Twilight and the CleanFlicks Aesthetic

NOTE: This is a paper I presented at a conference to a largely non-Mormon audience a few years ago (April 2010 to be precise). Since the final Twilight movie hit theaters this morning at midnight, I thought it might be worthwhile to dust off this paper and present it for your review. Overall, I like the basic idea of the paper, although I think certain ideas and distinctions need to be further developed and drawn.

Vampire stories, argues William Patrick Day, are supposed to “viscerally [excite] us with primal, forbidden, terrifying images and scenes of flesh and blood, fangs and stakes, violence and death” (5). Yet, if this is true, why is Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga so devoid of such “terrifying images and scenes”? Already, much has been written about the “erotics of abstinence” in the Twilight novels, or their lack of explicit sex–premarital or otherwise (Grossman). Less has been said, however, about how these vampire stories flout the conventions of the vampire genre by avoiding bloody, violent spectacles.

Indeed, one of the earliest reviews of Twilight–a brief write-up in Publishers Weekly–points out that the “novel’s only weakness” is a “rushed denouement” that mostly “takes place offstage” (207). In the climactic scene, Bella is in danger. James, a bad vampire who has become fixated on her blood, lures her to a dance studio where he plans to slake his thirst. The suspense builds as James, true to his nemesis role, monologues about his skills as a tracker, his desire for Bella’s blood, and his disdain for the Cullens, Bella’s good, “vegetarian” vampire friends. Using his super vampire strength, James throws Bella against a wall of mirrors, breaks her legs, and cuts a gash along her forehead. The situation looks bad for Bella:

His eyes, merely intent before, now burned with an uncontrollable need. The blood–spreading crimson across my white shirt, pooling rapidly on the floor–was driving him mad with thirst. (450)

James strikes at her, bites her on the hand, and Bella–our first-person narrator–passes out.

And that’s all we get.

Continue reading “Twilight and the CleanFlicks Aesthetic”

A nod to Mormon history in Ally Condie’s Reached

I can’t tell you what it is because that would be a huge spoiler. But there’s a major one (and it’s one Condie writes about in the acknowledgements).

I still need to fully process the Matched trilogy (of which Reached is the final book). I’m fascinated by the fact, though, that although you could read it and love it without any knowledge of Mormonism at all, it contains within it major resonances with Mormon history, landscape, doctrine and practice.

Review: Luisa Perkins’ _Dispirited_ is a Supernatural Delight

Zarahemla Books hits the sweet spot again with its latest book offering, Luisa Perkins’ Dispirited. The supernatural thriller/YA dark fantasy is a worthy addition to Zarahemla’s quality library of Mormon literature, and continues to showcase the diversity Zarahemla displays on its shelf. Zarahemla is as much of a home for genre fiction, as it is high brow literary novels, as it is for personal essays, as it is for short stories, as it is now for Mormon drama (full disclosure: Zarahemla Books will be publishing a book of two of my plays in the next few weeks, as well as an anthology of Mormon Drama which I helped pull together later this Summer… but I was a big fan of ZB’s approach long before those projects). Dispirited continues Zarahemla’s big tent tradition with its blend of dark, magical realism and young adult sensibility (with a dash of the bizarre just to throw you off kilter).

Dispirited jumps right into the conflict in its first chapter when a young boy named Blake is grieving for his dead mother and so stumbles upon the ability to separate his spirit from his body (astral projection). Thus he travels to the astral plane in search for his mother. However, Blake is in for a rude awakening (or unawakening) when he tries to get back into his body, as he discovers that it has been possessed by a powerful evil spirit who has no intention of giving the poor child his body back. In the next chapter we are introduced to Cathy, years after the inciting incident. Cathy is the step sister of “Blake,” and becomes our main protagonist. The real Blake, now an exiled spirit out of his body, enlists Cathy in the battle over the possession and right to his body.  And then we’re off to the races, plot wise.

I found the initial premise fascinating, partly because I felt it was plausible. I have known people (including a personal friend of mine, as well as a Wiccan who I baptized on my mission) who had claimed to have accomplished this feat of “astral planing,” where they could separate themselves from their bodies, travel in a different plane of existence, and then return to their body (although my friend from my mission claimed that she had difficulty getting back into her body, so she never attempted the experience again). As a believer in this kind of supernatural possibility, having had a few difficult to explain supernatural scenarios in my own life, Perkins had me at the get go with this initial conflict. The central premise seemed real and organic, especially from a Mormon worldview. Sometimes magical realism, from the perspective of a Mormon, simply becomes realism. Continue reading “Review: Luisa Perkins’ _Dispirited_ is a Supernatural Delight”

Whitney Youth Speculative Fiction Finalists 2011

And here’s segment three of my Whitney finalist reviews, following earlier installments on general fiction and general youth fiction. There are some story spoilers. It’s all my own opinions. None of these publisher made electronic copies available, which was a bit of a pain, but we prevailed! And again, please chime in with your opinions, whether they agree with mine or not.

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More Than Your Everyday Cinderella (Sarah Dunster’s _Lightning Tree_)

Maybe it was because I had just finished reading the first book of the new series, The Lunar Chronicles, when I received Sarah’s Dunster’s novel, Lightning Tree, in the mail but the tale of Magdalena Chabert is every bit a Cinderella story–and then a whole lot more.

Magdalena (Maggie) is a poor girl with a rich inner life who spends an awful lot of time mucking out chicken coops and trying to explain things in broken English. With a cold stepmother, an ineffectual father figure, and step-sisters who are by turns loving and awful, all this story needs is a glass slipper-toting fairy godmother for Maggie to get her ticket to the corn husking party for some “sparking” of her own. But Maggie has no glass slipper. Only dead parents, an uncared for younger sister, a lost brother, and violent nightmares about the suspicious death of her baby sister. Set against the backdrop of “The Cedar Incident” and the prejudices of small town pioneer Utah Lightning Tree is a dramatic story that will keep readers turning pages until every nightmare is brought to light.

Most of the strength of this novel come from the characters created by Dunster. Maggie is a pleasing blend of sarcasm, spunk, and idealism. Her little sister, Giovanna, is just the right amount of charming and exasperating. Their stepfather, Pa Alden, is both stoic and tender and the tension this creates in his character is quite winning. Ma Alden’s (Maggie’s evil stepmother) character is puzzling and contradictory–but in a way that builds tension. Even more secondary charcters, like the Holdens (the token polygamists) are surprising in their nuance. My only wish was that the bad guys, Jed and Uncle Forth, were a little more threatening early in the novel. The Cinderella set-up had me so focused on Ma Alden as the villains that the true bad guys were too unclear for me to take them seriously.

As historical fiction, this book is closer to Ann Rinaldi than Herman Wouk. Or, to put it in Mormon terms this book is closer to Gale Sears than Margaret Young/Darius Gray. All the characters in the book are fictional, except for Maggie’s backstory about the Waldensian Saints. There are no end notes or references. And while questions surrounding the Mountain Meadows Massacre weave in and out of the story if readers don’t have a fairly firm understanding of “The Cedar Incident” already this book won’t give them any help.This is not to say the book isn’t well-researched; it clearly is. But it is more of a period coming-of-age novel than strong historical fiction.

What really sells the book is the overarching philosophical questions–questions that push beyond the realm of a princess rising from the ashes. At one point in the story Henry (Maggie’s love interest) says to her, “One thing you need to learn, Mag. When people love you, you’re accountable to them. Time to throw away that pride of yours, because what happens to you isn’t just your affair” (p 241). Questions about pride versus self-reliance and self-righteousness versus love and family make Lightning Tree a good read and great discussion fodder. It’s your everyday Cinderella story and so much more.

Lightning Tree is available for purchase today. For more about Sarah Dunster check out her website. And, yes, I did receive a free review copy of this book.

Whitney Youth Fiction General Finalists 2011

Welcome to Jonathan Langford’s second installment of Whitney finalist reviews. As noted in my last installment, some of these reviews include story spoilers. All represent only my own opinion, which all will agree is eminently fallible. Thanks to the publisher of Pride and Popularity for making a PDF version available for members of the Whitney Academy. And please feel free to chime in with your opinions, whether they agree with mine or not.

Continue reading “Whitney Youth Fiction General Finalists 2011”

Destiny, Demons, and Freewill in Dan Wells’s John Wayne Cleaver Books

Title: I Am Not a Serial Killer
Author: Dan Wells
Publisher: Tor
Genre: YA suspense/horror
Year Published: 2010 [My copy of the book has a copyright date of 2010, with a listing of “First Edition: April 2010.” Yet I know this book was actually published originally in 2009, and it won a 2009 Whitney Award for best first novel by an LDS author. I think what happened is that it was released in the UK in 2009, but was not released in the U.S. until 2010.]
Number of Pages: 271
Binding: Trade Paperback (also available in hardback and as an ebook)
ISBN: 978-0-7653-2782-6
Price: $9.99

Title: Mr. Monster
Author: Dan Wells
Publisher: Tor
Genre: YA suspense/horror
Year Published: 2010
Number of Pages: 287
Binding: Trade Paperback (also available in hardback and as an ebook)
ISBN: 978-0-7653-2790-1
Price: $11.99

Title: I Don’t Want to Kill You
Author: Dan Wells
Publisher: Tor
Genre: YA suspense/horror
Year Published: 2011
Number of Pages: 320
Binding: Trade Paperback (also available in hardback and as an ebook)
ISBN: 978-0-7653-2844-1
Price: $11.99

Reviewed by Jonathan Langford.

Includes spoilers for Book 3 in a very general sense, but no specifics.

John Wayne Cleaver, the main character of I Am Not a Serial Killer, is kind of a weird kid. 15 years old. Helps out in his family mortuary. Obsessed with serial killers.

Continue reading “Destiny, Demons, and Freewill in Dan Wells’s John Wayne Cleaver Books”

Correlation, Top Tens and Ally Condie’s Matched

Warning: this is less a review than a piece of literary criticism. There be small spoilers ahead.

It is probably not surprising that so many of the nationally-published, succesful YA novels by Mormon authors are about agency — Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, Dan Wells’ I Am Not A Serial Killler, James Dashner’s The Maze Runner. Not only is it a key component of Mormon theology, but it’s also really what YA is all about. One comes of age when one can learn to (or be freed to or free oneself to) make choices (and accept the consequences). But as intensely as the three titles I mention deal with agency, none of them are about it thematically as much as Ally Condie’s Matched. From the title, which refers to the fact that reproductive unions in Condie’s dystopia are arranged/assigned, and the front cover (which features a young woman in a bubble); to the back cover, which includes blurbs with words like free will, choice, rebellion and controlled; to, well, all all those pages in between this is a book about agency.

Condie intensifies the issue of agency by doing what all dystopias do: create a claustrophic, circumscribed, controlled society. A key component to that is the restriction of approved materials for consumption by the populace — or in other words: correlation. I use that term, of course, in the LDS sense to mean a system of education via approved materials that are consistent across the organziation (or in this case — the Society).

Continue reading “Correlation, Top Tens and Ally Condie’s Matched”

In the footsteps of Stephenie Meyer?

aaaaaCondie-Matched This past week’s Publishers Weekly has an article about the national market “debut” of LDS YA novelist Ally Condie, whose sixth novel, Matched, was released by Dutton on November 30th. Released is an understatement.

Continue reading “In the footsteps of Stephenie Meyer?”

Some Definitional Thoughts About YA (Mormon) Fiction

Author’s note: This started as a post on my own blog on whether or not No Going Back is a YA novel. I showed it to William Morris, who suggested that I post it here. I quote from his comments: “I know you are worried about readers tiring of hearing about No Going Back, but this blog entry a) is literary criticism, which is the heart of AMV and b) tackles what is becoming a core question for Mormon fiction, imo, because of the huge number of authors finding success with YA and/or work for middle readers — that is, is YA capable of providing real literary value to Mormon letters and if so what level of “˜mature/explicit’ content can it deal with without alienating Mormon readers.”

So I’ve posted different versions (with different titles) in the two places. The version at my blog focuses on the original question of whether No Going Back is a YA novel. The version here retains most of that content, but also considers some more general questions about the nature and status of YA novels, particularly in the Mormon universe.

Continue reading “Some Definitional Thoughts About YA (Mormon) Fiction”