearance to host a radio call-in show, she barely anticipated the enthusiasm it would quickly generate. Operating within the constraints imposed by government censors, “Words on the Night Breeze” sparked a tremendous outpouring, and the hours of tape on her answering machines were soon filled every night. Whether angry or muted, posing questions or simply relating experiences, these anonymous women bore witness to decades of civil strife, and of halting attempts at self-understanding in a painfully restrictive society. In this collection, by turns heartrending and inspiring, Xinran brings us the stories that affected her most, and offers a graphically detailed, altogether unprecedented work of oral history.

This is a heartbreaking book which I would never have picked up except I was looking for an X author for my Women Authors A-Z reading challenge this year. I never know how to rate books like these because it’s important to know about the situations in countries other than our own, but I always feel helpless and angry when I know that women are having such frightful difficulties.

I have to bear in mind that this book was published in 2002 originally, the author having moving from China to England in order to be free to do such a thing. A lot can and probably has changed in 16 years, plus many of the stories related in this book are from earlier years yet.

The Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) seems to have disrupted relations between men and women and the nature of family relationships to an extreme. Survival was top of mind for everyone and each did what they had to. Xinran reveals the painful stories told to her by Chinese women—of having children horribly injured, daughters gang raped, husbands treating them like servants (or livestock), work denied, promotions skipped over, you name it.

As China seems to be heading into another iteration of their authoritarian regime, there will undoubtedly be more issues for women. I hope there is still someone like Xinran to listen to women’s voices and to articulate what they are able to (Xinran herself had to walk a fine line so as not to offend the Communist Party).

In the era of the Me Too and Time’s Up campaigns here in North America, we have to hope that our sisters on other continents are able to achieve some gains as well.

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Just One Damned Thing After Another / Jodi Taylor

4.25 stars out of 5
Behind the seemingly innocuous façade of St Mary's, a different kind of historical research is taking place. They don't do 'time-travel' - they 'investigate major historical events in contemporary time'. Maintaining the appearance of harmless eccentrics is not always within their power - especially given their propensity for causing loud explosions when things get too quiet.

Meet the disaster-magnets of St Mary's Institute of Historical Research as they ricochet around History. Their aim is to observe and document - to try and find the answers to many of History's unanswered questions...and not to die in the process. But one wrong move and History will fight back - to the death. And, as they soon discover - it's not just History they're fighting.

Follow the catastrophe curve from 11th-century London to World War I, and from the Cretaceous Period to the destruction of the Great Library at Alexandria. For wherever Historians go, chaos is sure to follow in their wake....


This is the most enjoyable time-travel romp that I’ve ever read! I had great fun following the boisterous and sometimes explosive adventures of Madeleine Maxwell, as she joins the St. Mary’s Institute of Historical Research. The book ends up being something that is hard to categorize, although I’m pretty sure that stores will stick it firmly on the Fantasy shelf. But there is mystery, intrigue, romance—you name the genre.

I am always delighted with fiction that includes dinosaurs, so the time travel to the Cretaceous was absolutely perfect for my tastes. As Miss Maxwell says, “You put dinosaurs and people together, you always get screaming.” Apparently she has seen at least one of the Jurassic Park movies!

I chose this as my time travel selection for my 2018 PopSugar challenge, but I will definitely be continuing on with the series. I love the patchwork of genres, the British sense of humour, and the adventure.

Corvus / Harold Johnson

3.5 stars out of 5
Eighty years have passed since flash floods, droughts, and tornadoes ravaged the North American landscape and mass migrations to the north led to decade-long wars. In the thriving city of La Ronge, George Taylor and Lenore Hanson are lawyers who rarely interact with members of the lower classes from the impoverished suburb of Regis and the independently thriving Ashram outside the city. They live in a world of personalized Platforms, self-driving cars, and cutting edge Organic Recreational Vehicles (ORVs), where gamers need never leave their virtual realities.

When Lenore befriends political dissenter and fellow war veteran Richard Warner, and George accidentally crash-lands his ORV near the mountain-sheltered haven of a First Nations community, they become exposed to new ways of thinking. As the lives of these near-strangers become intertwined, each is forced to confront the past before their relationships and lives unravel.


The author of this book will be coming to the annual When Words Collide conference here in Calgary in August. I try to read at least one book by each of the guests of honour before the conference and since I am a birder, how could I resist a book called Corvus?

I really enjoyed the book—Mr. Johnson is a talented writer. I loved how many threads he managed to weave into this story, everything from Aboriginal issues to climate change to poverty issues. He also painted an intriguing and rather grim view of the future. I loved his Organic Recreational Vehicles, developed from birds—swans, ravens, hawks, etc. One of the main characters, George Taylor, purchases a Raven ORV and true to Raven’s mischievous nature in Aboriginal tradition, George is taken on some unexpected adventures.

Some of Johnson’s themes are really overt—there are a couple of places where I was dismayed with the bludgeoning of the reader with his opinions (even though I agree with them). That prevented this from being a higher rated read for me—your mileage may vary.

Unbuttoned / Christopher Dummit

3 out of 5 stars
When Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King died in 1950, the public knew little about his eccentric private life. In his final will King ordered the destruction of his private diaries, seemingly securing his privacy for good. Yet twenty-five years after King’s death, the public was bombarded with stories about "Weird Willie," the prime minister who communed with ghosts and cavorted with prostitutes. Unbuttoned traces the transformation of the public’s knowledge and opinion of King’s character, offering a compelling look at the changing way Canadians saw themselves and measured the importance of their leaders’ personal lives.

Christopher Dummitt relates the strange posthumous tale of King’s diary and details the specific decisions of King’s literary executors. Along the way we learn about a thief in the public archives, stolen copies of King’s diaries being sold on the black market, and an RCMP hunt for a missing diary linked to the search for Russian spies at the highest levels of the Canadian government. Analyzing writing and reporting about King, Dummitt concludes that the increasingly irreverent views of King can be explained by a fundamental historical transformation that occurred in the era in which King’s diaries were released, when the rights revolution, Freud, 1960s activism, and investigative journalism were making self-revelation a cultural preoccupation.


If you are picking up this book to read the salacious details of the private life of William Lyon Mackenzie King, set it back on the shelf. There are precious few details about our 10th Prime Minister’s dabbling in spiritualism or his probable visits to prostitutes. Instead, this is an analysis of the way Canadians have viewed/judged/responded to these revelations about WLMK.

It’s an examination of our changing attitudes towards politicians, about the limitations of privacy, and what is acceptable behavior in Canadian society. Basically, the psychological changes as we moved from Victorian to modern sensibilities. Much of the text deals with the history of the voluminous diaries kept by WLMK and how they were a thorn in the side of his executors. King was notorious for doing just enough to get through a crisis and not another thing more—so of course he had wanted certain excerpts of his diary available to historians and the rest destroyed. However, he never got around to specifying which parts were which. The upshot is that all of his diary is now available for perusal and today you can search them online through Library and Archives Canada. His executors only destroyed the binders which detailed séances WLMK attended.

Looking backward from the 21st century, King’s foibles seem pretty tame, but they caused a sensation when they were first revealed to the public after King’s death. With no social media to out him, he was able to conduct his psychic research without penalty during his time in office. I’m not sure that Canadians are interested in more than the broad strokes of their politicians’ lives and beliefs even yet. We are much more likely to leave them alone when we encounter them in the community, because we respect private life, even if we don’t respect the politician his/her self.

Heir to the Empire / Timothy Zahn

3 out of 5 stars
Five years after the Death Star was destroyed and Darth Vader and the Emperor were defeated, the galaxy is struggling to heal the wounds of war, Princess Leia and Han Solo are married and expecting twins, and Luke Skywalker has become the first in a long-awaited line of new Jedi Knights.

But thousands of light-years away, the last of the Emperor’s warlords—the brilliant and deadly Grand Admiral Thrawn—has taken command of the shattered Imperial fleet, readied it for war, and pointed it at the fragile heart of the New Republic. For this dark warrior has made two vital discoveries that could destroy everything the courageous men and women of the Rebel Alliance fought so hard to create.


Dare I admit that I’ve never seen the Star Wars movies? And despite that gap in my experience, I still know enough of the plot lines and character details to be able to appreciate this book.

Thrawn is a great foe—alien, cool under fire, an intellect to be reckoned with, and a planning mastermind. It’s difficult to stay one step ahead of him, but somehow Luke, Han and Leia manage to do so.

My sense is that it would be best suited to a younger audience. Like the movies, things are not very nuanced, there are definite good guys & bad guys. The vocabulary and the sentence structure are uncomplicated and the plot is straight forward.

I can see the appeal to those devoted to the franchise.

Book number 280 in my Science Fiction and Fantasy Reading Project.

Monday, 16 April 2018

Earth / David Brin

3 out of 5 stars
TIME IS RUNNING OUT Decades from now, an artificial black hole has fallen into the Earth's core. As scientists frantically work to prevent the ultimate disaster, they discover that the entire planet could be destroyed within a year. But while they look for an answer, some claim that the only way to save Earth is to let its human inhabitants become extinct: to reset the evolutionary clock and start over.

My rating for this book probably suffers from my method of reading it—15 to 20 minute bursts while on coffee break at work. It’s a sci-fi thriller and reading only 20-30 pages per day really stretched out the action in a non-thrilling way.

It is also a little heavy on the hard science fiction side of things for my tastes—remember, I am primarily a fantasy reader! There’s an awful lot of mathematical calculations, envisioning the Earth’s core, and talk of gravity and fundamental particles. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, it’s just not my primary interest. Brin manages to bring in plenty of social and environmental issues too, and lots of people and politics, which was what kept me reading. Give me people issues!

One thing that I have to really credit this author for, he produces great swear words for his future characters. You realize that they are swearing, you accept it as such, yet the words aren’t any that would offend any contemporary reader.

It’s an interesting look at what the near future could look like and an action packed plot to keep you reading. I liked it, but I like his Uplift series more I confess.

Book number 279 in my Science Fiction and Fantasy reading project.

The Dragon Reborn / Robert Jordan

4 out of 5 stars
The Dragon Reborn—the leader long prophesied who will save the world, but in the saving destroy it; the savior who will run mad and kill all those dearest to him—is on the run from his destiny.

Able to touch the One Power, but unable to control it, and with no one to teach him how—for no man has done it in three thousand years—Rand al'Thor knows only that he must face the Dark One. But how?

Winter has stopped the war—almost—yet men are dying, calling out for the Dragon. But where is he?

Perrin Aybara is in pursuit with Moiraine Sedai, her Warder Lan, and Loial the Ogier. Bedeviled by dreams, Perrin is grappling with another deadly problem—how is he to escape the loss of his own humanity?

Egwene, Elayne and Nynaeve are approaching Tar Valon, where Mat will be healed—if he lives until they arrive. But who will tell the Amyrlin their news—that the Black Ajah, long thought only a hideous rumor, is all too real? They cannot know that in Tar Valon far worse awaits...


I know that I’ve rated this (book 3) with the same number of stars as the first two, but I have to admit that I liked it better. There was less of Rand (who I’m having difficulty feeling sympathy for right now) and more of the other folks from Two Rivers.

I loved the amount of page-time spent with Egwene, Elayne and Nynaeve! The women in this book aren’t just supporting characters, they are integral to the plot. The Aes Sedai remind me a bit of Frank Herbert’s Bene Gesserit—they are powerful, nobody knows exactly what they are doing or why, and men resent them for both of those qualities. How dare women have power and plans of their own?

I’m also liking Perrin and Mat much more than I did in book 2. All the Two Rivers folk are growing—growing up, gaining skills, getting confidence. Having come from a small, backwater town myself, I can admire the way they have revamped their lives to fit their new circumstances. It ain’t easy.

Robert Jordan really knew how to draw out a story—here I am at the end of book 3 and there are still 11 volumes ahead of me. I’ve already got a hold on volume 4 at the library and I’m ready for the Wheel of Time to continue to turn.

Book number 278 in my Science Fiction and Fantasy reading project.