Monday, October 09, 2017

Book Review Of Two Minds

Review by Peter McKenzie-Brown

I don’t often read mystery novels, and I believe that Canada is a country governed by law and decent people without interference from foreign governments. However, this book has somewhat shaken those convictions, at least in part.

I was intrigued when I heard about a writer from Vancouver who had written a mystery about corruption and collusion between China and a variety of possible villains. I decided to buy a copy, fully prepared to house it in my unread bookshelves if it wasn’t up to snuff. Amazon duly shipped me the book, which is also available on Kindle, and I tore open the box. I was not prepared for what I got.

Beautifully designed and printed, the book’s cover shows two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle fitting together. One piece is the bulk of the Canadian flag, and it slips into a piece which is mostly the flag of China. I was intrigued, so I put away the other book I was working on and began to browse.

Of Two Minds is a fairly bulky volume –about 400 pages in length, though broken into 38 chapters. Put another way, the chapters are short enough that you should be easily able to finish a chapter before turning off your bedside reading light. I didn’t take 38 nights to read it, though. This book is a page-turner.

The story is a complex one. The book features a Vancouver-based detective named Andrew Wachter, who is not exactly the doppelgänger of Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s legendary Belgian detective. With a father from old English money and a mother of Chinese origin, the Vancouver detective in Rynd’s book has a foot in both camps.

I’m obviously not going to give away the plot, except to say that a spark ignites a bitter struggle between these communities. Wachter wants everyone to trust him, but matters get out of hand. The government of China enters the fray, and criminal gangs associated with China’s ancient triads – these groups control, for example, 90% of Vancouver’s heroin trade – up the ante.

The conflict spreads. The hunt for one killer leads Wachter to a woman with a split personality, a missing Chinese child, and an intricate dance between Canadian intelligence and the Communist Party of China. People start dying, and billions of dollars are at stake. Who will end up the winner: China, the murderer, Canada, criminal triads, or someone else whose face the reader can’t quite see?  As I said, the secret stays with me, until you read the book or find someone else who’s willing to blab.

On the book’s cover is a brief bio of its polyglot author. Now living in Vancouver, Rynd has a doctorate in literature and a law degree, which he practiced for 25 years. He’s conversant in both French and German, and is apparently able to read Chinese hànzì characters.

He’s also a terrific English-language writer.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Bitumen: The People, Performance and Passions behind Alberta’s Oil Sands

Review, by Aaron Rynd

Bitumen: The People, Performance and Passions behind Alberta’s Oil Sands
by Peter McKenzie-Brown (2017)

This book is a milestone in that no history of Alberta’s oil sands can be written without taking it into account. More than that, no such history can be written without using McKenzie-Brown’s sources.

There are three explanations for the book’s importance. First, McKenzie-Brown was the principal driving force behind the Oil Sands Oral History Project. Anyone who touched the development of the oil sands was approached, and it is difficult to imagine anyone alive having more knowledge of the sector than McKenzie-Brown. Second, the world is entering an energy era shrouded in uncertainty except that it will differ enormously from the past. Now is the time to take stock, because the rules of the game are changing. Third, as Muhlstein brought a deep and broad understanding of the background to Cavelier de La Salle in her 1992 study, showing both the man’s stature and his feet of clay, so McKenzie-Brown knows the background of what he describes in this book.

Bitumen keeps its promise: it presents the people whose efforts gave birth and nourished the oil sands project. The reader comes to know them, their successes and failures. If successes dot these pages, so do the plans that perished. The pioneers of the oil sands rose, but also sank back into the obscurity of time. Bitumen portrays their passion, for that is what the oil sands became for these men, an emotional journey. Was it also the source of a fatal flaw? They had logic and argument aplenty. Without the desire to create a new industry, the oil sands would never have experienced lift-off. And yet the height at which hubris forms is never revealed before it’s too late.

“Men” it was, because the pioneers of the oil sands were mostlymen. Creatures of their time, McKenzie-Brown places them in context. They formed a fraternity of explorers with a common vision. Again and again in Bitumen, we find men with similar upbringing and experience picking up the challenge and carrying it a few steps forward. Everyone is different, and yet they feel animated by the same spirit. The characters form a type; for example, the inventor with an idea and strong convictions, the corporate executive with a vision and ego to match.

McKenzie-Brown treads a narrow line. His is not a history in which he elevates a thread or chief actor for close study, setting the remainder into the dark curtains at stage-rear. This is a Chinese scroll or panorama, best read in multiple sittings. Moreover, McKenzie-Brown doesn’t promote a positive or negative view of the destiny of the oil sands. Whatever may be its future, the fact remains that the oil sands absorbed the dreams of a host of North America’s energy giants. We aren’t yet ready to set them all in context, but when that day arrives, Bitumen will be a useful research tool as well as an object requiring explanation in itself.

I’ve just noticed that my copy of Bitumen rests against A Distant Mirror and the Structure of Science. Not uncomfortably.