2010 Mormon Literature Year in Review:
By Andrew Hall
Part 1: National Market, 2010
(Note: I am now posting at Dawning of a Brighter Day, the blog of the Association for Mormon Letters, a weekly column covering the world of Mormon literature. The focus is on published fiction, but I also cover theater and film. I also link to recently published literary works, news, and reviews. I hope to make the brief column a convenient gathering place for authors and readers to announce and follow news about the field each week.)
Mormon authors continue to enlarge their presence in the fields of nationally-published young adult and middle grade novels. Brandon Sanderson is becoming a leading light in the epic fantasy genre. Stephanie Meyer published another bestselling book. Glenn Beck sold nearly as many novels as he did non-fiction. I appreciate the width and depth of the work that Mormon authors are producing, and feel tribal pride in their success. But only a small percentage of the nationally published novels Mormons are producing what can be called adult literature. And only a miniscule amount of these novels specifically address Mormon doctrine, culture, or history. Brady Udall is a nationally recognized literary craftsman of the highest order. The fact that he has taken his skill and used it to explore a subject fundamental to the history of Mormonism, and did it with such skill, humor, and charity, thrills me to the core. For these reasons, without a doubt the 2010 Mormon novel of the year was Brady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist.
Okay, The Lonely Polygamist is about a tiny fundamentalist sect in southern Utah, not about modern Mormonism. But as Udall wrote “Whether we like it or not, polygamy is not only a part of our past, it’s part of our present, our scripture and theology, which both suggest it will be part of our future. If we are to respect our heritage and be honest about who we are as a people, we must acknowledge polygamy’s place in our church and culture.”
The novel is a darkly comic family drama about Golden Richards, a bumbling, insecure polygamist patriarch with four wives and 28 children, who feels increasingly disconnected from his family after the death of a child. The point-of-view rotates between Golden, Trish, the fourth wife, and Rusty, a misfit eleven-year old son. Here are some comments from reviews: “It is funny, it can be moving, it is ambitious and it is tender about man’s endless absurdities and failings” (NY Times). “Udall’s story has some of the whimsy of John Nichols’s The Milagro Beanfield War but all the complexity of a Tolstoyan or even Faulknerian production—and one of the most satisfying closing lines in modern literature, too” (Kirkus Review). “The Lonely Polygamist is a great novel. Is it a perfect novel? No–but I doubt a perfect novel exists, and this was one of the best novels I’ve read in the past few years. I had a few very small quibbles with the book: the main character, Golden’s, ineffectuality got a little wearisome at times, and I’m not entirely satisfied with the ending. But the tremendous scope of the book, the lovely prose, the masterful handling of multiple points-of-view, the emotional openness–this is a book that will have you laughing and crying–makes this novel worthy of a five star rating. There’s a generous helping of language and sex, so not all Mormon readers will be comfortable with the novel. That said, anyone interested in serious study of Mormon literature must read this title” (Angela Hallstrom). It has been named on several year-end list of 2010 best books, including Publishers Weekly Best 10 Books, Kirkus Review’s Best Fiction Top 25 and MacLean’s Top 20 Books. Entertainment Weekly named it the best novel of 2010, saying, “it is packed with more heart, more humor, more tragedy, and ultimately more hope than any other novel published this year.”
I count 29 young nationally-published adult/middle grade novels by Mormon authors published in 2009, up from 23 in 2010. The number is so large that the Whitney Awards committee recently decided to split the YA category into YA General and YA Speculative. Paranormal romance and retold fairy tales continue to be leading genres for Mormon authors, following in the wake of Stephanie Meyer and Shannon Hale. Additionally, the success of Susan Collins’ Hunger Games series has produced a surge in dystopian novels over the last two years. 2010 saw the release of the first of Ally Condie’s Matched series, as well as The Scorch Trials, the second in a dystopian series written by James Dashner. A middle grade dystopian novel, Kristen Landon’s The Limit, also appeared, and two other YA dystopian series, by Elana Johnson and Rob Wells, will debut in 2011.
Ally Condie’s Matched may be the biggest hyped YA novel of 2010, coming off furious bidding among publishers and studios for the manuscript and film rights. While it would be hard for any book to meet those expectations, reviews have been very strong. A starred review in Kirkus stated, “Condie peels back layer after dystopic layer at breakneck speed, Dylan Thomas reverberating throughout . . . Detractors will legitimately cite less-than-subtle morality and similarities to The Giver , but this one’s a fierce, unforgettable page-turner in its own right.” The Wall Street Journal wrote, “That Matched works so well is due partly to the author’s even, measured prose. The cool clarity of Cassie’s voice eerily suits the watchful, unfree Society she inhabits . . . But the book’s greatest appeal lies in Ms. Condie’s ability to capture—in a way that is completely appropriate for adolescent girls—the intensity of young love.” Two persistent criticisms are that the story feels to similar to Lois Lowry’s The Giver, and the ending left too much unresolved. Matched was one of 21 novels on Publishers Weekly 2010 Best Children’s Fiction. Mormon readers might be interested to see that Condie is able to garner great national interest and respect, while still keeping the book as content “clean” as any of her previous Mormon novels.
James Dashner’s The Scorch Trials is the sequel to the 2009 novel The Maze Runner, and tells the story of a group of boys forced into a struggle for their lives by an oppressive future government, similar to The Hunger Games. Kirkus Review wrote, “Taut and bleak, continually intriguing and surprising, this is a solid sequel that keeps . . . readers wondering what is really going on.” VOYA called it “chilling and heart-stopping”, but Publishers Weekly wrote, “the narrative bogs down under the weight of unanswered questions”. Barnes and Noble named it as one of its ten Best of 2010-Teen Books. Dashner also produced The Blade of Shattered Hope, the third in a middle grade fantasy series, for Shadow Mountain, the national imprint of Deseret Book. Interestingly, the Deseret Book retail chain declined to stock The Scorch Trials (published by Delacorte) in its stores, stating, “it contains language some of our customers would find offensive, as this book is targeted to teenagers.”
Besides their shared genre, another connection between Condie and Dashner is that they first published novels in the Mormon market before moving up to national market publishers. Condie wrote five Mormon-themed YA novels for Deseret Book, and Dashner began with a four-book fantasy series for Cedar Fort. One might think many more authors would go through this route, using the Mormon market as a kind of minor league training ground. But in fact, of the many 2010 Mormon fiction authors writing for New York City houses, only James Dashner, Ally Condie, Dean Hughes, and Janette Rallison started in the Mormon market. All of the rest published their first novels nationally. Next year Robison Wells will add to the number making that leap.
Before diving into the rest of the young adult/middle grade authors, mostly females, let’s look at some of the male speculative fiction authors. Brandon Sanderson has solidified his place as a leading figure in the world of fantasy, producing three books in 2010 and reaching the top of the bestseller lists. He achieved superstar status in 2009 with the publication of the first of his three books which make up the final chapter of the late Robert Jordan’s wildly popular Wheel of Time series. The second volume, Towers of Midnight, debuted at #1 on the New York Times Hardcover Fiction list, and is one of the bestselling novels of the year. He also produced Alcatraz Versus the Shattered Lens, the fourth and final volume of his juvenile comic adventure series. Finally, he began a 10-part epic fantasy series of his own with the novel The Way of the Kings. A review in VOYA stated, “The Way of Kings offers fans of epic fantasy lush illustrations enhancing the story, a unique world with a variety of races, a complex historical background adding a good mix of clarity and confusion to the current story line, and a conflict with more shades of gray than black or white . . . A good mix of military action, political machinations, faith-based intrigue, and personal drama keep the pages turning.”
Orson Scott Card began a new time-travel trilogy with the YA novel Pathfinder. The epic novel mixes fantasy and science fiction tropes in a fascinatingly complex way. A starred review at Booklist said, “Card’s latest title has much in common with his Ender Wiggins books: precocious teens with complementary special talents, callously manipulative government authorities, endlessly creative worlds, and Card’s refusal to dumb down a plot for a young audience . . . Fast paced and thoroughly engrossing, the 650-plus pages fly by, challenging readers to care about and grasp sophisticated, confusing, and captivating ideas. As in L’Engle’s Time Quartet, science is secondary to the human need to connect with others, but Card does not shy away from full and fascinating discussions of the paradoxical worlds he has created.”
The first two volumes in Dan Wells horror/fantasy thriller John Cleaver series, which were released first in Britain, were published in the United States in 2010. They tell the story of a teenaged sociopath who struggles to direct his violent instincts towards constructive ends, and lie on the border between YA and adult horror. The second volume, Mr. Monster, was reviewed in the School Library Journal, “Intelligent, self-aware, observant, John is a unique protagonist who inspires fear or sympathy at any given moment. His battle for control over his own violent nature manages to trump the external demon dangers, which–in this compelling, quick-paced, and chilling read–is a definite feat.” Many reviews note that although the series contains elements of horror, it deals seriously with mental illness. Also, although there is violence, the first volume won a Whitney award in 2009, and I have seen many conservative Mormon bloggers write enthusiastically about the books, so apparently Wells has pulled off the impressive feat of writing truly scary, creepy horror novels, without offending at least some Mormon readers.
Two authors produced the fifth volumes of their respective fantasy series in 2010, Brandon Mull with the final book in his Fablehaven series, and James A. Owen with the fifth of his seven book Imaginarium Geographica series. Mull, who was published by Shadow Mountain, has been among the most popular Mormon fantasy authors of the past five years. He will begin a new series, published by Simon & Schuster, in 2011. Another YA veteran, Obert Skye, produced Choke, the second in his middle grade fantasy/humor Pillage trilogy.
A major genre for Mormon authors in the last few years has been the YA paranormal romance, with publishers obviously looking for the next Stephanie Meyer. In 2009 four Mormon authors, Becca Fitzpatrick, Aprilynne Pike, Bree Despain, and Lisa Magnum, produced the first volume of their respective paranormal romance series, and in 2010 they released the sequel. Each contains a young woman in danger, a bad-boy hero who turns out to be something other than a normal human (fallen angel, fairy, werewolf, time-traveller), a love triangle, and a fast-moving plot. Also, except for Magnum (whose work was ignored by national reviewers), each seemed to receive much harsher professional review for the second volume than the first, even though there was little difference between the quality of the first and second volumes. This was true for Twilight, and seems to be a trend in reviews for breakout genre series.
The most popular of the four is Fitzpatrick’s Hush, Hush series, about a girl and a fallen angel. Reviewers came down hard on the second volume, Crescendo. For example the review in VOYA claimed the novel felt “contrived”, and that it was a “overly long story with unlikable characters, a convoluted time frame, and contrived plot twists.” Many reviewers noted that the Fitzpatrick does an excellent job with the plot and action sequences, and, for good or ill, ratchets up the romantic tension well beyond a fever pitch. Several reviewers, however, have complained that she romanticizes the stalking behaviour of the male protagonist.
The first volume in Bree Despain’s werewolf The Dark Divine series received some strong notices for its unique (in national YA) emphasis on the stability the protagonist’s Christian faith gave her in the face of crisis. The second volume, The Lost Saint, was released very late in 2010, so not many reviews are in, but those that have come emphasize its derivative nature, and say it is darker and more action-centred than the first volume. Aprilynne Pike’s Spells, the second in the Wings series about a girl who discovers she is a fairy, has received mixed reviews, and apparently lower sales, in part because she slows down the plot for extended sections of fairy world-building. A positive review in Kirkus stated, “In clean, fresh prose, never wilting in momentum as some middle volumes do, this second instalment stays fragrant throughout . . . As in Wings, Pike brazenly codes physical deformity and asymmetry as evil, and her engagingly clear prose sometimes blunders into floridness . . . Among the current cornucopia of supernatural romances, though, this one blooms.” Lisa Magnum’s The Golden Spiral, the second volume in her time-travelling The Hourglass Door series, represented Shadow Mountain’s entry into the paranormal genre, and received good reader reviews.
One paranormal YA novel which stood out from the crowd in terms of originality and humor was Kiersten White’s debut novel Paranormalcy. Reviewers generally compared the tone of the book to the Buffy the Vampire Slayer television series, as it shared the basic idea of a girl trying to balance her supernatural job as a defender against paranormal creatures against her normal teenage life. Publishers Weekly wrote, “White shows the technique and polish of a pro in this absorbing romance, which comes closer than most to hitting the Buffy mark . . . The action is fast; fun and fear are in abundance.” Kirkus Review wrote, “Most of the fun of this novel is in the play between this imagined world and Evie’s desire for such normal teen amusements as dates, shopping and prom. Her first-person narration is light, but she’s appealingly determined . . . Good, romantic—and a little weird—entertainment.” Finally Stephanie Meyer, who helped to break the genre open, released a hardback novella The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner, a spin-off from her novel Eclipse, focusing on a minor vampire character. Jana Reiss commented, “The novella’s pacing is brisk and the story interesting, despite the flatness of the main character.” The novella was the best-selling piece of fiction released in 2010 by a Mormon author.
Although not as hot (either in sales or romantic tension) as the paranormal genre, the “retold fairy tale”/magical fantasy genre remained a popular one for Mormon authors. These novels tend to skew to a younger female audience, and are written in a lighter style than the paranormal romances. Four authors, all of whom released novels in the genre in 2009, came back with new tales in 2010. Kirkus Review said Julie Berry’s romantic fantasy Secondhand Charm “teems with action, suspense and a bit of boy-next-door romance.” Berry also authored two middle grade graphic novels in 2010, illustrated by her sister, Sally Gardner. Jessica Day George’s take on the Cinderella story, Princess of Glass, was praised for its inventiveness and charm, although most said it was not up to the level of George’s best work. Mette Ivie Harrison’s The Princess and the Snowbird is the third in a series, and most reviewers said that it was their least favourite of the series. Harrison writes in a more lyrical and evocative style than most authors in the genre, which appears to have driven some readers off. Some complained that it suffered from lengthy and confusing exposition used to explain the magic system, which left many readers confused. Finally Shannon Hale, the leading Mormon author in this genre, produced the second in her series of graphic fairy tale novels, Calamity Jack, along with her co-author and husband Dean, and their illustrator Nathan Hale. It tells the continuing story of Rapunzel and Jack (of beanstalk fame). Publishers Weekly called it “a charming update of Jack and Beanstalk, set in a world that combines elements of fairy tales, a Gilded Age American city, and the Wild West . . . The dynamic artwork fits well with Jack and Rapunzel’s quick tongues, as they flirt their way through numerous hair-raising situations.”
After describing so many veteran authors’ works, I will turn my attention to a trio of debut middle grade fantasy authors, all of whom received excellent reviews. Leading the group is Sheila A. Nielson, a Children’s Librarian at the Provo City Library, and her novel The Forbidden Sea. Although the book features an endangered girl and her struggle with a mermaid, it differs from the YA paranormals in that the love interest is not a supernatural boy, and there is no opening for a sequel. The School Library Journal wrote, “The plot pacing is steady and suspenseful as more details about the protagonist’s current life and past are revealed through her absorbing first-person narration. Nielson’s new spin on a traditional fantasy setup is sure to appeal.” Matthew J. Kirby’s novel The Clockwork Three is a mixture of fantasy, adventure and steampunk, set in a mid-19th-century alternative universe American city. Publishers Weekly wrote, “In this riveting historical fantasy . . . Kirby has assembled all the ingredients for a rousing adventure, which he delivers with rich, transporting prose. Mixing fantasy and steampunk elements with subtle urban mythology, Kirby’s immersive story can be read as a modern morality play or a satisfying stand-alone tale.” Other reviewers, however, noted that the novel’s coherence fell apart at the end, where a fantasy twist worked against the previous tone of the book. Lastly there is Jennifer A. Nielsen’s Elliot and the Goblin War, which is directed towards older elementary school and middle school readers. The School Library Journal wrote, “This lighthearted fantasy approaches the world of goblins, brownies, and demons with tongue planted firmly in cheek . . . The pacing is brisk, with short chapters to hold readers’ interest. The narrator has a gleefully odd (and occasionally sarcastic) sense of humor . . . . While the book doesn’t stand out in a crowded fantasy landscape, it will likely please young fans of the genre looking for something with a lighter mood.”
Next comes a quintet of non-fantasy young adult/middle grade novels. Carol Lynch Williams won both a Whitney Award and an AML Award for her harrowing 2009 YA novel The Chosen One. Williams went to an even darker place for her new novel, Glimpse. She took the courageous choice of writing the novel in free verse, from the unreliable perspective of a 12-year old girl, who with her sister suffered neglect and abuse. Booklist wrote, “Williams tells a brutal, gripping story through the veiled language of free verse, choosing her words and Hope’s memories with careful intent. Although the descriptions are not graphic, Williams leaves little doubt about Lizzie’s trauma, their mother’s role in her older daughter’s fate, and the lack of a perfect resolution to both girls’ pain. The unresolved ending is realistic, but it is hopeful, too, and it includes a tribute to caring friends and adults who struggle daily to rescue children from untenable situations.” Mormon reviewer Shelah Miner (Segullah) wrote, “This isn’t a book for readers who don’t want to read about hard things–the book opens with [an attempted] suicide . . . Although it is 496 pages long, I was able to read it in a single sitting, in the bathtub, all before the water grew cold. The length is deceptive, since each page of the book looks like a poem, with two or three words on a line. I’m not sure why Williams chose this format, but it works well. She chose her words with such care that the story felt rich and fully drawn, despite the spareness of her prose.”
Kristin Chandler received glowing reviews for her debut YA novel, Wolves, Boys, and Other Things That Might Kill Me, about a rural Montana high school journalist who defends the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone Park in the face of local opposition. Publishers Weekly wrote, “Chandler’s debut is a lively drama, saturated with multifaceted characters and an environmental undercurrent. She writes persuasively about the great outdoors, small town dynamics and politics, and young love.” The School Library Journal wrote, “The plot moves swiftly to a suspenseful finish. Beautifully written and thought-provoking, this well-rounded novel will appeal to girls, some boys, and conservationists of all stripes.”
Kimberly Griffiths Little’s middle grade The Healing Spell tells the story of a eleven-year-old Louisiana Cajun girl filled with guilt for her responsibility for her mother’s comatose state, and her attempt to obtain a healing spell from a local traiteur. Mormon reviewer Emily Milner wrote, “I loved the voice in this book, a combination of Cajun cadence and Livie’s twelve-year old angst. The setting felt real, and almost seemed like another character. And I felt like the healing, though not surprising, developed in a moving and tender way.”
Dean Hughes continues his middle grade series of novels about World War II-era boys with Missing in Action. It tells the story of a part-Navajo boy in Delta, UT whose father goes missing at the front. School Library Journal wrote, “Although serious issues of Native American prejudice, family violence, Japanese-American internment, and homophobia are raised, the story ends too idealistically and neatly.” Kirkus Review wrote, “Many forms of prejudice appear in the narrative, with thoughtlessness and injustice intertwined. Navajo spiritual elements combine with Jay’s Mormon faith in a delicate balancing act. Hughes manages to pull it all together for an ending that is touching and somewhat realistic. The plot serves the theme well, as events in Jay’s life are illustrated by multiple instances of bias. Subtle and engaging.”
Sarah Deford Williams’ debut middle grade novel Palace Beautiful is an old-fashioned mystery set in 1980s Salt Lake City, about a group of girls who discover a diary of the 1918 influenza epidemic. Publishers Weekly writes, “Williams’s vivid prose brings both worlds to life . . . Through moments of heartache and joy, Sadie’s strong, contemplative spirit shines through, as does the thrill of discovering a secret place of one’s one.”
I will briefly mention some romances to finish up the list of young adult/middle grade books. Lindsey Leavitt’s debut tween humor/fantasy romance Princess for Hire was consistently called “frothy fun” and “charming”. Veteran author Janette Rallison’s My Double Life about a young pop star’s double is called “good, clean ‘Pop Star and the Pauper’ fun”, and “a clean and enjoyable romp”. Angela Morrison’s Sing Me to Sleep was castigated for being sappy and moralistic. Children’s Literature wrote, “Readers will need to wade through plenty of heavy breathing, passionate kissing, and Beth’s doggerel song lyrics, yet the hopelessly romantic will savor every minute of this soap opera.”
Among adult romances, Lynn Kurland’s fantasy One Enchanted Evening, the story of a woman travelling in time to medieval England, is the most “Mormon friendly”, clean enough to be sold at Deseret Book. The books of best-selling vampire author Christine Feehan certainly are not, nor are those by Amanda Ashley, Carla Kelly, Brenda Novak, or ReAnne Thayne.
Popular adult inspirational authors Richard Paul Evans and Jason Wright produced two novels each in 2010, inspiring copious tears. The one of the four that looks the most interesting to me is Evans’ Christmas novel Promise Me, which features a bizarre science fiction twist at the end. Meanwhile, The Christmas Chronicles: The Legend of Santa Claus is the prose debut of the playwright Tim Slover. The fable of a 14th century German woodworker who became Santa Claus was done as a radio drama on KBYU in 2009. Publishers Weekly writes, “This inspiring Christmas tale skilfully weaves various popular Christmas fables (the story of Rudolph being a notable inclusion) into a fresh story that retains an air of traditional folk tales while delivering an updated tweak on familiar stories. While the conflict is sporadic . . . the rest of the story is simply and sincerely entertaining.”
Outside of Brady Udall, the romances, and the inspirationals, the only other national market adult novels were Anne Perry’s The Sheen on the Silk and Glenn Beck’s The Overton Window. Perry left her familiar Victorian setting to write a historical novel set in Byzantium in 1271. Most reviewers said that while the historical aspects were fascinating the plot and characters were rather dull. Beck achieved best-seller status with his political thriller, but reviews were poor even when accounting for political bias on the part of reviewers, and Beck apparently only came up with the basic outlines of the plot, leaving the actual writing to collaborators.
I will end with a list of the best selling fiction books by Mormon authors for the year. The list is not scientific at all. I primarily used the USA Today and New York Times bestseller lists, with some input from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Publishers Weekly. I am confident about the first five positions, after that it gets a little sketchy. I merged multiple paperback offerings by romance authors Christine Feehan and Amanda Ashley into single entries, because I wanted to. Books from before 2010 that have remained or reappeared on bestseller lists include Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight books, Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Glenn Beck’s The Christmas Sweater, and Brandon Sanderson’s A Memory of Light.
Best Selling Novels by Mormon authors published in 2010
Meyer, Stephanie. The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner
Sanderson, Brandon and Robert Jordan, Towers of Midnight.
Beck, Glenn. The Overton Window.
Feehan, Christine. Dark Peril.
Feehan, Christine. Wild Fire and Water Bound (paperbacks).
Fitzpatrick, Becca. Crescendo.
Evans, Richard Paul. Promise Me.
Evans, Richard Paul. The Walk.
Condie, Allyson. Matched.
Sanderson, Brandon. The Way of the Kings.
Mull, Brandon. Fablehaven: Keys to the Demon Prison.
Dashner, James. The Scorch Trials. (Note: Aprilynne Pike’s Spells is tied for 12th. See the comments below.)
Ashley, Amanda. Everlasting Kiss and Everlasting Desire (paperbacks).
Udall, Brady. The Lonely Polygamist.
Thayne, RaeAnne. A Cold Creek Secret.\ (paperback)
Card, Orson Scott. Pathfinder.
Kurland, Lynn. One Enchanted Evening
White, Kiersten. Paranormalcy
(Amazon #18 bestselling novel of the year, USA Today #11 bestselling book of the year.)
(New York Times Hardcover Fiction #1 for one week. Amazon #47 bestselling novel of the year.)
(New York Times Hardcover Fiction #1 for one week. Amazon #71 bestselling novel of the year, USA Today #76 bestselling book of the year.)
Books by Mormon authors from previous years which appeared on 2010 best-seller lists include all of Stephanie Meyer’s books, Richard Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson’s The Gathering Storm, and Glenn Beck’s The Christmas Sweater.