Friday, April 25, 2014

It takes a village (for Mom to run a marathon)

This morning I crept out of my bed at 5am. I managed to extricate my arm from underneath Rose without waking her up, tiptoed past Ed, who had been at work until past midnight, and held my breath when I found Eli snoring in a pile of pillows in the middle of the floor. Somehow, I got downstairs without someone following me for the first time all week, and forced myself onto the treadmill, ready start my long run for the week.

As I ran, I gave half my brain over to Stephen King's Doctor Sleep (which is AMAZING!!!) and the other half tried to fashion the perfect Facebook status update to whine about how piecemeal this long run would have to be: "My 23-mile run this morning: four miles on the treadmill, three miles with the jogger, thirteen while the kids terrorize Suzanne's dog, followed by three more miles with the jogger. Any dad's 23-mile run tomorrow morning? Bye honey, I'll see you when I get back."

But if I'm being honest, that's not fair.

I have friends whose husbands and children would not miss a finish line. Whose spouses come along for destination races. Whose kids hold up signs saying, "Run Fast, Mom!" and "My mom is faster than your dad." While Ed packed up the kids to meet me at the end of a half marathon once (two kids and approximately seven years ago), it's not something I need or even want. In fact, sometimes I think it would be just one more thing to worry about on race day: "Congratulations, you just qualified for Boston. Now how about taking a couple of these kids off my hands?"

What I am grateful for, is the village that allows me to run the marathons.

I trained for my first marathon in the fall of 2007. Ed had to be at work before his attending physicians back in those days, and he left early, so I'd get Bryce and Annie off for school, stick Isaac and Maren in the jogger or put them in front of the TV while I ran on the treadmill. Then, on Saturdays, Ed would get up with all of the kids (on one of his few days off), so I could go out and run 16 or 18 or 20 miles in the sticky Texas predawn. When Isaac got sick that fall, I didn't abandon my plan; I borrowed a jogger that would accommodate his cast from a friend, and kept up the training.

When we moved to Utah, I got spoiled. There's a huge community of runners here, and I made some of my first and my best friends on the road. We'd meet up nearly every morning and pound out six or eight miles while solving the world's problems. On Saturday, I'd often meet up with my running group, who were unfailingly positive and supportive, and who made the miles fly by while Ed stayed (once again) at home with the kids. He even gave up his fledgling ward basketball habit so I could meet Michelle on Tuesday and Chelle on Thursday. We had just gotten to the point where the older kids would let Ed sleep on a Saturday morning when Rose arrived and we started back at square one.

These days, although I may be the one running the races, I'm not the only one who puts in the work that goes into running the races. Truth be told, I only run the races to justify the 70 minutes running time each morning, the 20 miles on Saturday (or Friday, if someone has something going on Saturday). Most runners love to cut back in the winter, but not me. That time is a lifeline. And while there have been plenty of mornings (especially lately, since Rose and Eli have supersonic sleep hearing) when I end up on the treadmill with kids watching Daniel Tiger at my feet, and even more when we head out with the jogger (we are regulars at the 7-11 in downtown Holladay, where I bribe the kids with Cheetos and the promise that we will undoubtedly see more doggies before our 8.5 mile loop is over), there are also lots and lots of mornings when Ed sacrifices his own sleep so he can get climbed on for an hour (or three) by two toddlers while I go out for a run. Sometimes I think it's the only time I truly feel like myself these days, and he recognizes that.

I love him for it. A whole lot.

Today, the village extended beyond just Ed. I got into a groove on the treadmill, and decided to do the planned jogging stroller miles on the treadmill instead, and Maren and Isaac entertained Rose and Eli while I slogged away in the basement. My friend Suzanne kept the little ones while I pounded out the second half of the run. Her sister even set out a Gatorade for me at her house up in Harvard-Yale so I didn't have to carry water.  There are other days when a friend will drop by, take one look at my harried expression, and say, "Why don't you go out and run for an hour without the kids." There's the babysitter who drops everything, comes over, and plays with the kids. There's my mom and my godmother who always make sure I get in my Balm of Gilead, my canyon runs, when they visit in the summer.

So here is me, saying thank you to my village. And most especially to my husband, who, as we celebrate seventeen years of marriage tomorrow, shows that he values me and understands me every time he spends a Saturday morning making pancakes while I pound out mile after lovely mile.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Book Review: Wish You Happy Forever by Jenny Bowen

Title: Wish You Happy Forever: What China's Orphans Taught Me About Moving Mountains
Author: Jenny Bowen
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Kindle
Content Alert: Descriptions of neglected children

Jenny Bowen was a successful Hollywood filmmaker when she came across a story highlighting the plight of Chinese orphans. Although she had already raised a son and daughter, she and her husband soon found themselves filling out adoption paperwork. When they adopted Maya, they were shocked at her condition, and took delight in watching her overcome the challenges that the difficult first year of her life presented. Bowen knew that she couldn't adopt all the baby girls who needed families in China, but she had a flash of inspiration-- she would change Chinese orphanages so they gave babies and young children the kinds of social interactions they would have if they had families. And then, she went out and did it, forming the Half the Sky Foundation and eventually partnering with hundreds of orphanages in China.

I've been a fan of Half the Sky's mission since I first read about it three years ago when we were in process for Rose's adoption. My kids were not lucky enough to be in an orphanage where Half the Sky operates, and when Bowen describes going into rooms where the babies were tied to cribs or propped in walkers, that's what I remember from Rose and Eli's orphanage. I also know that with love and attention, these kids can overcome so much of the understimulation of institutional life. Bowen tells her story openly and honestly-- her voice as a filmmaker really comes through here. There are times when she faces criticism and seems a bit defensive, but overall, this is a person and a mission that I have supported in the past, and now feel even more compelled to give a bit of my financial support. It's interesting to see how Bowen's work has changed as the orphan population has shifted from virtually all "healthy" baby girls to girls and boys (especially boys) with special needs. I am grateful to organizations like Half the Sky and to the brave people in both China and America who work to make sure that as many children as possible can find families to love them.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Book Review: Flash Boys by Michael Lewis

Title: Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt
Author: Michael Lewis
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Audible
Content Alert: swearing, and possible outrage at the things Wall Street insiders will do to make a billion bucks off the backs of unsuspecting investors

Remember how, back in the day, you'd see pictures of traders on Wall Street, and they'd be wearing brightly covered jackets and waving their hands in the air, and the whole room they stood in was filled with little bits of paper? Well, that's not how it's done any more. Like everything else in the world, stock trading has become computerized and automated. Remember the housing bubble? Remember how people got loans they had no business getting and those loans were chopped up and sold to lots of investors who stood to make a whole lot of money off of them? Remember how you felt scammed when you found out about it? Well, there's also been a scam running in the stock market for the last half decade. When automized trades took over, there was often a second or a half a second of lag time between when the traders placed the order to buy and when the sale actually took place. High-frequency traders, capitalizing on their faster connections (and we're talking nanoseconds and microseconds here) have swooped in, and inserted themselves in the middle of a transaction. So you might want to buy a stock for $30.50 and you find that you actually bought it for $30.51. No big deal, right? It's just a penny, but high-frequency traders are making billions of dollars off of their scheme (which reminds me of the time when I tried to buy tickets for a Taylor Swift concert using 3G on my phone and ended up way high up on the balcony even though I put in my ticket request seconds after they opened up for sale, since scalpers were sitting at their computers doing the exact same thing, and to get the tickets I really wanted, I would have had to pay Ticketmaster AND the scalpers).

Anyway, Michael Lewis focuses on a band of geeks, more "Head of the Class" than Wall Street, who band together to bring down high-frequency traders. I read this book solely because it was written by Michael Lewis, who could probably make a book about changing diapers seem interesting. And he does a wonderful job explaining to lay readers about techie kinds of issues that the vast majority of players on Wall Street didn't understand themselves. It's not quite as compelling as a story about a poor orphaned kid who's adopted by a rich white family and then goes on the play in the NFL, but it is a pretty entertaining tale nonetheless.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Book Review: The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

Title: The Invention of Wings
Author: Sue Monk Kidd
Enjoyment Rating: *****
Source: Audible
Content alert: abuse of slaves, mob violence, one very mild sex scene

I wish that I had reviewed The Invention of Wings two months ago when I read it and when I was riding high on the narrative. Now that so much time has passed, I worry that I won't do the book justice with this review. That said, here goes:

On the day Sarah Grimke turns eleven, her parents give her the traditional birthday gift for children in her late 18th-century Charleston household: a slave of her own, in this case, ten-year-old Handful. Sarah breaks with tradition when she tries to free Handful that night, and later promises Handful's mother that she will make sure that her daughter does not die a slave. The story of The Invention of Wings is told by both Sarah and Handful. They grow up as unusually close confidants, both bound and restricted in separate ways by their race, gender, and social class. Sarah yearns to become a lawyer, and and although she's smarter than her many brothers, her father doesn't take her seriously. Eventually, the women grow up and the realities of their position as women in the south drives a wedge between them. Sarah moves north with her younger sister and becomes involved in abolition while Handful stays at the family home in Charleston and plots ways to free herself and her mother and sister.

I'm embarrassed to admit that until I was 2/3 of the way through the novel, when Sarah Grimke has moved to Philadelphia and makes friends with Lucretia Mott, I had no idea that the book was historical fiction. I knew nothing about Sarah and Angelina Grimke, who both fought for abolition and the rights of women and were the most popular speakers of their day. The Handful character is mostly fictionalized. Kidd's afterword to the novel is absolutely fascinating. I loved reading about how she went about taking the Grimke story and creating Handful's tale, and weaving them together. The book is powerful and well-written and a page-turner, and I think it would be a hugely popular and appropriate novel for book groups. I'm going to recommend that my girls read it in a few years.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Book Review: Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett

Title: Truth and Beauty: A Friendship
Author: Ann Patchett
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: language, drug use, mentions of sex

Truth and Beauty focuses on Patchett’s relationship with her best friend, the poet Lucy Grealy, who lost part of her jaw from a Ewing’s sarcoma as a child, and who ultimately died at the age of 39 in 2002. Grealy endured about 40 surgeries over the course of her lifetime, and when she wasn’t in the hospital, she was ambitious and hardworking, garnering many prizes and fellowships and shows Patchett and Grealy to have one of those great best friend kinds of relationships that people are lucky to come by once in a lifetime. However, the book also shows Grealy to have moments where she’s difficult and capricious.She constantly seeks validation, demanding Ann to tell her that she’s her very best friend. Jealous of Ann’s other friendships, she climbs into her lap at dinner and prevents Ann from having conversations with others at the table. She does things that would bug the heck out of me.

I’m sure that Ann would be the first person to admit that she was not a saint, but over the course of the story she continues to show love to Lucy– she nurses her after her surgeries and plays gatekeeper at the hospital. And as Lucy became more and more difficult and self-destructive in the final months of her life, Ann did her best to support Lucy even as she was pushed away.

While Truth and Beauty was somewhat controversial and Grealy's sister publicly criticized the book, saying, "Lucy was a uniquely gifted writer. Ann, not so gifted, is lucky to be able to hitch her wagon to my sister's star. I wish Lucy's work had been left to stand on its own." However, I doubt that I would have been introduced to Grealy's work had it not been for Patchett. I also think the book is beautifully written, and an enduring legacy to a female friendship that spanned the good times and the bad.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Book Review: One More Thing by BJ Novak

Title: One More Thing
Author: BJ Novak
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Audible
Content Alert: some of these short stories would be suitable to read to your nursery school class, others would be "headphones only" with strong language and sexual situations.

BJ Novak, one of the foremost comedy writers of our day, establishes himself as someone who's out for more than just laughs with One More Thing. This series of short stories is sometimes funny, sometimes absurd. Some of the stories work really well, others fail. My kids loved the one about the principal who wants to stop offering math at his school. There were some stories I wanted to skip entirely, but I read them all, like a novel, because that's how I do things. I may have enjoyed the book more if I had given them a little more time to digest.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Book Review: Glitter and Glue by Kelly Corrigan

Title: Glitter and Glue
Author: Kelly Corrigan
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
This book would be rated: PG or PG-13 for language

Layer #1: Kelly Corrigan is a woman in her late thirties whose mother drops everything and flies from Baltimore to San Francisco when she learns that her daughter needs surgery.

Layer #2: Kelly Corrigan is a woman in her early twenties who ditches her job at a non-profit to travel the world. She ends up in Australia, working as a nanny for a family whose mother recently died of cancer.

Layer #3: Kelly Corrigan is a young girl who adores her funny, larger-than-life father (the "glitter") and often resents her humorless mother (the "glue").

In Glitter and Glue, Corrigan paints a picture of her relationship with her mother. Her experiences living with a family in Australia who no longer have a mother help her get over some of the petty resentments she harbors against her own mother. Later, as she has her own health scare, her time in Australia highlight many of the fears she has for the future of her own family. It's a complex book, but one that I especially enjoyed as I've grown up and try to see my mother not as the harried mom of three small kids, but in a more mature, more generous light.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Book Review: Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan

Title: Will Grayson, Will Grayson
Authors: John Green and David Levithan
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: Lots of cursing and talking about sex

Will Grayson is a high school junior living with his parents in Evanston, an affluent suburb north of Chicago. Everything about his life is normal and boring, except for Tiny Cooper, his larger-than-life (literally), flamboyantly gay, show tunes loving, offensive lineman of a best friend.

Will Grayson is also a high school junior living with his single mother in Naperville, a slightly less affluent suburb west of Chicago. Everything about his life is total crap, except for Isaac, the boy with whom he's been having an intense online relationship for the last year.

Will Grayson meets Will Grayson one night downtown when Will #1's (John Green's Will Grayson) fake ID fails to gain him access to a club and his friends ditch him for the concert. He decides to bide his time in a, well, a porn shop, where he runs into Will #2 (David Levithan's Will Grayson), who's discovering that his Isaac doesn't actually exist, and whose life appears to actually BE total crap, until both Will Graysons meet up with Tiny Cooper and their lives become intertwined by more than just a common name.

David Levithan is the master of co-writing novels, and John Green is the master of YA novels, so it's no surprise that this one seems to work so well. I didn't like Levithan's Will Grayson very much for the first half of the novel, but he grew on me, and Tiny Cooper's character is hilarious, stereotypical, totally over the top, and the glue that brings the whole thing together. The ending is totally cheesy, but it really worked for me. It's worth a read just to see the experiment unfold between the two authors, but I found the product pretty rewarding as a reader as well.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Book Review: The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

Title The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared
Author: Jonas Jonasson
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Audible
This book would be rated: PG-13 or R for violence

On Allan Karlsson's hundredth birthday, he climbs out the ground-floor window of his retirement home and makes a run for the train station in an attempt to escape the hubbub of his birthday party. He appears to be a sweet old man who doesn't even think to trade out his slippers for shoes before he slips out and down the road. But when he's asked to watch a suitcase for a young man who needs to use the restroom, it sets off a madcap adventure and everyone, even the reader, underestimates the experiences and aptitude of this doddering old man.

If Forrest Gump had been born forty years earlier, lived in Sweden, and lived to be a hundred, you'd have the story of Allan Karlsson. Karlsson's life intersects with Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Einstein, Oppenheimer, Truman, Johnson, and he climbs mountains, drinks with famous men everywhere, and gets thrown in jail innumerable times. Jonasson does a nice job balancing Karlsson's history with the adventures to preserve the suitcase, and the growing menagerie that surrounds Karlsson. The book is completely farfetched, but also pretty fun to read.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Book Review: The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

Title: The White Tiger
Author: Aravind Adiga
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Audible
Content Alert: murder and sexual assault

Balram Halawai started life in an Indian village-- the second son of a rickshaw driver with tuberculosis. As a child, he's innocent, naive, and smarter than all of his peers, but that changes as he moves from the prized pupil in his elementary class, to an underling in a tea shop who gives all of his money to his grandmother, to a servant in a wealthy home who rises through the ranks, to the murderer of his employer, to entrepreneur. This is Breaking Bad, Indian-style-- the portrait of one man as he abandons his morals as he ascends the social ladder.

I'm not knowledgeable enough about Indian culture and politics to comment much on Adiga's treatment of these subjects, but there were times when the book seemed satirical, with Balram a bumbling fool. The story itself dragged in places. We knew at the beginning of the novel, which is framed as a series of letters between Balram and a Chinese politician, that he would eventually murder his employer, and the story unfolded in such a straightforward manner, a Dickensian tale of modern India, that I was underwhelmed. I wanted twists and turns, I wanted surprises, and I got exactly what I would have expected from the first page of the first letter. The White Tiger illuminates a culture, but I'm not sure it's especially compelling from a storytelling perspective.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Book Review: Half the Sky by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

Title: Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide
Authors: Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: Readers may be sensitive to descriptions of gynecological procedures and to the sexual slavery described in the book

First of all, I want to address those readers who might not love it when I take a two-month break from my regular book reviews to delve into the Whitney Awards. I'm back, and ready to review everything I listened to while I was furiously reading the Whitney books. Thanks for sticking around. Secondly, you might notice that I've changed the "This book would be rated" section of my header for each review to "Content Alert." I feel uncomfortable giving books a PG-13 or an R-rating, especially since some people have a different level of comfort with what they read or hear and what they see. And it doesn't feel right to give a nonfiction book a MPAA-style rating of any sort. But I also have readers who trust me to tell them if there might be something in a book that they would find objectionable or difficult to read about. I know it's a slight change, but it's one that makes me more comfortable.

I have heard so much about Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn's Half the Sky that I'm embarrassed to admit that I didn't feel compelled to actually read it until it became Audible's book of the day, which meant that I was able to buy it for less than five bucks, instead of the 10 or 11 I typically pay for and Audible book. The book talks about how the world has grown more equal in terms of race and religious discrimination, but women, especially women in the third world, are still at the mercy of oppressive men and cultures. Kristof and WuDunn, a married couple who work as New York Times journalists and who won the Pulitzer Prize for this work, traveled around the world, highlighting places, situations, and individual women who have faced oppression. They write about sex slavery in Southeast Asia, female genital cutting in East Africa, the prevalence of vaginal fistulas in Southern Africa, and limited economic opportunities throughout the world.

Half the Sky is an incredibly important book. It's one that I think all women should read, regardless (and because of) the difficulty of the subject matter, especially women like me who enjoy a certain degree of privilege and want to help but don't know how to get started. The book doesn't only talk about the terrible situations that exist, but it also discusses how we, as individual citizens, can get involved (things like Kiva loans), and what things help and do not help. In particular, I was interested in their recommendation that all American college students spend at least one semester living and working in the third world as a graduation requirement. They argue that this experience would change the students to the degree that the future course of their lives would be altered, as well as providing some immediate relief to the daily problems of life in the third world. As for me and mine? We'll start by picking out a new Kiva loan and by watching the PBS documentary (based on the novel) as a family.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

What? You don't want to read 40 book reviews? (2013 Whitney Recap)

I don't blame you. But there are some pretty great books in the eight categories this year, and my top pick in each category is a book that I can recommend wholeheartedly. Voters are asked to rank the books from favorite to least favorite, but I think it's a little cruel to publicly list which books I hated most in each category, so for the purposes of being somewhat diplomatic, I'm restricting my comments here to my top pick or top two picks in each category.

General: The competition this year came down to two strong works: Mile 21 by Sarah Dunster, which is very readable and moving with great characterization, and Jennifer Quist's Love Letters of the Angel of Death, the most ambitious, literary and lyrical of the novels in the entire competition. Both stories are about married couples, separated too soon by death.

Historical: Both H.B. Moore's Esther the Queen, the novelization of the story of Esther from the Old Testament, and Carla Kelly's Safe Passage, about an estranged couple brought back together during their escape from the Mormon colonies in Mexico, are great novels-- well written with great characters and compelling plots. 

Romance: Melanie Jacobson's Second Chances was far and away my favorite Romance this year, with the story of a producer who falls for the star of the Mormon Bachelor, who happens to be her ex-boyfriend. The story is witty and wise, and kept me turning pages far into the night. I even had a dream about it. 

Mystery/Suspense: Josi Kilpack's Rocky Road gets my vote. Sadie Hoffmiller's character gets more and more interesting in this, the tenth novel in her culinary mystery series, and the mystery here was pretty tricky too. 

Speculative: Jeffrey S. Savage's Dark Memories was creepily reminiscent of a Stephen King novel, where the world is just a half-step away from the one in which we're living. The story of revenge, more than thirty years after the fact, for the death of a young boy in a mine, kept me turning pages. 

Young Adult- Speculative: Kasie West's Pivot Point was far and away my favorite book in this category. Addie is able to see her two separate futures in alternating chapters in this book, and in the end she faces a difficult decision. Addie and her fellow characters in both the paranormal and normal worlds made the story come alive. 

Young Adult- General: Julie Berry's All The Truth That's in Me wowed. The writing was beautiful, the historical setting was realistic, and the choices Judith faced were heartbreakingly real. 

Middle Grade: Liesl Shurtliff's RUMP was a totally delightful retelling of the Rumpelstiltskin story in which we learn to sympathize with the little guy and no longer make the mistake of siding entirely with that poor miller's daughter. 

Best Novel by a New Author: RUMP

Best Novel of the Year: Love Letters of the Angel of Death

Best Novel in Youth Fiction: All the Truth That's in Me

In the five years I've been reading for the contest, I've seen the overall quality of the work improve dramatically, and every finalist should be proud of their accomplishments. Good luck!

Book Review: Rocky Road by Josi Kilpack (Whitney Finalist 2013)

Title: Rocky Road
Author: Josi Kilpack
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Digital Copy
This book would be rated: PG

In Rocky Road, the tenth of Josi Kilpack's culinary mysteries, Sadie Hoffmiller travels to St. George, Utah, for a bachelorette weekend before her upcoming marriage to Pete Cunningham. And while she was expecting a fun getaway with a girlfriend, she's quickly roped into solving the disappearance of a local doctor. Kilpack does a wonderful job with the southern Utah setting (I was in town a week after I read the novel and had fun picking out the places she mentioned) and also in showing how Sadie is changing as her work as a private investigator affects her. The mystery is a decent whodunit too. Some of the secondary characters are painted with fairly broad brushstrokes. And I finally know definitively that Sadie is not a Mormon without ever talking about the church (which is what I thought in the early days of the series), since she spends a lot of time with the Mormons in St. George.

I think it's fairly common for authors to have a great idea for a first novel, then string that story out into a series of sequels that get progressively less successful. I'm not sure if these authors rest on their laurels and get lazy, or if they find themselves less inspired as the stories wear on, but I get the sense that they're cashing in on early success. I've read six of the ten culinary mysteries "starring" Sadie Hoffmiller, and Kilpack is not resting on her laurels. Sadie has come into her own as a character over the course of the novels. She has developed and deepened and changed, and her motivations for solving crimes are more mature than they were ten books ago. Her relationship with Pete is also progressing in a satisfactory direction. And I feel that Kilpack has grown more self-assured and confident as a writer through this extended exploration of Sadie. Her writing keeps getting stronger and stronger, and I'm sad that this series is approaching its conclusion.

Book Review: Deep Cover by Traci Abrahamson (Whitney Finalist 2013)

Title: Deep Cover
Author: Traci Abramson
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Digital Copy
This book would be rated: PG-13 for violence

I believe that Traci Abramson has had a finalist in the mystery/suspense category every year that I've read the Whitney finalists. And almost every year, her book has been one that has been hard for me to finish. Most of the books were from the Saint Squad series (about Mormon Navy Seals), and I was happy to see that Deep Cover would be a departure from the series. Kelsey Weber returns to her home in Virginia after being pulled out of an assignment where she spent several years working undercover as a governess in the home of a Muslim extremist in the Middle East. She finds that her parents are on a mission, her family believes that she has pulled away from them and the gospel for selfish reasons (she can't divulge the nature of her work), and she's being pursued/protected by Noah, a handsome FBI agent who her parents befriended while she was gone.

Pretty soon, Kelsey and Noah end up on the same interagency task force to thwart a terrorist attack, and (surprise, surprise) the feelings they've started to develop for each other get complicated when Noah realizes that Kelsey hasn't been forthcoming about the nature of her work with him or her family. And then the nature of their work itself starts to drive the narrative. I'm happy to say that Abramson's writing has come a long way since I started reading her work four years ago. While her secondary characters are still relatively undifferentiated, both Kelsey and Noah are rounded and complicated, and the book deals with interesting Mormon cultural issues in addition to the main plot surrounding the terrorist plot. I will say that I absolutely hated the last chapter, from a feminist POV, but overall, I am delighted to say that Deep Cover was an Abramson book I enjoyed.

Book Review: Finding Sheba by Heather B. Moore (Whitney Finalist 2013)

Title: Finding Sheba
Author: Heather B. Moore
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Digital Copy
This book would be rated: PG-13 for violence

In Finding Sheba, Heather Moore draws on her expertise as an author of historical fiction and turns her attention to historical thriller. In this novel, the discovery of the lost tomb of the Queen of Sheba throws archaeologists, rich guys, and the tenuous peace of the Holy Land into peril.

Finding Sheba is another book where the Segullah readers had strong and dissenting views. As someone who read all forty books, I tend to judge a book quickly. If the story and the characters don't grab me in the first hundred pages, I'm likely to start skimming. Finding Sheba is a complicated story with lots of main characters. Although the book is an "Omar Zagouri Thriller" (which says to me that there will be/have been others), Omar initially appeared to be a secondary character, since the story opens with a dead American college professor, his protege, Jade, and her French contact in Egypt, Dr. Lucas Morel. I thought they would be the main characters, with the Omar and Mia story acting as a side story. I felt that the double romance, coupled with the puzzle of who killed Dr. Lyon and the main issue of the tombs felt a little heavy for a single story. Dr. Morel felt like a creepy, untrustworthy character, and I kept expecting him to turn out to be a bad guy, so the conclusion to his part of the story felt unrewarding. The story took a long time to get off the ground, which is bad for the contest and impatient readers like me, but I trust my colleagues, who say that the book is richly-layered and rewarding for those who persist.

Book Review: Blackout by Robison Wells (Whitney Finalist 2013)

Title: Blackout (Blackout #1)
Author: Robison Wells
Enjoyment Rating: **
Source: Library Copy
This book would be rated: PG-13 for violence

A virus is spreading across the United States, infecting teenagers. No, it's not mono, because this virus gives people special powers. The type of power depends on the person, but the result is that some people are using the powers to try to overthrow the government and wreak havoc and the government is responding by rounding up every teenager in the country, putting many of them in a concentration camp in the Utah desert.

I was very hopeful while reading the first few chapters of Blackout. The initial scenes, with the bad guys destroying the Glen Canyon dam, and the high school dance at a rural Utah barn made me hopeful that the whole book would have similar strong setting and past-paced action, but once the characters were rounded up, the story fell apart for me. Furthermore, there were too many competing voices and narrators to differentiate, especially since the characterization was not especially strong, and Wells seemed to rely on the characters to tell the story instead of showing it in scene. This one felt more like a first draft than a well-edited, well-considered finished product.

Book Review: Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson (Whitney Finalist 2013)

Title: Steelheart (Reckoners #1)
Author: Brandon Sanderson
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Kindle
This book would be rated: PG-13 for violence

David is a child who has seen his world destroyed in the ten years since the Epics were created and came to power. When they killed his father before his eyes, two things happened: he saw that the Epics might not be as invulnerable as everyone, and the became determined to help fight them. David wants to join the Reckoners, and he wants revenge against Steelheart, the Epic who took his father's life.

I've said this before and since Sanderson has a finalist almost every year, I'm sure I'll say it again. When I read books by Brandon Sanderson, I recognize that they're good. His plotting is solid, his characters are strong and multi-dimensional, and his writing is clear. Many people love his work, but it doesn't move me. It feels, especially in Steelheart, to be extremely male (if writing can be male or female). This is the kind of book that my teenage son would line up to see if it were made into a movie, but if I were his chaperone at that movie, I would fall asleep almost immediately.

Book Review: Friends and Traitors by C.J. Hill (Whitney Finalist 2013)

Title: Friends and Traitors (Slayers #2)
Author: C.J. Hill
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Kindle
This book would be rated: PG-13 for violence

In Friends and Traitors, C.J. Hill demonstrates how to hook new readers in the second novel in a series. She begins the book with a gripping chapter about a young couple who are traveling on a private plane carrying precious cargo (dinosaur eggs), when the woman goes into labor. This chapter serves to describe how the characters in the Slayers series have the power to fight dragons in the first place, and also gives crucial insight into the mind the Dragon Lord, their nemesis. Over the course of the rest of the novel, new characters are introduced, and other characters, including Tori, the daughter of a prominent politician, are developed. While there's plenty of high-flying (literally) action, Hill doesn't sacrifice internal conflict at the expense of external conflict. The story here is one that has a female protagonist but would be equally accessible to male readers, and it's definitely one that I could see my teen readers enjoying, even if they hadn't read the first book in the series.

Book Review: Heart of the Ocean by Heather B. Moore (Whitney Finalist 2013)

Title: Heart of the Ocean
Author: Heather B. Moore
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Digital Copy
This book would be rated: PG

This year's speculative category included one fantasy novel, three dystopian novels, and one historical/romance/thriller/ghost story, which is Heather B. Moore's Heart of the Ocean. Eliza Robinson is taking a break from the 1840s New York social scene after spurning a marriage proposal, and has come to stay with her Aunt Maeve in Maybrook, a Puritan village in Massachusetts. One day, while out walking on the shore, she hears the voice of a woman, directing her. When she tells Maeve about it, she seems unsurprised, and tells her that a young unmarried woman bore a child while living in the house, and died shortly thereafter. The spirit of this woman continues to speak to and guide Eliza after a tragic incident solidifies her ties to Maybrook.

When I read the books for the Whitneys, I take part in a discussion group with the other women at Segullah who are also reading. While most of them felt that Heart of the Ocean wasn't the strongest book in the category this year, due in part to the genre mixing, the lack of a tight story, and the unsympathetic male protagonist, I enjoyed it more than many of the others. I think that's in part because I'm not a huge fan of the genre, and Heart of the Ocean felt less "speculative" than the others and more like a dark, gothic romance.

Book Review: The Witnesses by Stephanie Black (Whitney Finalist 2013)

Title: The Witnesses
Author: Stephanie Black
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Digital Copy
This book would be rated: PG-13 for violence

Since I spent yesterday comparing everything I've read to Frozen, I'm going to keep going down that vein and compare The Witnesses to Tangled. Remember how Mother Gothel would do anything and everything to be able to stay young? Well, replace Gothel with Amanda Ryce, the ninety-four-year-old president of New America (and a few henchmen in political power), and replace Rapunzel with the entire populace of her country, and you basically have the story of The Witnesses. When this story opens, which is the sequel to The Believers, Daniel Lansbury, the son of one of Ryce's henchmen is hiding three religious believers, all of whom were supposed to be executed. The group has to outsmart the politicos in charge in order to stay alive, especially when the president begins to suspect that they may have the answers to her immortality.

In many dystopian novels, the story takes place far into the future, in a world that has been rocked by war, illness, and near-apocalyptic desolation. In contrast, The Witnesses takes place in a near future, when New America has split from the United States, and medical technology has progressed significantly beyond its current state, but the landscape and culture remain quite similar. Another interesting point-- the "believers" alluded to in the title of the first novel are Mormons in hiding, and the religious discussions that take place in the second half of the novel were interesting to me from a publishing point of view. This is a novel that would seem to have broader reach without all the Mormon stuff, but it also seems pretty central to what Black wants to do here. It seems that a lot of the stories this year include conversion narratives, which I'm not sure is a super-successful approach for authors who are preaching to the choir.

Book Review: Echo in Time by C.J. Hill (Whitney Finalist 2013)

Title: Echo in Time (Erasing Time #2)
Author: C.J. Hill
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Digital Copy
This book would be rated: PG-13 for violence

The sequel to Erasing Time, Echo in Time follows the saga of two sets of twins-- Taylor and Sheridan, sisters who have time jumped from the 21st century to the 25th, and Joseph and Echo, 25th century brothers who were separated when Echo died in an attach several months earlier.  When Taylor and Joseph are sent on a mission to destroy the Time Strainer, Taylor just wants to hurry up and get back to adjusting to her new life, but Joseph wants to restore Echo's life. When he succeeds, he finds that one small difference in the fabric of time can change lots of things, and the existence of the entire group falls into peril.

I've decided that what makes an enjoyable sequel for fans of a first novel is entirely different from what makes a book an award-winner. My guess is that C.J. Hill did a lot of character building in her first novel-- fans of the book know who the characters are (what their desires and motivations are), and now they want them to do something. But contest judges have to look at the novels in isolation, and what I see here is a lot of exciting action, a strong finish, an exciting conclusion, and bad guys with laser boxes around every corner, but what I don't see much of is what I like best in novels-- the character development. This is one of those second novels where I feel like I've been thrown into the water to swim without a life preserver, and I flounder around a bit before I find my footing.

Book Review: Winter Queen by Amber Argyle (Whitney Finalist 2013)

Title: Winter Queen (Fairy Queens #1)
Author: Amber Argyle
Enjoyment Rating: **
Source: Digital Copy
This book would be rated: PG-13 for violence and sexual situations

Ilyenna lives in a world where people die. They get sick. They fight in wars. And while one of the basic facts of life is that everyone dies, it seems that in Ilyenna's world they die more violently, unexpectedly, and quickly than most. So it's no surprise when Ilyenna herself suffers a mortal wound, from which she is saved by fairies, who then require her to be their queen. The problem is that the fairies' winter queen is always cold, hard, and ruthless, and Ilyenna doesn't want to become these things, so she puts her fate in the hands of Darrien and his tribe, the rivals to her own. Darrien is as bad as they come, and wants to make her his in more ways than one while overthrowing her clan. And then there's Rone, her brother's best friend, the man who has her heart.

While Ilyenna is, in many ways, a fantastic heroine (she's super-tough-- don't mess with her), the story as a whole didn't work for me. I know that this has a lot more to do with my own inability to get caught up by most fantasy (and fairy stories in particular) than it does with Argyle's story itself. That said, I found that I had to force myself to keep reading (books with a lot of world building are particularly hard for me), and then I kept getting confused with who the fairies were and who the clan guys were. But the main character is interesting and someone to be admired, and I'm sure that the right audience would enjoy Winter Queen.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Book Review: Second Chances by Melanie Jacobson (Whitney Finalist 2013)

Title: Second Chances
Author: Melanie Jacobson
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Digital Copy
This book would be rated: PG

Louisa Gibson lives in Southern California, where there the LDS dating scene is hopping. But she and her friends have found that although they might go on lots of dates, these dates rarely progress to relationships. In fact, Louisa hasn't had a serious relationship since she broke up with Nick, a shallow actor, several years earlier. Lou is also trying to start her own marketing firm, and she has a brilliant idea to capitalize on the dating scene and the job situation-- she'll film webcasts of a show based on The Bachelor, where all of the cast members are Mormon. But days before the show is scheduled to start filming, her bachelor backs out, and Lou's partner recruits Nick to step in.

What happens next comes as a surprise to no one but Lou, who finds herself behind the camera on Nick's dates, realizing that she wants to be the one he's wooing.

Jacobson really has her finger on the pulse of the modern Mormon romance. She captures the dialogue of twentysomethings, she uses the right pop culture references, she's funny, and she integrates Mormon culture in a way that feels natural and right. The books will undoubtedly feel dated in a couple of decades, but who cares? They'll represent how things were in a certain time and place. While the reader knows from the moment Nick agrees to become the bachelor that he and Lou will end up together, what makes the story great is that Lou doesn't know it, and since the story is told from her point of view, we're able to experience all of her anticipation and pain as she watches Nick date a different woman each night. Jacobson also does a great job showing growth in both characters-- in Nick over the years when he and Lou were broken up and Lou coming to some self-realization during the course of the narrative.

It's no secret that I'm a fan of Melanie Jacobson's work. Two years ago, she had two finalists in the Romance category (The List-- of which Second Chances is a spin-off and Not My Type) and for me, the voting came down to Jacobson v. Jacobson. Last year, she had two more funny, smart, adorable finalists (Twitterpated and Smart Move), and once again, readers must have split their votes. This year, with one finalist, I'm really hoping that it's her year. Fingers crossed!

Book Review: The Orchard by Krista Lynne Jensen (Whitney Finalist 2013)

Title: The Orchard
Author: Krista Lynne Jensen
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Digital Copy
This book would be rated: PG

Krista Lynne Jensen's The Orchard, a modern-day retelling of Jane Austen's Persuasion, takes place in and around Alisen Embry's beloved cherry orchard near Glacier National Park in Montana. Alisen (the spelling of whose name made me nuts the entire novel, says the girl with the unconventionally-spelled name) inherited the orchard from her mother, and has poured her heart and soul into keeping it productive and thriving over the last decade, while her father and sisters have squandered the family's fortune and are now on the brink of ruin. Then Derick, the also-unconventionally-name-spelled man Alisen fell in love with four years earlier returns to town to be with his aunt and uncle (who have rented the family home to save money), and a romance Alisen once thought was part of her past becomes central to her life again.

While the story is basically Persuasion, what makes this retelling unique is the fact that Derick introduced Alisen to the Mormon faith during their initial romance, which makes the story particularly compelling for LDS readers, especially since it's the whirlwind of their love and her conversion that cause the family to step in and convince Alisen to break up with Derick. I felt that both Alisen and Derick were interesting, rounded characters, while many of the secondary characters were fairly flat. Persuasion is a prickly novel, and in some ways I wonder if, at twenty-three, Alisen is too young to fill the Anne Elliot role (since Anne is twenty-seven and on the shelf in Persuasion, and twenty-three is still a baby by modern standards).  However, Alisen seems wise beyond her years, and I found myself really rooting for Alisen and Derick as the novel went on. My guess is that they will name their children things like Jane and David-- simple, and hard to misspell.

Book Review: Longing for Home by Sarah M. Eden (Whitney Finalist 2013)

Title: Longing for Home
Author: Sarah M. Eden
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Digital Copy
This book would be rated: PG

Irish immigrant Kate Macauley has uprooted herself from her job in Baltimore and headed west to the tiny town of Hope Springs, Wyoming in order to earn an almost-too-good-to-be-true salary working as a housekeeper for Joseph Archer, which she will then use to return to Ireland and make amends with her estranged family. However, when she arrives, she discovers that he's a widower who intends that she will care for his children. Kate doesn't watch children-- she hasn't wanted to come close to a child since she was an eight-year-old girl whose baby sister died in her care. And she inadvertently stumbles into a heated conflict between the Irish and the non-Irish residents of the town.

Longing for Home is a romance, I guess, because Kate is courted by both Archer and by the handsome Irish rascal Tavish (who is actually a pretty good guy). However, it strays from the genre in several important ways too-- there's no clear resolution to the love triangle at the end of the novel, and it seems, to me at least, that the arc of the story is much more about Kate discovering who she is and how to overcome the challenges in her life (mainly her sister's death, her father's coldness toward her, and her own illiteracy) than it is about which eligible bachelor she will pick. Kate can be prickly and repetitive and thick skulled at times, but I think she's ultimately a pretty endearing character. I see that there's a sequel and I hope that there will be more character development of Joseph and Tavish in the next installment.

Book Review: Hearth Fires by Dorothy Keddington (Whitney Finalist 2013)

Title: Hearth Fires
Author: Dorothy Keddington
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Digital Copy
This book would be rated: PG

Mackenzie Graham's job, writing for a magazine about houses, seems safe enough, until she arrives for an interview in Northern California and interrupts a meeting between a corrupt cop, a mob boss, and a judge. Her car gets broken into, her hotel room gets trashed, and then much worse things start to happen and a pair of brothers, one a good cop and one a rugged cowboy lawyer, step in and spirit her to the safety of their family ranch near Zion National Park.

Sometimes in writing our strengths and our weaknesses are a hair's breadth apart. That seems especially true in Hearth Fires. Keddington does a fabulous job creating the world of the family ranch in Southern Utah. I was able to picture the red rocks, the horses grazing in the pastures, and even the homey, overstuffed furniture in the family room. But sometimes those details drove me crazy, especially early on in the story. I know this is nitpicky, but Keddington mentions that Mackenzie stays in a Residence Inn in Palo Alto. Then she refers to the hotel as an "inn" several times over the next few pages. I'm not sure if I'd characterize a Residence Inn as a hotel or a motel, but I wouldn't call it an "inn."

I hate to be making two Frozen references in one night of reviewing, but the speed at which the relationship developed in Hearth Fires seemed a little Anna-Hans to me. They spend a few days together, during which time she's hopped up on pain meds and he's her knight in shining armor, then he leaves, and when he comes back, they're engaged and [spoiler alert!] married a month later, and have a baby less than a year after that. I know that true love trumps all and Mackenzie got the chance to know her beau when he was out fighting dragons on her behalf (which also sort of bugs), but I would have liked to see their relationship develop with the two of them together.

Book Review: Blackmoore by Julianne Donaldson (Whitney Finalist 2013)

Title: Blackmoore
Author: Julianne Donaldson
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Digital Copy
This book would be rated: PG

Most young women are, from time to time, embarrassed by their families. But Kate Worthington is mortified by the behavior of hers. Her sister eloped last year. Her mother carries on scandalous flirtations with men who are not her husband. And everyone in England seems to know about it, and hold it against Kate. As a result, Kate has decided that she will never marry-- instead she will go to India with an aunt, but first, she wants to visit Blackmoore, the home of her childhood friend Henry. Kate's mother agrees that her daughter can go to India on one condition-- that she secure three marriage proposals during her time at Blackmoore. So Kate sets out to accomplish that goal.

A few weeks ago my daughter Maren, who is seven, asked me a question: "Mom, why is it that Frozen is set in the past, and everyone wears dresses and rides horses, but everyone acts and talks like they're from our time?" Of course, Maren is one perceptive and precocious girl, and she got me thinking. I was reading Blackmoore at the time, and the "problem" she presented with Frozen is one that seems to plague historical romances, and especially seems present in Blackmoore. I think historical novels are tricky, because they put readers back into a certain time and place, with certain social conventions, and manners of speech. Sometimes an author will, for example, work so hard at accurately portraying Renaissance dialect that it gets in the way of the story. We have a problem with some of the stories in the bible because men and women don't follow the same roles they did back then, and it's also a challenge for authors not to plop a modern heroine into a historical novel. Unfortunately, that's what I think that's what Donaldson does in Blackmoore. Kate (which seems like such a modern version of Katherine) wants what modern girls want-- freedom to live and travel and experience life freely. And while I can understand that she comes to this approach both from the bad examples of her mother and sister and some kind of altruistic sense of love for Henry, it's interesting to me that she doesn't seem to have a sense of self-preservation beyond the trip to India. This was an intriguing novel that kept my attention, but sometimes that attention was drawn to the historical v. modern problems that the story presents.

Book Review: Where the River Once Flowed by Jennie Hansen (Whitney Finalist 2013)

Title: Where the River Once Flowed
Author: Jennie Hansen
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Digital Copy
This book would be rated: PG or PG-13 for violence and threatened rape

In 1879, the Sebastian family is eager to marry off fifteen-year-old Iliana, who is the last hope of producing an heir to inherit the family's vast property in New Mexico. Ben, a neighboring rancher, wants to make her his own, by force if necessary, so the family is delighted when Ross, a suitable Civil War veteran, shows up, marries Iliana, and quickly produces a son before grandpa's death. By 1891, Ross, too is dead, and Ben is still up to his evil ways-- forcing a deathbed engagement for Iliana from Ross, damming the creek that supplies water to both ranches, stealing Iliana's jewelry, and even killing her heir. So Iliana takes up with a Travis, a horse-trader, who helps her escape from big bad Ben. And guess what happens as they ride the horses?

While I loved the setting of this novel and felt that Hansen had a great sense of place in the New Mexico ranch, it was uncomfortable for me to read about Iliana, who was basically a pawn in the games of the men she encountered. Her grandfather doted on her, yet married her off when she was fifteen to a kind man who didn't love her, and neither man succeeded in protecting her from Ben. She was basically a placeholder, standing in for the land the men really wanted. And while Hansen did a good job establishing that Travis was a good guy, the romance between the two seemed more convenient than organic.

Book Review: The Mounds Anomaly by Phyllis Gunderson (Whitney Finalist 2013)

Title: The Mounds Anomaly
Author: Phyllis Gunderson
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Digital Copy
This book would be rated: PG

Dr. Matt Howard is a bit of a puzzle. For starters, she's a she, despite her name. She's also a brilliant archaeologist who seems to enjoy an interesting puzzle more than she values her job security as a college professor. She's a single mom to a daughter adopted from China (yay!), but it often seems that her ten-year-old daughter is taking care of her. In short, I was captivated by Matt's character.

The story of The Mounds Anomaly, however, was a bit more problematic. First of all, it seemed kind of strange to have a book that takes place in the recent past (2008, if I remember right) in the historical fiction category. I understand why Gunderson or the Whitney Committee would want the novel, which focuses on Matt's growing obsession with ancient burial mounds discovered across North America that contain material that seems to be of European origin, to be in the historical category, since the mounds themselves are ancient, but I think it would work better in the mystery/suspense or perhaps the general fiction category, especially given that there's so much emphasis on character development. I learned a lot about the mounds while reading, but I learned more about Dr. Howard, which is, I always think, the mark of an interesting novel.

Book Review: Safe Passage by Carla Kelly (Whitney Finalist 2013)

Title: Safe Passage
Author: Carla Kelly
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Digital Copy
This book would be rated: PG or PG-13 for violence

As a convert to the Mormon church, I've always felt a little bit like the redheaded stepchild when my friends start talking about their pioneer ancestors who walked across the plains with the Martin Handcart company or who heard Joseph Smith preach in Nauvoo. But my husband is of good Mormon stock-- his ancestors pulled handcarts and founded colleges, they wrote hymns and worked on Nobel-prize winning chemistry projects. The men married many women and had multitudes of children. And many of them escaped from Mexico in the early twentieth century with nothing but the clothes on their backs. So I was naturally drawn to Carla Kelly's Safe Passage, which is the story of Ammon and Addie Hancock, who had been living in the Mormon colonies in Mexico until she threw him out a few years before the story opens in 1912. Addie somehow got left behind with her ailing grandmother while the rest of the community escaped, and Ammon goes back to help her make her way to Texas.

Kelly is one of the gems of the Whitney Awards. I was introduced to her work by reading the Whitneys, and every year I am excited when I find one of her books on the finalist list. Her stories are always well-plotted with interesting characters, and Safe Passage is no exception. Her work straddles the line between historical fiction and romance, and Safe Passage, with its story of an estranged couple falling in love again as they work together was interesting and sweet, without being saccharine.

Book Review: Belonging to Heaven by Gale Sears (Whitney Finalist 2013)

Title: Belonging to Heaven
Author: Gale Sears
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Digital Copy
This book would be rated: PG

Jonathan Napela and his wife, Kitty, are one of Maui's power couples of the 1850s, related to the king, and holding positions of power and influence. However, they also know the personal heartache of losing their infant children. Jonathan, in particular, wants a satisfying answer for where his ancestors and his children have gone. When George Q. Cannon arrives with the first group of Mormon missionaries to Hawaii, he feels prompted to head to Hawaii, where Napela becomes one of his most dedicated converts. Belonging to Heaven follows the story of Jonathan Napela, from the time he starts investigating the church, and progresses through his life as he endures to the end.

Gale Sears is one of our strongest authors of LDS historical fiction, and while I felt that the end of the book was ultimately satisfying, it was hard for me to get into Belonging to Heaven. The first chapter felt almost completely unnecessary, and for a while I had a hard time knowing whose story this would really be, since the early chapters seemed to focus more on Cannon than on Napela. Also, I really, really, really think that Sears should ditch the footnotes at the end of each chapter-- all but a few of them seemed superfluous, and those that are necessary could go at the end of the novel. Despite these shortcomings, I learned a lot about the early church in Hawaii and I was deeply moved by the final chapters of the novel.

Book Review: Esther the Queen by H.B. Moore (Whitney Finalist 2013)

Title: Esther the Queen 
Author: H.B. Moore
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Digital Copy
This book would be rated: PG or PG-13 for sexual situations

Heather Moore has the unique distinction of having finalists in four different categories this year. Moore built her reputation as an author of historical fiction, primarily the stories of women from the Book of Mormon, and she's really honed her craft in this genre, so it's no surprise that I found her most successful nominee to be Esther the Queen, which is the story of Esther from the Old Testament.

Moore does a nice job recreating the life of a young Jewish girl living in Babylon. Stories from the scriptures often feel flat or contain elements that seem strange or contradictory or inexplicable, and Moore fleshes the stories out-- she makes the life in King Xerxes' harem come to life through sensory details, and she does a great job making the details that seem strange (like why Esther didn't tell her husband she was a Jew before they got married, or at least before the plot to kill all of the Jews was hatched). The side stories are also interesting and believable, and I found myself rooting for a happily ever after for Esther and her king.