LDS Fiction Features Sleuths and Special Agents
By Jennie Hansen

Setting Sailby Grace Elliot is one of those rare gems that took me by surprise.  Neither the gloomy gray cover featuring a sailing vessel nor the blurb on the back of the book prepared me for how much I enjoyed reading this novel.

The story begins with three different families in the mid-eighteen hundreds struggling to survive under harsh conditions.  The potatoes are rotting in the fields, leaving the Irish people starving to death; the Scottish Highlanders are forced from their mountain slopes where they’ve dwelt for centuries to make room for herds of sheep owned by rich land barons leaving their only recourse for survival slavery in the coal pits, and with the rapid growth of English industrial factories there is less need for cottage weavers, and estate landlords need fewer farmers to work their land.  Out of this misery comes two dreams; one abundant opportunities in far off lands, and two, a new religion that welcomes the indigent as well as the wealthy and offers them hope.

With the promise of land for the taking, a new beginning, and a better life for their children, representatives of the three families set sail for New Zealand and Australia.  During the nearly four-month voyage, these people’s lives become forever entwined.  Through storms, disease, and tragedy their bond is welded.  And when they discover many of the promises they were given are lies, they move forward together.

Setting Sailis clearly the first book in an epic historical series.  Though this appears to be Elliot’s first novel for the LDS market, she is not new to LDS readers as she has contributed to all of the church magazines and is the South Pacific editor for the Ensign.

Because the author chose to begin the story from three different perspectives, it appears a little disjointed at first and some of the sudden leaps in time as the characters progress from children and young adults to the point where their lives connect feel too abrupt.  However, the author’s warm and inviting writing style, soon clears up any confusion.  This is a book I would classify as literary because of its overall excellence, its beautiful but unobtrusive vocabulary, strong character growth, and depth of subject matter.  Yet it’s a book I don’t hesitate to recommend to genre readers.  There’s a strong plot line, believable action, a satisfying love story element, and scenes that invoke a few tears. It’s a great start to a new year of reading pleasure.

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One look at the cover of Josi S. Kilpack’s new book, Devil’s Food Cake, is enough to make my mouth water.  Actually the cake plays a very minor role in the book.  It could even have been deleted, and it wouldn’t have affected the story, but that cover is truly yummy.

Once again obnoxious, busybody widow Sadie Hoffmiller finds herself in the middle of a murder investigation.  At the library fund raiser dinner, over which Sadie who is obsessed with food, has presided over the menu, the guest speaker’s agent is murdered in front of the entire crowd of diners.  Sadie is a witness to the murder and feels some responsibility for her friend, who was helping onstage when the murder occurred, and because of her position on the library committee.  Her attempts to help solve the murder and assist the police in collecting clues is met with disapproval by the officers who discount the valuable clues she has collected.  Even her romantic interest, Detective Pete Cunningham, tells her in no uncertain terms to mind her own business and go home.

Of course Sadie doesn’t go home.  She’s involved in one delay after another.  When she finally does get home, her son Shawn becomes involved, too, in his mother’s quest to unmask a murderer.  The story takes off in a tangle of twists and turns as Sadie pursues one clue after another.  And though she tries to communicate with Pete to let him know what she has learned, he doesn’t answer her calls.  Escaping from a vicious attack, she ends up in a stranger’s bushes and manages to drag him into her quest for answers, justice, and culinary delights.  Even when the mystery appears to be resolved there are still a few surprises.

I love reading mysteries, and though cosies, rank near the bottom of my preferences in this genre, there’s no mistaking Kilpack is one of the best in this field and not just in the LDS market.  Lemon Tart was good, English Trifle was better, but with Devil’s Food Cake she delivers a polished novel that can hold its own anywhere.

Though poor Sadie isn’t a particularly likable character, she still manages to engage the reader’s sympathies and Kilpack portrays her so well, she never slips out of the role assigned to her.  Secondary characters are also believable and possess a subtle mixture of good and bad qualities.  The plot is developed and fine-tuned. Though I guessed the identity of the villain and the motive early on, it was strictly a guess, and I found myself doubting that guess a time or two before I reached the conclusion. Oh yes, there are also recipes, a big plus for some readers, though I tend to skip over them.  Mystery fans are going to love this one.

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Traci Hunter Abramson has quickly risen as one of the top mystery/suspense writers in the LDS publishing world.  Her new book Crossfireonce again draws on her CIA background to provide a heart-pounding tale of a female special agent trapped in deep cover after her handler suffers a medical emergency, leaving her with no contact with the CIA and no way to share vital information concerning a planned deadly terrorist attack.  It falls to the Saints Squad, a group of LDS Navy Seals to find a way to establish contact and to act on the information they hope to gain.  Lives are on the line as Seth and Vanessa find themselves sequestered in a Nicaraguan fortress and thousands of unsuspecting Americans become the target of a fiendish terror plot.
Abramson has mastered the ability to keep readers, both men and women, on the edge of their chairs and staying up way past their bedtimes with her gripping tales.  In this high action novel as in her previous novels, she brings in a touch of romance, but spends little time on romantic details, which could be why she draws readers from both genders.
Background information concerning her two major characters is a little vague and could have been developed a little more.  Secondary characters are generally developed well enough to fill their roles but it would have been better to know as much about Ramir’s motives as we learn about the drug lord’s.  The plot is exciting, convoluted, and satisfying.  Action novel fans are going to love this one

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Many of us who are currently writing fiction for the LDS market first discovered this field through the novels of Dorothy Keddington and she quickly became the beacon light for many aspiring writers.  We haven’t heard much from her in recent years, but two months ago her new book, The Fairy Thorn, quietly slipped onto bookstore shelves.  Unfortunately it didn’t arrive in time for nominations for the Whitneys for 2009, but is copyrighted for that year, making it ineligible for 2010.

Keddington’s novel is the story of a woman who lives a quiet, sedate life with her aunt and uncle on an island near Seattle, but who dreams of exciting adventure and a monumental love such as is found in the classic romance, Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne du Maurier. Her aunt and uncle leave on a two-week cruise, and she is haunted by her aunt’s assumption that, while they’re gone, she’ll just go on doing the same things she’s done every day for years.  In a small spurt of rebellion, she visits a beach where she sees a tall ship with a laughing sailor high in its rigging.  She is startled to meet the sailor the next day and discover he is the son of the owners of the grand old mansion she cares for and for which she arranges tours for tourists on her off day from her library job, and that he has found her secret diary.  A fast-paced romance follows, along with exotic settings and more than a hint of danger.

The Fairy Thorn is filled with descriptive language and the feel of one of the old classic romances.  It closely follows Lucy and Duncan from first overtures to each other to a full awareness of their feelings for each other without resorting to the sappy silliness or overdone erotica found in many modern romances.  The reader sees Lucy grow in strength and confidence to become in reality the person she dreams of being.  The plot moves at an even pace and the suspense element serves to enhance the relationship between Duncan and Lucy.

Keddington doesn’t write specifically for an LDS audience, but this book like her others, supports LDS standards, though she does use a an occasional expletive not usually found in LDS novels.  Women of all ages, not just those of us who fell in love with JayHawk and Return to Red Castle thirty years ago, will enjoy this tender love story.

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Abish, Daughter of Godby K.C. Grant is another novel that speculates on the unknown background of a woman briefly mentioned in the Book of Mormon as the queen’s servant who spreads the word of the royal couple’s unconscious state when they are overwhelmed by the teachings of Ammon. 

In this novel Abish is the daughter of a Lamanite Healer who has been sent at a young age to the King’s castle to serve as a companion to  his daughter.  When the daughter marries, Abish is sent back to her family where she struggles against her mother’s cruelties. To escape her mother, she spends most of her time with her father and learns a great deal about medicinal herbs and practices.  She falls in love with a young man with crippled legs who is beneath her station and is devastated when her parents betroth her to a cruel and malicious warrior.  When her father is murdered and her fianc attempts to rush their marriage, she runs away with the man to whom she has given her heart.  Again tragedy strikes as their small boat is caught in a terrible storm.  She is rescued by Nephites and lives with them until her meeting with Ammon precipitates her return to her homeland.

This book shows some serious research into the historical era of the book’s setting and excellent knowledge of the vegetation and geographic realities of South America.  The story primarily deals with a young woman’s emotional and spiritual growth, but it is accomplished through a series of events and actions, Abish’s relationships with others, and her unrelenting commitment to a higher standard than that which she finds among her people.  It is also a story of conversion, courage, forgiveness, and selflessness. Like most novels there is a romance angle, but it doesn’t dominate the story.  With its strong spiritual growth theme it could have easily become preachy, but isn’t.  This book targets adult readers, both men and women, but will be enjoyed by older teens as well.

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Michelle Thompson is a new writer with a release that came out just before the end of 2009.  Taming the Wind falls somewhere between adult and young adult fiction.  It’s the story of fifteen-year-old Claire who is left the only survivor in a tragic car accident that takes her family.  Going from the euphoric high of winning the state soccer championship to waking up alone in a hospital bed is only the beginning as Claire deals with major injuries, physical pain, going to live with grandparents she has never seen before, living on a farm instead of in a city, a new school, loss of her parents and brothers, no contact with lifelong friends, and struggling with emotional pain and guilt.  Even the loving care of her grandparents and a young man who comes daily to help her grandfather with the chores is not enough to motivate her to move on with her life.

The narration of the story shifts between first and third person.  It’s always first person when the story is told from Claire’s point of view, but switches to third person for other character’s points of view which I found irritating.  It is much stronger character based than plot based and does a good job of drawing the reader into vicariously experiencing Claire’s emotions.  A few pages into the book, I nearly put it aside because the language and sentence structure seemed clearly intended for a very young teen audience, but I decided to give it a few chapters and I found those parts dealing with Claire’s social and emotional adjustment, her setbacks, and growth better written.  Those parts also cover areas pertinent to survivors of any age dealing with a devastating trauma.  There are some questions raised in the story that are never adequately explained and the conversion story tacked onto the ending doesn’t feel realistic without better lead-ins throughout the story.  This book will appeal to young women more than other readers.

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SETTING SAIL by Grace Elliot, published by Covenant Communications, softcover, 309 pages, $17.95
Click to buy: Setting Sail

DEVIL’S FOOD CAKE by Josi S. Kilpack, published by Deseret Book, softcover, 361 pages, $17.99
Click to buy: Devil’s Food Cake

CROSSFIRE by Traci Hunter Abramson, published by Covenant Communications, softcover, 239 pages, $15.95
Click to buy: Crossfire

THE FAIRY THORN by Dorothy Keddington, published by Stonehaven Publishing, softcover, 288 pages, $14.95

ABISH, Daughter of God by K.C. Grant, published by Covenant Communications, softcover, 322 pages, $16.95
Click to buy: Abish

TAMING THE WIND by Michelle Thompson, published by Bonneville Books, softcover, 166 pages, $12.99

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