It appears some of the year’s best novels have been reserved for the end of the year. Such is the case with Before the Dawn , written by Dean Hughes.

If you’re thinking “how exciting can a novel about a Relief Society president be?” and scratching this one off your list, think again. Leah Sorensen isn’t just any Relief Society president, and the problems she faces aren’t what most of us are accustomed to today. I liked the way Hughes took a period of history that was filled with quiet, desperate struggles, but which is largely unknown to this generation, and wove a story as compelling as his well-loved war stories.

Leah isn’t particularly feminine, and she isn’t what she’d call “churchy.” She’s a farmer and a widow who knows more about plowing and milking than about bazaars and cake baking. Called to preside over the women’s organization, she’s sure the bishop has made a mistake. She doesn’t figure the women in their small ward out in the basin like her, and she knows she doesn’t care much for them.

With only two teenage children, who have their own problems trying to fit in at school and in their ward, to help her run the farm, she doesn’t see how she can run around visiting ladies. Besides she’s sure to say the wrong things and offend everyone – and she does. She also rises to the occasion when deaths occur, children are hungry, and the Depression overwhelms rich and poor alike.

It’s the early Thirties, and the Depression is creating problems only the tough can survive, Bishop Bowen tells her. He admits he had reservations when her name came into his mind, but after praying about it, he’s certain the Lord needs her at the helm of the Relief Society because she’s faced enough hardships to know how to help the other sisters cope with the problems unique to that devastating time period.

Small towns and the people who live in them can be like comforting arms during hard times, but they can also be relentlessly cruel to those who don’t quite fit in. Hughes handles this split phenomenon realistically and creates a town with which almost everyone who has ever lived in a small town can identify.

The only problem I found with the setting for this book is a small, unrealistic matter of digging potatoes from the garden in May.

Characters are multi-dimensional to the point the reader feels their hurt, cheers their small triumphs, and regrets their all-too-human mistakes. Leah is every one of us as we speak before we’ve thought a matter through, lose our tempers, say things we know we shouldn’t, fail to speak when we should, and overreact when someone hurts our children.

Through it all the reader gains a picture of the grand scope of Relief Society. We also gain an appreciation for the many women who have had to pick up the plow, wear the same dress to church year after year, and put their dreams on hold. We see women under all circumstances pray for their children, share each other’s burdens, and mourn together over losses that seem unbearable.

Hughes wrote this novel as a tribute to Bonnie Parkin, Anne Pingree, and his own remarkable wife, Kathleen Hughes, who were recently released from the Church’s General Relief Society presidency. It is a fitting tribute to these women, but it is an even greater tribute to women in general and to Latter-Day Saint women particularly.

H.B. Moore’s Land of Inheritance lives up to the grand proportions of the scriptural epic tale found in the Book of Mormon. This final book in her Out Of Jerusalem series begins with the death of Lehi and encompasses the events leading up to the separation of Lehi’s followers into two camps, through the escalation of enmity between the two factions, and concludes at the point where Jacob is ready to assume the spiritual leadership of the Nephites.

Moore addresses several questions concerning what the voyagers found when they arrived in their promised land, the dark skin curse mentioned in the Book of Mormon, priesthood authority, language, and prophecy. She relies heavily on the research done by both noted Book of Mormon and Mesoamerican scholars. Her assertions are well documented in chapter notes at the back of the book.

Though the research behind this book is scholarly, it would be a mistake to assume the book is a summation of dry historical facts. It is a story of emotional and spiritual growth. It’s a fascinating study of diversity within a family and the various dynamics that involves. It is also a tender love story between Nephi and his wife. Though this portion of the story is fictional, it is readily believable.

There is also a budding romance between a younger couple, and one of a marriage torn apart by mistaken loyalties. A powerful message concerning repentance and forgiveness is given. The separation into two camps drives home the awfulness of civil war within a family where faith, love, and loyalties are tried to the limit.

Both the quality of writing and the deft manner in which the author ties together scripture and fiction point out how much the author’s storytelling ability has matured since the beginning of this series. To begin with, I assumed this series would appeal primarily to young adults, but with this volume, Moore has solidly established herself as a writer for any age level. The first part of Land of Inheritance has few typos, but the latter part has several irritating, but minor, errors that disrupt the smooth flow of this remarkably well-done volume.

Delicious Conversation by Jennifer Stewart Griffith isn’t exactly a Christmas novel, but it’s definitely a delicious treat. Susannah Hapsburg is a successful businesswoman who doesn’t even know how to relax until the firm where she’s worked for the past eight years goes bankrupt and she’s suddenly unemployed.

Taking stock of her life, she realizes that though she has two mortgages to pay (her condo and the fixer-upper she recently purchased in the Avenues), she doesn’t want to accept another banking position, though she receives several excellent offers. She’s thirty years old, has already served a mission, and love and marriage seem to have passed her by. She decides to strike out on her own, be her own boss, and start up a chocolate bar in downtown Salt Lake City.

With her best friend, Colette, who is definitely a people person, and a huge Hawaiian wrestler, Trevor, for a chef, she launches her business, catering primarily to women, serving up everything wonderful made of chocolate. Her life isn’t without men, though. There’s the handsome heartthrob attorney who pursues her relentlessly and haunting memories of a summer service project in Guatemala where she met and fell in love with a man seven years her senior who led the group. There’s also a hundred and eighty-seven-year-old tortoise to complicate her life.

This novel is light, modern, and funny. It has the bright, quick dialogue of chick lit, but has a deeper side, an older heroine, and is kinder to the male species. Women of all ages will love it, and I suspect more than one male will chuckle his way through it as well.

This isn’t an easy book for dieters to read since each chapter ends with one of the fantastic chocolate recipes Susannah’s chef whips up for her chocolate bar. (The recipes are worth the price of the book alone.) Each chapter also begins with a comment or saying about chocolate that leads into that chapter, and much of the action takes place over chocolate meringues, red devil cake, raspberry chocolate croissants, black forest bars, and other sinfully chocolaty delights.

Desire of Our Hearts is another Book of Mormon romance written by Sariah S. Wilson. This one is a fictionalized version of Alma, one of King Noah’s priests, who is converted to the gospel by the words of Abinidi when the prophet is placed on trial. Against the backdrop of one of the most well-known Book of Mormon dramas is set an imaginary love story between Alma and the woman who becomes his wife. Wilson pays careful attention to the scriptural account and known details of the land where the events play out, but the romance is entirely a product of Wilson’s imagination.

The story begins with a palace orgy, where one of the young women, forced to be present, is seen by Alma – who is immediately smitten with her. A short time later, he heroically rescues the young woman from another priest, Amulon, and learns her name is Sam. He courts her, but Amulon sees Alma’s infatuation with Sam as a means to lessen Alma’s influence with King Noah and raise his own standing.

The king forces Sam to choose between the two men. She chooses Alma, but does so with a great deal of resentment. Amulon continues to look for a way to get rid of Alma while Alma is engrossed with trying to win Sam’s love and cooperation. The arrest and martyrdom of the prophet Abinidi serves as a catalyst to change Alma’s and Sam’s lives and the direction of the story.

I liked this story better than Wilson’s previous book. It feels more polished and closer to the scriptural account, and her characters are more mature. There are a few typos, but nothing significant. Romance readers will enjoy the love story portion of the book, and historical and archeological readers will appreciate the cultural details. It’s an interesting, quick read and is helpful toward fleshing out the scriptural account and bringing a more personal touch to the bare bones story told in the Book of Mormon. Teenagers and adults both will want to read this one.

Sometimes life seems to go all wrong. In When the Bough Breaks , Kay Lynn Mangum sets another story at Central High School, the setting for her highly successful, The Secret Journal of Brett Colton and this time her young heroine has more complications in her life than seem fair.

It is not necessary to read Mangum’s previous novel to enjoy this new one. Though a few characters from her previous book appear, there are no spoilers to lessen the reader’s enjoyment if When the Bough Breaks is read first.

Rachel Fletcher is just finishing junior high and making plans with her best friend for starting high school the following year, when Rachel’s father is killed in a car accident while on his way to pick her up from her friend’s house. One of her brothers, seventeen-year-old Ryan, implies their father’s accident is her fault and she feels intense guilt and believes she really is to blame.

Rachel also has to deal with Ryan’s alcoholism and his embarrassing, hateful antics brought on by his addiction. To make matters worse, her mother becomes intensely depressed, and her older brother who is married and lives a considerable distance away is not there to help her deal with Ryan, their mother, and her grief.

When she thinks things can’t get any worse, the father of a student Ryan viciously beats up, comes to talk to her mother and winds up becoming Rachel’s stepfather after an embarrassingly short time. Now Rachel has a stepfather and stepbrother she doesn’t want, to complicate matters farther. Her only release seems to be her notebooks, where she writes poetry that reflects her innermost thoughts and feelings.

The characters in this story are complex and well developed. The problems they face are those typical teenagers are often forced to confront. Though the novel, at first reading, appears to be a teenage coming of age novel, it goes deeper and is directed toward parents of teenagers as well. It is excellent in its portrayal of complex family relationships. It also highlights the serious social problem many families face of dealing with teenage alcoholism. There are also romance and family relationship subplots to the story.

Mangum does a commendable job of getting inside her characters’ hearts and minds at a depth few writers manage. There are a few typos, but no more than what appear in most books electronically prepared. I enjoyed the book immensely, though I found the sheer volume of poetry and the textbook explanations of various types of poetry overdone. This is one novel I highly recommend for teenagers and their parents.

The Moroni Code by Jack Lyon is actually a simple story, though a great deal of research went into it. It’s the story of a young man, David Hunter, who wants to believe the Book of Mormon is true, but he doesn’t really have a testimony of the book or of the gospel. He’s an FBI agent, trained primarily as a cryptography specialist who inherits a scrap of paper from his grandfather that is purported to be a copy of a page shown by Martin Harris to Professor Anthon. The family legend is that the copy was made by an ancestor who was close to Joseph Smith.

While working with a pretty young employee at the Church History Department to decipher the coded message, David is assigned by the FBI to decipher a mysterious code that arrives in a blackmail attempt against the Church.

There’s never any question of who is behind the blackmail attempt, but only whether it can be stopped before irreparable harm is done. This part of the mystery is unremarkable and easy to unravel. Whether or not boy gets girl isn’t particularly the book’s strong point either. The real mystery is in deciphering the codes at the heart of the story. Here the plot takes on shades of Mark Hoffman and questions concerning the legitimacy of the two pieces of unrelated paper and discovering the key to the codes used.

Anyone who has ever tried to crack a code will be intrigued with this novel. It’s a fast read and will probably appeal to boys and men more than women, though I suspect many female would-be detectives will find it absorbing too. It is well-edited and pretty much error free.

Oliver Cowdery letters and prophecies given to the Prophet on his behalf are inserted at frequent intervals, and though they contain pertinent information, serve to break or interrupt the smooth transition of the story. The sharp switches of point of view and short chapters, along with the historical letters, leave an impression of choppiness to the overall story.

Even so, The Moroni Code gives a fascinating glimpse of the Church History Department and even more so, of the intricacies involved in the translation of both ancient documents and secret codes.

Last, but far from least, is Midnight Whispers by Carol Warburton. Warburton, whose previous novels have taken readers from one side of the American continent to the other, and even to Mexico, selects Australia as the setting for this new historical adventure. Jessamyne Clayborne is left destitute and homeless when her father dies. Her only choice seems to be to travel to Australia to live with her brother who was estranged from their father, but whom she remembers as fun and kind.

As the ship approaches Australia, a terrible storm arises and she is washed overboard. She is rescued by natives who care for her and take her to a station where some of the tribe members work to be with people of her own race. As she recuperates at the station, she becomes attached to the family who lives there, especially Brock McKade, who is largely responsible for running the family holdings.

At length she is reunited with her brother Robert. At first she is thrilled to be with him, but quickly realizes that her sister-in-law doesn’t like her and that something questionable is going on in Robert’s life.

Warburton does an excellent job of presenting the story from her young heroine’s point of view while at the same time, revealing to readers the young woman’s growth from frightened girl to a woman strong in her faith and commitment to the man she loves. The novel is fast-paced, presents a fascinating glimpse of colonial Australia, doesn’t shy away from racial questions, and tells an absorbing story of a woman who must choose not only between right and wrong, but between her only family and the man she loves.

Though Midnight Whispers is an historical drama, it is also a romance and a fast-paced action novel that will appeal to readers of varying ages. Warburton, who served in the Adelaide Australia Mission, brings not only extensive research, but first-hand knowledge of the area to the setting of this book. Written in first person, there is a sense of warmth and personal attachment to the characters and places portrayed. There is both depth and charm to this novel.

Before the Dawn by Dean Hughes, published by Deseret Book, hardcover, 293 pages, $22.95

Land of Inheritance ( Out of Jerusalem , Vol. 4) by H.B. Moore, published by Covenant Communications, hardcover, 310 pages, $19.95

Delicious Conversation by Jennifer Stewart Griffith, published by Spring Creek Book Company, 231 pages, $15.95

Desire of our Hearts by Sariah S. Wilson, published by Covenant Communications, softcover, 248 pages, $15.95

When the Bough Breaks by Kay Lynn Mangum, published by Deseret Book, softcover, 343 pages, $15.95

The Moroni Code by Jack Lyon, published by Deseret Book, softcover, 220 pages, $15.95

Midnight Whispers by Carol Warburton, published by Covenant Communications, softcover, 317 pages, $15.95