On Sheldon Lawrence’s Hearts of the Fathers and Categories of Relgious Fiction (with a most inappropriate comparison)

I had the pleasure of reading Sheldon Lawrence’s book Hearts of the Fathers a couple of weeks ago. Dr. Lawrence is a professor at BYU-Idaho, and when I requested to review an advance copy, he had it delivered to my husband, who also works at BYU-Idaho. When my husband picked it up and read a page on his way to delivering it to me, he stated that it read like “a book written by a BYU professor.” This worried me. He didn’t mean it in a bad way, but I’ve had some bad experiences with fiction written by BYU professors.

Then I began to read it, and to my pleasure, I was immediately drawn in. Continue reading “On Sheldon Lawrence’s Hearts of the Fathers and Categories of Relgious Fiction (with a most inappropriate comparison)”

Taking Our Stories to a General Audience: A review of The Librarian Shoots a Gun, by Amber Gilchrist

Amber Gilchrist is an independent writer of fiction that is unapologetically LDS and aimed at a general audience. When I set into reading her newest novel, The Librarian Shoots a Gun, it was with the intent of studying how she grounds her general readers in LDS culture–what she feels a need to explain, and how she does it without interrupting the flow of her story. Continue reading “Taking Our Stories to a General Audience: A review of The Librarian Shoots a Gun, by Amber Gilchrist”

A review of Rachel McClellan’s “Escape to Eden,” and why we should advocate for LDS Commercial fiction

My last post was about LDS literary fiction. I discussed the fact that it’s difficult to place, and difficult to find an audience for; partly because literary fiction tends to have a much more limited audience in general than commercial fiction and partly because those who would consume LDS literary fiction (other than those of us already knee deep in the world of LDS arts) don’t seem to have easy access to it, or knowledge of it.

Today I want to turn this topic on its head, review a commercial LDS novel, and talk about why LDS commercial fiction is an important element of our culture. Continue reading “A review of Rachel McClellan’s “Escape to Eden,” and why we should advocate for LDS Commercial fiction”

Karamesines’ Pictograph Murders, and the Dilemma of LDS Literary Fiction Writers

The way I see it, In the world of LDS arts, we are a small family, and we have to take on multiple roles. Artist, critic, reviewer, publicity-generator, awareness-raiser… sometimes it can feel a little self-indulgent, or even dangerous, taking on these multiple roles.

Those who review books (influencing sales and ratings) often are those who choose which books are finalists in the Whitneys or AMV awards, for instance. And we all know each other. We’re all friends. It can be tricky. For instance, I have not yet had the courage to review Love Letters of the Angel of Death, even though I loved the book and feel it is an important work on the frontier of LDS literary fiction, simply because it was a finalist with my own novel in contest for an LDS arts award.

But, you see, we all need to do it. Review, create art, be friends, advocate for each other, etc. This often means putting on hats very carefully.

So here’s me, very self-consciously putting on my critiquer’s hat. I’m not speaking from a place of wisdom and skill as a novelist. Patricia Karamsesines is a consummate writer, far more developed than I am. My own novels are fluff in comparison. It’s true–they’re fluff. Though I do aspire to sell the sort of writing Patricia has had published, I’m a bit more mercenary, willing to collect an audience through the means of writing more commercial kinds of fiction for a while. So my skills and development as a writer have been directed toward things like plotting, keeping a pulse on the market and trying to come up with a story that might sell while still (sometimes clumsily) spoon-feeding unusual ideas and philosophy and things important to me. My focus has been not so much what I have wanted to focus on: , making an important theme a central message and refining flow and word choice, and continually making my writing more spare and beautiful… all the things that just make you have to stop and breathe for a moment when you read a poem (or novel) of Karamesines’. Continue reading “Karamesines’ Pictograph Murders, and the Dilemma of LDS Literary Fiction Writers”

Rectifying by Review: my take on Moriah Jovan’s Magdalene

When Magdalene was nominated to be considered by the Whitney committee for the 2011 awards, Jennie Hansen, a well-known LDS reviewer and writer, posted a review on Goodreads that caused quite a stir in our little LDS writing community. Her review was short and to the point. She wrote:

“Disjointed, sloppy writing. Lacks real knowledge of Mormons and leadership in the Church. Too much vulgarity for vulgarities sake makes this story crude and amateurish.”  If you are interested, you may read and/or comment on this review here. Continue reading “Rectifying by Review: my take on Moriah Jovan’s Magdalene”

Getting on my Middle School: a Review of Braden Bell’s Middle School Magic trilogy

Lately, I have realized something.

I should never review middle-grade fiction, because I am not a middle-grader.

Continue reading “Getting on my Middle School: a Review of Braden Bell’s Middle School Magic trilogy”

A Review of L.T. Downing’s Get That Gold

Get That Gold is a tale of the LDS Restoration, aimed at middle-grade readers (and for families to read together, according to the author.)

I started this story with some trepidation. I always feel that way about books written by writers in this LDS community. I once read something that Angela Hallstrom wrote about how, as a writer of LDS fiction, she didn’t feel she could be a reviewer of LDS fiction. The two were becoming less compatible for her.

I have determined to be both a writer and a reviewer because I feel that I have a kind of duty, if that makes sense. I love LDS fiction. I actually read it, and I read it growing up. Therefore, I am a legitimate part of the audience, and as a writer, I can provide good feedback and some relevant insights about books I read, mingled with real constructive criticism as someone who works hard at the craft myself.

The problem is, this means sometimes I’ll be reviewing the story  of someone who has reviewed mine. There can be a feeling, in this small community of “tit for tat,” etc, whether people mean that or not. So I’m just going to state up front, right now:  all of you people in this community who are reading my stories? And writing reviews of them? I expect your honesty, and I can handle it. If you did not like something about my story, say so. So that I can improve. If you found dialog disingenuous or forced. If you disliked a character. If you felt my plot fell apart, or my pacing was off. (Mark Penny pointed this out about Lightning Tree, and gave me only three stars because of it. See? I really can handle it.)

Not to say I don’t believe my stories are awesome. I think they are. And those of you who have appreciated and reviewed them, thank you for taking the time to write a review! It really helps motivate us as writers to get feedback not just from our audience but from our peers who are among that audience.

OK. Disclaimers aside. I’m going to say the stuff I’m dreading up front, like ripping off a bandaid.

I enjoyed both Island of the Stone Boy and Get That Gold, but I felt both could have benefited from another round of editing. Not sentence structure or grammar; I think Downing is flawless there. More for story flow, descriptions and dialog. Particularly when description and dialog mixed, I felt jarred a lot. There were some tag echoes, a bit too much description of character movement/action in the middle of dialog, and some of the character descriptions and actions were hard to picture in my head.

OK. I got that out of the way. Moving on:

Get That Gold is eminently worth your time. I loved this story, and I know my kids will love it, and I fully plan on reading it to them as a bedtime story for the next several nights. I was deeply touched by this story. I loved the depiction of Joseph, especially. I was moved to tears at times. I loved the depiction of Emma. I loved Joseph’s family. I can tell that Downing put a great deal of time and effort into her research, and as a reader I trust that. I really enjoyed being transported into the setting and time period of the restoration. Above all, I felt the excitement, the deep and spiritual profundity, of Joseph and his retrieval of the Gold Plates.

There is a slapstick feel about Downing’s fiction at times. Her humor runs to the bad-guys-being-silly-and-getting-hurt sort of thing. While I am not the biggest fan of slapstick, I know this will make my kids laugh a whole lot as I read it to them. As an adult, I probably need to loosen up and enjoy it more, too.

I know that this story has been waiting for a while to be published; that one of the big 3 LDS publishers finally turned it down several years ago because they felt the fiction made light of the sacredness of the Joseph Smith story. I felt the opposite. I felt, after reading this, excited to re-read Joseph Smith History in my scriptures, and the testimony of the witnesses. I felt excited to read the Book of Mormon. I think that this story is a jewel, to be honest. As I read it to my children, I expect it will engage them in the story of the Restoration, and help them to be interested in Joseph Smith as person. I find this to be a vital part of my own testimony and am grateful someone has taken the time to write a story that will help young people see the excitement, the danger, the fun and funny in such an important story.

Review of Field Notes on Language and Kinship, by Tyler Chadwick.

I approached this review with a lot of trepidation. I am not a schooled poet. I took exactly three writing classes in college, and I haven’t read nearly the amount of poetry that someone who professes to be a poet ought to have. I have written many poems, but I didn’t really figure out what a poem was supposed to be, for me, until I took that one poetry class (Jimmy Barnes, BYU, “writing poetry”) about ten years ago. So beware and bear with me. I’m coming at this from a very unschooled angle.

Field Notes on Language and Kinship is, essentially (I think) an observation on poetry and the way it fits into LDS culture in particular. Chadwick explores, in turn, how to read poetry (don’t force interpretation, instead give way to the language), why to write poetry (poetry can “give shape to ideas”¦ that might otherwise be too diffuse”), why to read poetry (poetry is often intended to be mediation–an act of “moving” and “softening” for a reader and for the poet, and thus might draw them closer to God, the gospel, or other redeeming forces/ideals.)

The first story Chadwick relates in the book is about his grandmother who loved to hike, and went on many difficult excursions during her life. At each hike’s summit, or endpoint, she would collect a rock and label it. She collected these rocks in a jar. And Chadwick inherited this jar–chose it from his grandmother’s possessions after she died. As a boy, it intrigued him–rocks from all of these high points of his grandmother’s experience.

I believe this book is a similar rock-collection for Chadwick, only instead of pieces of granite, he has assembled poems to mark high points, important conflicts, switch-points and turns in his development as a human being and as a reader and writer of poetry.  Each of the sections focuses on a different aspect of his own relationship to language and how it developed and was influenced by life events, whether that be his mission, his mentors in college, his explorations of Sonosophy, his wife’s first pregnancy, the birth of a child, a sister struggling with infertility, and of course the time and attention he spent putting together Fire in the Pasture. Continue reading “Review of Field Notes on Language and Kinship, by Tyler Chadwick.”

Addressing Issues on the Edge, and Ryan Rapier’s “The Reluctant Blogger.”

I knew I needed to download Ryan Rapier’s debut novel The Reluctant Blogger when I read his review of my book, Mile 21. It was a review that I really appreciated, because… well. His book is about the same thing. The protagonist suddenly loses an eternal spouse.  The protagonist is not coping well and has to be pushed into coping by loved ones/professionals/ecclesiastical leaders.

His review meant a lot because I knew it came from a place I respected.  Ryan Rapier had goals similar to mine in writing his story, and so comparing how we both did at accomplishing those goals–bringing up complex doctrinal issues, how they mix with and influence feelings and coping in the wake of tragedy, and the way friends, family, and ward members can add to or lift burdens of those grieving–has been awesome.

I finished The Reluctant Blogger yesterday night. In fact, stayed up until one in the morning, which I don’t often do, but my husband was next to me in bed feverishly sketching out plans for our attached greenhouse (am I allowed to put links to my blog in here??) and I was caught up in the story.

The loneliness a person feels in LDS culture after being removed of spouse, with hazy ideas as to what the future might hold for him, is deep and consuming. Confusing. I know it because I went through it in the form of a messy and frightening, and very public divorce. I was blessed because I ended up two years later with an amazing guy, and with a sealing cancellation signed by the First Presidency. I had the ability to be sealed again to someone. But how many aren’t so lucky?  The thought has haunted me. What if the First Presidency had said no to me?  What if my life had gone another direction, and I had been expected to live 60 more years sanctified by sacrifice and loneliness, instead of being loved by someone and having the large, happy family I had always planned for?

I think writing is often an exploration of the things that crack us and break us and frighten us and confuse us and cause sadness, though we know if we have testimonies of the gospel that they shouldn’t, because God’s plan is eternal happiness. We know all this stuff down here is for our good…etc.  But imperfect human minds aren’t always up to the task of peace in the face of deep grieving. I think the biggest plague in this world, the thing that causes the very most pain, is loneliness.

Because we Mormons believe Marriage and Family are the crux of eternal happiness, those relationships affect happiness and emotional stability at a much more salient and deep level.  (Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe those of other denominations would take issue with that statement.) Being without spouse after a certain age is also something that people in the church have difficulty dealing with. It’s almost like what Phillip Pullman portrays in his series His Dark Materials: every human has a daemon, except for those who’ve had theirs cut away. And people can’t even look at them. It’s too hard. It’s unnatural, like looking at something mutilated… broken… it’s something they fear happening to them above all else, and so they just can’t face the thought it could happen.

I’m going to say I really liked Ryan’s portrayal, though there were a couple of things I struggled with. The most glaring was that I really, passionately disliked the therapist character. That might be because I dislike and distrust all therapists, so, probably partly my own issue. But that character just seemed so arrogant, and shallow. He spent half the time thinking about office furniture.  I think it was meant to be funny but it came off as extremely annoying. Also the therapist… the blogging…. I know, I know, it’s the title and central premise of the book. But it felt a little forced and unnecessary. I feel like the story could have been better, less awkwardly conveyed, without the therapist and blog as our channel to the main character. And I have a hard time believing someone would blog entire conversations, completely with facial expressions, gesture, etc.

The other difficulties I had were minor.  There weren’t very many, and they were mostly “new writer” awkwardnesses that I’m sure I still commit myself.

As I read, I found something pretty wonderful in Ryan’s writing. He’s not overly dramatic (except for the part where he screamed while in therapy. But maybe people do that. I don’t know. I just can’t picture a pretty staid, responsible, mature 38 year old doing it. Crying, maybe… growling, maybe. Screaming’s pretty extreme.)  But other than that, it was all completely believable. He includes just enough detail, just enough delving into the emotions/mind of the main character, and the supporting characters were, I felt, masterfully portrayed as well. I felt especially for Alex, the main character’s 13 year old daughter. How many men can portray grieving-13-year-old-girl to any degree of accuracy? An impressive feat.

I’ll go on to say that, while my story and Ryan’s are similar, the issues he addresses are broader and braver. In addition to being a widower, the protagonist is a father of 3. He’s older–late thirties.  Like in my story, his relationship with his parents is complex and not always supportive. In addition, he addresses an issue all us wives think about at times–that of multiple wives in the afterlife. Kind of an ouchy spot.  He addresses it well, with a realistic resolution.

And to top that off with more wonderfulness, he addresses the issues of homosexuality and the church. A really wonderful guy “comes out” in the course of the novel & the reader experiences at a very deep, real level, what that means in the context of Mormon Culture. Including the protagonist’s struggles, which include prejudice and fear.  If I cried at any point in the book, that was it.

Bottom line, it’s not a perfect book. Of course it’s not. It’s a debut novel. But Rapier’s talent is obvious in spite of new-writer awkwardness. The Reluctant Blogger is definitely worth reading. Rapier is a writer who seems driven to address the “issues on the edge”, things that Mormons worry about but don’t quite understand. Things we struggle with. Things we grieve privately over and sometimes feel judged about.

In other words, things that need to be written about.

Review of Byuck… and other thoughts.

So, I finished Eric Jepson’s novel, BYUCK. I found it hilarious, heartwarming, and refreshing. The description of BYU (and Happy Valley) culture from the perspective of someone who wasn’t bred and born in it, who could therefore look at it from an outsider’s perspective, delighted and amused me. As I read the story, I remembered my own bemused feelings entering happy-valley culture for the first time. And I breathed a deep sigh of relief that I do not live in Provo anymore.

It also brought memories of a story I wrote about six or seven years ago that was very similar (not in writing quality, but in subject matter, characters, setup.) Nobody has read it except for my family and the editorial board at Covenant, who eventually tabled and then rejected it, saying the audience was too narrow for them to spend money to publish it. I’m grateful for that now, because it wasn’t very well written and I needed the time to learn how to write properly before critics got at it.

But I found myself wondering, after I finished BYUCK, and as I looked back on the experience with Covenant: where is the place for that sort of writing; for the works of LDS writers writing about our LDS culture? And where is that sort of writing going, now that things are changing so drastically in the industry? Could this sort of writing appeal to a general, not just LDS audience, and how would we accomplish that?

There are some stories that are more narrowly focused on an LDS audience (and I’d argue BYUCK is an example of that; inside jokes only Mormons would get, mormon dialect, etc). There are some one could argue might appeal to a broader audience–Moriah Jovan’s Magdalene, Steven Peck’s Scholar of Moab.  But would they?

I’m wondering, too. What if something amazing, and literary, and focused entirely within the LDS experience (aka the Great Mormon Novel) would be considered even generally marketable by anyone. What if someone did write something along the lines of Potok’s works. Would anyone read it (and of course, *we* would. But would anyone beyond the world of LDS lit advocacy read it?)

I was thinking about how in general, people who consume LDS fiction are looking for an uplifting story that will make them feel better about their life and the challenges of being LDS in a world that’s not too kind to us. That’s often why I read it. I want an inspiring story about pioneers, or an uplifting romance (guilty) or something that makes me laugh at and love the absurdities of my culture and my life (like BYUCK, or Joni Hilton’s work).

And when we look at the audience for literary fiction, there are other issues. Is Mormonism really taken seriously enough, considered fascinating enough, to be a worthy subject of study? In general I feel like religion is out of vogue in the literary world. Maybe that’s pessimistic of me.

My question is, where is our audience? Do we have to channel things in a commercial direction, create the sorts of plots LDS readers will enjoy, in order to feed them some more complex and even controversial stuff? And if we’re trying to write to a general audience, what do we have to do to make it consumable to that audience? What have others done?  What are some success and failure stories?