Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Book #46: I am Not a Serial Killer (Whitney Book 26)

Title: I am Not a Serial Killer
Author: Dan Wells

I sat at McDonalds this afternoon, lost in reading I am Not a Serial Killer, while Isaac and Maren happily climbed through the bowels of the Playland. I usually let them play for ten minutes, fifteen tops, mostly because I get bored watching them. But today, with I am Not a Serial Killer in front of me, they played for more than an hour, and actually asked me if they could go home. I would have stayed an read for another hour if they'd been willing.

I am Not a Serial Killer is a really entertaining book. I think a lot of parents might look at the book and wonder if it's something they want their kids to be reading. After all, the words "Serial Killer" figure prominently in the title, and subtitle reads "A Sickly-Disturbing, Darkly-Comic Thriller." But I think that I am Not a Serial Killer is exactly the kind of book I'd hand to my fifteen-year-old son (If I had one) and tell him to have fun with it. It's the story of fifteen-year-old John Cleaver, who just happens to be named after two famous serial killers, and happens to lay claim to a triumvirate of traits shared by 95% of serial killers. He's the child of a mortician, and obsessed with death, and more specifically, serial killers. He's terrified that he's destined to become one, that the demon inside of him will somehow get out. Meanwhile, he discovers that he's not the only one in his small North Dakota down who wants to kill people.

Yes, there's quite a bit of blood and gore in this book (but, parents, no swearing, sex, or drugs), but there's also a lot of self-discovery and a lot of potential for readers to learn about empathy and learning to overcome our destructive and self-destructive impulses-- learning to turn our weaknesses into strengths. I also liked the single point-of-view, the action-packed nature of hunting down the "other" serial killer, and the relationship of John and his family. But most of all, I liked John's relationship with himself. I just finished watching all four seasons of Dexter, which I loved (a show to which this book will inevitably be compared, because both are about "good" people with sociopathic, serial killer tendencies) and I liked the way that the book handles John's desire to do good, despite the things he knows about himself and the things he's seen. The difference is that while Dexter is firmly adults-only entertainment, I am Not a Serial Killer works for a teenage audience. I'm now looking forward to the next two books in the story of John Cleaver, and I hope that the book does well when it's published in the US this spring (so far it's been released only in the UK).

Book #45: In the Company of Angels (Whitney Book 25)

Title: In the Company of Angels
Author: David Farland

Like many Mormons with pioneer heritage, my husband's parents love to tell the stories of their illustrious ancestors: the grandfather who lived with two wives in Salt Lake City into the 1950s, the uncle who should have won a Nobel Prize, the many-times great-grandfather whose hymns figure prominently in our hymnbook, the brothers (named Mormon and Moroni) who helped settle the town where my in-laws now live, the other many times-great-grandfather who used to have a church college named after him, the aunt who was married to a prophet. One of the most touching stories is of the grandma and grandpa who traveled to Utah with the Martin Handcart Company. After pulling their baby thousands of miles, she died shortly before the family reached Salt Lake City. Unwilling to leave her behind, exposed, on the frozen ground, they wrapped up her body, hid it in the handcart, and she's now buried in the Salt Lake City cemetery. I may be a convert, but after 20+ years of experience in the church, I know that in our cultural history the word handcart is synonymous with hardship. 

In the Company of Angels documents the experience the approximately 400 members of the Willie Handcart Company had crossing the plains in the summer and fall of 1856 (they were traveling the same route as the Martin Handcart Company, but had a head start of about ten days). It was a hard journey, so understandably, this is a hard story to read, a story filled with pain, blood, disease, tears, sweat, snakes, treachery, death and lots and lots of ice and snow. Emily M (my partner in reading the Whitney books for Segullah) reviewed the book already for the Segullah blog, and I agree with what she's written. I finished the book last night, and I can't get the characters and the situation out of my mind. I think part of it is because Farland does a darn good job with his characters, but also because the story is part of our cultural history, and part of my (through marriage at least) family history. It's people willing to follow leaders despite those leaders' weaknesses, people willing to cross an ocean and then pull their belongings across a continent, people willing to pray when it seemed like all hope was lost, people willing to pack up their dead baby daughter so she could be laid to rest in Zion, these are the people whose blood is running through my children, and who represent some of the enduring traits of strength and faith and hard work that we value as a culture today.

I think anyone who lays claim to this cultural heritage and who values the freedoms and benefits we have as a people today wonders how they would have stood the test of traveling with a handcart company. Farland allows readers to experience the journey through the eyes of Baline, a young Danish immigrant, Captain Willie, the missionary chosen to lead the group, and Eliza Gadd, a non-Mormon Englishwoman traveling with her family of converts. They all experience heartache and loss and are all transformed by the experience. I appreciate that Farland didn't excuse Franklin Richards (who made the ultimate call to send the Saints out late in the season and ill-equipped and chose not to pitch in and help when he could have made a big difference in the journey's outcome), and also showed the inner struggles of Willie, who bore the day to day burden of carrying the company.

It's interesting reading a historical novel when you already know the history. As the Saint set out with hope in their hearts and smiles on their faces, I knew, as a reader, that disease and despair and death waited for them down the trail. So did Farland, but he didn't change the story. When I read books like this, I often imagine that it's somewhat similar to the experience Heavenly Father might have in relation to us. He knows us, he loves us, he helps us when we ask for it, but knowing what will happen to us based on the choices that we make doesn't mean that he'll step in and make sure those hard things don't happen.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Moab Canyonlands Half Marathon Report

At 5:30 on Friday night, I still wasn't sure whether or not we'd be going to Moab to run the race. We'd had a busy week, and Bryce was still skiing, and Eddie was still at work, and I didn't know if it would be worth it to drive all the way out to Moab and then turn right around and drive back home. But everyone got home, we got on the road by six, and got the kids safely dropped off with their cousins an hour later, and drove in the dark, through the snow and past the police cars, down to Moab.

On Saturday morning we got up bright and early and dressed in all of our warmest layers to hop on the bus and wait for the race to start. I was staying with my running friend Marie, and a few of her other running friends, and we debated about what we should wear. I decided to dress warmly, with a sweatshirt and a vest to go in my sweat bag (you pick that up at the end), and a t-shirt, my favorite sweatshirt, a headband, tights and gloves to wear for the race itself.

We drove up the canyon (so pretty!) and waited a LONG time for the race to start. Most races start at 7 or 8am, but this one starts at 10, which is nice because we didn't have to wake up at 4am or stand around in the dark, but it makes it harder to gauge eating and drinking, and we ended up standing around and freezing our butts of for quite a while. It was COLD up there. I've now lived in Utah about nine months, and I was surprised at the number of people I ran into who I knew. There was Marie of course, but also my awesome running friend Julie (who came in 3rd woman overall!) and Maren's preschool teacher and Bryce's Primary teacher, and the husband of one of my blogging friends, and lots of other faces that looked familiar from other races I've done this year.

The race itself went well. I always want someone to talk to, and this time I couldn't find anyone. I thought I was going to run with two other guys, but we'd lost track of each other before the end of the first mile. I really needed to go to the bathroom by mile 3, so I found a campsite with a toilet and made a beeline for it. That mile was a little over 8-1/2 minutes, so I figure that my others averaged just under 7, since my overall pace was 7:04. And while I'd bundled up well, it got hot too, so I sadly bade goodbye to my favorite turquoise outer layer (I miss you!), and my cool reflective gloves, and the only headband that keeps my dang short hair out of my eyes.

Overall, I felt really strong during the race, especially during the uphills, which gives me some hope for Wasatch Back this year. It was a pretty course, which helped a lot, because I had no one to keep me going and Taylor Swift was just irritating me with all of her complaining about stupid boys.

I felt strong coming into the last two miles. I'd heard that they were tough because the terrain switched from canyon to city road, but I think my friends had adequately prepared me for the switch, so it wasn't too bad. I was focused. By the time the finish line came into view, I was ready to be done (it's funny how we mentally prepare for just that race and no more-- I run more than 13 miles almost every Saturday, but I felt like I couldn't go another step once I finished). I almost missed seeing Eddie because I was trying really hard to pass one more girl before I crossed the line. I ended up finishing in 1:33:02. My PR for a half is 1:32:39, but that was at Provo Canyon, which has a serious downhill, and I didn't take a bathroom break during that race. So I'm pleased. I came in 4th in my age group, and the 19th woman overall.

The only bummer of the weekend was that I couldn't shower after the race because the sewers in our condo were backed up. So I scrubbed myself down with a washcloth, threw on some clothes, and Eddie and I headed out to Arches and hiked to Delicate Arch. We were back in Springville with our kids in time to watch BYU lose to Kansas State, which was a rather sad ending to what was otherwise a great weekend.

Book #44: No Going Back (Whitney Book 24)

Title: No Going Back
Author: Jonathan Langford

This is my off-the-cuff, "first impressions" review for No Going Back, as opposed to the more in-depth review that I'll write once I've finished the last six books (if the Whitneys were a marathon, I'd be at the "hitting the wall" point of reading now), so this is the best I can do until the last page is turned.

As I think of what it means to be a Mormon writer, the thing I keep coming back to is writing about religion and culture in a meaningful way. Yes, of course there can be writers who are Mormons who write about things other than their religious experiences, but I relish reading books by Mormon writers, writing about Mormon experiences.

According to that definition, No Going Back is a very Mormon book. Paul is fifteen, working toward his Eagle Scout award, a good kid, a seminary attendee, a faithful member of his teachers' quorum, a normal kind of guy who likes chips and salsa and Super Smash Bros Melee. He's also gay. Just before the beginning of his sophomore year, he comes out to his best friend, Chad, his bishop's son. Chad is surprised and freaked out by the revelation, which sets off a whole year of Paul trying to reconcile his desire to be a good member of the church, to be a boy who wants to go on a mission and raise a family, with the undeniable fact that he'll always be attracted to guys instead of girls. It's a hard year for Paul as he finds prejudice and gossip and opposition within both the church community and the gay community at his high school.

There were things about No Going Back that bugged me. The way that Paul sees the world around him understandably changes during the year chronicled in the book, and we also see a paradigm shift in the viewpoint of Richard, Paul's bishop and Chad's dad. When Paul comes to him to tell him that he's gay, Richard seems unsure of how to handle the news, hesitant about whether he's being too hard-line or going too soft. I liked the dialogue between Richard and Paul and their relationship, especially as it related to Chad. But there's a whole side story going on in the book where Sandy, Richard's wife, has a hard time accepting Richard's calling as the bishop and the time it requires him to be gone from the family. While I always tend to roll my eyes at the "and she never complained" saintism that's often attributed to the wives of our leaders, and I appreciated that Langford showed that Sandy felt resentful of the calling, it almost felt like that aspect of the story deserved its own place, instead of lumping it in with the main narrative. It didn't add to Paul's story at all and felt distracting. Furthermore, the book is set in 2003/2004 in Oregon, during which time a referendum about gay marriage was taking place in the state. For all of the intentional setting during that time period (instead of making the book just in the more nebulous "present time") it feels like Langford doesn't do enough to establish the effect of the campaigning and the voting on Paul's experience. I kept expecting something to happen between Paul and Sandy after Sandy decided to work on getting people to sign petitions against gay marriage, but it never happens. Langford also tends to focus a little bit too much on some of the "setting the scene" details that could have been left out. He mentions chips and salsa a lot, then names of specific video games more times than I can count, and goes on an extended talk about the merits of Creed vs. other bands of 2003 that I kept expecting to come back into the narrative somewhere but it didn't.

For all of the minor criticisms, I still really liked the book. In so many of the books I've read for the awards so far, the Mormon characters seem sanitized, as if they've undergone a good, hot scrubbing before being sent off from central casting. Langford's Mormons are the Mormons I know: they're crusty, they complain about their husbands' callings, they swear, they get depressed, they gossip; they're not trying to make a statement about who Mormons are or should be, they just are. I'm sure that some readers will look at the book, and if they're not put off by the idea of reading about a faithful gay Mormon teenager, then they'll be put off by the other characters and their faults. But I thought that was the best part of the book.

When I read No Going Back, I guess I was doing a little bit of worrying about how we come as Mormons come off in the novel too, but not because Chad has to bite his tongue so he doesn't say the f-word. Instead, I know that No Going Back is eventually going to be seen as a product of a time. It's a book that's relevant today, but I'm not sure how relevant it will be in ten or twenty or fifty years. I cringed when Richard talked to Charles, his father-in-law, about Paul's situation, because I was embarrassed to be associated with the thinly-veiled homophobia Charles spouted. Langford doesn't shrink from showing the potentially embarrassing and damaging things we do and say to each other in the church as a result of our church's stand on homosexuality. No Going Back touched a nerve with me, and I'm sure it will touch a nerve with all of its readers, no matter where they fall in their relationship to homosexuality and church policy. But sometimes touching a nerve is a good thing, as I think it is in the case of this novel.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Book #43: The Route (Whitney Book 23)

Title: The Route
Author: Gale Sears

Continuing on the "judging a book by its cover" theme, if I were in the publishing industry and responsible for The Route, I know exactly the format I would have used: the "Mitch Albom/Richard Paul Evans" small-format hardcover book, which indicates that what is contained within the covers is easy to read, somewhat sappy and inspirational.

If I were a member of the Red Hat Society, or had to decide between living a life of leisure or a life of service, or planning to volunteer with Meals on Wheels, I think that The Route would be a worthwhile read. But it's a book that has a target audience, and I'm not it. While the story is sweet, and Sears imparts messages that are both philosophical and easy to swallow, there are also problems. I wanted more meat in the relationship with Carol and her son, fewer minor characters to keep track of (I think the book would have worked better with a sustained relationship with four or five characters rather than trying to get all of them in there-- it made it hard to keep track of who was who), and better proofreading (the name of one character was spelled three different ways on a single page!).

Book #42: Counting the Cost (Whitney Book 22)

Title: Counting the Cost
Author: Liz Adair

I know you're not supposed to judge a book from its cover, but since starting to read the Whitney Award nominees, I know that I've been doing just that. I look at the artwork, the fonts, and the quotes on the back cover. I look at the font size of the text and the quality of the paper. If the paper is rough and the cover artwork is cheesy, I tend to conclude that the book will be bad. Reading the first few chapters of Counting the Cost, I expected it to be bad. So I was surprised when it turned out to be, gosh, pretty darn good!

Hank Benham is a cowboy in his late twenties who has already been on the range in New Mexico and Arizona for more than half his life. He's solid and dependable-- the kind of man who will be a ranch foreman in a few more years. Ruth Reynolds, an Eastern socialite, arrives on the ranch with her abusive husband, who has been sent to the desert to push pencils. Ruth takes an immediate shine to Hank, and within a few months, the husband is dead, and Hank and Ruth are together, living in a tiny shack in the middle of nowhere in Arizona. But love and passion can only sustain itself for so long, and pretty soon Hank and Ruth have to figure out how to sustain a marriage of opposites.

Wow, I loved this book. The characters were so rich and complicated, and the book (once again, my genre issues come through) was more than just a romance where the couple gets married at the end and lives happily ever after. Instead, it was the story of a marriage of opposites attracted, of a couple who has to compromise their personal dreams for the good of the relationship. I know relationships like this. I've seen close at hand examples of women who haven't been happy with the way their husbands provide, and do their best to let the men know it. I've seen men who have given up the things they're passionate about to make a little extra money for the family.

My main criticism of the novel is that in the last third of the book, Hank seems a little too saintly and Ruth a little too devilish. The characters are complicated in the beginning, and come back to those honest and complicated roots in the end, but Adair tends to draw them a bit more broadly for a while. But that's a small price to pay for a book that makes the New Mexico desert feel real, with characters (even the supporting ones) who jump off the page, with lyrical and beautiful writing.

The book needs a cover that is worthy of what's inside.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Moments in Motherhood: March Edition

I was talking with my friend Michelle the other day about the evolution of our blogs. Once upon a time, four or five years ago, I was a Mommyblogger. Nay, an aspiring Mommyblogger, sure that my wit and humor and intelligence and fantastic parenting would be discovered, and I'd be famous.

That didn't happen. And I'm really fine with it. Over the years, the blog has evolved, from Mommyblogging, to a place where I could dump all of my deep thoughts when I didn't have anyone else to talk to, to a place to write and brag about running, to a place to write about books. I'm sure that over the years, it will evolve again. That picture of my legs that my husband complains about every time he loads my blog will undoubtedly get swapped out for something else a few years down the road. That's just the way life works.

So even though I'm not really a Mommyblogger, I'm still a mom. Most of the time, I try to condense the things I would blog about for each of my kids into a 140-word mini-essay, and put it up on Twitter. But sometimes Twitter doesn't do the trick, and I know that even though some people come to the blog to read book reviews, and other come to ogle my legs, there are some who want to read about my offspring, so I'm going to make an effort to post a "Moments in Motherhood" post at least once a month, maybe more if I'm feeling inspired.

This morning was one of those "I'd give my kids the shirt off my back" moments of parenting, literally. It was 8 o' clock. I'd been bugging Bryce to get out of bed since his alarm went off 30 minutes earlier, and my shouts toward his bedroom were getting more frantic since he needed to leave for school in 15 minutes. He poked his head out of the bedroom and said, "Where's my green shirt?" What green shirt? His school has a uniform, and he's allowed to wear white, yellow, red and navy. Period. Apparently, in honor of St. Patty's Day, the teachers decided that rather than endure a day of kids pinching each other, they'd let the kids wear green.

Bryce doesn't have a green shirt. Or a green sweatshirt. He has a green sweater, but he said it was itchy. He begged me, "Mom, can you please run to the store and get me one?" (At 8:03am?) I was wearing a plain green sweatshirt, the kind that the dress code police would be unlikely to confiscate, so I took my sweatshirt off, handed it over, and he went to school happy. He probably smelled like a girl, but I guess he didn't care.

My kids are picky eaters. Whenever I'm stumped over what to make for dinner and ask the kids for suggestions, Annie always wants the same thing: pasta with parmesan cheese, broccoli, and garlic bread. It's a decent meal from my perspective because I can add some pesto for the adults, three of the kids like broccoli, and Bryce will choke down a piece of garlic bread.

A couple of months ago, the kids at Annie's school started rotating through the cafeteria as lunch servers. Up until this time, Annie brought her lunch every day, almost always a cheese sandwich and grape juice. Suddenly, she wanted to eat school lunch. One she finally mustered up the courage to ask for her secret number for lunch billing (which took a few weeks and many pep talks), the world of school lunch opened up to her. I know that it's popular to disparage school lunches, and it's true that some days she'll have things like chicken fried steak, gravy, and french fries for her midday meal, but I'm not complaining.

Before school lunch (BSL) Annie ate a few things-- fast food, pizza, lean grilled meat, breads, cheese and a small number of fruits and vegetables. Over the last month, her culinary horizons have exploded. She comes home talking about eating grapes and salad (salad!) from the nutrition bar (I'm sure it's drowned in ranch dressing, but it's salad!) and she loves every entree, even the salisbury steak. This week, instead of the normal request for tortellini and broccoli, she asked me to make chili-cheese scoops for dinner. Yeah, they were fritos and chili and with a sprinkling of cheddar, so not exactly the healthiest meal ever, but variety is the spice of life and I'm embracing it!

Maren has been potty-trained for six months. Kind of. Pee isn't a problem, but poop is a whole other story. We've tried bribing/guided imagery/threatening/coaching/cheering/demeaning but none if it works. She says she'll poop in the potty when she's four. It's not much of a problem because she only poops at home, but yeah, I change poopy underpants a couple of times a day. I'm telling you, you probably don't want to shake my hand.

A week or so ago, she pooped in the potty. She was ridiculously excited. We cheered. We Tweeted. We called the grandparents. We went to Toys R Us to buy her "I pooped in the potty Dora." She hasn't repeated the feat since. Now I'm out of bribes, and she still smells like a nursing home.

It's now three months since Christmas and Isaac is still sleeping in the tent he received from Grannie every single night. It takes up all of the available floor space in the bedroom he and Bryce share, and I'm starting to think that I need to do a better job of analyzing all of the potential downsides to toys that I suggest people buy my kids for Christmas before I send out the recommendations.

Book #41: Murder by the Book (Whitney Book 21)

Title: Murder by the Book
Author: Betsy Brannon Green

Kennedy Killingsworth is a twenty-four year-old, newly divorced librarian in small-town Georgia, getting ready to close up the library trailers for the evening when Foster Scoggins and his niece, Heaven, come in seeking help on a report to help Heaven so she won't have to repeat first grade yet again. A couple of hours later, Foster turns up dead, apparently a suicide, and Killingsworth just knows that he wasn't planning to off himself a few hours earlier, so she decides to figure out who killed him and why.

Killingsworth gets involved with a whole cast of characters from rural Georgia, including her ex-husband, the deputy, a nosy fellow librarian, Miss Eugenia (who is apparently the subject of several other Green books, but I found her annoying instead of endearing and probably wouldn't pick up those books for just that reason). While they mystery was pretty twisty, with several people contributing variously to the nefarious deeds, Green's overuse of the world "Altima" made the whole thing relatively transparent. I also thought the four guys vying for Kennedy's attention was overkill, excuse the pun. And while we're talking about death, I don't understand why the cover art includes bloody bullet holes. The murders and attempted murders in the story (except for a brief episode at the very end) didn't include any bullets whatsoever. I guess there were no stock photos featuring electrocutions that were deemed appropriate cover art.

Another thing I've noticed since reading the Whitney nominees is the phenomenon of the main character's mother being a perfect homemaker (often somewhat overbearing in nature). I can think of at least five books with this type of character: Methods of Madness, Murder by the Book, Previously Engaged, Lemon Tart (okay, she is the main character, but she's of the same age as the other mothers), the aunt in Gravity vs. the Girl (who in the absence of Samantha's real mother functions as the mother character), and probably a few more.  What does the presence of these characters over and over say about our culture? The daughters can be spunky screwups, but they'll eventually turn into mothers who know because their own moms iron sheets and make their own pie crusts?

Book #40: Previously Engaged (Whitney Book 20)

Title: Previously Engaged
Author: Elodia Strain

Previously Engaged is another Shopaholic wannabe, right down to the obsession with designer clothes and shoes. Or maybe it's Bridget Jones, with the job in publishing and the two guys-- one her boss and the other one a little less polished, but perfect for her. Whatever it is, it's not original.

Previously Engaged just has SO many little things that bugged me. Maybe it was Strain's mixing up of "your" and "you're" or her use of "I" when she should have said "me" (basic grammar here, folks!). Maybe it was the fact that Annabelle Pleasanton was only twenty-five but up for an editor-in-chief position for a magazine. Maybe it was the fact that her twenty-four year old sister managed to have a four-year-old, a toddler, and a license in counseling (was she Doogie Howser?). Maybe it was the "Peach Pit"-style hangout down the street from Pleasanton's office that carried endless variations of hot chocolate and sticky buns, all with ridiculously saccharine surfer names like "riptide" and "billabong." Maybe it was the fact that she exhausted just about every single cliche about funky new-Age Northern Californians in Pleasanton's best friend Carrie, all in the first chapter (from her health food store, to her tea-dyed wedding napkins, to her yoga breathing-- you name it, it's in there). I didn't find Pleasanton cute, or charming. In fact, I wanted to warn the would-be fiance Isaac to run the other direction because this girl wasn't going to bring him much but a huge Mastercard bill.

I know that I've talked here and there during this Whitney process about the writers' treatment of their religion in their novels. We've had situations where the characters weren't Mormon, situations where the main characters were Mormon, and situations where supporting characters were Mormon but the main characters weren't. We've also had cases where it was ambiguous. In Previously Engaged, it's easy for a Mo to spot a Mo, and Annabelle and her family are definitely Mo. They talk about church, they don't drink, they talk once or twice about having a small religious ceremony for the upcoming wedding. And here's where you'll see me get all sanctimonious, because even though the book is all about weddings and marriage and happily ever afters, neither the bride nor the groom ever mentions the temple or eternity, even though it's sort of an unstated given that the wedding is going to take place there. We hear a LOT about flowers and dresses and canapes, but nothing about covenants. And I just find that bizarre. Strain also makes me feel like all of the residents of Northern California are quietly understated Mormons, just like Annabelle. Every character, from the publisher who went to Columbia to the girl with the Jewish last name, are apparently Mormons.

Finally, the one thought-provoking part of Previously Engaged came when both Annabelle and Isaac (seriously, do you know anyone over the age of 10 named Annabelle or Isaac?) both had fantastic opportunities in their careers, in opposite sides of the California coast, and they had to decide whether they'd both go for their careers or one of them would forfeit work for love. The characters are 24, so old enough to be out of college for a couple of years (apparently not smart enough, however, to know, that editors of regional magazines don't get 250K salaries and beachfront homes as a matter of course), but not really old enough to be established in their careers. And since we as Mormons tend to marry young and have kids young, we also tend to do some deferring and compromising in terms of our career plans (said by someone who went to the hospital to have her first baby straight from handing in the last paper for her MA), and I think that's something that deserves some careful consideration in the Mormon publishing world, even though it doesn't really get it here.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Book #39: The Chosen One (Whitney Book 19)

Title: The Chosen One
Author: Carol Lynch Williams

As I read the four other books in the YA category, I kept trying to weigh the pros and cons of each novel. Each one had significant strengths, but none was without its weaknesses. By the end of the fourth book, I wasn't at all sure which book would get my vote. So I was relieved and excited as I got sucked into The Chosen One in the very first chapter.

Like the other books in the category, The Chosen One isn't without its faults. With it's somewhat sensational topic and dramatic ending, I worry that The Chosen One may be whetting young girls' appetites for an adulthood of avidly reading Jodi Picoult, but I guess there could be worse things in life. Although the book, with its themes of polygamy, evokes the modern sections of David Ebershoff's The 19th Wife (especially in its treatment of the "lost boys" and discussion of safe houses) and Big Love (you really didn't think you'd get through this review without a Big Love reference, did you? Kyra's father likely points to Bill Henricksen as the example of how he can never escape life on the compound), but the writing style of the book, with short, beautiful, simple paragraphs, most reminded me of Patricia McCormick's Sold, published in 2008 about a young girl (about the same age as Kyra) sold into sexual slavery. And while Kyra was being sold into the bonds of holy matrimony, as a thirteen-year-old forced to marry her geriatric uncle as his seventh wife, it was as much a type of slavery as Lakshmi endured in McCormick's novel.

I think that The Chosen One is an important novel for young girls to read, both because it broadens their horizons and helps them realize that most of us in America have it pretty good, but there are those who suffer a lot. I particularly liked the scene in which Kyra and her sister and her mothers went fabric shopping (for Kyra's wedding dress) followed by lunch at Applebee's. I think that many teenagers wouldn't think twice about eating at Applebee's, other than perhaps to wrinkle their noses at the experience, but it's a first for Kyra, and she's overwhelmed both by the food and by the stares she attracts from the other patrons in the restaurant.

One of the things that I've always found most fantastical about Big Love (and the reason why I finally stopped watching it after three or four seasons) was the evilness of the polygamist leaders on the compound. I had a hard time believing that the leaders cared enough about people leaving the flock that they'd be out for blood. In the modern Mormon church (interestingly, Williams, never makes overt references to Mormonism in The Chosen One) we like to keep our members active, but I've never seen someone's inactivity making them the subject of death threats and vendettas. Maybe I'm naive about fundamentalism, though, because Williams portrays the polygamist prophet and his apostles as just as cold-hearted and lustful as Roman Grant and his henchmen.

Book #38: Bright Blue Miracle (Whitney Book 18)

Title: Bright Blue Miracle
Author: Becca Wilhite

Short, spunky and outspoken Leigh Mason has gotten used to the life she lives with her mom and younger twin sisters in Indianapolis. She tolerates high school (at least she's smart, and a senior) and loves her best friend, Jeremy. But when her mom announces that she's getting married, and her new stepfather will be moving to Indy with his daughter, Betsy, also a high school senior, Leigh balks. When Betsy and Jeremy quickly fall for each other, Leigh falls apart.

I think Leigh is supposed to be intentionally selfish at the beginning of the book, so we can see how the experience of adjusting to life with Betsy changes her. And while we do see Leigh changing, I wonder if White loses us by making Leigh pretty repugnant at the beginning of the book. I worry that she underestimates teenagers-- Leigh is so self-absorbed and so selfish (I mean, Betsy had to move across the country in the middle of her senior year of high school-- I wonder what kind of horny parents wouldn't wait four more months to get married, but that's another whole gripe) when the novel starts that it's hard to trust Wilhite enough to go on the rest of the journey with her.

Does Wilhite ultimately deliver? I'm not sure. I think she did a great job of showing Leigh's growth through coming to terms with her dad's death by learning to drive. I also felt like Leigh's mom's description of how Leigh functions as the family's emotional barometer was interesting (doesn't every family have an emotional barometer?) But some of the plot elements (Jeremy's cancer? the fling with a cute Tongan boy in Oklahoma helping her overcome her jealousy?) seemed sort of out of left field. The writing is also clunky at times. I hope that as Leigh moves on to college, Becca Wilhite continues to mature as an author in her future works.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Book #37: Lemon Tart (Whitney Book 17)

Title: Lemon Tart
Author: Josi S. Kilpack

Well folks, I'm over the hump. Book 16 marks the official beginning of the second half of the Whitney nominees, although with three big ones in the second half (Sanderson, Brown, and Lund's 800+-page tome), I doubt I've made it to the halfway mark in terms of total pages. But two whole books today-- not too shabby!

Lemon Tart is the story of Sadie Hoffmiller, a good-hearted neighborhood busybody, who looks up one morning while canning applesauce to see two police cruisers rushing into her cul-de-sac. Her neighbor, Anne Lemmon, is dead in a field behind her house, and no one knows where her two-year-old has gone. Sadie, who has spent her life teaching school, baking for her neighbors, and volunteering on nearly every committee and for every social project in her small Colorado town, can't just sit by and continue canning, she needs to find a killer. Soon she realizes that the story of Anne's life and death are much closer to her own than their relationship as neighbors.

When my mom saw this book on my desk a few days ago, she asked if I was done reading it yet so she could take it and read it on her flight home. Although I had to turn her down, I think I'm going to stick it in the mail and send it her way, because I know she'd love it. I know that culinary mysteries are sort of a hot thing right now, and I think Kilpack does a good job with hers; it seems like a book that could definitely hold its own with other culinary cozies that aren't geared for an LDS audience.

The LDS audience thing is actually the only thing that really troubled me about the book. Kilpack never says that Hoffmiller and her family are LDS, although she talks about church in passing quite frequently. In fact, there are several details that make me think that she doesn't want her characters to be LDS-- namely her reference to Jack's (Sadie's brother) pastor, and to the Jesus fish on the back of his wife's car (how many Mormons do you know with a Jesus fish?). So Kilpack seems to want to define her character as generically Christian. But as someone who is now Mormon but used to be generically Christian, I think Kilpack gets some things wrong. For one thing, she talks about how Jack broke covenants when he cheated on his wife, which screams Mormon to me. She also talks about drinking herbal tea several times, and any non-Mormon would simply refer to the beverage as tea. When Sadie sneaks into her fiance's house, she's surprised to see that he wears briefs instead of boxers. It seems highly improbable that two widowed fifty-somethings who had been together for eighteen months wouldn't know something like that about each other, unless they were abstaining Mormons. So I see Sadie as very Mormon, even if she doesn't realize it. Maybe she's a Dry Mormon, and she'll have a spiritual awakening in English Trifle, where she'll realize that she's been living as a Mormon all along, and she should just make it official.

Book #36: Wings (Whitney Book 16)

Title: Wings
Author: Aprilynne Pike

I started reading Wings at about 6:30 this morning. It's not a long book (290 pages, with large type), and even though I cleaned up a massive waterfall caused by an overflowing toilet (don't ask), went on an eight-mile run, and did the normal mom stuff of making lunches and driving to and from schools, I managed to finish the book by about 1pm. It had me hooked. As I read, I kept thinking to myself, "This has got to be the clear-cut YA winner; it's a great story, good characters, interesting writing, and it's definitely hooked me as a reader." Then I sat down with the list of finalists in front of me and realized that it's not even nominated in the YA category, despite being published by HarperTeen.

Before I talk about the book, I want to say this:

supernatural elements + teen protagonist= Eyes Like Mine (general category)
supernatural elements + teen protagonist= Wings (speculative fiction category)
supernatural elements + teen protagonist= My Fair Godmother (YA category)

Gosh I'm confused. I know that teen protagonists don't automatically make the book Young Adult. I can think of plenty of examples of great fiction (The Secret Life of Bees, To Kill a Mockingbird, half of Dickens) with teenage characters that aren't geared toward a teenage audience. But with ample descriptions of first love and high school life in both, I would say that both Wings and Eyes Like Mine are squarely teen. If Wings falls in the speculative category, then why doesn't Fablehaven? Both books have fifteen-year-old female protagonists who have special relationships with fairies.

I really enjoyed Wings. My daughter, on the other hand, is annoyed by it, both by the title and by the premise. Apparently she read a similar book a few months ago, also called Wings, written by ED Baker, where the main character, like Laurel in Pike's book, started to grow fairy wings. Pike does a great job getting teen relationships right, constructing Laurel's character, and working through both the suspense elements and Laurel's transformation from "girl" to fairy.

Book #35: Princess of the Midnight Ball (Whitney Book 15)

Title: Princess of the Midnight Ball
Author: Jessica Day George

Most of what I know about the story of the twelve dancing princesses comes from the Barbie movie version, a movie Annie put in repeat play at our house for several months back when she was in preschool.

Now that Annie is well out of preschool, I can see her really enjoying Princess of the Midnight Ball, more, in fact, than any of the other YA books I've read so far. I also enjoyed it a lot. If you're familiar with the story (Barbie or otherwise) you know that the king's twelve daughters are under a curse. Each night they go to bed in their rooms, and when they wake up in the morning, their dancing shoes are full of holes. No one can figure out why, even though princes from all over Europe have come to the castle to solve the mystery. Galen, a gardener at the castle who has been unwittingly assisted by a witch to whom he showed kindness while returning from war, takes a fancy to Rose, the eldest princess, and determines to solve the mystery himself.

I think George's writing is beautiful, her characters are interesting, and there wasn't much that really stuck out as annoying while I was reading. Of the three books I've read so far, I feel like the world George created was much richer than in My Fair Godmother, which was cute too. I also enjoyed it more than the Fablehaven book, but I can't shake the feeling that my lukewarm feelings about Fablehaven have been influenced by not reading the first three books, and I'm not sure that that's fair.

One of the things I don't like about the story, which isn't necessarily George's fault, is that there are twelve princesses. Twelve characters are a lot to flesh out and make memorable. Actually, this is one area where I think the Barbie version got it right-- they named the princesses alphabetically, so even if each princess's individual characteristics weren't especially memorable, the viewer could still figure out where she fit in the family in a general way. In George's version, the princesses are all named for flowers (their mother was a flower enthusiast and Galen is a gardener, so it works well) but I felt like I needed a cheat sheet. Rose was the only character who was fleshed-out, the others had a single characteristic (musical or religious, for example), and I was constantly getting them mixed up. But that's a minor criticism, and a criticism of the original story more than George's rendering of it.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Book #34: Eyes Like Mine (Whitney Book 14)

Title: Eyes Like Mine
Author: Julie Wright

Eyes Like Mine has an interesting premise: a pioneer woman in the 1850s and her fifth-great-granddaughter in 2009 both have crises. They both pray and fall asleep, and when they wake up, the grandmother (Constance) has time traveled to be with Liz. Constance soon realizes that she can't get home to her husband and baby unless she helps Liz and her family sort out the problems in their lives, namely the divorce of Liz's parents and the ensuing fallout.

While I thought Wright did a good job of constructing Liz's character (as well as the other teenagers in the book), I had problems with the adult characters. It seems highly unrealistic and even potentially damaging for a character like
Clair to go from being so depressed she was contemplating suicide and sleeping around the clock to fully functioning as a parent after a stern-talking to and a bottle of pills flushed down the toilet. It seems especially unrealistic for her to be functioning that normally since those events took place just a couple of days before her ex-husband's wedding. Also, the cowboy went from being a total jerk who was running around scaring kids to the hero, the guy who made it possible for Liz to keep her horse. It would have been beneficial to have a more nuanced characterization there too. If he's such a jerk, why does Liz want to have a business relationship with him?

While it's not hard for people looking in from the outside of a divorce to believe that it's all one person's fault, I think it's true that both partners have some degree of responsibility in most divorces. In this book, Clair is pretty blameless, and Tom, Liz's dad, functions as not much more than a stock villain. He cheats, he shacks up with a cute young thing, he gets excommunicated, he gets married again before the ink on the divorce papers is dry, he sneaks into his ex-wife's house and terrorizes her, he doesn't want his kids around, and he lives high on the hog while his kids suffer financially. I think it would be much more realistic to show some of his good points, because that would make the situation more complicated, and ultimately, more heartbreaking.  Constance's character is somewhat troubling as well. She sure does a lot of lecturing for someone who is only 19.

Book #33: All the Stars in Heaven (Whitney Book 13)

Title: All the Stars in Heaven
Author: Michele Paige Holmes

All the Stars in Heaven is the story of Jay, a 28-year-old law student, who has succeeded in putting his troubled past behind him. When he meets Sarah, a 24-year-old Harvard freshman (just suspend disbelief), he feels a magnetic pull towards her. The problem? Sarah's father, the chief of police in a neighboring suburb, whose overprotectiveness long ago crossed the line from a little weird to downright pathological. She's never watched tv, never been on a date, never seen a movie. What she has done is bought lots of drugs for her father's undercover task force, become a musical virtuoso, and lived in the literal shadow of her cousin Carl, who (creepily) lusts after her and follows her everywhere.

The book is equal parts somewhat schmoopy love story (although less so than others I've read) and nail-biting suspense. Here's where I get confused. The book is classified in the romance section. So far I've read two other romances, Illuminations of the Heart and Santa Maybe. You know how I felt about Illuminations of the Heart. Santa Maybe was a cute book, and a straightforward romance, but it wasn't nearly as complicated or compelling as All the Stars in Heaven. But what made it compelling was the suspense, not the romance. I was genuinely surprised by the ending, and kept reading because I wanted to. I've also read three of the books in the mystery/suspense category, and All the Stars in Heaven had an equivalent amount of romance and better suspense than two of the books in that category: Methods of Madness and Lockdown. So what's a voter to do? Do we vote for All the Stars in Heaven because it's a better book overall, even if what makes it better is outside of the category in which it was nominated? I still have two more books to read in the category, so maybe it's a moot point.

Emily, I know you're out there, what do you think?

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Book #32: Gravity vs. The Girl (Whitney Book 12)

Title: Gravity vs. The Girl
Author: Riley Noehren

Over the last month, I've read a lot of books I would have passed by on a library or bookstore shelf without giving it a second glance. While I'm not disappointed to have read those books, I've finished most of the books thinking that they hadn't really penetrated or changed me in the way that I like to be transformed by the books I read. Without this Whitney experience, I doubt I ever would have read Gravity vs. The Girl, and I would have missed out.

While it's not a perfect book (Noehren tends to be a little heavy-handed with the metaphors and the love story is fairly predictable, for example), Gravity vs. The Girl is the first Whitney Book that showed quite a bit of imagination in the premise. It's the story of Samantha Green, who has spent the last year in bed after deciding that the big-time life of a corporate lawyer leaves her feeling impossibly empty. The ghost of her six-year-old self finally helps her rise from her bed, and they escape to her childhood home, where three other ghosts from Samantha's past (the lawyer, the student and the teenager) join forces to help Samantha get well. In doing so, Samantha has to confront the way she's lived over the last 30 years, and set things to right so the ghosts can go away.

At the beginning of the book, Samantha has been in a deep depression. And Noehren seems to imply that a change of scenery, a purpose, and a few ghosts can cure mental illness. I would have liked her to show Samantha taking anti-depressants or talking to a mental health professional, along with working with her ghosts. That's my major criticism of the book. But after reading about characters' shiny blond locks and dazzling smiles in the last 11 books, it was a relief to read about outfits made out of the castoffs of a lawyer's professional wear and old running t-shirts, about greasy hair, about characters who know what's right and still choose the wrong.

So far, all of the books I've read have fallen into one of a few categories: they have LDS characters and take place in our current society or they don't have LDS characters and take place in the past (Tribunal, with LDS characters and a historical setting is the main exception). Gravity vs. the Girl is unique in that it takes place in modern times, and the characters aren't LDS. Samantha lives with guys and hangs out in bars, she steals her best friend's boyfriend. She's a good person, but she often makes dumb choices. But Noehren's Mormon background comes through when she talks about things like funeral potatoes and modest dresses. I don't have a lot to say about this phenomenon, and I'm not passing judgment about it, I just think it's kind of curious.

Book #31: Santa Maybe (Whitney Book 11)

Title: Santa Maybe
Author: Audrey Mace

Abbie has everything she needs in life-- she owns a successful bakery, she adores her nieces and nephew, she has plenty of friends. She's also been in love hundreds of times, but none of those romances has ever stuck. On the advice of her sister, Grace, Abbie decides to ask Santa for a man. And she gets him, waking up on Christmas morning with the perfect guy under the Christmas tree. Only the perfect guy claims to have amnesia, and Abbie can't tell whether or not he's telling the truth.

Santa Maybe was a cute book. Predictable, yes, but not bad. It's an easy read at 180 pages, and something I might crawl into bed with on a chilly winter night to pass a couple of pleasant hours. It's entertaining. Abbie is actually a fairly interesting character, and has to go through a bit of inner struggle to decide whether or not she really wants what she thinks she does. It's also only the second book I've read in the romance category, and unlike the other one, Santa Maybe didn't make me feel like I wanted to vomit and/or slit my wrists.

But the review wouldn't be complete without a little bit of criticism. First of all, although the book was published by Cedar Fort and marketed toward an LDS audience, there's absolutely no mention of Abbie's religion until about halfway through the book. Suddenly, it's Sunday, and Abbie's lying in bed, and her sister's encouraging her to stay there. And I'm thinking, okay, this must be one of those books where the character's not overtly LDS, since we're 100 pages in and she's staying in bed on Sunday. But suddenly she's at the singles ward, and the book becomes very Mormon. I felt like Mace should have decided and defined at the outset that Abbie was LDS and this was a Mormon book, because it felt a little like being dropped into a place that I didn't think the book was going. Also, it drove me nuts that Mace never designated a setting for the book. Just some anonymous town somewhere in America. I wanted a town with a name-- it would give the story more credence. Maybe it was intentional (since Santa does play a rather hefty role in the book, albeit behind the scenes), but that part bugged me.

Book #30: My Fair Godmother (Whitney Book 10)

Title: My Fair Godmother
Author: Jannette Rallison

First of all, a plea: If you are an LDS author and have a book in the works, do not name one of your characters Tristan. In 2009, "Tristan" must have held the same power over LDS authors that "Jennifer" did in 1978 for pregnant mothers across America. If he swapped his dark hair for light, this Tristan could easily have grown up to be the Tristan in Lockdown, which doesn't help either book in my estimation.

Okay, now that I've gotten that off my chest, there were a lot of things I liked about My Fair Godmother. It's a book that I think my daughter would enjoy in a couple of years, once she stops thinking boys are yucky. Savannah is a sixteen-year-old who cares a lot more about boys, hair and clothes than she does about school. She's smart, but kind of an airhead. When Hunter, her boyfriend, decides he likes her brainy older sister Jane more than he likes Savannah, she wishes her life away. And she gets her wish, when a similarly airheaded fairy godmother, Chrissy, shows up to grant her three wishes. Savannah wishes for a prince to take her to the prom, and ends up living as Cinderella in the Middle Ages. Life in the Middle Ages isn't very much fun, so she begs to be rescued... right into life as Snow White. Finally, Chrissy brings her back to the modern era, but instead sends Tristan, Savannah's new crush, back to the past. Savannah decides she can't just leave him there, so she joins him, and eventually Jane and Hunter follow. The rest of the book is all about fighting dragons and ogres and black nights, drinking potions, and trying to survive in a world where people never bathe and own only one outfit.

The tone of My Fair Godmother is really light. It's the kind of book that seems to prepare young girls to grow up and read books like the Shopaholic series. I enjoy the Shopaholic books, and I enjoyed My Fair Godmother quite a bit, but even as Rallison says over and over again that life in the Middle Ages was smelly and hard, it's almost like she says it with a giggle. It's a fun book, but written in a way that it doesn't feel especially substantive. And while I like books like that, giving an award for it would feel like giving an Oscar for Leap Year instead of The Hurt Locker. But if it's more of an enjoyable read than the other YA novels (I've only read two so far so I may be getting ahead of myself here), then why shouldn't it win the award?

Book #29: The Privileges

Title: The Privileges
Author: Jonathan Dee

Somehow, this book slipped into the suitcase and made it to Hawaii. I figured that after reading a bunch of books for the Whitney Awards judging, I'd need a palate cleanser. The Privileges is definitely a different kind of book than the ones I've been reading lately. It begins auspiciously enough, at the wedding of Adam and Cynthia Morey, fresh out of college and eager to make their mark on the world. For the next decade, he climbs the corporate ladder and she tries to figure out a place in Manhattan for a woman who had children at 23 and 24 (which, in their social circle, just doesn't happen). Neither Cynthia nor Adam is perfect-- she's lonely and depressed and barely tolerates any family member outside of her husband and children; he's so consumed by the headiness of making money that he's started squirreling money away offshore that he's made through insider trading.

They get rich. Fabulously rich. Rich enough to have a penthouse in the city and a house in the Hamptons and a lifestyle of foundations and facelifts and fancy vacations. And at this point, I'm not sure I really understand the story anymore. It's much less linear than what I've been reading-- the smart daughter becomes a drug addict. The parents love her and want to help her, but they also want to keep their name out of the papers. The son wants to live as "normal" a life as possible, which is kind of hard when his family's foundation is in the news and family members pop in on their private plane. For all their success, the Moreys aren't a happy family, and Dee seems to say that there's hollowness at the core of making money your god. As if we didn't know that already. But he creates characters that are complicated and flawed and don't feel like they've come out of the stockroom of a Jasper Fforde novel. And while it's hard to figure out what this book means, it's also nice to read a book every once in a while where the author gives the reader credit for being smart enough to wrestle it out and chew on it a little bit. I've missed those things.

Book #28: The Last Waltz (Whitney Book 8)

Title: The Last Waltz
Author: G. G. Vandagriff

The Last Waltz is epic, big, and sprawling. In many ways, it reminded me of War and Peace and Anna Karenina (I hope Tolstoy is not offended by the comparison), with years of life presented against the backdrop of political unrest, this time in Vienna, Germany and Poland. The book begins in 1913, on the day Amalia meets Andrzej (a name I can no longer spell, probably due to the fact that I could never figure out how to pronounce it, which bugged me for the entire 608 pages of the novel), and continues into World War II. Amalia and Andrzej fall in love instantaneously, but through a series of unfortunate events, precipitated by their headstrong natures, they marry other people a combined total of three times, and their unrequited love for each other complicates the other relationships.

It's hard for me to decide if I like The Last Waltz or not. I admire the fact that Vandagriff, now a grandmother and the author of a number of other novels, started the book back in college as a Study Abroad student. Although I personally know very little about Austria in from 1910-1940, Vandagriff obviously knows a lot about both the politics and the culture, and I felt like she did a great job transporting the reader into that world and making the political stuff accessible. The romance, however, felt a bit farfetched. I can identify with falling in love with someone, and with heartbreak, but it's hard for me to identify with a love that endures for nearly 30 years, staying powerful enough to rock and change the course of two families, even when the people in love haven't seen each other. That, my friends, sounds more like obsession than love. However, if I'm going to read a book that's basically a romance novel, this one (other than being over 600 pages long) seems like a good one, because there's enough other interesting stuff about socialism and Nazism, and the mores of the Viennese bourgeoisie to keep a reader going, even if the love story feels improbable.