Category Archives: Book Reviews

2015 Whitney Awards: General Fiction

In 2014, Stacy Lynn Carroll was a Whitney Finalist in the General category with her novel, My Name is Bryan, based on her father-in-law’s experiences as a  spinal cord injury survivor. This year, she’s back with another finalist, Shattered Hearts, which is based on her family’s experience with pornography addiction. Shattered Hearts opens with Sarah Dunkin discovering that her husband has been dealing with work- and family-related pressures by looking at pornography online. She’s devastated and throws him out of the house, and book follows the couple over the course of the next year as they work to repair their relationship. Carroll treats pornography as a serious addiction, and humanizes both the men and women whose lives are affected by it. It takes a lot of guts to write about a subject with so much potential to shame, and I give Carroll a lot of props for that. The writing, at times, can be somewhat didactic, but I think that Shattered Hearts could be a huge comfort to someone going through a similar situation, and it was an eye-opener for me.

Chris Pendragon is a young history professor from Gonzaga, on a summer holiday in Wales, when he witnesses a devastating car accident and something strange happens when he and an elderly man try to save a young girl. Somehow, the girl is healed, and Chris seems to be responsible for her healing. The elderly man reveals that his powers as a healer have been transferred to Chris, and Chris is suddenly more powerful, more vulnerable, and more reluctant than he has ever been in his life. The Healer is a book about the power of spirituality, not from a Mormon perspective, but in some ways it doesn’t surprise me that a Mormon wrote the book. Luke calls Chris a “lapsed Methodist” (teaching at a Catholic school?), yet one critic I read notes that he does the things religious people do (like praying on his knees each night). All in all, the book has a nice blend of a quickly moving, compelling plot and mystical/spiritual elements. It felt somewhat like The DaVinci Code in that respect, and I expect that Luke will revisit Chris Pendragon in future tales– The Healer is a story that is just beginning to be told. Continue reading 2015 Whitney Awards: General Fiction

2015 Whitney Awards: Romance

This year’s Whitney Award finalists in the romance category are mostly familiar names—all five of the finalists are experienced authors, and four of them are previous Whitney finalists. Their books cover a nice range of settings and characters, from medieval times to the present day. Like Shelah, I’m a recent convert to the world of romance books and I had a great time reading all five of these books. Sometimes I worry that I’m becoming a cliché when I spend a quiet Friday night reading a romance novel snuggled up on the couch with my cat and a mug of cocoa. Someday my prince will come, right? Until he shows up, I’ll just keep reading. Continue reading 2015 Whitney Awards: Romance

2015 Whitney Awards: YA General

Every year I look forward to the announcement of the Whitney Award finalists, and every year I have the best of intentions for reading all of them. (Some years, I have!) But not this year. I did, however, read all of the young adult finalists–since that is, well, the genre I also write.

The finalists for the general category this year were all powerful stories, each with their own strengths.

Never Said

Never Said, by Carol Lynch Williams

Like most of Williams’ books, this one explores dysfunctional family relationships, this time with two sisters at its heart. Sarah and Annie are twins: Annie has always been the pretty, popular sister; Sarah, her shyer, reserved shadow. Mostly, Sarah doesn’t mind.

But then things change: Annie starts withdrawing. More, she starts eating. And eating. And eating–until her perfect, beauty-pageant body is unrecognizable. Sarah knows something has happened, but she’s drowning in problems of her own: recovering her equilibrium after her boyfriend breaks up with her.  As the sisters start to spend more time with one another, they start to discover that their relationship may be key to saving each other–and their family.

Williams’ writing has its own kind of spare beauty, and the story is quick-paced and engaging. I struggled a little at first to understand and like the sisters (particularly Annie), but as the story progressed I grew more and more connected to them. An interesting exploration of family secrets, body image, eating disorders and social anxiety.

The Fill-In Boyfriend

The Fill-In Boyfriend, by Kasie West

While the other YA general finalists all have a certain level of emotional heft, Kasie West’s books are unabashedly fun, light reads. In this one, Gia Montgomery finds herself in a quandry: her boyfriend has dumped her in the parking lot just before prom, and after telling her friends about him for months, she  needs someone to prove she wasn’t making him up. She finds a solution in a cute stranger who arrives to pick up his sister and convinces him to play  her boyfriend for one night.

Problem is, after prom night, she keeps thinking about the stranger (whose name she still doesn’t know). But when she tracks him down, his sister means to collect on the favor Gia owes him–an exchange date, at his ex’s party. But when Gia’s own ex shows up and exposes the lies, there’s a lot of tangled relationships to untangle. While I didn’t love this one quite as much as previous West books (if you haven’t read them, check them out!), it’s still a fun, clean, romantic read.

Has to Be Love

Has to Be Love, by Jolene Perry

This book surprised me in a bunch of good ways. Years before, Clara survived a bear attack near her Alaskan home that left her with unsightly scars across her face and torso–and left her mother dead. Clara continues to deal with the fall-out from that, missing her mother and also struggling with public reactions to her scars, sure that somehow they prevent people from really seeing her, though she has a lovely and supportive boyfriend.

Enter the end of Clara’s senior year. Clara’s been accepted to Columbia–her dream school nearly a continent away–and she’s waiting on an appointment with a plastic surgeon that will, she hopes, cure her scars. In the meantime, she’s in limbo, not sure if she wants the risk Columbia represents, or if she wants the safety and security of a college near home, a life with her long-time boyfriend. When a new substitute teacher (a Columbia student himself, on leave) arrives in her life, representing all the things Clara secretly longs for, her plans for the future become tangled and uncertain.

Things I loved about the book: the setting. There aren’t a lot of YA books set in Alaska, and I found the way Clara navigated her world fascinating. Clara’s religion: she’s Mormon, which you also don’t often find in mainstream YA novels. And while her religion isn’t a pivotal plot point, it informs who Clara is–particularly her very-real struggles between what her body wants and what she believes she ought to do. I loved too that the plot surprised me several times, particularly in terms of Clara’s relationships. It wasn’t at all what I expected. Mostly, I found the story so real: Clara is flawed and makes some dumb decisions, but she’s also a teenager and human and Perry does such a great job at capturing that messiness and uncertainty.  I found Clara’s story touching and thought-provoking, though I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it for very young readers, as some of Clara’s relationship scenes are a little steamy (but not gratuitous–those scenes are critical to Clara’s development).

Ink and Ashes

Ink and Ashes, by Valynne Maetani

Maetani won the New Visions award from Tu books for her debut, Ink and Ashes. (She’s the only debut author among the YA general nominees). The story seamlessly blends contemporary teen concerns and elements of Japanese culture.

Claire Takata, a Japanese-American teen, doesn’t know much about her father, who passed away when she was a girl. Shortly before her seventeenth birthday, she finds a letter from him addressed to her step-father–a man her father presumably never knew. In an effort to uncover the truth behind her father’s connection to the man who raised her, Claire uncovers far more than she bargained for: her father was a member of the yakuza, the Japanese mafia. This discovery triggers a series of increasingly dangerous attacks on Claire and her family, and if she, her brothers, and their witty group of friends can’t sort out the truth, it might be too late.

My favorite part of this story was not, surprisingly, the thriller aspect (which is well-done and fast-paced), but the relationship between Claire, her family, and her friends. Maetani brings together a group of funny, quirky, individuals that you can’t help rooting for. I also loved the bits of Japanese culture woven throughout–Americanized Claire knows some of her cultural heritage, but not all of it, and as she learns more about her culture (and comes to appreciate its intricacies), the reader does too.

CalvinCalvin, by Martine Leavitt

I have loved Calvin and Hobbes for a very long time, and Martine Leavitt’s Keturah and Lord Death has been a long-time favorite of mine, so naturally I was intrigued by anything that promised a mash-up of two things I love. Once I got over the initial coincidences: Calvin was born on the last day Bill Waterson’s famous comic ended, his grandfather gave him a stuffed tiger and named it Hobbes, and his neighbor is a girl named Susie, I really enjoyed this story.

Calvin’s life seems fairly normal–aside from the whole not-having-friends thing (Susie, who used to be the closest thing he had to a good friend, recently decamped for a more popular crowd). But then comes the day when he’s about to fail English and biology–and Hobbes starts talking to him. Hobbes, the stuffed tiger his mom dissolved in the wash years ago.

One hospital trip and new diagnosis later, Calvin learns a name for what has brought Hobbes back: schizophrenia. Now, he’s convinced that if he can pull off a risky stunt and walk across a frozen lake Erie, he can persuade Bill Waterson to write one more comic of Calvin, as a 17-year-old, without Hobbes–and he’ll be cured.

But things, of course, don’t ever go entirely as planned.

I loved Calvin’s voice–I liked how Leavitt managed to create a believable boy who clearly questioned the signals his brain sent him, but who never despaired because of it. And I was astonished at how she managed to make a long walk across the ice interesting, suspenseful–and even funny. If the ending was a little underwhelming, well, that’s sort of how life goes a lot of the time. The story was worth it for the sympathetic portrayal of schizophrenia, Susie’s strength, and Calvin’s own beautiful brain–and for lines like this: “Susie: Doesn’t it make you feel kind of awesome that the world is beautiful for no other apparent reason than that it is? Like beauty has its own secret reason. It doesn’t need human eyes to notice. It just wants to be glorious and unbelievable.”

I also ADORED her homages to Calvin and Hobbes. Anyone who’s familiar with the original will appreciate the occasional appearances of Spaceman Skiff, his alien teacher, the transmogrifier, and more.

Have you read any of the YA general nominees? Which was your favorite?

 

2015 Whitney YA speculative finalists

Of all the Whitney award categories, the one I feel most at home in is YA speculative. I read a lot of fantasy (not as much sci-fi, but some)–and I write it as well. Not surprisingly, when the finalists were announced, I’d already read several of them. This year’s crop of finalists runs the gamut from otherworld fantasy (Followed by Frost) to steampunk (Airships of Camelot) to near-future sci-fi (Airships of Camelot) to dystopian (Firefight) to alternate history (This Monstrous Thing).

Followed by Frost

Followed by Frost, by Charlie N. Holmberg

Followed by Frost initially bears little resemblance to Holmberg’s popular Paper Magician trilogy–but like Holmberg’s other series, it has a meticulous world and a unique  magic system, with remarkable characters. The story reminded me of a gender-flipped Beauty and the Beast, with Smitha herself playing the beast. After unwittingly scorning the advances of her father’s apprentice, who turns out to be a magician of rare powers, Smitha finds herself cursed to be followed by frost. Immediately, winter descents over her village (though it should be summer), and Smitha finds herself driven from her home, and hunted up into the mountains where she can hide. But she cannot hide from Death, who is strangely fascinated by her. Smitha resists his invitations, but she cannot resist the invitation extended by a Southern king, who thinks the ice that follows her might not be a curse for his drought-stricken, but a blessing.

I’ll admit that I found parts of the beginning slow going: Smitha starts out quite unlikeable–selfish, proud, spoiled–and the early parts of her transition are not pretty. She feels sorry for herself, she pouts, she hides away from human company for a very long time. But I’m glad I stuck with the story, both because her encounters with Death were fascinating, but also because the love story that unfolds in the second half of the book was fantastic–my very favorite kind of heart-twinging, bitter-sweet pain.

Airships of Camelot: The Rise of Arthur

Airships of Camelot, by Robison Wells

Given the number of YA speculative LDS authors, the YA speculative category is often dominated by books published with large, national presses. I think it says a lot about the quality of Wells and Patterson’s indie-published novels that they managed to hold their own amid stiff competition.

Wells’ novel was a delightful twist on the Arthurian tales: a futuristic world where the U.S. was decimated by the Spanish influenza. Those who survived managed to do so by virtue of fierce quarantine, under the protection of airship admirals. Three generations later, Arthur is part of a troubled dynasty (Camelot–formerly Colorado) that survives by raiding outcast settlements to pay for the helium they need to run their airships. But Old Ironsides is demanding more and more for the helium, and when a raid goes wrong and Arthur is stranded on the ground with savages who’ve been exposed to the Spanish flu, he’s got to find a way to not only survive, but salvage his father’s empire.

The steampunk elements here were a lot of fun–who wouldn’t want to be part of an army of flying dirigibles? I thought Wells’ world was imaginative and believable, and the Arthurian nerd in me loved tracking the different iterations of Arthur’s knights (some of whom have become ladies in this version).

A Thousand Faces

A Thousand Faces, by Janci Patterson

Sixteen-year-old Jory and her family have a dangerous secret: they’re shape-shifters, paid to take on the identities and likenesses of anyone, to satisfy the highest bidders. Her family has recently begun a cautious truce with another shape-shifting family, working together in a series of assignments.

But when Jory’s parents go missing after a job, Jory enlists the aid of Kalif, her shapeshifting neighbors’ son, to help her find her parents. What they find, instead, is a mystery much closer to home, and in a landscape of shifting identities and lies, Jory has to decide who she can trust, before she loses her parents forever.

This book has some pretty amazing praise from NYT bestselling authors: James Dashner, Brandon Sanderson, Aprilynne Pike. I’m not sure it lived up to the hype for me (but I’ve probably already made my fantasy bias known). The prose was clean, and the story fast-paced and intense.

Firefight, by Brandon Sanderson Firefight (Reckoners, #2)

Brandon Sanderson knows how to write riveting plots–and Firefight, the sequel to Steelheart, is no exception.

In a world where cities are controlled by powerful Epics (humans with superhuman abilities), David has joined the Reckoners fighting to limit the Epics power. But after defeating Steelheart in Newcago (the steel-encased former Chicago), Prof, the head of the Reckoners, thinks they need to focus their efforts on Regalia, who rules former New York City (Babylon Restored, aka Babilar). David’s eager for the new task, not just to take out another epic, but to reconnect with the Epic Firefight (aka Megan) whom he fell for when she infiltrated their force in Newcago.

But David’s experiences in Babilar make him start to question his fundamental understanding of Epics: that their power inevitably corrupts them, to a degree proportionate to their strength. In Babilar, he finds people who are relatively content with their life, feeding off the strange fruit growing in the building and grown by a mysterious Epic named Dawnslight. Regalia, too, has some deeper motive in drawing them to Babilar–and some connection with Prof. And then there’s Megan–Firefight–whose ability to stave off the Epic madness has David wondering if destroying the Epics is really the answer they should be looking at.

This one started a little slower than Steelheart for me (after the break-neck first chapter). But it definitely picked up, and there were some fascinating twists at the end of the book. Sanderson is not, unfortunately, as good at writing romance as he is at action sequences (or maybe I just like my romance tender, rather than funny). All things considered, that’s a pretty minor complaint.

This Monstrous Thing

This Monstrous Thing, by Mackenzi Lee

The only debut among the YA speculative finalists, Lee’s novel reimagines Frankenstein in an alternate  steampunk world, where the resurrection is accomplished through gears and gadgets. So far, the book is easy enough to sum up. But Lee has done much more with this retelling. It’s a lovely homage to the original, down to the inclusion of Mary Shelley herself as a complicated character.

Two years before the story begins, Alasdair Finch did a terrible thing. An accident happened, his brother died, and Mary, the girl he loved, fled Geneva. Unable to live with what he’d done, Alasdair did the unthinkable: he brought Oliver back to life.

Now, Alasdair is trapped in Geneva, helping his father perform illegal surgeries on clockwork men, though he longs to study with the brilliant Dr. Geisler at the university. He can’t leave Oliver behind. But when a new disaster brings with it unexpected opportunity, Alasdair finds his past is not so easy to leave behind as he believed.

The historical details shine, creating a vivid story world. But the heart of the story is the relationship between brothers Oliver and Alasdair–and in keeping with real sibling relationships, this heart is complicated, bruised, hopeful, loving, powerful.

Have you read any of the YA speculative finalists? Which was your favorite?

Book Review: Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings

We often think of our Mormon foremothers as women who crossed the plains with babies strapped to their backs, or who made the desert blossom as a rose working alongside their sister wives. We know our history is full of strong and faithful women, certainly, but we might not be as well versed in their roles as suffragists (women in the Utah territory won the right to vote in 1870, which was earlier than anywhere else in the nation) and as physicians and midwives. In other words, Mormon feminist history is essentially as old as Mormon history.

Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings, edited by Joanna Brooks, Rachel Hunt Steenblik and Hannah Wheelwright and published by Oxford University Press, delves deeply into the Mormon Feminism of the last fifty years– spanning the time period from the fight over the Equal Rights Amendment to President Benson’s “To the Mothers in Zion” talk to present-day concerns over expanding women’s official roles in the LDS Church.

In the last few months since Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings has been published, I’ve been delighted to see it on the shelves of bookstores all over Utah. This widespread availability of the book seems to reflect what Brooks as to say about the intended audience in her introduction: “This book is for anyone who wants to go deeper than the headlines and understand what it means to be a Mormon feminist. This book is for Mormon men and women who have questions about gender dynamics within Mormonism. Maybe you have wrestled about these questions personally. Maybe you have witnessed a friend or relative struggle with these questions, or have heard about Mormon feminist activism and want to understand it better. Maybe you are not Mormon but are curious about how contemporary Mormons live our vibrant and demanding faith and reconcile ourselves to its challenges. . . .”

The breadth of the intended audience is reflected in the wide range of authors included in Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings— more than forty women. Voices include church leaders like Chieko Okazaki (former member of the General Relief Society Presidency), activists like Kate Kelly, bloggers like Lisa Butterworth (founder of Feminist Mormon Housewives), scholars like Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and Claudia Bushman, beloved poets like Carol Lynn Pearson, and many other women all across the spectrum of the Mormon experience. The collection also includes women of color and voices that extend beyond just American feminism.

The editors of Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings should be praised not just for the breadth of their collection, but for the many extras that enhance the reading of the book. Brooks’s introduction provides a nice overview to the history of Mormon feminism, especially in relation to mainstream feminist movements at work during the last fifty years. The editors do a nice job of scaffolding the pieces with introductions to the significant time periods, and with commentary and context on each piece included in the collection. I teach a Mormon Literature course, and this is a text I will definitely consider adding to my syllabus in the future, but I think it’s accessible enough for a casual reader and would also be a fantastic book for book groups. The editors have added a fabulous Study Group Guide full of thoughtful discussion questions at the end of the book, ready made for book groups. They also list Selected Readings by Topic so readers can pick and choose what they want to read without delving into the book from beginning to end.

I’m one of those people who likes to read a book from beginning to end, and this book was engaging and instructive for readers like me, too. While I felt fairly well-versed in Mormon feminism when I started reading, I felt that I learned a lot and view of people who can be included in the umbrella of a Mormon feminist was expanded and broadened. Reading Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings made me feel grateful for both the more recent foremothers who carry the feminist banner, as well as for the Mormon feminists with whom I brush shoulders from day to day.