Bone, Fog, Ash & Star (2014), by Catherine Egan: Resource Links review

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 20.3.

Egan - Bone

Bone, Fog, Ash & Star is the final book of Catherine Egan’s trilogy, The Last Days of Tian Di. The opening of Bone, Fog, Ash & Star successfully brings readers who might have been too long away from the story immediately and dramatically back into the world of Eliza Tok, the Shang Sorceress. Eliza is flying through the air on the back of a great bird: “And then she let go” (1). The great bird turns out to be Eliza’s shape-shifting friend, Charlie, in gryphon form; Eliza is trying to see if she can transform into a raven, her spirit creature. Then, just as we are becoming reacquainted with Eliza and her world, Egan sends another narrative jolt, killing Charlie, whom Eliza has grown to love. The intricacies of the previous books present a number of options for why the author might have done this to poor Charlie, and what the ramifications might be in the overarching plot. Most guesses will be wrong; with bated breath we accompany Eliza, who “tore a hole in the world and stepped through it” (11), into the realm of Death, to fight for her Charlie and bring him back.

Eliza’s love for Charlie is the impetus for the plot of Bone, Fog, Ash & Star, but not ultimately what the book is about at all. Charlie has become a target of the Thanatosi, a breed of assassin creature who will not rest until their prey is dead. The Mancers, who control magic in Di Shang and want to control (have previously always controlled) the Shang Sorceress, know of her feelings for Charlie and want to prevent any union between them. The only thing that might stop the Thanatosi is possession of the four Gehemmis, gifts of the Ancients: formed from bone, fog, ash, star. So Eliza sets off on the treacherous quest to gather the Gehemmis; Charlie and their friend Nell are hidden in the Realm of the Faeries, which creates unexpected conflict of another kind; and Eliza’s only Mancer ally—her instructor Foss—has been banished for aiding Eliza and is dying, away from the Mancer Citadel, the source of his life-force.

Throughout the novel, Egan jolts us in unexpected ways: never enough to be a problem, only enough to help us feel the tensions and uncertainties Eliza and her friends face in their several quests. We remain gripped by all of the narrative threads at once, propelled by the strong characterization and well-crafted action. Woven into the fabulous story (although not all that subtly) is the conflict Eliza faces between her naïve desire to protect the individuals she loves and her obligation to fulfill her role as the Shang Sorceress. It is brought home to her a number of times that in attempting to protect her friends, she has actually hurt or destroyed parts of the world she is destined to save. As the situation amongst the faeries, the Mancers, and Eliza (who stands outside of both factions) develops to crisis point, Eliza begins to make decisions based on a more mature, comprehensive vision of her world. Eliza’s powers—emotional, psychological, and magical—are now great enough for her finally to fully realize her identity as Sorceress of Tian Di.

The Big Apple Effect (2014), by Christy Goerzen

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 20.1.

Goetzen-Big AppleIt’s really hard to like Maddie, the protagonist of The Big Apple Effect, but one can understand her somewhat, given her rather flakey mother, who works as “Lady Venus,” a New Age psychic charlatan. Maddie is awarded a trip to New York, to an art opening for young artists (Maddie included) whose paintings have won an award. Her friend Anna, from a guest-farm in the BC Interior, accompanies her.

Anna is everything Maddie is not: laid-back, reasonable, and grounded in reality. Maggie is obsessive-compulsive and socially unaware. Their time in New York before the art opening is spent fulfilling Maddie’s dreams—her list of 134 “things to see in New York” recorded on a colour-coded map. When Maddie’s mother shows up as a surprise—Maddie’s birthday falls on the second day of their visit—Maddie feels cheated: her only chance at escaping her mother’s over-the-top, mollycoddling weirdness has been taken away. But Maddie actually has very little chance of escaping her upbringing: like all of us, she lives it.

She develops a crush on Anna’s older brother, Thomas, which she almost subdues after meeting his girlfriend, and she revels in her experience of New York, seen through the rose-coloured glasses of her dream of what New York should be. In this, Maddie is well characterized. Young girls like her doubtless exist: star-struck, naïve, thoughtless, and self-centred. Maddie’s epiphany comes when she overhears two women deriding her piece at the gallery, and she begins to recognize her real place in the universe. Her ego is saved by Timber, the son of the great artist, Louise Bergville—keynote of the opening—who had cancelled at the last moment. Called away by her distraught mother who is “lost” in the city, Maddie despairs of seeing Timber again. But it all works out in the end: Maddie learns that she needs to think of others as well as herself; her mother realizes that she needs to give Maddie her space; Timber—who will be visiting Vancouver—contrives to reconnect with Maddie; and Louise Bergville wants to buy her cow-art. It’s too bad we can’t believe in the dénouement.

Homecoming (2014), by Diane Dakers

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 20.1.

Dakers -  HomecomingThe title Homecoming brings up images of The Waltons, and nostalgic Christmases surrounded by love and family. This is not 15-year-old Fiona Gardener’s experience of life. Far from it. The homecoming in her story is something she dreads: her father has just been released from prison, having been incarcerated for the rape of one of Fiona’s classmates, Morgan. Fiona is fairly certain he is innocent, but struggles to deal with her uncertainty, especially when validated by the behaviours of those around her. Deemed a social pariah when her father was first charged, then again during his trial, Fiona dreads his return and the accompanying notoriety it brings.

Diane Dakers deals sensitively with the complicated emotional space that Fiona finds herself in, but also the awkwardness of those around her: her mother, her aunts and uncles, her father’s friends… people who tell her that “your father didn’t do what he was accused of doing” (20), but nonetheless walk on eggshells in his presence. Her friend Lauren is forbidden to come over; the bullies at school warn her that her father “will be looking for another playmate” (27); and the school social worker is explicit in telling Fiona what to do if she “ever feel[s] scared or threatened” by her father (35). It’s therefore not surprising that Fiona accepts the dubious friendship of Charley, a grade-twelve girl from the “hard-core crowd” (50). This friendship, again unsurprisingly, leads Fiona somewhat astray, but Dakers does not let her slip out of character: she knows what she is doing is wrong, that her parents will not approve, and yet she goes: rebellious, but also guilty and conflicted. When she is asked to trick a host’s step-father into giving them some alcohol, and resists the request, her “friends” tell her it is easy: if he is being difficult, just “pull a Morgan” (101). The pieces of the puzzle fall into place; her suspicions are confirmed. Her doubts dissolve and her new-found certainty gives her the strength to stand up and speak out. The fall-out is as expected: Fiona is “seriously grounded” (104), but content at having released her father from the social stigma that hounded him.

Tin Soldier (2014), by Sigmund Brouwer

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 20.1.

Brouwer - Tin soldierSigmund Brouwer certainly knows how to weave an intriguing mystery, and protagonist Jim Webb’s blend of hard-earned cynicism and innate compassion stand him in good stead as he unravels the secrets of his grandfather’s past. Tin Soldier is part of the second “Seven” series, which takes Webb and his six cousins on further adventures, this time self-imposed, to defend the reputation of the grandfather they all loved.

Spending the week between Christmas and New Years at their grandfather’s cabin, five of the seven cousins discover a World War II pistol, a hidden cache of fake identities and money in the wall of the cabin. The discovery sets wheels in motion, and Jim finds himself in Alabama talking to Ruby Gavin, who he met as part of his first adventure, Devil’s Pass (2012).

Tin Soldier, though, is only superficially about the mystery Webb solves; its most poignant impact comes from the lessons Webb learns. This may sound trite and clichéd, but Bouwer’s message of tolerance is not only apropos to our current sociopolitical situation, but a truth that each generation needs to learn for itself. Webb is introduced by Ruby to Vietnam War veteran Lee Knox who, she says, will be able to help determine why Webb’s grandfather had hidden two veterans’ ID cards; or, rather, two veteran’s ID cards, for while the names are different, the pictures are the same. Lee’s questions, weaving upwards through his personal contacts from the war, soon result in drastic consequences, and the two unlikely associates set out to find answers.

Webb carries serious anti-military baggage from abuse at the hands of his ex-step-father; Lee harbours deep racial anger from his experience as an activist in the Civil Rights movement. Their common purpose only mostly overcomes their seeming antipathy, but they both recognize the similarities that bind them together more than their prejudices hold them apart. Webb’s previous abuse and subsequent life on the streets of Toronto help him to empathize with the trauma Lee has experienced through the upheavals of the 1960s and 70s. His growing respect for Lee fosters a belief in Lee’s opinion that Webb’s generation have the power—like Lee’s in their time—to make a positive statement in the world: “Guy like you,” Lee asserted, “maybe you could come up with another song like ‘One Tin Soldier.” Make a difference, not just make money” (109). Brouwer provides a few lines of the song by the Canadian folk group Original Caste for his readers, and I wonder how many will seek out song—will get past the very 1970s folk feel and really listen to the meaningful words. Reading Tin Soldier I was struck with the similar pertinence of “The Fiddle and the Drum,” by a more well-known Canadian artist, Joni Mitchell. “Fiddle and the Drum,” though, is a cappella, and would not lend itself to Webb’s transposing of the song from major to minor key, reinventing it for his own generation. Brouwer takes the issues of Webb’s parents’ generation and builds an analogy that readers will not only understand but feel. Webb—and in a lesser way Lee—learns that self-respect and forgiveness are key to letting go of anger. Racism, tolerance, compassion, self-respect, and the power of song resonate through the novel. In the end, as he performs his adaptation in a small club, we cheer for Webb as much as does his audience.