Friday, March 25, 2016

THE PHOENIX DANCE


Review of THE PHOENIX DANCE by DIA CALHOUN

I consider Calhoun a brilliant but tragically underappreciated author. I first discovered her when I read AVIELLE OF RHIA, a unique and spellbinding young adult fantasy that I bought at a word-of-mouth only (and very hard to find) book sale several years back.

THE PHOENIX DANCE convinced me that Calhoun didn’t write one fluke of a gem with AVIELLE but has a real gift for story, character, and theme. THE PHOENIX DANCE is a twist on the classic tale of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” as well as a well-rendered metaphor for manic depression.

Young Phoenix wants nothing more than to apprentice for the queen’s own shoemaker and learn the skills to design and bring to life her own gorgeous shoe creations. Sadly, what her aunts call her “flighty moods” make it difficult for her to be a reliable worker. One day she’s buzzing with excited energy so intense she rushes around producing more quantity and quality than anyone thought possible in such a short amount of time. Then the next day she may feel so wiped and unmotivated that she can’t leave her bed. Aside from Phoenix’s personal problems, the royal shoemaker starts losing the queen’s respect when all twelve princesses completely wear out their new shoes in one night. Determined to help the princesses, the shoemaker, and herself, Phoenix resolves to find out what’s really happening to the princesses each night.

I caught the manic depression parallels pretty early on and the themes become stronger as the novel progresses, but if I had any doubts Calhoun erased them with her note at the end announcing the deliberate metaphor and discussing real life bipolar disorder. In Phoenix’s world it’s called the Illness of the Two Kingdoms. Manic phases are referred to being in the Kingdom of Brilliance, which can be dangerous because people don’t know their own limitations and feel invincible and also because it leads to being in the Kingdom of Darkness, the depressive phase. A medic works with Phoenix on crafting a potion unique to her that will help ground and stabilize her, but Phoenix resents the potion for several reasons. For starters, it has unpleasant side effects like acne, weight gain, and nausea. For another, as much as Phoenix wants to avoid the Kingdom of Darkness she isn’t ready to say goodbye to the Kingdom of Brilliance. A steadier, balanced mood to her seems so bleak and boring. Sometimes she lies about skipping her potion or experiments with dosages despite the medic’s recommendations, in the hopes of finding a balance between her addictive manic highs while still avoiding the depressive lows.

THE PHOENIX DANCE only further convinced me that I need to find and read everything I can by Dia Calhoun as well as continue to talk up this underappreciated author to anyone and everyone who will listen.

Friday, March 18, 2016

THE SILVER KISS


Review of THE SILVER KISS by ANNETTE CURTIS KLAUSE

Klause has been one of my favorite authors since I read BLOOD AND CHOCOLATE, a unique and compelling werewolf novel also made into an equally addictive movie of the same title. Though I heard she’s better known for her vampire works, I avoided those stories for a while since I usually dislike vampire stories. Klause proves once again that it’s the individual author’s style more than the themes that defines a book.

THE SILVER KISS consists of a very short novel sandwiched between two short stories. In the main tale, the vampire Simon finds himself intrigued by teenager Zoe, who is more preoccupied with her dying mother. I will admit that my least favorite part of this vampire story was the vampire, but overall I greatly enjoyed the character complexity and Klause’s take on vampires.

In terms of what bothers me, many vampire books skip over the courting phase of a relationship. It’s meet, make out. THE SILVER KISS does this, too. One minute Simon is a stranger on Zoe’s doorstep and the same evening they engage in a bloody necking session. Another common pitfall is the “why this girl?” question. If Simon is about 300 years old, I don’t understand why he’s falling for a teenager or what about this specific teenager seems exceptional to his centuries of experience.

As for the good, though, Zoe isn’t a blind follower. She questions her attraction to Simon and contemplates literally stabbing him in the back - with a stake - when she thinks about how many people he’s probably killed. Her coping, or lack of coping, with her mother’s death also ties in nicely with the themes about death and control that Simon introduces into her life.

However, my favorite tale is probably the very first short story about Simon’s relationship with a stray cat. So many vampire novels are about overwrought, lustful, doomed romance that it’s refreshing to read a tale about the affection between animal beast and supernatural beast. It’s a different take on the loneliness theme commonly explored with vampires and does add another layer to Simon’s relationship with Zoe since the cat story carries a subtext that Simon wasn’t ready to let himself feel anything for a human until he let himself feel something for this little cat.

At least from the two books I’ve read so far by Klause, I really enjoy her take on the supernatural. I’ll be on the lookout for her other work.

Friday, March 11, 2016

THE BINGO PALACE


Review of THE BINGO PALACE by LOUISE ERDRICH

This novel tells the story of a love triangle between Lipsha, Lyman, and Shawnee. While some characters overlap with ones we met in LOVE MEDICINE and who appear in a few of Erdrich’s other novels, this book can be read as a standalone without any difficulty.

Lipsha has a bad reputation, but when he returns home he intends to show the love of life that he would be a good choice for her. Lyman, though, has already fathered a child with Lipsha’s beloved, and has an infuriating reputation for doing everything right. Shawnee is the object of both men’s affections, but not surprisingly she’s less interested in being someone’s prize and more in carving out her own life and identity for both herself and her son.

I confess that I sometimes skimmed the prose in this novel, since it’s overflowing with extraneous information and words. While this a slim book, I still often found myself thinking that the story could be told in half or a third of the words used. Much of the text is abstractions that don’t really root the reader in anything.

That said, Erdrich has a knack for delivering excellent book group novels and this one’s no exception. There’s plenty to discuss especially in regards to crafting your own identity when so many people around you are trying to mold you into who they want you to be.

Friday, March 4, 2016

ANOTHER DAY


ANOTHER DAY by DAVID LEVITHAN
(companion to EVERY DAY)

When I first heard that Levithan had written a follow-up to EVERY DAY, I felt very excited and eager to continue A’s adventures, especially since the first book left off on a bit of a cliffhanger. Here’s where clarification is important: ANOTHER DAY is not a sequel but a companion. If you’re excited to get your hands on the next installment in A’s story, this is not that book. So what is it? The same story as EVERY DAY, but told from Rhiannon’s perspective instead of A’s.

As soon as I realized this was a same-story-different-perspective book, I filled with trepidation. I have never read one I liked. To be blunt, I find re-telling the same book lazy. To generalize, I think with a good book we learn what we need to know about every character from what the author provides, so when an author publishes the same story from another character’s perspective to fill in blanks I only feel cheated by the omission of any important information from the original book. All that said, I adore everything I’ve read by Levithan and am a big believer in Trust The Author. (At least when the author has earned it.) So on I read.

And my reaction is mixed. In some ways, ANOTHER DAY falls into the inevitable traps of this kind of book that are exactly why I don’t like these books in the first place: we already know this story and a lot of the plot and dialogue is word for word the same as what we already read. As expected, however, Levithan pulled through and I enjoyed this one nevertheless.

Both books keep very close to their lead characters. A great portion of the prose is devoted to their thoughts. A’s thoughts in the case of EVERY DAY and Rhiannon’s in the case of ANOTHER DAY. Because so much of the text fixates on inner monologue more than action or dialogue, a great deal did feel different. And I will admit that it was interesting to hear Rhiannon’s thoughts on the same events.

Let me back up a little and specify that you do not need to read EVERY DAY first. As Levithan himself states, he wrote this book so you can read both or only one - either one. And in case, if you aren’t familiar with EVERY DAY, let me provide a little context. It’s the story about A, a teenager without a body to call their own, who wakes up “borrowing” someone else’s body (and hence that person’s entire life) for a single day. This means that A doesn’t have a steady family, home, friends, appearance, gender, belongings. A lives a very different kind of life.

In A’s story we read about their efforts to convince Rhiannon this craziness is real while in Rhiannon’s we get to see how she can slowly accept something so mind bogglingly impossible.

However, some of my criticisms of the first book only increase by reading the second. Two in particular: Rhiannon’s character and her relationship with her boyfriend Justin. In my review of EVERY DAY, I remarked that I didn’t understand why A finds Rhiannon so utterly exceptional. Well, the same is as much or more true from seeing through her eyes. While there is plenty to admire about Rhiannon, there are also plenty of flaws - and neither her strengths nor flaws strike me as particularly unique. As for her boyfriend Justin, in EVERY DAY I couldn’t understand why she was with such an obvious jerk. From A’s perspective Justin has no redeeming qualities and in the end Rhiannon seems like a push over who’s simply scared to be alone. Ultimately, I chalked it up to complexities in their relationship that we can’t see from A’s viewpoint. So I figured that would be one good thing about the same story from Rhiannon’s perspective: we would learn more context on her relationship with Justin. If anything it only strengthened my already established opinions: Justin’s a plain and simple jerk no matter how Rhiannon justifies his behavior and it does speak to some kind of insecurity on her part that she clings to him so desperately. I don’t mean to dismiss Rhiannon’s strengths, but I do think she’s a type. Unfortunately, ANOTHER DAY never clears up for me what A finds so distinctly compelling about her that he doesn’t see reflected in any of the thousands of other people he meets every year. I certainly have read characters in other books that strike me as utterly unique, but Rhiannon isn’t one of them.

Something that does feel different about ANOTHER DAY is that we get to see Rhiannon with her friends. She references some of these people in EVERY DAY when she’s talking to A, but when we live through her perspective we actually meet and get to know each one. In general, the book becomes a little more unique whenever A isn’t around, because readers of EVERY DAY already know the conversations Rhiannon has with A. What we don’t know yet is the conversations she has with others when A isn’t around.

If you’ve read EVERY DAY, then you already know the ending to ANOTHER DAY, except since both these books fixate so much on internal monologue the twist to this one is what Rhiannon’s thinking. It actually turns out to be a cliffhanger, too, and now I’m thinking an actual sequel better come along one day!

To some this may feel like reading the exact same story as EVERY DAY, but to those very invested in character development ANOTHER DAY does provide a new and intriguing layer to what we already know. Nonetheless, I have my fingers crossed that someday we’ll find out what happens next for A and Rhiannon.