Book Reviews

Ronald Wright:  The Gold Eaters                                                                      reviewed by Sussan Thomson

I loved this book, as will other fans of historical fiction.  This is a tale of greed and power; a quick-paced, expansive, tragic account of the Spanish conquest of Peru in the 16th century, decimating the thriving Inca culture.  The Spanish are ‘gold eaters’, driven by an insatiable hunger for the abundant Inca gold; the Conquistadors loot, dominate and plunge the local people into poverty.

Wright’s portrayal of the dramatic collision of Spanish and Inca cultures is captivating.  From first meetings flow decades of battles and strife; Christian and Inca religious beliefs and practices are chasms apart, as are daily habits and customs.  The pasty-faced, unwashed Spanish invaders are completely vile to the Inca.  While the Spanish write works on paper, the Inca tie knots in strings to pass messages.  The Spaniard who first sees and describes a llama is amazed, and equally so is the Peruvian who first encounters a horse.  There is reciprocated disgust when a Peruvian smells Spanish cheese and when a Spaniard sees an Inca ruler drink from a cup made from his slain brother’s skull.

Wright’s knowledge, eye for detail and beautiful writing style carry across cultures and continents.  The author brings to life wretched ship conditions, travel across uncharted seas, smallpox devastation, and meetings with royalty and powerful leaders in both Spain and Peru.  There are humble homes visited and journeys across intriguing landscapes.  At the centre is a young Peruvian translator, who serves as a bridge character, interpreting for the two sides.

This is a compelling story set in a fascinating era.


Andrew Nikiforuk:  Slick Water  Fracking and One Insider’s Stand Against the World’s Most Powerful Industry                                                                                                   reviewed by Wendy Boothroyd

What kind of person can sue a government and a powerful corporation and not back down, accept a generous settlement, and sign a non-disclosure agreement?

Slick Water tells us about Jessica Ernst, once a biologist in Alberta’s oil patch.  She moved to a farm in Rosebud, AB, just before fracking began there.  Jessica’s water well became contaminated with methane; she could light her tap water on fire.  Her own words:  “I can be annoyingly persistent.”

Prior to Ernst’s lawsuit government and industry declared that never had any water wells been contaminated by fracking.  That’s not to say that people had not complained that their wells were polluted by the activities of energy companies.  One lawyer estimated that over 100 confidentiality agreements were negotiated in AB alone in recent years.  Her successful lawsuit publicized the reality of migrating gases from millions of leaky (oil and gas) wells; these could pollute water wells.  Alberta’s energy regulator had argued it “owed no duty of care” to landowners.

I’d heard that governments side with industry. Andrew Nikiforuk shows – in carefully referenced examples – details of what that can involve.  Slick Water explains in plain language the mechanics of modern fracking.  Each frack is an experiment: it is impossible to predict where fracking fluid will travel.  You don’t want fracking in your back yard.

Jessica Ernst became sought after as a speaker as a result of her lawsuit.  The governments of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Yukon, New York and Ireland have banned restricted frackers.  Jessica Ernst had talked to citizens in all those places.

Bonus quote:  “There have been over a million wells hydraulically fractured in the history of the industry, and there is not one, not one, reported case of a freshwater aquifer having ever been contaminated from hydraulic fracturing.  Not one.”  Rex W. Tillerson, CEO ExxonMobil, US Congresssional hearing on drilling 2011.  Now U.S. Secretary of State.


Missie Peters:  YouTube Review                                                                   reviewed by Del Phillips

I like Missie Peters.  She speaks my language and she shares some of my passions.  Missie Peters is a performance poet, and according to her website, she turns poetry into theatre. Now, I may be biased a bit here; I do performance poetry occasionally and it’s a hard gig.  She makes it appear to be an easy and confidently performed art.  It’s anything but.  Turning poetry into theatre is like dancing on the edge of a knife.  Easy to do if the edge belongs to say, a butter knife.  A bit more difficult and more fascinating when it’s performed on the edge of a finely honed filet knife.  Missie dances on the sharp edge with ease.  She takes you into the actual poem in her performance of This is not your Grandma’s Poetry”.  The poem takes on a persona of its own and the poem displays its own genetic line with the confidence of knowing it may be related to Grandma’s poetry, albeit a very distant relation.  While Grandma’s poetry is found in the parlour during a quilting bee, Missie’s poetry takes you into a bar where the drunken sex on the pool table defines the difference between the quilt and the felt.  Missie communicates, celebrates, infatuates and intoxicates the listener all in one sentence.  It’s an easy delivery that washes over you, lulling you with her pitch, tone and metre.  You catch the gist and you follow the list of points and insights and perceptions and find yourself still thinking about the presentation long after it’s finished.

I am a Science Fiction Geek is one of my favourite pieces.  I’ve seen her perform two versions.  One has the patter of the stand up, the other is a spacey delivery with airy and atmospheric keyboards while she appears with a grocery list of just what her SF geekiness entails.  She hooked me on that one.  I of course am a Science Fiction geek too.  It’s what I read, it’s what I write, it’s where I go to temper the crap happening in my life.  Thanks Missie, for the line “The meek may inherit the Earth, but the Dreamers will inherit the Stars.”

This woman of words and performance is an Islander too.  Although she hails from a bigger island – you know, the one with Victoria jammed into the end of it – she will be a must see and must hear performance this July on Denman Island.  Check out her simply accessed webpage, follow the links to her YouTube videos.  I look forward to seeing Missie Peters at her presentation.        See more here


Andrew Struthers:  The Green Shadow                                                     reviewed by Jane Guest

Andrew Struthers began his career as a cartoonist for the Georgia Strait, and The Green Shadow was first published as a serial in it.  Since then he has written other books including The Last Voyage of the Loch Ryan and Around the World on Minimum Wage, and produced articles and documentaries.

The Green Shadow is his account of his life in Tofino including working at the fish plant, building a dream house in a commune, working as a deck hand fishing for sockeye, working with a friend fishing for shrimp, and getting involved with the logging blockade.  His stories about his triumphs and disasters are hilariously funny, interrupted by stretches of introspection and philosophical musings.  His love life is also full of complications.

The book was written over twenty years ago about a Tofino that was very different from the popular tourist destination it is today.  We can still dream about empty beaches, an isolated village filled with eccentric characters and extraordinary events, and living in a shack built from driftwood without a care in the world.


Hasan Namir:  God in Pink                                                                             reviewed by Danni Crenna

The story takes place in modern Baghdad but could be in many times and places.  There is an agreed-upon religion, an attitude to those who are different, and no other way is possible …. might even be US in a few years if the new Trump regime takes hold.

We see the story through the eyes of a young gay man who is trying to please his older brother and his religious leaders but knows he would not be true to himself if he does.  We see his dreams and fantasies and also his reality.  But we also see the story through the eyes of a religious leader who struggles to help while he struggles with his own demons.

It is an interesting dilemma in today’s world.  We pride ourselves on our open-mindedness in Canada but we also have our bigots and hate-crimes.  It will be interesting to hear Namir’s own story when he comes to the Readers and Writers Festival in July.


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.