Book Reviews

Book reviews are added monthly  

Geoff Dembicki:  Are We Screwed?  How a New Generation is Fighting to Survive Climate Change     reviewed by Wendy Boothroyd

In Are We Screwed?, Geoff Dembicki takes us to the Alberta tar sands, the Paris climate talks, the basement of a South Dakota tribal casino, Brooklyn, Wall Street, the Capitol Hill Club (a “refined and elegant” meeting place for “influential Republicans everywhere”) … and to a small island in the northernmost reaches of a Gulf Island archipelago.  Yes, he starts his book with a story from Denman Island, which he describes inaccurately as a wilderness.

Dembicki reports that if we don’t curb our greenhouse gas emissions, the worst consequences of climate change could be happening around the year 2065.  Dembicki was born in 1986.  He belongs to a generation that will suffer from the full impact of climate change. Their “fates are being decided by old men”.  These “old men” and the rest of the baby boomers will be long gone.

Dembicki interviews young activists, homesteaders, an apolitical artists, a whistle-blower, a petroleum industry lobbyist, an indigenous film-maker, and people fighting the Keystone XL pipeline.  His research includes polling which indicates the Millennials value global interests over national ones.

He tells the story of Karl Clark, a chemist and an avid wilderness canoeist.  Clark travelled to the Fort McMurray region during WWI.  There was “so much tarry sand … it literally oozed out of the riverbanks.  No one knew what to do with it.  Clark figured it could be used to waterproof prairie roads.  He spent decades developing technology to extract the oil out of the tar sands and was present on Tar Island the day construction began.”

“He’d spent much of his life working towards this day, yet he was traumatized by what he witnessed.”  His daughter recalled that “it broke his heart to see the devastation done to his beloved landscape”.

Unlike Karl Clark, Dembicki tells us that today’s youth look at the big picture.  Are those youth screwed?  I won’t give away the story, but I will say that it is a clearly written, easy book to read.


Yasuko Thanh:  Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountain              reviewed by Louise Bell

Based on the true story of the Hanoi Poison Plot of 1908, this prize-winning novel follows a group of Vietnamese who are intent on overthrowing French colonial rule but often distracted by grandiose posturing, alcohol and opium.  The setting is Saigon in 1908, a city seething with conflict and corruption.  From a well-to-do family and educated in France, Dr Nguyen Georges-Minh is dedicated to treating the oppressed, making his own pharmaceuticals and seeing patients in his lavish villa on the outskirts of Saigon.  His particular interest is plant-based drugs, both therapeutic and harmful.  Georges-Minh’s home is also the setting for meetings with four of his friends, all under thirty like him, who together are planning to poison the despotic French general and his garrison of 200 soldiers.  Of great interest to the group is the choice of their name, and they finally settle on Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountain. The planning is also interrupted by drinking and card playing, during which they curse the French and dream about a democratic Vietnam.  Lives unfold as the poisoning plot comes together, Georges-Minh marrying a beautiful but delicate patient and becoming a father.  But the men fail to consider the challenges of executing their plan, to say nothing of the impact on their personal lives.  Everything changes when they are forced to flee into the outlying provinces, exposing them to the poverty stricken Vietnamese countryside and the unexpected pockets of French sympathizers.


Emily St. John Mandel:  Station Eleven                                                     reviewed by Annette Reinhart

“Delano Island is between Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia, a straight shot north from Los Angeles….. Every year there are approximately two hundred days of rain.  There’s a village of sorts by the ferry terminal: a general store with one gas pump, [….] a real-estate office, an elementary school with sixty students, a community hall with two massive carved mermaids holding hands to form an archway over the front door and a tiny library attached.”

Sound familiar?

Our own wee island serves as a starting point for the lives of two of the main characters in Denman-raised Emily St. John Mandel’s science fiction novel, Station Eleven.  In this story, there are two different global realities – pre and post-world apocalypse – that occur within a short time period (20 odd years).  This sudden change is due to a pandemic that wipes out most of the world’s population.  The plot weaves back and forth between idyllic beginnings on our west coast, a high-flying life of fame and fortune in east coast cities, and the primitive realities of the few survivors in the new devastated world after the global collapse.  Many narrative threads link the two worlds, including a multi-volume graphic novel called Station Eleven written and drawn pre-devastation and carried around by a survivor of the pandemic.  As the title predicts, Station Eleven comes to play a large role in the outcome of the novel.

The author uses the apocalyptic divide not so much to do the usual sci-fi thing which is to paint a vivid picture of a devastated world and dwell on the intense suffering and struggles to survive in it.  Instead, she uses this disaster as a vehicle or device to build the narrative – the story weaves back and forth between the two periods tracing the lives of the characters who have survived and using their stories to build up a larger story that carries them all within it.  It’s a story twinned on both sides of the societal collapse with Shakespearean stage actors focused on bringing art and beauty to the world.  The motto “Because survival is not enough” (taken from Star Trek) is held by the caravan of performers and musicians intent on bringing the best of the old, functioning world into the devastated post-pandemic world.  As the author says in an interview, “We have an instinct for art, even in the midst of catastrophe, and you see that in any of the most desperate places on Earth:  people play music in refugee camps and put on plays in war zones.”

This ambitious book is multi-layered, and comes from several viewpoints; it’s beautifully constructed with lots of links and clues between the times and characters to keep the narrative cohesive and the reader turning the pages.  The book has gathered great reviews, awards (finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction) and caused a three day bidding war amongst six publishers before being sold to Alfred A. Knopf.

Emily St. John Mandel has crafted a nested story that is creative, engrossing and brings a thoughtful perspective onto a fallen world.  Her writing is rich and brings characters and situations through cleverly invented and fully imagined times.  “I’ve always been interested in writing about memory, and in what it means to live honorably in a damaged world.”  She currently lives and works in New York City … but it all really started here … on our own Manhattan-sized island.


Marina Endicott:  Close to Hugh                                                               reviewed by Barry Landeen

The title of Marina Endicott’s latest book is not the only pun to be made about the main character, Hugh Argylle.  Many Hugh/you quips are made throughout the book including each chapter title which contains some variation on this word play.  Early in the book the statement is made:  “Hugh lives his life in the second person, never quite sure whether it’s Hugh or you.”  This sentiment of uncertainty is pretty widespread within Hugh’s circle of friends and family who all struggle with aspects of their lives, identities or aspirations.   Each chapter reinforces this by beginning with a Buddhist quote on the nature of suffering and the inevitability of human craving.

Like Hugh, the rest of the two generations who form Endicott’s cast of characters are part of an art/theatre community, either teaching, performing, or showing some kind of art.  Their lives are in flux, events and fortunes rising but mostly falling every day of an October week (a month squarely situated in the Fall).  The story takes place over this single week with each day filling a chapter and each chapter containing a variety of sections that deliver an individual character’s thoughts and perspectives.  There’s also a narrator who contributes an overarching plot, and one character, Della, who speaks in stream of consciousness phrases that poetically (and structurally – passages can be read left to right or up and down) express her feelings and escalating fears.  Ladders and staircases are prominent symbols which appear literally and metaphorically and make the story feel somewhat like a game of snakes and ladders with the ups and down of fortunes and events, and the intricate weaving of interactions between generations and personal histories.

This is not a quick read, there is lots to be absorbed on every page – layers of meaning and references (many lines are integrated into the narrative from Shakespeare, Beckett, or Wilde), plenty of wordplay beyond Hugh/you (a character named Nevaeh – heaven in reverse; the Argylle Art Gallery which Hugh fears may be scrambled into the Allergy Gallery if he sells it; an absent husband Ken who gets referred to as beyond the ken …. to name a very, very few), literary quotes (one heartbroken character fills her house with feminist quotes from literature using a Sharpie pen), and lots and lots of generational mirroring – adults struggling,teenagers coming of age.  There is plenty of entertaining lateral thinking and cheeky referencing that form the layers of this book.  It isn’t written conventionally, instead often feels like self-dialogue or a theatrical play.

Then there is an art piece ……… a walk-through, maze-like art installation containing suspended paper images of all the characters – a parallel world, representing them all.  This installation, called The Republic, is put together by one of the young women art students and is a work in process secreted away in a locked room in her basement.  This piece serves the narrative as a reflection of her world above – a labyrinth of the people and their complex interconnections – their intertwined personal histories and relationships.  The Republic is an important hook on which the novel hangs – a young artist who aspires to create and make sense of her personal universe in a single work of art.

As Hugh ponderously states, “The weft, the web map of the world in L’s Republic, strings, a theory of tendrils, connections, onion-skin portraits receding rapidly to some unimaginable ceiling, to godhead.”

“All of us who will be dead, all of us, if the fabric of the world is not kept whole by constant never-ending vigilance.”

Marina Endicott has shown this very kind of vigilance in her tightly-woven creation of characters who inhabit and interact in this web-like story – a challenging, multi-layered and highly rewarding book.