2023 Book Reviews

Book Reviews – 2023 Authors

Click on cover to take you to the review or scroll down to see all.

A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency
Each One a Furnace
The Sleeping Car Porter
We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies
What Strange Paradise

Seth Klein | A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency

Reviewed by: Howard Stewart

About the Author:    Seth Klein is a freelance policy consultant, speaker, researcher, and writer based in Vancouver. Currently Team Lead and Director of Strategy with the Climate Emergency Unit, Seth earlier spent 22 years as director of the BC office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA). Seth is also a columnist with the National Observer, adjunct professor with SFU’s Urban Studies program, and research associate with the CCPA.

About the Book:     Seth Klein’s Good War is timely and important. It’s well written too, though it doesn’t make for good bedtime reading. It’s about our urgent need to go to war to save the world from the deepening climate crisis. As Al Gore did fifteen years ago and the UN fifteen years before him, Klein explores the ‘inconvenient truth’ about accelerating climate change: If we want to be spared its most severe and catastrophic outcomes then we’d better start acting like it.

When the first global treaty on climate change was penned in 1992, we still had considerable margin for manoeuvre. Then we burned fossil fuels like there was no tomorrow though the 1990s, the decade of SUVs. We’ve been doing it ever since and have squandered any wiggle room we used to have. Dealing effectively with climate change now requires mobilizing on a scale last seen during our global war against fascism in the 1940s. That’s Klein’s elevator pitch: we’ve done it before, we can do it again, and our wartime experience offers us invaluable guidance about how to “… mobilise all of society, galvanise our politics and fundamentally remake our economy” (p. xix) in the face of this existential threat.

What’s stopping us? First, Klein blames a ‘new climate denialism’ that paralyses our politicians and enables our fossil fuel industries. Only a small minority of us north of the 49th still deny the human role in climate change, yet many of our leaders go on denying our need to do much about it. Instead, they collectively cling to ‘incremental’ or ‘adaptive’ approaches so conservative that even dowdy Economist magazine abandoned them years ago.

Yet it really is a dire, civilization-threatening emergency. Whence Klein’s WWII analogy, the vehicle he uses to show us how to best address today’s crisis, rather than being defeated by it: “… once emergencies are truly recognised, what seemed politically impossible and economically off-limits can be quickly embraced…” (p. xxvii).

Why wade into such a maelstrom of political and economic peril? Most readers are already familiar, but here’s a short list of the most serious effects we’re facing, according to almost every climate scientist: massive disruption of food systems, growing numbers of extreme heat events, far more catastrophic weather events, accelerated sea level rise, growing losses of fresh water resources, spikes in insect-borne diseases, and massive displacements of human populations.

I could go on. But better if you come and listen to Seth speak and debate these matters at our next Readers and Writers Festival, July 21-23, 2023.



Tolu Oloruntoba | Each One a Furnace

Reviewed by: Melanie Hewson

Biography Brief:

Tolu Oloruntoba lived in Nigeria and the US before settling with his family in the Coast Salish lands known as Vancouver. He spent his early career as a primary care physician, and currently manages virtual health projects in BC. His poetry has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, while his debut chapbook, Manubrium, was a bpNichol Chapbook Award finalist. The Junta of Happenstance, his first full-length collection, was the winner of the 2021 Governor General’s Literary Award for English Language Poetry and the Canadian winner of the 2022 Griffin Poetry Prize.

Book Review:

Is there such a thing as a poetry page-turner? I believe there just might be.

Perhaps because I am not normally a poetry reader, the poems of Tolu Oloruntoba hit me deeply, emotionally. Normally, I consume poetry through song, but strip away the melody and add some density of thought, and here in this book of poetry you will find communication of feelings around important topics that fiction and non-fiction can’t convey. This collection of poems, centered around migratory finches, covers much ground about the migration of humans, unrest, violence and struggles of those who migrate, or immigrate.

In his poems, Tolu Oloruntoba communicates how it feels to leave, arrive and be in transit in a world that is not always welcoming, but can also feel safe and right. A rare glimpse into the heart of the bird, or person engaged in this flight. It gives insight well beyond statistics and news stories and brings the individual and collective experience into your heart. A much more meaningful read than we usually get from a story or newsclip. I am so looking forward to meeting and hearing from Tolu directly at the Denman Island Readers and Writers Festival. We hope you will join us, and also experience this wonderful poet in person.



Suzette Mayr | The Sleeping Car Porter

Reviewed by: Helen Mason

Biographic Brief:

Suzette Mayr latest novel, The Sleeping Car Porter, recently won the 2022 Giller PrizeA professor of creative writing at the University of Calgary, Mayr’s previous novels – Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall, Monoceros, Venous Hum, Moon Honey and The Widows – have also won or been nominated for various literary awards.

Review:

Into the mid-1950s, sleeping car porters attended to passengers’ every need aboard Pullman ‘sleeping cars’. Their many jobs included hauling luggage, tending to beds, shining shoes, and serving food and drink. Most porters were Black men for whom the job was one of the few job opportunities in Canada.

The Sleeping Car Porter follows a porter named Baxter in the summer of 1929. He considers himself lucky to have a job on the train, despite working hours so absurdly long that he often hallucinates. He and his fellow porters are under constant threat of losing their jobs for the smallest infraction. At the beck and call of often difficult passengers, they rely on tips to top up their meagre pay and must hide their discomfort.

On a five-day journey from Montreal to Vancouver we meet the passengers in Baxter’s section, as well the porters in adjoining train cars. Mayr brings them alive for the reader. We suffer Baxter’s gruelling sleep deprivation and his hunger (porters had to pay for their own food). Mayr’s voice takes us there as Baxter’s green cloth buffs a passenger’s already shining shoes. She also reveals Baxter’s secret life as a gay man in an era when, as Oscar Wilde’s partner described it, this was still the love that dare not speak its name.

The story speeds up when the train is stalled for days by a mudslide outside Banff.  Passengers grow more unruly and we begin to learn of their dark secrets. What has happened to Miss Tupper’s fiancée?  Why doesn’t “Blancmange” leave his compartment?  Is there more to “Judy” than we first saw?

Hats off to Coach House Books, a small publisher devoted to writing that pushes the boundaries of convention. Enjoy this superb novel and come to the 2023 Denman Island Readers and Writers Festival where Suzette Mayr will talk about it.



Omar El Akkad | What Strange Paradise

Reviewed by: Stewart Goodings

A few years ago, images of a dead Syrian boy on a Mediterranean beach shocked the world into vivid awareness of the growing tragedy of our global migrant / refugee crisis. This same image clearly inspired Omar El Akkad’s What Strange Paradise, a brilliant novel that won last year’s Giller Prize.

The book joins a growing body of fiction about refugees and migrants, such as Christy Lefteri’s “The Songbirds”, Aislinn Hunter’s “The Certainties”, Mohsin Hamid’s “Exit West”, Jeanine Collins’ “American Dirt” and Sharon Bala’s “The Boat People.” El Akkad previous novel, American War, was described as a chillingly prescient story about civil strife in the USA.

What Strange Paradise consists of alternating chapters from After and Before. After, a nine-year old boy named Amir is the only survivor of a wrecked migrant ship. Tension ramps up in the After sections as Amir is befriended by a local teenage girl, Vanna, and together they seek to elude capture by immigration authorities. Before chapters describe how Amir and his family fled the war in Syria. These segments offer graphic portrayals of the turmoil, bribery, abuse, and terrible choices facing millions like Amir’s family as they seek refuge. El Akkad has crafted an intimate tale, almost an adventure story, but framed within the context of the Big Story of forced migration. The powerful narrative is filled with superb writing that is enlivened by occasional moments of empathy and humour amidst the wreckage. A short book, 235 pages, it offers much to savour, reflect on, and be inspired by.

Omar El-Akkad is one of Canada’s brightest young literary talents and we are delighted to welcome him to our next Denman Island Readers and Writers Festival, in July 2023.



Tsering Yangzom Lama | We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies

Reviewed by: Jane Edwards

The Author: Tsering Yangzom Lama was born in Nepal. She has an MFA from Columbia University and has lived in Toronto, New York City and Vancouver. Her debut novel, We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies was a New York Times Summer Reads Pick and a finalist for The 2022 Scotiabank Giller Prize, as well as being long-listed for The Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and The Toronto Book Award.

The Book:  What happens when people are pushed out of their homeland? Tsering Yangzom Lama describes this refugee experience in her first novel We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies. As told by Lhamo, a young Tibetan girl, the story opens in 1960, as the Chinese “Peoples Liberation Army”, or Gyami, continues its ruthless take-over of Tibet. Lhamo’s family and much of their community flee the violence and trek through the mountains to a safer land, leaving behind their country and the comfort of home. The story is told through the eyes of daughters, sisters and lovers to give several voices relaying the experiences of refugees living far from home in Nepal, India, and Toronto.

Displacement to a foreign land so often becomes permanent, leading to the hardships of refugee life: loss of opportunity, poverty, and unfulfilled dreams of the return to one’s homeland.  In spite of the hardships, within this novel there is love throughout: love of community, love of parents, love of sisters and the unfulfilled love of lovers.

There is a thread through the story of the spiritual and mystical. The land holds sacred places, there are those who have the ability to hear the gods and there is the Nameless Saint or Ku, an ancient relic which appears in times of need, giving solace and taking on pain. In addition, Tsering’s gorgeous descriptions of the mountains, the rivers, and the lands travelled enhance the feeling of the sacred to these places.

As a Canadian living a comfortable life in my country of birth, this novel is a strong and emotional lesson of the hardships and losses of those who are forced from their homeland. We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies is a beautifully written story of a community and family enduring life as refugees while linked by love. There are moments within this book where the emotions of loss and love are so strong that is they are overwhelming. One cannot help but connect with and feel the emotions of the characters. I look forward to the pleasure of meeting and hearing Tsering at the 2023 Denman Island Readers and Writers Festival in July.