Wm writes: Once again AMV is proud to bring you Andrew Hall’s Year in Review in Mormon letters.
The story of the year in nationally published literature by Mormons was the memoir. Two Mormon women, Elna Baker and Kathryn Lynard Soper produced honest and interesting life stories, to excellent reviews. While other Mormon authors sold more books, few other nationally published author made their Mormonism so central to their story. Other big stories for the year include Stephanie Meyer’s continued dominance of the fiction landscape, Brandon Sanderson’s rise to the top of best seller’s lists, and the continuing flood of young adult speculative fiction.
Elna Baker’s comic memoir, The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance, can be seen as filling a niche that has long been open in the Mormon cultural world: our own My Big Fat Greek Wedding. That is, a funny, honest, but not angry look at a Mormon life which non-Mormons can equally appreciate. Baker’s tale of her life in New York City is certainly not a typical Mormon one, but her Mormonism is one of the two forces that pull her in opposite directions throughout the work. Those rooting for Baker to take one side or another will be frustrated all the way to the end. Baker, still a very young woman, does not hold back in showing herself in moments (or even years) of shallowness and stupidity. But this Mormon reader appreciated her ability to show her faith in God acting as an anchor which kept her from making the worst mistakes. Other readers might say it is the anchor which pulled her down, never letting her enjoy the possibilities life handed her. Mormonism seems to have its strongest impact on Baker through the love and example of her family, and its theological teachings about the eternity. She has less use for Mormon society and practices, and often makes them the butt of her jokes. Most of the book is “cute-funny” rather than hilarious, although how can you be honest and make your whole life hilarious? Still, there are a couple of stand-out moments–the FAO Schwartz section and the failed Halloween costume, both of which she has used in her stand-up act. Eric Jepson wrote a fantastic review of the work on A Motley Vision. Here is another review I like, from “Pajiba,” an on-line reviewer. “What I appreciated most about TNYRMSHD is that it’s funny without being insulting. Baker pokes fun at a weird culture and weird beliefs while giving sincere reasons why she stays around. She’s walking a fine line between wanting to belong to the regular world, but also wanting to feel the peace she finds in religion. It’s hard to express why you believe in God without getting cheesy and overly sacrosanct, but Baker manages to do it. Probably because it’s sandwiched between moments of trying to lose her virginity and finding out she unknowingly used amphetamines to lose weight, but it works for me. My experience is that you find God in the weirdest of places, and it was nice to read that someone else finds that, too.”
Kathryn Lynard Soper already had an impact on Mormon literature through her editing of the print and online magazine Segullah. Her 2009 memoir The Year My Son and I Were Born: A Story of Down Syndrome, Motherhood, and Self-Discovery is a more serious work than Baker’s, but also honestly portrays lessons learned in an unsparing and unflattering light. It is as much about Soper’s postpartum depression as it is about her experience with Down Syndrome. Steve Peck wrote, “Kathryn has to rewrite much of the script she had penned for her life. This readjustment is hard work and she faces it with confusion, dismay and depression. That’s why this book is so important. She (according to our expectations set by Ensignesque stories) should be facing it with courage, determination, and faith that all is according to God’s plan. But that is not how it plays out in the book. She takes us to the trenches of how it feels to face this sort of life’s rewriting without suggesting that it all turns out OK in the end or that she has figured it all out.”
While remarkable, both of these works are relatively straightforward memoirs. BYU professor Patrick Madden, on the other hand, has been producing a series of postmodern, fragmentary nonfiction tales, several of which have been nationally honoured. His first collection of his writings, Quotidiana, will be published by the University of Nebraska Press in early 2010. An example of Madden’s writing can be found in The Best of Mormonism, 2009, a collection of short stories, poems, essays, and book chapters published from 2007-2009. The collection, which includes selection originally published in both Mormon and national forums, is based on Houghton Mifflin’s Best American series. Brittney Carman is another rising creative nonfiction author whose work appears in The Best of Mormonism. Carman is working on a memoir about her mission in Venezuela and her reconciliation with her estranged father. Finally, another notable memoir is Shattered Silence by Melissa Moore and M. Bridget Cook, published by Cedar Fort. Moore tells her story of growing up the daughter of a serial murderer, and her eventual decision to face up to her memories and history. Moore received some attention from appearing on the Dr. Phil and Oprah Winfery shows, and her book was Cedar Fort’s best seller for 2009.
In terms of sales, Stephanie Meyer continued to dominate the fiction market in 2009, despite the fact that she released no new titles. According to USA Today she sold 22 million books in 2009, down from 29 million in 2008. To put that in perspective, Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, the biggest-selling new book of 2009, has sold 4 million copies in the four months since its publication. USA Today also declared Twilight, the first volume of her vampire series, to be the bestselling book of the decade, with New Moon at 4th and Eclipse at 9th. Meyer’s success, following the smaller scale success of Orson Scott Card a generation earlier, has inspired and influenced a raft of LDS authors. The overwhelming majority of nationally published LDS authors are producing speculative fiction.
Two LDS authors reached #1 on the New York Times Hardcover Fiction list, Brandon Sanderson and Christine Feehan. Brandon Sanderson, whose adult and young adult fantasy novels had received strong critical acclaim and moderately good sales, became a central figure in the fantasy world when he was hired to complete A Memory of Light, the final volume of the late Robert Jordan’s monumental 12-part Wheel of Time series in December 2007. Tying up the loose ends of the huge series turned out to be a longer job than Sanderson and his publisher originally thought, so by March 2009 they announced that they were splitting the book into three instalments. Jordan produced 50,000 words for the book before his death, and Sanderson expects the trilogy will end up being over 800,000 words long. The first volume, The Gathering Storm, was released in November, and has been well received by Jordan’s fans and the fantasy community in general. Many reviewers commented that they enjoyed Sanderson’s volume more than most of the Jordan’s later volumes. Zack Handlen in the Onion AV Club wrote: “Sanderson’s prose lacks some of the descriptive punch of Jordan’s, his dialogue doesn’t always stick the landing between melodramatic and florid, and the one-note gender politics remain largely intact. Fortunately, Storm compensates with a terrific sense of urgency and a blessed willingness to tie up loose ends.”
Paranormal-romance author Christine Feehan accomplished the remarkable trick of reaching the #1 position of a New York Times Bestseller list 4 times in one year. That’s right, she produced four different books, each of which reached a #1 position. Murder Game, Burning Wild, and Hidden Currents each reached #1 on the Mass-market Paperback Fiction list, while Dark Slayer achieved #1 on the Hardback Fiction list. Furthermore, her novel Street Game, released in the last week of 2009, reached #1 on the Mass-market Paperback Fiction list in the first week of 2010. I wonder how many times in history an author has had a run like that? Romance authors Lynn Kurland, Amanda Ashley, and Brenda Novak also had books that appeared on bestseller lists.
As I mentioned above, the flood of LDS authors publishing speculative fiction for the national market continues to rise. The majority of these authors are writing young adult fantasy. Shadow Mountain, Deseret Book’s national imprint, is playing a significant part in this rise, publishing young adult fantasy novels by seven LDS authors in 2009. There were just as many publishing outside of Shadow Mountain. One trend, certainly tied to Stephanie Meyer’s success, is the genre of “girl-meets-boy-who-may-or-may-not-be-dangerous-and-supernatural” novels. The debut novels by Becca Fitzpatrick, Aprilynne Pike, and Lisa Mangum are in that genre. The closest in tone to Meyer is Becca Fitzpatrick’s thriller, Hush, Hush, about a teenage girl who falls for a boy who turns out to be a fallen angel, and the subsequent battle between good and bad angels. The striking cover itself should win over a large segment of the Twilight crowd. Kirkus review wrote, “A fast-paced, exhilarating read . . . Twilight readers will either squeal over the forbidden romance between Nora and Patch and the steamy scenes they generate or sigh over another helpless young woman torn between sexuality and fear and threatened and manipulated by males who play with her vulnerability.” Hush, Hush reached #5 on the New York Times Children’s Chapter Books Bestseller list, and was named one of Barnes & Nobles’ “Best 20 Teen Books of 2009″.
Even more successful book in terms of sales is Aprilynne Pike’s Wings, the story of an seemingly ordinary girl who discovers she is a faerie, and is thrust into an ancient battle between faeries and trolls. The novel reached #1 on the New York Times Children’s Chapter Books Bestseller list, and has been optioned to Disney for a movie deal. Reviewers have praised Pike for an inventive take on a generally tired genre (in her version the faeries are a kind of plant, and the biological explanations are quite inventive), and her silky prose, although she has also taken some hits for the characters’ lack of depth and overly idealized physical descriptions. Lisa Mangum, an editor at Deseret Book, produced The Hourglass Door, the story of a (you guessed it) high school girl who meets an Italian foreign exchange student, only to find out that he is from the 16th century. The reviewer at School Library Journal wrote, “This novel has an exciting premise and moves along at a brisk pace. Unfortunately, the supporting characters are all caricatures of high school students, Abby and Dante have very little real chemistry, and the dialogue is stilted and frequently either clichÃ©d or superfluous.”
There were four middle-grade novels, directed towards girls, which call to mind the “revisionist fairy tale” mode of Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted. Julie Berry’s debut novel, the fairy-tale The Amaranth Enchantment, was published to a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly, and this from Kirkus Reviews: “A lively, quick, stylish, engaging first novel with some lovely, familiar fairy-tale elements . . . will enthral young readers–who probably won’t care that some of the magic is a little wobbly.” Mette Ivy Harrison’s The Princess and the Bear, a sequel, tells the story of a King turned into a bear, and a princess turned into a hound. Kirkus, in a starred review, wrote, “The relationships between animal and human, and the magic in being both, are exquisitely delineated, and the love story between the two strong protagonists is all the more powerful for being intensely restrained. There’s a fair amount of bloodshed and violence, but that, too, is understated. Not for every reader, but an absorbing tale for the right one.” Jessica Day George’s Princess of the Midnight Ball is a take on the Grimm Brothers story “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” set in 19th century Europe. The review at Kirkus called it “a rich and engaging novel . . . near the end the story spirals up in intensity, touching on witchcraft and evil clerics along the way before a satisfyingly exciting conclusion.” (George also produced Dragonspear, the third in her dragon series). Finally, the finest LDS author in the genre, Shannon Hale, offered Forest Born, the fourth novel in her Bayern series, moving forward with the enchanting characters first introduced in The Goose Girl. The Horn Book wrote, “All is told in Hale’s assured voice, drawing the details of her invented countries with precision and depth. Strong characters define the series: commanding Isi, passionate Enna, wily Razo, and now shadowed Rin . . . fans will need no excuse to dive back into Hale’s fantasy world.”
Next is a trio of male authors writing young adult speculative fiction. Brandon Sanderson produced Alcatraz versus the Knights of Crystallia, the third in his comically arch Alcatraz series. The books all feature a strongly intrusive narrative voice, which plays up fantasy tropes for humorous effect. School Library Journal wrote, “Alcatraz frequently “˜breaks page’ to address readers with side comments, instructions, and, occasionally, complaints and insults . . . The rather complicated plot can be challenging to follow, but beneath the wild humor there are surprisingly subtle messages about responsibility and courage.” James Owen also mixes humor and complex time travelling in The Shadow Dragons, the fourth in his Imaginarium Geographica series. Finally, James Dashner created a dark, dystopian science fiction novel, The Maze Runner, the first in a Delacorete series, in which young boys are placed into a giant maze, and forced to fight for their lives, a concept very similar to Suzanne Collins’ popular The Hunger Games. Kirkus named The Maze Runner as one of the best young adult books of 2009, and Barnes and Noble declared it one of the “Best 20 Teen books of 2009″. Dashner also released The Hunt for Dark Infinity, the second in his lighter, younger 13thReality series for Shadow Mountain. A Kirkus review stated, “Readers will be as puzzled as the characters, who tumble from one complex and outrageous situation to the next, rescued from each at the last minute–sometimes with no explanation. But it all holds together remarkably well, encouraging suspension of disbelief to make way for glorious flights of imagination.”
As mentioned above, Shadow Mountain published young adult fantasy novels by seven LDS authors in 2009. Besides Magnum and Dashner, there was Brandon Mull (the bestseller of the group, his Fablehaven series reached #6 on the New York Times Children’s Series list), Mark Forman (although Shadow Mountain decided not to publish his next novel), M’Lin Rowley (the 16-year old author produced two short children’s novels), J. Scott Savage (reviews of the second novel in his Farworld series, nearly all positive, invariably include the words “complex” and “fast-paced”), and Obert Skye (with the fifth and final volume of his popular Leven Thumps series).
So, 15 authors writing fantasy, is there any room for anything else for young people? A little. Three LDS women produced serious young adult novels with contemporary settings. Ann Dee Ellis and Carol Lynch Williams (who are friends and co-bloggers) both created emotionally devastating accounts of young women in terribly dysfunctional families. Ann Dee Ellis’ Everything is Fine, like her previous novel, is told in an elliptical, impressionistic way (often in free verse), from the perspective of a young person who only gradually informs the reader of the tragedy which dominates her life. The teenage protagonist is trying to keep her life together while her severely depressed mother falls into catatonia, and her father absents himself. Carol Lynch Williams, one of the veterans of the field, received a tsunami of praise for her latest novel, The Chosen One, about Kyra, a 13-year old girl living in a particularly repressive and isolated polygamous sect. Just as Kyra begins to get a sense of the outside world through the books she surreptitiously borrows from a bookmobile driver, the Prophet announces that the she must become the seventh wife her cruel uncle. Jessica Bruder in the New York Times wrote, “Williams’s . . . spare, evocative writing and an honest sense of character helps bridge the rift between Kyra’s world and ours.” Publisher’s Weekly, in a starred review, wrote, “Although the ending verges on the sensational, Williams takes such care in crafting Kyra’s internal struggles–and her hellacious story–that the ensuing drama rings true. Williams’s highlighting all aspects of cult membership (fear of leaving, desire to belong, guilt about sinning), rather than relying on one-sided generalizations (cults are bad), makes this a prudent and powerful read.” The novels of Ellis and Williams have stuck with me long after I have forgotten most fantasy novels. Despite the hell they put me through, Ellis and Williams are my favourite authors of LDS young adult fiction (outside of Shannon Hale).
The third contemporary young adult novel of the year was newcomer Angela Morrison’s romance Taken by Storm, which tells the story of a Mormon girl, the summer before going to BYU, falling in love with a non-Mormon boy. It mines (without the humor) some of the same topics that Elna Baker pursued in her memoir–how much passion can one allow in a relationship before marriage and what problems will arise in a relationship outside of one’s religion? Although the author has stated that she hopes that the book can serve as a kind of fictional Standards Night, it is steamier than would be allowed in the Mormon publishing world. Publishers Weekly wrote, “By contrasting Leesie and Michael’s often opposing backgrounds and points of view, she handles the topics of religion and premarital sex gracefully without passing judgment. The message has less to do with religion than learning to respect and cherish others while staying true to one’s own beliefs.”
Here are some humorous novels before we leave the young adult world. Janette Rallison produced two novels for girls in 2009, My Fair Godmother for middle readers, and Just One Wish for older teens. The first features a bumbling teen fairy godmother who accidently sends a high school girl back in time into the stories of Snow White and Cinderella. The second is about a girl tries to help her seriously ill younger brother by brining a teen TV star to visit. Both have been highly rated for their comic moments, although the second is anchored at its core by the believable and heartrending relationship between the sister and brother. Dene Low (a pseudonym for Lara Card) wrote Petronella Saves Nearly Everyone: The Entomological Tales of Augustus T. Percival, a short, frothy first novel for middle readers. Set in Edwardian London, Petronella’s coming-out party is ruined by insects and a kidnapping. The review at School Library Journal commented, “What follows is part farce, part mystery, part political thriller, all told in Petronella’s upper-crust voice, laced with sly humor, many bodice-ripping observations of James’s virile charms, and a painless dose of history. Archetypical characters are skillfully drawn, time and place are clearly evoked, and excitement and intrigue abound amid the hilarity.” Booklist added, “This wonderful little gem is a wacky mix of Jane Austen, Sherlock Holmes and Jack Gantos at his bizarre best… I adored this book from its enticing start to the end that dangles the promise of more adventures. (Please!) First novelist Low has created a memorable set of characters in her witty and wonderfully weird first novel.”
On to adult novels. Shannon Hale, whose young adult and graphic novels have been rapturously received, has had a harder time winning an audience for her two novels for adults. In her most recent, The Actor and the Housewife, Hale for the first time creates a Mormon character and includes Mormonism as a key aspect of the novel. The novel centers on the far-fetched premise of a famous British actor could become a warm platonic friend with a Mormon housewife. The reviewer in Kirkus writes, “They engage in the kind of witty repartee that hasn’t been heard since Carole Lombard graced the screen, and become bosom buddies . . . The odd, safe fantasy Hale has created is then jangled by a more sober realism. Husband Mike (spoiler deletion), and the domestic bliss Becky has enjoyed comes to a crushing end. Becky’s devotion to her husband, her depression, her inability to see a romantic future for herself-all these elements ring true and tragic. Unfortunately, the novel hinges on Felix and Becky’s relationship, and aside from a mutual love of quick-witted banter, their friendship is largely unbelievable. Hale’s prose is friendly and funny, but she doesn’t bring her premise to life.” This appears to be a real love it or hate it book, reader reviews on both sides have been quite fierce. A favourite complaint is that the character of the husband is poorly drawn, and Hale does not do enough to show why Becky is so devoted to him.
Jamie Ford’s debut novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, is a mix of historical fiction and Nicholas Sparks-like romantic sentimentality. It tells the story of a Chinese-American in Seattle, alternating between his childhood in the early 1940s and his recent widowed state in 1984. It has received strong reviews for its heartfelt portrayal of racism towards and between Asian-Americans, particularly the fate of a close Japanese-American girl friend, whose family is interned by the American government after Pearl Harbor. Booklist wrote, “Although Ford does not have anything especially novel to say about a familiar subject (the interplay between race and family), he writes earnestly and cares for his characters, who consistently defy stereotype.” The novel reached #16 on the New York Times Hardcover Fiction list, and #13 on the Trade Paperback list later in the year.
Other bestselling books in 2009 were Anne Perry’s William Monk novel Execution Dock, and two Christmas books: Richard Paul Evans’ The Christmas List and Jason F. Wright’s Christmas Jars Reunion. Glenn Beck’s The Christmas Sweater (which was co-written with Jason F. Wright), from 2008 appeared on bestseller lists for the second Christmas season in a row, and a children’s illustrated version of the story also sold well.
I will end this section with adult speculative fiction. Orson Scott Card’s Hidden Empire continues my least favourite Card series ever (but still a pretty good read). Steven L. Kent and David Farland have added new volumes to their extended Clone and Runelords series. Brandon Sanderson (yes, this is the third novel of his I have mentioned) produced the fine stand-alone work Warbreaker. Sanderson’s friend Dan Wells has received rave reviews for the comic horror novel I Am Not a Serial Killer, but it has so far only been released in the United Kingdom. John Brown, who has had a few short stories published over the last decade, received strong praise for his first fantasy novel, Servant of a Dark God. Like Sanderson and Farland, Brown creates a high fantasy with a complex magic system that is robust, bounded and physical. The review in Library Journal states, “Brown creates an elaborate new world with a rich and deep spiritual and political background . . . this well-wrought tale of families in conflict against both politics and religion represents a welcome addition to large-scale fantasy.” Mormon reviewer Jennie Hansen, normally not a fan of fantasy, wrote, “Servant of a Dark God is a compelling, complicated novel written in a misleadingly simple style. As in the highest quality literary writing, there are lines and references that bring other great works to mind without actually quoting them.”