Wm writes: Every year since 2000, Andrew Hall has put together a Year in Review for all of the major genres of Mormon letters. AMV is pleased to bring you Andrew’s Year in Review for 2008. Today — a look at the Mormon market for books. Read the other entries in the series.
Andrew Hall’s Mormon Literature Year in Review — Part II: Mormon market books
There was a slight drop in the number of fiction books published by Mormon publishing houses in 2008, from 94 in 2007 to 86 in 2008. The dip was due largely to a decrease in the number of books published by independent publishers, such as Cedar Fort, the third largest publisher. Covenant and Deseret Book, which are now both owned by the Church, published slightly more novels in 2008 than they did in 2007. As a result, the Covenant/Deseret Book combination published 65% of the novels in the Mormon market in 2008. That is up from 56% in 2007, and around 50% in the five years before that. I have heard from some independent publishers that Deseret Book’s bookstore division makes it difficult for them to get even standard Mormon-themed novels onto their shelves. That is a very disconcerting trend. In any case, it is a good bet that the total number of Mormon fiction titles will go down again in 2009, because of the dip in the economic outlook.
The one independent publisher working against the trend is Leatherwood Press, a new actor in the Mormon fiction market based in Sandy, Utah. Leatherwood was founded in late 2004 by former Deseret and Doubleday editor Timothy Robinson with business partner Garry Mitchell. In its first years Leatherwood focused on self-help and children’s picture books, among others. It published its first four fiction titles in 2008. Among those was Anna Jones Buttimore’s Easterfield, a romance and missionary novel set in England in 1850. Jeannie Hansen, at Meridian Magazine, wrote, “The story is set in the same time period as the Bronte sisters’ books, though the style is lighter and more reminiscent of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice . . . This is a tight, well-written story with charming, versatile characters and a plot that flows smoothly. Readers of Buttimore’s earlier books found them thought-provoking, but the pacing a little slow. This book is also thought-provoking, but is paced just right for a highly satisfying read. It also has moments of delightful humor. Careful attention is given to the customs, prejudices, and manners of the time period.” Leatherwood also picked up Joyce DiPastena’s Loyalty’s Web, which had previously appeared as a self-published novel, and was nominated for a Whitney Award in the Romance/Women’s Fiction category.
I have great hope for two independent Mormon publishers who specialize in more adventurous literary titles, Zarahemla Books, owned by Chris Bigelow, and Parables Publishing, owned by Elizabeth Bentley. Zarahemla published six literary works in 2006-2007, nearly all of which received considerable critical support. Bigelow has told me that he became busy with free-lance work in 2008, and was able to publish only one novel, Eugene Woodbury’s Angel Falling Softly. Bigelow has several projects lined up for 2009, however, including new novels by Douglas Thayer and Todd Robert Petersen, and perhaps an anthologies of Mormon short fiction and Mormon theatre.
Woodbury’s Angel Falling Softly created a great deal of conversation among Mormon reviewers, who either loved or hated the book. A horror/fantasy, it tells the story of a Utah Mormon family reeling from a daughter’s life-threatening illness. The mother discovers a mysterious neighbour woman is a vampire. William Morris at A Motley Vision wrote, “What’s remarkable about Angel Falling Softly isn’t just that Eugene does something new with vampire tropes . . . or that he provides a complex, touching portrait of a Mormon mother desperately trying to save her terminally ill child. It’s that he weaves these elements together with well-deployed literary (often Biblical) allusions and quotations that add substance to the questions raised about belief, redemption, desire, sin and death. The novel is insistently literary while being solidly genre-based. Sounds pretty cool, right? And yet what most amazed me is that he pulls it all off without violating the supernatural and metaphysical boundaries of Mormonism or of the vampire genre. Which is not to say that the story is believable – it’s fantasy – but rather that by enforcing (and pushing against) these boundaries, he plays the two worlds against each other in way that maximizes reading pleasure and says something new about the Mormon experience.” Doug Gibson of the Ogden Standard-Examiner wrote, “[It] may surprise LDS readers looking for genre fiction. There are a few erotic, semi-explicit sex scenes. They’re not distasteful though. The erotic passion in Woodbury’s tale underscores the desperation of the two protagonists, Milada and Rachel . . . Passion and the supernatural are writing strengths for Woodbury. Unfortunately, a tendency to indulge in minutiae may weary readers. Much of “Angel Falling Softly” is devoted to an attempted takeover of a medical research film. Financial detail after financial detail is recounted. There’s nothing wrong with the writing and the financial subplot is integral to the tale, but it slows the pace of the main plot of Milada and Rachel conspiring to keep Jennifer alive.” Several Mormons with conservative tastes have written that they were offended or put off by the descriptions of sex in the book, but others have said Woodbury presented the sex in a tasteful way, appropriate to the plot of the book.
Parables Publishing produced only one novel in 2008, Angela Hallstrom’s Bound on Earth. I have not heard of any upcoming works in the pipeline for Parables, so I am not as sure of their immediate future as I am of Zarahemla. Their one novel, however, was excellent, one of the finest Mormon literary works I have ever read. Levi Peterson wrote, “It is the history of an extended Mormon family. Composed of vignettes, the novel advances from the present into the future, retreats momentarily to the past, or works laterally to include nearly simultaneous episodes. The point of view shifts deftly among a widowed grandmother, her son and daughter-in-law, their three daughters and their husbands. The style is strong and functional, unerring in its cadence and nicely balanced between the formal and the colloquial. The subtle background to this novel is the Mormon world view, established without preaching or assumptions of superiority. But it presents a far from idealized vision of reality. By moments the members of this extended family writhe with conflict, tension, depression, self-pity, and misbehavior. The attempts of the strong willed mother to guide and intervene often disrupt rather than heal. Her husband nearly succumbs to the veiled allurement of a seductive sister in their ward. A teen aged daughter conceives a baby out of wedlock. Another daughter is distraught by the birth of a fourth son, deeply disappointed that she has not at last borne a daughter. Yet another daughter marries-and determines to stay with-a bi-polar husband who periodically lapses into abuse. Yet ultimately their underlying bond with one another-their willingness to affirm whoever claims a place among them-triumphs. Though bound on earth, this is a family that will endure in eternity.” Jennie Hansen wrote, “Many of the stories or incidents in the book are somewhat depressing, yet the overall scope of the book is one of hope and faith in the family’s ability to endure. It is a strong reminder that every family is tested in this life in various ways . . . Hallstrom’s style is simple and direct, yet as much of the story appears between the lines as in the printed words. Hallstrom displays a strong literary bent in her ability to get the most from words and to evoke deep human emotions. Her characters are not stereotypical, yet they evoke a sense of ‘Everyman.’ The characters are the story and there’s very little actual plot. I thoroughly recommend this book to all who are looking for deeper literary meaning in their fiction and a slight journey off the beaten path.” I adored the book-loved the characters, loved the writing, and loved the tone. She combines the traditionally Mormon themes of faith and family with literary excellence. For that, she could be one of the great authors of Mormon fiction in the coming years. Hallstrom is also the editor of the Mormon literary journal Irreantum, which gives her a certain degree of literary clout in the field.
Covenant published 35 novels in 2008, which has been about the norm there since 2003. The most popular Covenant author for the last decade has been romance author Anita Stansfield, who produced three novels in 2008. Covenant has also published many thrillers (usually with a strong romance angle), and historical fiction based on ancient scripture.
In the category of thrillers, among the best reviewed books were Traci Hunter Abramson’s spy novels Free Fall and Royal Target (Hansen: “The author’s simple, direct style packs a strong wallop.”), N. C. Allen’s 19th century-era thriller Isabelle Webb: Legend of the Jewel, (Hansen: The historical elements of the story are fascinating and show a great deal of careful research. I found myself completely engrossed in the action portion of the story, which is the greater part of the book, but I found the slowly developing love story deeply satisfying as well), Stephanie Black’s Marry Higgins Clark-style thriller Fool Me Twice (Hansen: “Like Clark, Stephanie Black plays her characters and the readers as intricately as a fine musician. Although none of the characters can be defined as all good or all bad, their positive and negative qualities are essential to the story. The gradual change in characters as they become stronger or more evil is handled with precision.”), and Sandra Grey’s World War II novel Traitor (Hansen: “One of those rare books [that] kept me reading far into the night until I reached the conclusion. I thought I’d had enough of World War II novels, but this one held me spellbound . . . The background behind this novel is well-researched, the major characters are well-developed, the pacing is fine-tuned, the romance is touching without over-shadowing the other plot elements, and the plot is multi-dimensional, complicated, and compelling.”).
In the category of scriptural/historical fiction, Toni Sorenson, a previous winner of the AML Novel Award, produced Master, a fictionalized account of Jesus Christ’s mortal ministry, told through the eyes of a fictional character presented as a servant of Mary and Joseph’s family. Jennie Hansen wrote, “Reading this book is a spiritually satisfying adventure. Almon is a well developed, complex character whose growth adds depth and insight to the story. The well known characters from the New Testament are fleshed out enough to feel real, but not so much as to make the reader feel they have become made up people.” H. B. (Heather) Moore wrote Abinadi, the first in a new series about mid-period Book of Mormon prophets. She portrays Abinadi as a young husband and father, with a whole life to loose, rather than the old man found in the Arnold Friberg painting. Hansen wrote, “I was expecting something lighter and more romantic than this book proves to be. This one holds drama and excitement, reveals serious research, an understanding of a mature commitment to God, and the ability to speak directly of the sins and excesses of King Noah’s court and is, by far, Moore’s most outstanding work to date”. David G. Woolley produced the fourth in his Promised Land series of Book of Mormon novels, entitled Day of Remembrance. He continues with the tale of Lehi in the wilderness, but also weaves in a story of a 19th century Russian Jewish family, as well as a fictional portrayal of Joseph Smith. Hansen wrote, “The story is compelling, but the interwoven day to day picture that is painted of historic events and the everyday business of life brings the story a depth of reality not often found with such richness in historical fiction . . . But more than that, Day of Remembrance provides an intense spiritual journey for the reader.”
Another notable book from Covenant is E. M. Tippets’ Time and Eternity, a novel about a young woman who joins the Church and learns to navigate the Mormon dating scene. Hansen wrote, “Written in a light, fun style but carries a number of deeper messages dealing with being a new convert, changing lifestyles, faith, and commitment . . . 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.”
Deseret Book published 21 books in 2008, three more than in 2007, and more than ever in its history. Ten of the 21 were published by Shadow Mountain, Deseret Book’s imprint for national novels (which contain little to no specifically Mormon content). This was a large uptick in national novels, twice as much as Deseret has ever done in the past. As mentioned above, these included four young adult fantasy novels and Jason Wright’s Recovering Charles. It also included two novels by women’s fiction author Rachel Nunes, Fields of Home and Eyes of a Stranger.
Of the eleven novels published by the traditional Deseret Book imprint, the most popular were Chris Stewart’s From the End of Heaven and Clear as the Moon, the fifth and sixth volumes of his end-of-days series “The Great and Terrible”. The series followed a group of characters from the pre-existence through a series of last-days scenarios, wrapping up with the sixth volume. The series got off to a bumpy start in 2003, with a first volume set in the pre-existence that many Mormon critics saw as deeply flawed in structure and style. After that, however, the series took flight. Jeff Needle wrote, “Stewart brings to the world of LDS fiction a steady and professional hand, always in control of his story, always aware that real people with real families and real concerns will be reading these books. His tale is one of caution, but not of despair. He raises some frightening scenarios, but also sees redemption behind the dark clouds. As often as he deflates you and sends chills through your body, he also reminds us that, if we could just part the veil, we would see the hand of God behind the events that surround us. There’s no fanaticism here, only a certainty that good will ultimately triumph over evil. This is a great series overall. I’m just blown away by it — honestly. Once Stewart begins his tale in mortality, he grabs you by the throat and never lets go. I honestly believe that readers of LDS fiction will discover in this series a rare find, despite the occasional flaw.” Jeannie Hansen wrote, “I loved seeing women finally playing really strong roles and I liked seeing strong, patriotic, moral leaders who were both members and non-members of the Church. I was completely hooked on the fast-paced action and feel a little sad that this series has ended. For all those who prefer to wait until a series is complete before starting to read it, go purchase volume one, and begin. This is a highly satisfying series and though I wasn’t enamored of volume one, the succeeding volumes have proved to be one of the most exciting series around.” Stewart, a former Air Force pilot, had written several military thrillers for the national market before he began writing for Deseret Book in 2003. He produced a nationally published book in 2008, The God of War, about an advanced jet fighter stolen from the US Air Force. Critics have said that the scenes in the air are rousing, but the book dragged whenever the characters touched down on solid earth.
Other notable books from Deseret Book include Dean Hughes’ Promises to Keep: Diane’s Story, which follows up on one of the characters introduced in Hughes’ Hearts of the Children series, and James Ferrell’s The Holy Secret, which, like his previous novel The Peacegiver, is essentially a devotional essay written in a narrative fiction form.
Finally, the LDS fiction world lost a prolific author in November, when Ron Carter passed away. Carter, a lawyer by profession, published his first work of fiction at the age of 56, in 1988. His best known work is the nine-volume Prelude To Glory series, a historical fiction series set during the American Revolutionary War.