Stellar Books in the LDS Fiction Constellation
By Jenny Hansen
It’s not often that I don’t know who “dun it” early on in mystery suspense novels. Flashback by J. Michael Hunter is an exception. It kept me guessing right up until the author revealed the villain.
I found myself saying, “Whoa! Were there sufficient clues?” As I thought back through the story, I realized there were. There were several clues I felt certain weren’t red herrings, and I was right, but I didn’t follow those clues far enough nor link them as thoroughly as was needed to discover the perpetrator.
Laura McClain suffers from nightmares and panic attacks. She’s nervous and insecure. When she receives a letter from an attorney informing her she has inherited her aunt’s estate, including a huge tobacco plantation and several million dollars, she hesitates to claim her inheritance.
She doesn’t want to live among strangers and leave the apartment where she has lived all of her life, first with her parents, then after their deaths with a roommate. But she suspects someone is stalking her, and her roommate is adamant that she shouldn’t turn down the fortune. The roommate also convinces her that she needs to get over her fears and that by going to the place where her mother was raised she will gain a greater sense of who she is and the experience will bolster her self-confidence.
She knows little about her parents’ background. Her father died when she was only seven and her mother chose not to talk about the past. Her mother was also very protective of her, and she has grown up sheltered, with a tendency to stick to what is familiar.
When she travels to the mansion she is about to inherit, she is confused because she knows things about the mansion that logically she shouldn’t know. An old photo album reveals what she has already begun to suspect. She’d lived in the mansion as a small child. She also begins to suspect her nightmares are actually memories. Something terrible happened in that house and she was the only witness.
The young woman, Julie, who runs an antiques shop and a young attorney, Aaron, who is almost the only other member of the Church in the community, become her friends and aid her in her attempt to resolve the mystery. Laura is so clumsy when it comes to dating, I wondered several times why Aaron would bother to keep seeking her out.
The author cleverly introduces a large number of clues, most of which lead to unraveling a portion of the mystery, but only a few point to the real villain. There are also plenty of characters to choose from who clearly could be the guilty party. The reader soon becomes as unsure as Laura concerning who can be trusted.
There are a few errors in the book that should have been caught by a proofreader, but none are large glaring problems. The pace is fast and major characters are well-developed. There is a large cast of characters, and a few of the minor characters can easily be confused. The author does an excellent job of introducing past elements that figure into the story without falling back on lengthy flashbacks that might slow down the story.
The author’s spare style keeps the action moving at a rapid pace, but doesn’t leave the reader feeling like the plot isn’t developed well enough. Mystery and suspense readers of any age or gender will love this one.
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Keeping Keller is one of those rare treasures that only occasionally come along. The book has a nice cover, but it’s not one of those that jumps out and grabs attention. The blurb on the back of the book doesn’t do the story justice either, though it’s accurate and nicely worded. There’s really no way to explain the impact this book makes without reading it. After all who wants to read a story about a six-year-old mentally handicapped child? I found it an extremely pleasant surprise.
It’s 1955 and little is known about mental handicaps. There’s a social assumption that the parents are somehow at fault and that they have an obligation to protect the public from witnessing the strange behavior, tantrums, and messiness of a mentally ill child. Most doctors recommend that “damaged” children should be placed in institutions out of sight and that the young parents should forget the “unfortunate mistake of nature” and go on with their lives as though they could forget the child exists.
Keller’s parents decide to keep their little boy. By the time he’s six, he isn’t so little and his tantrums are potentially dangerous. Beverly loves her son with all her heart, but he’s big for his age and too big for her to physically carry or restrain. She has no friends and is lonely because the people she meets at church or in the neighborhood are disgusted by her child and consider her ill-mannered to take him with her everywhere she goes. Her mother died a long time ago and she’s not close to her father or her much older brother. Sometimes her situation makes her angry or depressed. Added to her constant attendance on her son which won’t end when he comes of age and makes a life of his own, she is living in a time when women are expected to dress perfectly, have meals prepared on time, and depend on their husbands for financial support and social position. Beverly is pregnant again, scared of the future, worried about her marriage, and life seems out of control.
Warren is a good man with a fun-loving sense of humor, but he has a temper which sometimes causes him to over-react. He’s a respected businessman, he loves his wife, and takes seriously his responsibility to support his family and take care of his wife’s needs. Sometimes he’s embarrassed by his son even though he loves him. He’s also troubled by his own father who can’t quite let go of the business he’s turned over to Warren, his alcoholic mother, and a pretty secretary who isn’t subtle in her attempts to seduce him. He’s afraid he can’t protect his wife and the expected baby from Keller’s potentially negative behavior.
A careless burst of anger from Keller has tragic results. Decisions have to be made.
As I read this book I kept thinking, this child isn’t mentally retarded or insane; he’s autistic. When I finished reading the book, I read a note by the author where she states that autistic children in the fifties were frequently misdiagnosed and sent to mental hospitals as were physically handicapped children and I discovered the misdiagnose was deliberate. Often such children weren’t even segregated into children’s sections, but mingled with adults who ranged from senility to the criminally insane.
Now before I leave readers with the impression Keeping Keller is depressing or sad, I want to point out that though Keller exhibits classic autistic symptoms with his demand for routine, single-mindedness, and stubborn tantrums, this story is full of joy. Keller is a happy exuberant child. He sees the minutia of life more clearly than most people do, he knows what he wants and won’t settle for anything less, he’s really very smart and clever. He’s a child the reader will fall in love with. Perhaps the most important concept this novel explores is that of family. What does each member of a family bring to the unit? Why do some families work and some don’t? Is there a point where families can move on without one of their number? Does love have limits?
A synopsis of this book won’t do. Read it. Laugh and cry with Keller’s family, squirm a little too.
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All’s Fair by Julie Coulter Bellon has one of the most exciting covers I’ve seen on an LDS novel and the story is pretty exciting too. Though the story begins with an almost clich romance scene featuring a bride, Kristen Shepherd, fleeing the church and leaving her would-be groom waiting at the altar then being rescued by her childhood crush, I wouldn’t classify this novel as a Romance. It’s romantic suspense, true, but with the emphasis on suspense. Male readers are going to love it as much or more than female readers.
Brother and sister, Brandon and Kristen, are the leading characters. Their stories run concurrently with Brandon an Army doctor in war-torn Iraq and Kristen a political campaign expert in Massachusetts and Washington D. C. Kristen has serious doubts about her former fiance’s integrity and suspects he and his ex-wife are not only still involved with each other, but may also have terrorist links. The only person she trusts is the campaign manager of her candidate’s opponent. Brandon is also dealing with trust issues and a terrorist plot as is the woman doctor he works closely with and to whom he finds himself attracted. They soon find themselves in a situation where they must trust each other without the slightest reservation.
Terrorists, a kidnapping, international intrigue, and family dynamics all play strong roles in keeping the suspense high. Kristin’s bank account and her reputation, along with her heart are at stake, while Brandon faces even higher stakes. His life and that of the woman he is falling in love with are on the line and he must walk a narrow line between conscience and duty.
This is one of those “can’t put it down” kind of books that will appeal to many readers both male and female, young and older. I predict it is going to cost many people a lot of sleep because it’s so compelling a reader will want to finish it in one sitting. The parts of the story that take place in Iraq are accurately descriptive, complete with realistic details of everyday military life in a war zone. Bellon worked closely with a recently returned Marine to give this part authenticity. Kristin’s political campaign tactics didn’t endear her to me, and she and her father’s arm-twisting, insider pushiness may be more indicative of political maneuvering than I care to admit. Some actions in this area brought results that seemed a little too convenient to me. However their bully behavior did expedite moving the story from one location to another and was a useful indicator of their strong emotions. Kristen’s love interest didn’t seem sufficiently involved at critical points, but was merely along for the ride. Even so, I liked the characters, especially Brandon and Rachel.
There are about a half dozen copy errors or left out words that are mildly distracting, an unusually high number for a Covenant release, but overall All’s Fair is a satisfying read and one I don’t hesitate to recommend.
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On the day Alice O’Donnell is baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, she receives a powerful witness of God’s plan for her. So begins Time and Eternity by E.M. Tippetts. The reader is soon introduced to Darren, her boyfriend who is also the person who baptizes her and the young man Alice feels certain she is to marry.
Trouble arises when Darren doesn’t quite live up to her high expectations and he dumps her, leaving her confused about the answer she’d received to her prayer. Life turns chaotic as Alice ‘s father files for a divorce from her mother and her mother turns into a neurotic wreck, Darren makes her life miserable then moves away, she begins the countdown to a job transfer to another state, and she begins dating Spencer.
Spencer is handsome, considered the biggest catch in their singles ward, and honors his priesthood much better than Darren did, but something just isn’t right. Her best friend in the ward gets married and leaves the singles ward, leaving her with no friends to even sit with unless you count Darren’s former roommate, a boyish recently returned missionary who also happens to be five years her junior. Her other best friend is also her roommate and a nonmember agnostic.
Alice is a strong, likable feminine character. She’s bright, well-educated, has a good job, and is trying to make sense of the LDS dating scene. Her patience and her faith are tried to the limit. Coming from a background and lifestyle quite opposite from that of the singles ward she finds herself in, it’s more than terminology that seems a little strange to her and Alice ‘s conversion and baptism are more than strange to her roommate.
Time and Eternity is written in a light, fun style but carries a number of deeper messages dealing with being a new convert, changing lifestyles, faith, and commitment. Even though Alice ‘s parents are messed up as individuals and as a couple, it’s hard to rationalize her calm acceptance of her mother’s selfish, irresponsible behavior or why she so completely rejects her father. It would have been helpful to see more of her father’s personality sooner. My sympathies were completely with him until late in the book. It would have been helpful to know more about the reason behind Alice ‘s breakup with the boyfriend she lived with before dating Darren and getting baptized.
This novel reveals excellent writing skills, including a fine touch with both dialog and timing. The story almost sparkles and presents an interesting viewpoint on the LDS dating scene. I recommend it primarily to women and girls who enjoy romance with a touch of humor. It has a polish not often seen in first novels.
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Canadian author Tom Roulstone’s fifth book and the conclusion of his three part series, ” Passage of Promise ,” has been released. Entitled Last Wish, the book begins with the death of Ken Sanderson’s beloved wife Karen and the discovery that the men who tried to kill him and his friend Nell in England prior to his marriage to Karen is free and on his way to Canada . Nell and her fianc stop in Salt Lake for one of Nell’s performances on their way to San Francisco just before Karen’s death.
Left alone with three small children to raise and learning that Nell has disappeared, possibly been kidnapped by their old enemy, Stephen Langton, he is unsure what to do until a conversation with his father convinces him to leave the children in the care of a long-time friend and his parents while he goes to California to help the police locate Nell and on to Victoria, Canada where he suspects Langton and his oversized henchman are hiding out.
As Ken and Nell work together they both realize there is more between them than friendship, yet Ken is a recent widower mourning a wife he loved with all his heart and Nell has a fianc and a promise to her deceased husband to keep.
I love the historical details Roulstone scatters through his novels, and that holds true for this one. Details scattered through the novel of a huge ferryboat that once plied the Carquinez Strait , traveling theatrical performances, and other details of the turn of the century years in the late 1800s and early 1900s in America , Canada , and Australia are fascinating. He also does an excellent job of bringing each setting to life. The story is somewhat predictable, but is a satisfying conclusion to the series. It is well edited and will appeal strongly to history buffs of any age or gender.
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The Crayon Messages by Christine Thackeray is a skinny little book that packs a king-size message. Cath Reed moves into a new ward and instead of getting the warm welcome she’d expected from an LDS ward, she finds the women unfriendly and judgmental, especially the Relief Society secretary who seems to be in charge while the president is away.
She longs for a calling so she can meet people and be of service. She gets a visiting teaching calling that doesn’t feel right. The Relief Society secretary tells her to just send a monthly letter to her assigned sisters and not make actual visits. She’s also assigned a partner with a sleeping sickness who lives in a nursing home, a woman who sleeps for days and weeks at a time, rarely waking up, and who cannot leave the facility.
Cath makes up her mind to visit her assigned sisters anyway, and if any of the women request no further visits, then she’ll do the letters. First though, she decides to visit her partner. She’s appalled by the bleak, bare room the woman sleeps in and decides to leave messages drawn in crayon tacked to the walls so that on the rare occasions the woman awakens, she’ll know someone visited her and cares.
In the weeks and months to come she befriends some of the women, faces challenges involving her children, discovers a wonderful organ, and adjusts to her new surroundings and an absent husband whose job requires a great deal of travel. Something about the sleeping woman draws Cath to her, and the people she meets seem to be drawn to the woman too. Sometimes when she visits the nursing home, she learns the woman has been awake and has written responses to Cath’s pictures and notes.
There are a few awkward transitions in this book and it could have been better copy-edited, but overall, it is a heartwarming and uplifting story. It touched something within me and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. It did remind me of someone very dear to me who has a visiting teaching companion who has Alzheimer’s and they visit a sister suffering from the same malady. Needless to say, the conversations get a bit confusing, but the association is cherished. This book will appeal primarily to women, young and old.
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Please take time to nominate your favorite 2008 novels for the Whitney awards. Nominate all of your favorites at http://www.whitneyawards.com/nominations.php
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Flashback by J. Michael Hunter, published by Covenant Communications, soft cover, 245 pages, $15.95
Keeping Keller by Tracy Winegar, published by Bonneville Books, soft cover, 203 pages, $14.99
All’s Fair by Julie Coulter Bellon, published by Covenant Communications, soft cover, 185 pages, $14.95
Time and Eternity by E. M. Tippetts, published by Covenant Communications, soft cover, 229 pages, $15.95
Last Wish by Tom Roulstone, published by Covenant Communications, soft cover, 240 pages, $15.95
The Crayon Messages by Christine Thackeray, published by Cedar Fort, soft cover, 118 pages, $10.99.