The number of LDS novels is down slightly this month, partly due I suspect to economic realities which saw fewer books landing on my doorstep, and partly due to the number of books I agreed to read in order to be a Whitney Awards judge. I ran out of time to read everything, therefore you’ll only find three books reviewed here this month.

For the most part the Whitney finalists are authors of excellent books, most of which I’ve reviewed. Those I hadn’t already read and reviewed are written by LDS authors, but the books themselves are not LDS and do not necessarily adhere to the same standards as LDS books or they are self-published.

It’s been interesting to note that some of them have a far more serious copy-editing problem than most books published by LDS publishers and some few other problems as well. I found a few things unsettling about some categories such as the extreme violence and gore in the Speculative section, the absence of anything but fantasy in the Young Adult section, and the absence of some really remarkable books published in 2008 in categories where I had expected to find them.

This last situation is one only readers can remedy. In order to be considered for an award a book must be nominated by at least five people. Many, many nominations by readers increase the odds of a good book landing a finalist spot. Positive comments on web sites devoted to books bring a good book to other readers’ attention. So if there is a book(s) published this year you think is award worthy, please nominate it/them for next year’s awards. To nominate a book go here. You can nominate as many books as you like. Now for this month’s reviews.

Missing Pieces by Jeni Grossman is an unusual novel that will not easily be forgotten by readers. Set in Turkey, the crossroad between East and West, we follow Dulcey Moore, a CNN reporter to a land of sharp contrasts and centuries old secrets. After a sharp disagreement and wounded feelings between Dulcey and her husband, Matt, she says good-bye to him and their two young children to fly first to Baghdad, where she discovers more trouble than expected and loses a man who was her close friend and one of her cameramen. Still, she forges on accompanied by two photographers and a native guide, Asena, until she reaches an ancient buried city in Turkey, Zeugma, in advance of the CNN trucks and crew. She and her small party are met by overly-zealous archeologist, Lee Nash, who heads up the dig that is to document the unearthing of a two thousand year old solid gold statue of massive proportions.

Turkish soldiers and undercover CIA operatives guard the dig and participants in the historic event, but even they are caught off-guard by Al Qaida terrorists and the varying Muslim factions and customs.

Dulcey is headstrong, opinionated, and doesn’t take orders (or even practical suggestions) from anyone. Her bull-headed need to succeed at all costs and to always be right not only creates marital problems but puts her life in danger in the heavily Muslim part of the world where religion is paramount over all else, people have little but their perverted sense of honor, and secrets stay buried for centuries. Her priorities shift as she faces laws, customs, and values that cause her to examine her own life and that of the Turkish women who befriend her.

Grossman spent two years living in Turkey with her husband and understands both those things important to Muslims and Christians and those which they disagree on. She has studied both Shia and Sunni, has a deep appreciation for the customs that have survived since the days of Abraham, and is familiar with the religious texts of the major world religions that intersect in that place. Places mentioned in this book, the discovery of the buried city of Zeugma with its rich treasures, Turkish food and customs, quotes from the Koran, and all those minute details that make up the background of this story are authentic.

It’s difficult to place Missing Pieces into a specific genre. There is no romance. It’s not historical, though two thousand years of Turkish history is carefully woven into the background of the story. There’s excitement and adventure, but it is not a true mystery/suspense novel. Though there are religious discussions and references; it’s not a conversion story. Perhaps it stands alone in giving us a glimpse of the blending of cultures and a greater understanding of the roots of Islam and Christianity.

Though Dulcey is not always a likeable character; she is one with which most of us can identify. The story is paced well and the plot is multi-dimensional giving the reader a fascinating surface story and a subtle secondary story. There is no more conclusion to what is honor, women’s relationship to God (or Allah), and the value of human life than is found in real life between cultures of opposite views, but this book brings the reader a step closer to understanding those differences. I felt impressed by the subtle way the author blended ancient beliefs and history to provide perspective to this contemporary novel. I recommend this book highly to both men and women.

MISSING PIECES by Jeni Grossman, Covenant Communications, softcover, 306 pages, $16.95

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After reading several dark, depressing books in a row for the Whitney awards, I picked up Tower of Strength by Annette Lyon and the contrast was like a spring day in the middle of January. I liked her characters who are hard-working people hit by some of the most painful and difficult trials mortals face in this life. Tabitha, an eighteen year old bride of two months, is left a pregnant widow when her husband dies in a mining explosion. Samuel has sacrificed all he owned and work he loved in England to enable him and his wife to travel to Utah to join others of their faith. En route his wife dies and is buried at sea. He is left alone with the only job available to him, which involves mucking out stables, milking cows, and performing farm chores he is ill-prepared for and hates. Tabitha and Samuel are drawn to each other, but are uncertain whether they have a right to allow their relationship to extend beyond friendship.

After more than six years away from her childhood home in Manti, in which time she has gone to school in Logan, worked part time for a newspaper, and become a teacher, Tabitha receives an offer to take over the Sanpitch Sentinal back in Manti. Though reluctant to return to the same town where her resentful mother-in-law lives, she wants what is best for her son and she believes that is an association with her parents and his cousins. She finds comfort from the problems she faces in the huge structure rising on temple hill, the place where she played as a child and fell in love with her husband. She stumbles onto a news story that could cost her hard-earned strength and independence, further antagonize her mother-in-law, and brings her into the difficult position of defending the rights of a cruel man who beat a horse almost to death and is accused of stealing a large amount of cash.

She has difficult choices to make concerning her and her son’s financial security, another painful loss, her belief in justice, her own future happiness, and the application of values easier stated than adhered to.

Lyon presents a historical romance that goes well beyond the typical romance format though romance readers will love the carefully constructed elements of a satisfying love story. General fiction lovers will enjoy the interaction between characters as Tabitha relates to her son, her parents, her mother-in-law, Samuel, the previous newspaper owner, her brother, and the crusty old man who sells her a horse he severely abused. Tabitha’s thought processes reveal a great deal about her personal growth as they entertain, amuse, and draw the reader into the dilemmas she faces. Dialog is generally apt for the era with only a couple of small exceptions and the research concerning the Manti temple, life in the small Mormon settlement during the 1880s, and animal husbandry have been researched with meticulous care. Though there’s no way the problems Tabitha and Samuel face can leave everyone or every situation involved in the story with a happy ending, the overall there is a satisfying end. I recommend this story not only to romance readers, but to general fiction, historical readers, and anyone who enjoys an exciting story that is both thought-provoking and uplifting.

TOWER OF STRENGTH by Annette Lyon, Covenant Communications, softcover, 303 pages, $15.95

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Winds of Hope by Anita Stansfield wraps up the story lines of her first two books in a four part series that began with The Sound of Rain , and continued in Distant Thunder. In this epilogue style volume she sees Jayson through rehab, his daughter returns, he marries Elizabeth, and takes up music again, all as expected. There’s a blatant conversion story straight out of every church lesson manual as well. When Jayson returns to the music world, there is one new situation that arises incident to his relationship with his father.

The Sound of Rain represents some of Stansfield’s best writing. In my opinion the sequels, especially this one, don’t measure up to the standard set by the first volume in the series. The excessive tears over everything, good or bad, become annoying and the conversion story is so clich it doesn’t ring true. The brief section where a baby is given up for adoption ignores the issue of paternal rights, especially when the father supported the teen mother through most of her pregnancy. Winds of Hope is not a stand alone volume and will be of little interest to anyone who hasn’t read the first two volumes. There is to be a fourth volume, but since the author tied up everything neatly in this book, I don’t know what is left to cover unless she plans a spin-off using some minor character from the series. Die-hard Stansfield fans will be interested in the rapid fire wrap ups of previous storylines.

WINDS OF HOPE by Anita Stansfield, Covenant Communications, softcover, 308 pages, $16.95