Shadow Mountain was kind enough to send me their summer/fall catalog early this summer and ask if I’d be interested in reviewing any of the titles therein. I have been meaning to tackle something by Rachel Ann Nunes as part of my wm-reads-lds-genre-novels project, so I jumped at the chance to get a copy of Imprints ( Amazon ). This title marks Nunes’ foray from Romance in to the Mystery/Thriller genre so it seemed like it would be a much more approachable entry in to her work for someone like me.
For this review, I’m going to break it in to four parts: the set up; what works; what doesn’t work; and the novel as Mormon literature. Each of those is going to be written from a slightly different point of view as I negotiate between my identities as a fan of genre fiction but with a bias towards genre work that has strong literary elements (the good ones — not the precious/precocious literary stuff); a writer and editor of fiction; a cheerleader for Mormon fiction; and a Mormon literary critic.
The Premise and Setting
Adopted by hippie parents, Autumn Rain lives in Portland, where she runs her late father’s antiques shop. She has also recently been reunited with her twin sister (also adopted — and apparently the main character in a previous Nunes novel) and has a crush on Jake, the tall dreadlocked African American dude who she sold her father’s herbal remedies store to. Autumn also has discovered (post the trauma of her father’s death in a bridge collapse) that she has a paranormal power: she receives impressions and memories from physical objects (assuming that they have been imbued with strong emotions [love, anger, terror, etc.]). She used these powers to solve a previous case, and the word gets out so one day a community college instructor turned private investigator named Ethan McConnell shows up with a pair of worried parents. It turns out that their daughter has semi-recently joined a commune that may or may not be a dangerous cult — the same commune that Ethan’s sister had joined almost a year previously. Autumn gets sucked in to the investigation, eventually going undercover with Jake and with Ethan’s help.
The setting: Portland and Oregon is the perfect place for a hippie chick with paranormal powers, and Nunes weaves in some good details and locations.
The powers: there’s always room to be a little tighter as well as push the limits more (especially towards the end of the novel), but on the whole, the type of power and how it works and especially the situations where it is useful or not — and the effects it’s use can have on Autumn — is very well done. Very much in the magic-with-rules-that’s-use-can-be-both-negative-and-positive vein that Orson Scott Card has preached and Brandon Sanderson has perfected.
The sisters: Autumn and her sister Tawnia (who is pregnant) are vibrant, interesting characters. When they are on screen, especially together, the novel really sparkles.
The plot twists: there are several. None of them are earth-shattering, but they work, and they are genuine twists that don’t come across as cheap or out-of-nowhere.
What Doesn’t Work
The overwriting: Nunes spells so much out, repeating information that we already guessed or knew or expressing feelings and thoughts that are already clear from what has been said or gestured. It really threw me out of the narrative; it’s quite grating. But nothing a good editor could have fixed. And it isn’t as bad in the latter part of the book.
The action scenes: Now some of these actually work quite well and Nunes is to be credited for not making anyone who gets involved in a fight or a piece of action superhuman. People get hurt. People do the wrong thing and although they show pluck and endurance and push beyond their comfort zones, they don’t show skills that are way beyond. But at times the blocking seems a off and at the end there’s too much going here and there. Tighten this up (and deal with the overwriting) and you have a much stronger novel. And to be fair, the blocking is much crisper than in many novels, where things tend to go hazy in the fight/action scenes.
The love triangle: It’s hard for me to judge this because I am so not the target audience here, but both Jake and Keefe needed added dimensions here. In fact, the two male leads are the weakest part of the story in terms of characterization. Jake, especially, needs to be more awesome. And the heat could have been turned up a bit. And Autumn is just a little too coy and conflicted.
Imprints as Mormon literature
Here at AMV, we follow the Association for Mormon Letters definition that anything by, for or about Mormons counts as Mormon literature. Imprints falls into that peculiar category of novels that don’t feature Mormonism but are written mainly for a Mormon audience e.g. “clean fiction.” Yes, it’s published by Shadow Mountain, which is ostensibly Deseret Book’s national market-oriented imprint, and it’s conceivable that the title will find non-LDS readers, but unlike Shadow Mountain’s YA/children’s fantasy series, this really seems to be for the female LDS audience. So any discussion of it in relation to Mormon literature is likely to turn to what is gained vs. what is lost in creating the clean, non-Mormon-themed-but-for-an-LDS-audience novel. And so I do have the same complaint with it that I did with Lemon Tart (although I think Lemon Tart is the better crafted novel): “…it sometimes creates reading moments where the fact that it’s a non-LDS-themed-book-written-by-an-active-LDS becomes a little too present.”
On the other hand, I was going to ding Nunes for something because (and this is perhaps a tiny spoiler) any novel featuring Portland and hippies and communes is going to have account for a particular herb, and it looked like it was never going to come up — but in the end it did. And it’s true that by making Autumn a hippie, natural foods chick you can avoid the major Word of Wisdom issues. But at the same time, I don’t see why, if you’re going to include, for example, violence (both real and emotional) in the work at a certain level of graphic-ness, you can’t, say, the moderate consumption of alcohol. Or the use of black or green tea. Although I have to admit that I didn’t mind the lack of swearing. And Nunes did push things a little further than one might expect (but still very, very PG), for example, see her open letter on the AML blog (where I claim in the comments that obsessing over the clean thing isn’t the best idea, but I’m a mercurial personality and what may sound good in the abstract doesn’t hold when it comes to actual reading experience — although I have to say that Imprints provided much less “oh, come on” moments than I would have expected c.f. the herb mentioned above).
Of course (and this again is reflecting my own bias), how cool would it be if Autumn was a hippie LDS chick? Pretty cool, I think. And then trying to situate her powers could be an interesting added dimension (A gift of the Spirit?). And then make Jake a non-Mormon and you have the recipe for some more tense romantic tension between the two.
I do think, though, that this is a work worth exploring if you have an interest in LDS genre literature. It embodies much of the tensions and issues in the genre and shows the improvement there has been in the field while highlighting the work that still needs to be done.