Category Archives: Reviews

Once I Was a Beehive

8.18.15 | | 8 comments

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I left Utah just as the Mormon-movie craze was collapsing into a heap of half-baked, opportunistic, unfunny, quote-unquote comedies. No longer in Utah, Mormon movies became harder to see, and I haven’t often felt the effort was worth it.

I know, I know. Me of all people! I should know better than to be dismissive! But I’m still having my standoff with Netflix and they’re not in local theaters or my public library and I’m a little too cheap to spend twenty bucks on a movie I might not like. So I just haven’t seen many. Never mind that I am watching movies, I’m not watching many “Mormon” movies.

The only recent Mormon flicks (last five years?) I’ve seen are Freetown and Once I Was a Beehive.

The trailer for that latter film worried me immensely. An essay by one of the filmmakers made me much more hopeful. But hey—I’m in California. What’m I gonna do?

But I couldn’t just forget about it because I was particularly interested in this film. Not because I’d just been to Girls Camp myself for the first time (though maybe that) but because I find stories about girls between the ages of, say 15 and 25 to be particularly compelling right now, both to read and to write. So I wanted it to be good. I wanted to hear it was good and to feel obliged to see it. And then I wanted to like it. Which seemed like a lot of unlikely steps.

Happily, even before I read anything about it, Excel provided me with a password-protected link to let me watch the film online. And I’m relieved to report that notwithstanding its flaws (which I will not ignore), this movie is more

Things Rich and Strange: Mormonism through the Lens of Steve Peck, a Sympathetic Alien

8.14.15 | | 3 comments

Title: Wandering Realities: The Mormonish Short Fiction of Steven L. Peck
Author: Steven L. Peck
Publisher: Zarahemla Books
Genre: Short Story Collection
Year Published: 2015
Number of Pages: 219
Binding: Trade Paperback
ISBN13: 9780988323346
Price: $14.95
Also available as an ebook

Reviewed by Jonathan Langford.

Steve Peck is an alien. A kind of geeky-looking one (wholly appropriate for a professor of evolutionary biology), friendly, congenial, but an alien nonetheless. That’s the only explanation I can come up with for how, in this set of 16 stories, he so consistently manages to provide such startlingly different, yet at the same time deeply insightful, perspectives on the culture and religion he has adopted for his own.

Which is about the only thing these stories — which range from short to long, humor to pathos, realism to postmodernly zany, contemporary to historical to science fiction — have in common. Eight of them have been previously published, in venues ranging from Irreantum to Covenant to the Everyday Mormon Writer contest. Yet the effect is not incoherent. Rather, it provides a sense of the range of Peck’s work, which includes something that will, I guarantee, appeal to pretty much everyone with the slightest interest in reading fiction about the Mormon experience: highbrow or lowbrow, literary or popular, funny or serious, light or thought-provoking. It’s pretty much all here. And while not every story is equally polished, each provides something interesting and (here’s that word again) different.

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A brief look at Heaven Knows Why!

7.2.15 | | 3 comments

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When Taylor’s novel was first serialized in 1948 as The Mysterious Way in Collier’s (see the layout of parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6), it passed before the eyes of millions of Americans. This was the first nonpioneer Mormon-charactered (contemporary) novel published for a national audience. The action takes place a long-day’s drive from Salt Lake City and when it first came out, its geography became a matter of some debate among the Saints as to who was whom and where was where. Taylor, of course, rolled his eyes and happily defined the word fiction for any who asked.

Anyway. Millions of readers did not translate into bestseller status when it was rereleased under the “improved” title in book form (though it did fine and got good reviews). It would be republished a couple times over the decades. My copy (pictured) is a 1994 Aspen Books rerelease which Taylor says he was talked into by Richard Cracroft (though I suspect his intro was originally penned for a c. 1980 publication). Cracroft called it “the best Mormon comic novel to date” and he says that it’s still the only humorous Mormon novel. (This claim is why I think the intro is older than the publication date. By this time Curtis Taylor‘s The Invisible Saint was out not to mention Joni Hilton’s Relief Society novels and Orson Scott Card’s Hatrack River was publishing stuff like Paradise Vue. So 1994 would be a crazy time to make that claim. But whatever.)

The important question though is this one: Does the novel hold up, almost seventy years later?

The story has a brilliant bit of innovation by starting with a deus ex machina, then having the characters work through the mess that engenders. Old Moroni Skinner is up in heaven (heaven, incidentally, is a satire of midcentury American capitalism and has not aged as well as the rest of the novel) concerned with his grandson who’s grown up to be the valley trash. He files the paperwork to make a visitation and so he does, making it up as he goes, dropping in on the town apostate and telling his grandson to marry the bishop’s daughter (who is engaged to be married the very next day, unbeknownst to Moroni). And this descends chaos in the form of crazy and coincidence, capturing the very best elements of the comedies of Dickens and Shakespeare. It is exquisitely engineered. The characters are sharp and tear off the page in into the imagination. The hurdles to our protagonist’s success just got greater and greater. And somehow—comedy!—it all works out in the end. (Unless you include the final chapter which returns us to heaven and adds on a painfully heavy dose of predestination to the mix.)

In short, this is a terrific look at midcentury Mormon-corridor Mormonism with its uncertain relationship with the Word of Wisdom and heldover pioneer-era Church hierarchies and living breathing human beings.

Sp does it hold up? Yes. Most certainly yet. I may not have laughed on every page like Cracroft, but it was a fun, fun ride.

The Tooth Fairy Wars

3.10.15 | | no comments

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An occasional series of brief posts on the 2015 AML Award nominees.

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tooth fairy wars

I’m not familiar with the work of writer Kate Coombs, but illustrator Jake Parker is a friend of mine whom I’ve written about before. This book puts all his skills to use. In fact, I would say this is his best picture book to date. Coombs’s story is a perfect match for his skills.

The story is of Nathan who does not want the Tooth Fairy to take his teeth. He tries hiding, he tries reasoning—she keeps taking his teeth and leaving a dollar behind. She has a job and she does it well.

Coombs is wise to play things straight. Everything is plain and understated (except, perhaps (and suitably), the insanely over-the-top bureaucratic mumbojumbo the Tooth Fairy cites). Parker follows her lead, and even as the conflict escalates, even as the stakes get higher and higher, the visual jokes are never forced either.

But when the Tooth Fairy brings in the big guns, well! I turned the page and started—I kid you not—guffawing. This is hilarious stuff. And then the diplomats arrive (including the cousin of a Hugo Earhart sidekick) and the story is resolved into a pleasant denouement, a perfectly paced wagonride downhill from the conflict’s climax.

A perfect piece of picture-book comedy.

The Princess in Black

3.9.15 | | 3 comments

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An occasional series of brief posts on the 2015 AML Award nominees.

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princess in blackIf you haven’t been reading Shannon Hale raging about the artificial walls we put between boys and books with princesses, you’re missing out on an important discussion. Me, I got this book (written by Shannon Hale and her husband Dean) to read it to my boys, ages five to eleven.

I sat next to my five-year-old and started reading it. He was sufficiently interested, but when I got to the line

But then, most princesses do not live near an entrance to Monster Land.

the other two ran over to follow along.

Middle son was reading Tintin so he would come over and leave and come over again, but when I finished reading it, the eldest was the first to respond to my what-did-you-think question with an enthusiastic positive.

In short, she’s doing a good job making the girl-half of the world boy-friendly.

As for the book, it’s very funny and charming and, simply, fun. It’s like a longer form (and wackier) version of the Ladybug Girl picture books (which, like the Princess in Black, set up room for a male sidekick). It’s also literalized—Princess Magnolia is an actual costumed hero; she’s not merely paying pretend. And the stakes are high. Goats will get eaten without the Princess in Black! Monsters are entering the her kingdom with goats on their mind!

I’m also fond of how Princess Magnolia is an actual cute little girl, including what I suppose we could call a bit of chub left in her cheeks. Sure her day job involves frills and tiaras and lots of pinkpinkpink, but she also kicks monster butt. And the character design and execution by LeUyen Pham makes that believable on both counts.

The story itself is not that innovative (can our hero save the day without having her secret identity compromised?) but the telling is a lot of fun.

It’s got a sequel headed to press; it’s been optioned, it’s inspired cosplay.

Sounds like a winner.

Millstone City of Brick and Shadow

1.20.15 | | 2 comments

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The remarkable thing comparing my reviews of Millstone City (by S.P. Bailey, 2012) and City of Brick and Shadow (by Tim Wirkus, 2014) is how differently directed my attention was and yet how many similarities the reviews (and their books) still share.

citiesinbrazilLet’s start with the obvious. Both novels have “city” in the title. Both novels take place in Brazil’s slums. Both novels feature horrific criminal activity. Both novels incorporate missionaries breaking rules, though managing to keep their deviance remarkably nontransgressive. Both sets of missionaries maintain an interest in fulfilling their call to preach even in the least agreeable of situations. Both adventures begin thanks to a link to the criminal world via a local convert. Both novels address the reality of evil and fail to provide a purely pat ending.

Thematically however, the novels are quite different. more

City of Brick and Shadow by Tim Wirkus

1.12.15 | | 8 comments

sorry for the amazon link but this is the largest image available online and I feel obliged to link to its origin.

I’m a bit worn down by my Bishop’s Wife marathon so I won’t be giving this novel that level of attention though, frankly, I liked this one more. Both in terms of technique and story, this novel is what I’m usually looking for when I pick up a mystery. Don’t get me wrong—I did like The Bishop’s Wife—I liked how it was a cozy with sex and violence, I liked the characters and the setting, I liked the twists and the rolls, I liked the handful of plot-points left open.

But my all-time favorite mystery stories commit the crime against convention that City of Brick and Shadow commits. I’m going to present several observations now which move, approximately, from least spoilery to most spoilery. Feel free to slide down to the comments if you start getting uncomfortable, or to the next section if you get bored with my bloviating on any one point.

Otherwise, welcome to an unnamed Latin American country more commonly known as Brazil!

On point-of-view and naming

As Andrew said, “it is amazing how much the author just throws the reader into the world of the missionaries, without much explaining.” But it’s not just things like mentioning companionship study or curfews. Take the simple matter of naming. more

iPlates II

1.5.15 | | one comment

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Remember a couple years ago when I reviewed the first volume of iPlates? Of course you don’t. So here’s a link. But to sum up, it was mostly very good and you should read it. Now, after a successful Kickstarter, Volume II is out and available for your ingestion. And ingest you should.

Although I would recommend [re]reading volume one before reading two. (It took me three quarters of the book to fully remember everyone and get back in the emotional swing of things. But that’s on me. I’ll have to reread them. They’re worth it. And I’ll need to reread them again before three, in order to stay on top of the still-open plot points.)

What’s great about these adaptations is how they veer away from the story-as-in-the-scriptures in order to develop characters and situations, then suddenly they plop you right back into a verse you know. Volume two is, after all, 150 pages covering two chapters in Mosiah, resulting in a pace both frenetic and steady as the characters run to and fro creating new story, while arriving at each next verse right on time.

This volume lacks interstitial art, which I miss, but a higher quantity of pop-culture references (ranging from Princess Bride to Sound of Music), some nice parallelism (the good sister does bad; the bad sister does good—each while trying to do right as they understand it), and the first time I’ve ever leapt for joy at the phrase “A POLITICIAN!”

In short, the book lives up to its claims of providing “witty dialogue” and “dramatic plot turns” within the framework of the story as we know it.

My only regret is that the Kickstarter didn’t quite get high enough to result in color printing. Although I like the black-and-white, the preponderance of night scenes in this volume makes it sometimes hard to tell who is who. And I know my kids would prefer color, them being young that way. But regardless, this volume, like the last, is a success. Let’s wish for many more to come.