Books are a favorite Christmas gift, both to give and to receive. This year has produced some wonderful LDS fiction choices which will make a lot of people happy. Each year I compile a list of books to recommend for Christmas gift giving. These are all new books published this year. Some have already been reviewed and the full review can be found under Books in Meridian’s archive.
Two books Ill mention are Christmas books written to help get us in the mood or spirit of Christmas.
The first pre-Christmas book I recommend is Mysterious Ways by B J Rowley. Richard lost his wife and children in a terrible accident, leaving him despondent, angry, and filled with self-pity. The approach of Christmas doesn’t spark any enthusiasm or concern for his co-workers, the beggars he sees in the grocery store parking lot, or even Stacie, a divorced friend who could become more than a friend. A harrowing experience at the hands of prison escapees opens his eyes so that he sees Stacie in a new light. At her insistence, he opens his home at Christmas to a homeless family and gets more than he bargained for, including a deeper perspective of Christmas and a personal testimony that “God moves in mysterious ways, His wonders to perform.” Rowley’s style is warm and realistic, the story is carefully plotted to spring a new twist each time the reader thinks he/she has it figured out, and the satisfying conclusion leaves the reader wanting to treasure moments with loved ones and hold them close.
The second, Christmas Jars by Jason Wright, was reviewed in depth last month by Catherine K. Arveseth. It’s a story of small sacrifices bringing great rewards. There are similarities in this story with which many people, such as those who collect change all year, then fill their pockets with the coins to drop in the Salvation Army kettles as they Christmas shop can identify.
History buffs have a number of choices they’ll want to own. A Banner is Unfurled by Marcie Gallacher and Kerri Robinson and Til the Boys Come Home by Jerry Borrowman both have wide appeal and have already been reviewed. So too have three lighter historicals with a romantic twist, House on the Hill by Annette Lyon, Forget Me Not by Michele Ashman Bell, and my own The Bracelet.
Another historical novel dealing with the U.S. Civil War period in the west is Heroes of Glorieta Pass by Brad E. Hainsworth and Richard Vetterli. In this book the Confederacy sends an army of Texas volunteers into the New Mexico Territory to keep the Santa Fe Trail open and engage any Union forces in the area.
This places Brigham Young and the Mormons in a difficult position. They sympathize with the Union, but don’t want to be drawn into the war while they are engaged in expanding their own network of settlements. A lawless element within the ranks of the Confederates overruns their officers and a Mormon settlement suffers a bloodbath. This brings in Clay Ashworth, a non-Mormon rancher and Porter Rockwell. This book cuts a wide swath across the Southwest, includes a lot of western style adventure, and even has a small amount of romance. Those who enjoy slightly gritty westerns will love the Heroes of Glorieta Pass.
Another historical novel that impressed me is Eyes of a Stranger by Carol Warburton. It also has a distinctly western flavor to it though it takes place in Mexico. Twin boys are born to a peasant girl who is secretly wed to the son of a wealthy landowner in Chihuahua, Mexico. When he leaves for Mexico City to obey his father’s orders to marry a wealthy heiress, the abandoned wife returns to her brother’s run-down shack. Unable to care for both babies, she gives one to her brother to take to the padre to find someone to nurse him. Instead, he takes the infant to a Mormon woman. Ricardo is raised as a son to a childless polygamous wife and doesn’t really become aware he is different from the other young men in the colony until he reaches his late teens and finds his race makes him unacceptable as a suitor or member of the community in some quarters. Quite by accident, he discovers a young man who looks just like him. The young men discover they are brothers, but opposites in most of the ways that really matter. He also discovers a young woman who has been his loyal friend all along and the faith he has been taught by his adoptive mother helps him rise above bigotry, suspicion, banditos, the father who never knew he existed, and a brother who can’t be trusted. This is the kind of sweeping epic only a master storyteller can tell, and Sister Warburton is that kind of storyteller.
Mystery and suspense adventures are currently the most popular form of LDS fiction. Most include some of the elements of romance, though the focus is on the adventure. The mystery and suspense readers on anyone’s shopping list are going to be pleased with any of this year’s bumper crop. Standoff by Jeff Downs, No Way Out by Christine Kersey, Mirror Image by Clair M. Poulson, On the Edge by Julie Coulter Bellon, and Out of the Shadows by Candace Salima are all outstanding and were reviewed earlier.
Add to that House of Secrets, A Shandra Covington Mystery by Jeffrey S. Savage. This is the first book in what is to be a hardback mystery series featuring Shandra Covington, an accomplished journalist whose first case involves an abandoned house which she inherited from her grandmother. Everything in the house is covered in dust, including a dead body. This exciting murder mystery is reminiscent of several mainstream mystery series written by authors such as Sue Grafton, Patricia Cornwell, Karen Robards, and Janet Evanovich. It’s written equally well, but doesn’t contain the vulgar language or sexual innuendos that are liberally sprinkled through the mainstream mysteries. The style is fresh and crisp and the plot is convoluted enough to keep readers guessing right up to the end. This series is a must for adventure lovers.
Poison by Betsy Brannon Green is a Haggerty novel that delivers suspense, Southern charm in a tropical setting, Miss Eugenia at her sleuthing best, and a generous helping of murder and greed. Like all of Green’s Haggerty novels, the crime is investigated officially by the proper law enforcement people, but the real investigation is undertaken by a little old lady, abetted and hindered by her circle of Haggerty friends. In Hawaii for a wedding, the ladies are invited to spend their vacation at a seaside estate owned by an aging, but famous movie star and her handsome, younger husband. When the actress’s secretary is poisoned, a beautiful cheesecake sent anonymously to the actress is discovered to be laced with poison, the question is, who was the intended victim? Poison is definitely a “can’t put it down” kind of book.
Lynn Gardner serves up her own version of poison in Topaz and Treachery. This time it’s hidden in a delightful chocolate mousse. (Between Green and Gardner they recently almost spoiled a lovely chocolate dessert for me at a recent awards banquet.) Bart and Allison are once more globe-hopping as Anastasia agents, this time to Greece and the Greek Islands, to solve a mystery involving a topaz necklace that contains the clues to a hidden Nazi treasure trove. In competition for the gemstones and the treasure they lead to are members of a worldwide terrorist organization, who do not hesitate to murder any of the elderly World War II resistance fighters who are trying to get the stones to Anastasia. Some readers may have trouble with the risks a very pregnant mother-to-be takes in this story, but Allison is convinced that she wouldn’t have been allowed to become involved if the case weren’t of monumental importance. For those who are fans of fast action and a healthy dose of the history and art of the Mediterranean area, this book is a delight.
Three of the best comic novels I’ve ever read appeared this year. Any or all of them would make great gifts. They are Mummy’s the Word by Kerry Blair, Chickens in the Headlights by Matthew Buckley, and Wake Me When It’s Over by Robison Wells. Complete reviews of these books can be found in the Archives.
Social issues and romance have become tightly linked in recent years in fiction. Life isn’t Always a Fairy-Tale by Julie Wright, The Secret Journal of Brett Colton by Kay Lynn Mangun, and Remember No More by Pamela Reid all fall in this category. Far Away Child by Amy Maida Wadsworth and The Ten-Cow Wives’ Club by Joni Hilton are exceptions. Though these last two are powerful stories dealing with love, it isn’t the romantic variety.
Go in Beauty by Michael Fillerup is another social issues book that is not a romance. It takes the reader to a Navajo Indian reservation along with Max and his wife, Melissa. Max is hired to teach at the Indian school and on the first Sunday on the reservation he is called to be the bishop of the small ward there – with Melissa to be the Relief Society president. Surrounded by heat, blowing sand, stark vistas, superstition, language and customs that seem entirely foreign, the young couple struggle to encourage the Navajo children to learn to read and understand English and to build up their unusual ward. The few other white people at the school seem to do more to discourage learning than to help the students and abuse is rampant. Many members of the struggling ward seem unable to separate Gospel truths from centuries of superstitious practices.
A terrible tragedy drives Max from the reservation for a time and destroys his idealism, but eventually he finds he must return to the reservation. Though filled with fascinating information about a way of life unfamiliar to most of us, the overuse of Navajo words and terms serves as a distraction. The plunge into darkness that the idealistic young Max falls into feels excessive and the sense that life among the Navajo is timeless and that nothing ever really changes is somewhat pessimistic. Though the author’s attempt at realism often translates to negativism, the book makes a strong social statement concerning people and a way of life that is generally unseen, yet is a strong component of the overall makeup of America. This is a book that should find its way into the stockings of those concerned with the Native American way of life, missionary work, and the Southwest.
Another novel that portrays a negative reality is Fire Creek, by Nathan Keonaona Chai. It is the inspiration behind a motion picture with the same title. It begins with a young soldier in Afghanistan who hears a warning no one else hears. Don’t stand up.” He obeys the voice, but his best friend doesn’t hear the warning, stands, and is killed.
Though injured physically, the young man is more severely scarred emotionally than physically and is caught up in a never ending question of “why.” Why was he spared? Why didn’t his friend, a married man with small children, hear the voice? He arrives home to a grubby little mining town, where he has nothing to do and no hope for his future other than a monthly disability check. He alienates his girl friend, but gradually gets pulled into befriending the young son of a man who has come home to die and a cheerleader sort of guy who struggles to carve out his own existence and sense of worth, separate from his domineering, controlling father. As Jason gradually puts away his self-pity and guilt, he takes up his young friend’s fight and in the process learns life still has purpose and his own life has worth. Though many aspects of this story are depressing, the message ultimately is of hope. Readers are left with a sense that through losing one’s self in service to others, new life and purpose can be found.
Several note-worthy romantic social issues books are sure to please romance fans. As with most romance novels, the endings are predictable from the first of the book, but the journey is what matters.
Jewel Adams has written a noteworthy short romance called Mercedes’ Mountain. This is the story of a successful black woman, daughter of a preacher, who at the age of forty leaves her successful business and her controlling parents behind in New York to start over in a small rural North Carolina community. She discovers a world vastly different from New York City and the black community she has grown up in. Not only does she discover nature and all its beauties, along with peace and quiet, but she meets a remarkable man like none she’s ever known before. Though they soon realize the depth of their feelings for each other, it takes longer to gain the courage to tell her family of her engagement to a man she knows her family, especially her father will not accept. Though the first half of the book moves a little too slowly and the romantic interludes seem a bit melodramatic, the story is a beautifully told tale of an interracial romance told from the perspective of a black woman.
Rachel Nunes has written a fascinating story of a man held back from pursuing his career to the fullest by doubts and fears, who suddenly becomes the guardian of a thirteen-month-old baby girl when her parents, his closest friends, are killed in a tragic accident. The baby’s aunt, a successful photographer at the peak of her career, is devastated to learn her sister is dead and her only living relative, baby Emily Jane, has been given to a stranger, a single Mormon man, to raise. No Longer Strangers could have deteriorated into a silly tug-of-war over the child between two people who want sole custody of her, but Nunes has skillfully examined what lengths someone who loves a child will go to in order to ensure that child’s best interests.
She also proposes enigmas that many people face in choosing between career fulfillment and the needs of a child and she looks at motives, other than testimony, for joining the Church, along with balancing one positive against another. Though Nunes’ style is simple and direct, the questions she raises are not so simple and raise some thought-provoking points. I found her use of nicknames an unnecessary distraction; others found the device charming. The background information given on the Amazon and of various kinds of wildlife is exceptionally well done and adds a richness to the story. Overall, I would advise those with a romance fan on their gift list, to wrap this one up.
As usual there are new volumes out in several popular and well-written series. I won’t go into detail on those I have already reviewed a previous book in the series. Those who already have the first two volumes of The Great and the Terrible by Chris Stewart will want the new third volume, The Second Sun. Dean Hughes has concluded the Hearts of the Children series with vol. 5 So Much of Life Ahead. Ron Carter’s By the Dawn’s Early Light, part of the Prelude to Glory series has just been released. Kingdoms and Conquerors by Chris Heimerdinger is Book Ten of the ever popular Tennis Shoes series Book of Mormon fantasy. The research and vivid depiction of the animosity between Nephites and Lamanites bring color and a sense of “being there” to the waning days of this great conflict just as most of us are reaching that period in our own reading of the Book of Mormon as we conclude the challenge President Hinckley gave us to read it before the end of this year.
Those who accepted the challenge to read the Book of Mormon before the end of the year might also want to follow up with the Out of Jerusalem series by H.B. Moore. Though written in a simple style, appropriate for even young readers, adults will also enjoy the well-researched explanations of the customs of the desert people who lived in the wilderness Lehi and his family traversed for eight years before setting sail for the promised land. Volume two, A Light in the Wilderness, is much better written than volume one, Of Goodly Parents; it is also much more highly fictionalized. As is always the case with fictionalized history, the reader must be aware the events in this story are the result of the author’s imagination concerning what might have happened, based loosely on the abbreviated account given in First Nephi. It is not necessarily what actually did happen. The women in this series, so far have been rather bland which disappointed me coming from a female author. The series strong points are the vivid detail of the desert and the explanations of Jewish, Arab, and Bedouin customs and culture.
A new genre has been showing up in LDS fiction with increasing frequency – one that is difficult to write and make fit into LDS beliefs and expectations – and that is science fiction/fantasy. One of the best new LDS fiction writers to appear this year chose to debut in this genre. Stephanie Black’s The Believer is superbly written, giving us a glimpse of a rising star. Set in the future, this high suspense tale, is the classic story of choosing between agency and strict control to ensure orderliness, good versus evil. Highly developed technology, the introduction of forbidden so-called myths, loyalty to self, family, and country are all brought into play with great skill. The varied twists and turns will bring every emotion into play and the ending will leave a stunning impact on the reader. Science fiction, fantasy, suspense, and mystery readers will love this one. Buy two; you’ll want to keep one for yourself.