Book Reviews

Des Kennedy:  Beautiful Communions                                                              reviewed by Jane Guest

There may be some newcomers to Denman Island who are not aware that we have a famous author living in our midst.  Des and Sandy Kennedy arrived here in the 1970s and together built their house on Pickles Road.  Des first became known to the general public for his garden show on TV.  His red hair and outrageous jokes attracted a big audience.  Since then he has written nine books, some funny and some serious, about the environment and social justice.

Des Kennedy’s latest novel, Beautiful Communions, is about a family.  It is fast moving, with plenty of suspense – definitely a page turner.  The theme is how some families fail to communicate with one another, with devastating consequences, especially for children.  Two young men from different background meet in London as World War II is winding down, and fall passionately in love.  They have a short time together and then Frank, the young Canadian soldier, is posted to France and killed.  Nigel Childes, the English boy, finishes his studies at Cambridge and becomes a professor at the college where Frank’s sister Ginger Flynn is an undergraduate.  Because she is so like her brother, Nigel falls in love with her, and she is dazzled by his brilliance and sophistication.  They marry and have a daughter, Sophia.  When Sophia is ten years old Ginger becomes pregnant again.  At this point Nigel decides he cannot struggle to be a husband and father any longer.  He has never tried to explain what the problem is to his wife.  He exits the house with a large suitcase and no explanation, having arranged with his lawyer to provide Ginger with an adequate monthly allowance.

Peter is born after Nigel leaves, so grows up without a father, but Sophia is completely devastated.  How could her dear loving father dump his family without a word?  No longer a happy child she grows up to be a hard woman who cannot relate to her own daughter and granddaughter.

Another young woman appears now with her own story.  Father unknown, mother a drug addict, Chrissie is living with her boyfriend Chazz and working for the local newspaper.  The owner of the newspaper is Chazz’s father, and how he is planning to become mayor and build a huge garbage incinerator above the town is the plot.  What happens when Chrissie and Ginger and their friends take up the fight against this is for the reader to find out.

Congratulations to the author for another entertaining and thought provoking book.


Bev Sellars:  Price Paid:  The Fight for First Nations Survival      reviewed by Graham Brazier

Bev Sellars has embraced a formidable task.  She wants us all to know the full extent of the wrongs done to the Indigenous people of the western hemisphere by “newcomers” from Europe since 1492.  To that end she has traveled extensively throughout the province over the course of the past two years and presented her book in power-point form to countless groups including a standing-room only crowd on Denman Island earlier this year.

Before she launches into enumerating those wrongs she wants her readers to appreciate the contributions made by the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas to the economies and cultures of Europe, Asia and Africa.  These are largely products of the soil, and include potatoes, tomatoes, corn, squash, peanuts, peppers, vanilla, maple syrup, avocado, chocolate and many more.  “This bounty of food crops,” she writes, “was taken to Europe from the Americas and it changed world cuisine forever.”  Other products of the land introduced to Europeans include rubber, cotton and countless medicines.

These contributions occupy the first 30 pages of her book.  She has no difficulty filling the remaining 170 pages with accounts of injustices committed by “newcomers”.  The backdrop for the wrongs, she points out, is one of poignant irony.  Indigenous populations showed a willingness to share before they were swept aside.  Simon Fraser, for example, would never have been able to negotiate the river named for him without Aboriginal guides, Aboriginal transportation methods, Aboriginal food supplies and Aboriginal medicines.

Bev Sellars has written a compelling book in a personal and direct tone which is enriched by her experience as a councillor and chief of the Xat’sull (Soda Creek) First Nation in Williams Lake.


Sarah Dunant:  In the Name of the Family                                            reviewed by Cindy Critchley

In the Name of the Family is a historical novel based on the notorious Borgia family, and is a sequel to Blood and Beauty.  However, for me it read very well as a stand-alone book.

The year is 1502 and Italy consists of a complicated collection of feuding city-states.  Rodrigo Borgia, although still a womanizer and master of political corruption, is now an ageing Pope Alexander VI.  He send his 22 year old daughter, Lucrezia, off to marry for the third time as part of a complicated political scheme.  Lucrezia is a young woman of great beauty and charm, as well as having great love for her father.  Cesare, Rodrigo’s son, is a brilliant tactician and a ruthless warrior.  His goal is to further increase the territory ruled by his family, and to inherit it all when his father dies.  Niccolo Machiavelli, a young diplomat from Florence, develops an admiration for Cesare and earns his trust.  (Machiavelli later utilizes what he learns to write a book on the power and politics of the time – The Prince – still a best seller in many languages.)

Sarah Dunant is well known for her meticulous research into events and characters from the Renaissance period in Italy.

Sarah, who lives in London, England, was a popular presenter at the 2009 Denman Island Readers and Writers Festival and I am thrilled that she will be returning this year.  I am looking forward to her richly illustrated talk on the secrets of her trade scheduled for Friday July 20th.

Sheri-D Wilson:  Spoken Word Artist & Poet                                                reviewed by Del Philipps

I’ve spent some hours now listening and watching YouTube videos of a woman from Alberta.  She has an amazing skill set that we will have the opportunity to hear and see this summer.  Her name is Sheri-D Wilson (aka The Mama of Dada).  She’s an award-winning spoken word poet who has performed in literary, film and folk music festivals in Canada, USA, England, France, Mexico Belgium, and South Africa.  And now to add to her resume, an appearance at the Denman Island Readers and Writers Festival.

After binge watching and listening, I’ve come to the conclusion that Sheri-D is among Canada’s finest spoken word poets.  One look at her resume and it’s clear to see that I’m late coming to this conclusion.

Sheri-D is the author of nine collections of poetry; Woman Against Violence Against Women was an award winning compilation from 2014.  That publication succeeds Goddess Gone Fishing for a Map of the Universe.  Her collection Re:Zoom (2005, Frontenac House) won the 2006 Stephan G. Stephansson Award for Poetry, and was shortlisted for the CanLit Award.

So in listening to her art, this is what I’ve learned about Sheri-D:

She pays very special attention to rhythm and rhyme and how one finds the sweet spot within the open space on the literal dance floor.  This is a huge skill.  She controls words in a sonic waterfall.  She understands that words need the space and the motion.  The flow.  She is an expert in engineering the pattern that drives the lyric and this allows the words, the oh so important words, to breathe.  This woman is a force.

She has an online presence that is extensive and varied with some marvelous YouTube compilations, many with a full jazz band.  On Denman she will perform without a band but, quite honestly, nothing will be lost.  Known for her environmental awareness and activism, she was headliner at the 2014 Emerald Awards and in 2013 she read with David Suzuki.  In 2011 she was honored to be presented by The National Slam of Canada in “Legends of Spoken Word”.

One online video really grabbed me for the dance display of her words and the message (a tiny and huge message simultaneously …) found in her poem:  Ode to My Microscopic Life.

“So synonymous with anonymous
My life is almost hieroglyphic
Microfiche a lystic … Zip zilch zero
That’s me!”

Don’t miss this Canadian spoken word giant – Sheri-D Wilson – coming this July!


Christine Lowther:  Born Out of This                                                                reviewed by Sussan Thomson

In Born Out of This, we enter Christine Lowther’s world and in her we meet a brave soul.  In a few compact paragraphs, we glimpse her difficult childhood that includes the murder of her loving mom, poet, Pat Lowther.  Fortified by her resilient spirit, Christine moves through to find her place in the world.  There are brief references in the book to her life in community and to her close relationships and more interesting chapters on her love for punk music and culture and her emergence as a political and environmental activist.

But at the heart of the book is her immersion in the natural environment of the West Coast of Vancouver Island.  She lives on a float-home at Meares Island off Tofino and her fluid, poetic descriptions of nature transport us there.  We join her in fascinating encounters with every form of life – marine mammals, bear, cougar, trees, plants and insects.  She brings alive the rich elements of the westcoast forest and ocean ecosystems.  Residing there on the edge, she  journeys through fear and love and she ponders the role of culture and creativity.  She is isolated from people but in communication with all that is alive around her.  She shares the frustrations and joys of managing on her own, all the while enduring the volatile weather.  Her words are honest and from the heart and with them she connects us to the environment.  We leave the book – a long nature poem of sorts – with a good understanding of her statement: in essence nature poems are activist poems because they trigger our love for our planet and inspire us to act for its protection.


James Hoggan:  I’m Right and You’re an Idiot                                                reviewed by Danni Crenna

James Hoggan’s I’m Right and You’re an Idiot may have a tongue in cheek title but the rest of the book, barring a few chapter headings, is a serious look at the answer to David Suzuki’s question “Why aren’t people doing something about climate change?”  

Each chapter is a discussion of an interview with a renowned and valuable thinker in the realm of what makes us tick.  They cover what is wrong with the public forum as an effective place for resolution and action between different factions of a population.  Then they move on to what can be done about it.

As I read these different chapters and learned from them, I resonated with their thinking and realized that much of what they said had been true of my own position in the same area.  I have only to think about people who voted for and support Donald Trump as President of the US to recognize how much I am in the same mind-set.

Many of the interviewed thinkers were new to me and I now have a list of authors and books to research to hear more in their particular theories.  Lots of interesting minds, including that of James Hoggan.  I look forward to hearing him speak at the Festival and asking him some questions of my own.


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.