This is a short review/synopsis of the 2014 Whitney General finalists. This year four of the five books seemed more inspirational, and that’s not my favorite genre, so I will tell you up front I’m not the best reader for these books. I have even wondered if the Whitneys should have a separate category devoted entirely to inspirational fiction, so that the General category can be about stories that have no message attached. So if you love inspirational books (or if you wrote them), take my thoughts with a grain of salt (or don’t read them at all). I’m not in your intended audience, but I’ll say my piece anyway.
On to the books, which I’ve sorted alphabetically by author:
A Plentiful Rain, by Elizabeth Bentley. This is the story of Ellis, a Mormon intellectual who has avoided marriage and commitment for many years, but decides to brave the waters of the older singles scene again when his sister and father both get engaged. Initially attracted to the gorgeous Cassandra, he finds that her younger, recovering alcoholic sister has more depth and kindness to her.
Ellis participates in several missionary discussions as he tries to discover belief beneath the challenges his overthinking mind gives him. I enjoyed the take on Alcoholics Anonymous and the romance. I struggled with the missionary discussion passages, as I felt that the story got bogged down in scriptures, attempting to prove that an intellectual approach to faith is ultimately not effective. I do believe this, but the narrative’s pacing suffered considerably during those sections.
My Name is Bryan, by Stacy Lynn Carroll. Bryan Carroll, the author’s father-in-law, suffered an accident as a teenager that left him a quadriplegic. She tells about Bryan’s accident, his subsequent marriage, and his work to overcome many obstacles as he graduates from college and finds a job that helps support his family. It’s an amazing, inspiring life, and I can see why Carroll wanted to write it down and record it. It’s an excellent record of events. As inspired-by-life fiction, though, there were several things I struggled with. Fiction needs tension, an up and down in each scene to keep interest and keep me turning pages. I felt like many of the scenes, instead of creating a need at the beginning that could be fulfilled (or not) by the end, were merely passing through time, telling me what happened next. The pacing of the novel as a whole, as well as the structure of individual scenes, made it hard for me to really get into this book. Finally, I wanted a little more rawness. Bryan and Nedra seemed too perfect, except perhaps for the parenting scenes at the end (which were some of my favorite). I wanted to see more of their warts and flaws, because I think in a book like this those make their goodness even more powerful. If there are no warts, I need even more specific, concrete scenes that ground me in the sensory reality of their lives.
Walking on Water, by Richard Paul Evans. This is the final book in Evans’ series “The Walk.” If you’ve read the other books in the series you might enjoy this one, which wraps up a lot of loose ends as Alan returns home for the death of his father. I liked the history of Alan’s father–that was my favorite part. I also liked the story of Alan’s parents’ romance. Since I haven’t read the other books in the series, I really didn’t have a sense for who the people Alan encounters are and what they meant to him in the other books. I struggled with the writing in this book–too many boring details for me (what he ate, in detail, every single day) and too many encounters that didn’t seem to have a point. He seemed to write about what happened, motion through time, without making it significant to the story, and therefore it dragged for me.
The Law of Moses, by Amy Harmon. Georgia Shepherd, a horse-loving cowgirl in Levan, Utah, falls in love with the town’s crazy artist bad boy Moses, who comes to town to live with his grandma and paint his visions out in graffiti murals all over town… and if I tell you anything else then I’ll spoil it, so I won’t. Harmon’s characterization and voice for both Georgia and Moses work well here. She captures the feel of rural Utah and the intensity of teen love well. I thought the mystical elements were well done and effective, and I appreciated the Mormon elements of ancestors watching over the ones they love. Maybe it was an emotional day for me, but I found myself crying several times as well. It’s not a squeaky clean read–there’s some sensuality and a little country swearing–but it’s a fun one.
Still Time, by Maria Hoagland. Alyssa Johnston’s life is going pretty well–son on a mission, kids doing well with friends and school–when her father-in-law dies, and the family discovers that her mother-in-law needs live-in care. She uproots her family in order to care for her mother-in-law’s Alzheimer’s, while still managing the needs of her children and her husband. The book alternates between Alyssa’s voice and that of Ruth, her mother-in-law. I loved the passages in Ruth’s voice; they were my favorite part. Alzheimer’s is so very challenging, especially when it’s your mother-in-law and not your mother. As a member of the sandwich generation myself (my husband’s parents have lived in our home for thirteen years), I can relate to the tension of needing to care for children and parents. It’s rough. I think the reason I struggled with this book, though, was that I didn’t feel like Alyssa ever hit rock bottom. Yes, it was rough, but her problems, from challenges with Ruth to ones with her husband and children, got fixed too easily for me. I wrote about this years ago the first time I read for the Whitneys. There’s a deus ex machina inherent in LDS theology: we do believe that God will save us in our dark hours. If God saves a book character too soon, though, the book doesn’t work as well, and for me that was the case with Alyssa’s challenges.
And there you have the 2014 Whitney General category. Have you read any of them? What did you think? I’d love to hear your take.