Four Compelling Novels from LDS Authors
This month I’ve had the privilege of reading three exceptional novels that on the surface appear to have a lot in common. All three have historical settings and take place in the first half of the twentieth century. All three deal with dramatic life-altering experiences. All three have the kind of literary depth that stays with the reader. But from there on, they are unique, individual, and are vastly separated in place, situation, and trials. Each offers a memorable reading experience. The fourth novel I’ve chosen to review this month is as modern as the other three are historic, but as compelling and memorable.
Romance novels are often maligned because of the simplistic formula central to a large share of the books in this genre, but once in awhile one comes along that breaks free of the supposed mold and delivers a powerful love story that touches the hearts of even those who don’t generally read love stories. Such is The Last Waltz by G. G. Vandagriff. There will be many who will insist this book is not a romance, but rather an historical novel. They may be right because it is also a powerful story of Austria in the years leading up to World War I and continues on through the rise of Hitler’s power. The smaller print beneath the title aptly describes the content as “A novel of Love and War.”
It is the year 1913 and Amalia Faulhaber at 19 is the daughter of a wealthy Austrian merchant and great granddaughter of a Count. She moves in aristocratic circles and is trained for little more than flirting and snaring a suitable husband with a title. She is shocked and embarrassed when her fianc, Prussian Baron Eberhard von Waldburg breaks off their engagement in order to return to Germany and a commission in the army.
Keeping her broken engagement a secret from all but her grandmother and an uncle, the impulsive young woman courts social ruin by becoming involved with a Polish doctor, Andrzej Zaleski, who has already been claimed by another woman. This is a time of great political intrigue and the rise of fascism, communism, and socialism. It’s a time that saw the destruction of monarchies and the rise of dictators representing the various political factions in Europe . It is a time too when Vienna was the apex of European society. From her uncle Amalia learns a great deal about the socialist movement sweeping across Europe . She also becomes keenly aware of the tenets of democracy from his friend, Baron Rudolf Von Schoenenburg, and from her doctor friend, she learns of independence and democracy. A quarrel and harsh words send her fleeing to Berlin and the baron, who in spite of his noble sacrifice loves her. Their hasty marriage precedes three years of heartache and a solidification of her emerging views on democracy.
Schoenenburg and Zaleski continue to play a prominent role in her life as she faces personal loss, the end of the war and the devastating aftermath, growing political involvement, motherhood, and at last the rising threats of Stalin and Hitler. Torn between the love of two heroic men and her love for her country, she meets life, love, and war head on.
Published by Shadow Mountain , this novel is not specifically LDS but there are strong religious overtones as Amalia seeks a personal relationship with God beyond what she can find in the structured churches of her childhood. She comes to accept man’s responsibility instead of blaming God for the wars and cruelty of the turbulent time in which she lives. Through her work in hospitals and associations with other nurses and her wounded patients she learns that God works through human hands.
As Amalia faces struggles with her family, betrayal, love, madness, obsession, patriotism, and a world torn by conflict, she grows and matures from a sheltered, impulsive teenager to a mature woman of nearly forty, secure in her beliefs and values. She also learns lessons concerning the differing facets of love, passion, fidelity, and sacrifice.
Though I read an advance review copy of this epic tale, I found few errors or typos, so I expect the bound volume will be excellent in this regard. The background has been researched with tremendous care by the author who lived in Austria as a young woman on a study abroad program and through her years of fine tuning the story which followed. Passions ran high during the time period Vandagriff portrays concerning the different political movements in Europe prior to and during the World Wars, and she has presented these philosophies and the wars that resulted in an understandable and accurate fashion. Her characters are strong and likable, yet flawed in ways the reader can visualize and accept. The plot and theme carry brilliantly throughout the entire almost six hundred page novel without the repetition or sags often seen in novels of this length.
The Last Waltz is a book to savor. It educates; it is filled with action; the tender love story is mirrored in the political conflicts of the day, it is filled with points to ponder, and it entertains. The only fault I found with this novel is its length. It is difficult to find time to read a novel this size, and the fact that it is a hard story to set down, can conflict with getting anything else accomplished. Yet I found it worth the time expended and I recommend this book to all readers.
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Liz Adair’s new novel, Counting the Cost is billed as a love story, though I’m not certain I would classify it as such. It’s part historical and part western with a strong literary element. Though it is a powerful and moving story of the relationship between a New Mexico cowboy and a New York socialite, it is primarily the story of two stubborn individuals who share a powerful attraction, but have little in common. Love? Or something else? I’ll let the reader decide.
Adair is well-known for her Spider Latham series and The Mist of Quarry Harbor . This book is nothing like either of them other than an understanding of rural life and people.
Heck Benham, the handsome cowboy, is content with his life as a ranch hand and only aspires to become a ranch foreman and to win a few rodeo purses. His faith in God is strong and he accepts the social strictures of his Western community without question.
Ruth Reynolds married her abusive husband simply because she needed the financial support of a husband after her businessman father and multi-times-married mother died, leaving her with no means of support. When her husband takes her to New Mexico where he is to be employed on a relative’s ranch as an accountant, she attempts to run away and gets her car stuck in an arroyo. Heck comes to her rescue and soon realizes he’s never been so tempted by a married woman or any woman before. Over the ensuing months he tries to avoid her, but when her husband beats and rapes her, Heck runs away with her.
Over the next couple of years they live in run down shanties with no amenities. Heck’s way of life is hard for a woman accustomed to luxuries such as running water and electricity. She is socially ostracized as well because of their adulterous relationship. He has no understanding of her need for nice clothes and the comforts of modern 1930s living. She is insensitive to his values and oblivious to matters that concern him. Her secrecy and manipulation tactics push him to accept work building a dam and living in town, and though he hates doing so, he does it for her sake. The move is the beginning of her rise as a fashion designer and the destruction of his dreams.
Heck’s cowboy philosophy never penetrates very deeply into Ruth’s mind or conscience. In one passage he tries to explain how torn he is by the conflicts in their lives by telling her about an unpleasant childhood experience.
” Seymour ‘s mama had told him to get rid of some kittens. I think she thought he would drown them in the trough, but he had other ideas. He was gonna shoot them with the shotgun. Only thing was, he only had one shell. So, he turned a bucket upside down and told me my job was to keep all those kittens up on the bucket while he stood ten feet away with the shotgun. He was gonna blast them as soon as I had ’em ready.” Heck shook his head at the memory picture of himself at six, trying to keep five playful kittens up on the bucket long enough for Seymour Cooper to get a good shot. . . ‘I often think—that that’s like life. You’re just trying to keep the cats up on the bucket and get out of the way before the shotgun goes off . . .” His voice trailed away and he was silent again.
He’s equally unable to understand why things like telephones and electricity are so important to her. She doesn’t understand his search for spiritual meaning in his life and he’s at a loss to understand her indifference to God or to moral values.
Counting the Cost is not the kind of book someone might stay up all night to finish, especially the early portion of the book which moves at a slow pace. Even through the slowest portions of the book, however, the historical background given of the Southwest is fascinating, authentic, and worth the read. I particularly liked the interaction between Heck and his horses. I liked too, the sensitivity shown to the major characters’ growing, changing views of life. Some readers may be offended by some scenes, such as the castration of cattle or the intense physical relationship of the two major characters. I found these scenes leave no doubt concerning what is happening, but are not explicit enough to be objectionable.
Though this book wasn’t written primarily for the LDS market and never mentions the Church, Church members will recognize the young missionary who plays a great supporting role toward the end of the book as one of our own and there are a few quotes taken from the Book of Mormon along with some defining views of the Godhead straight out of our basic beliefs. Even though I found Ruth exasperating and shallow at times, I still found much to like and many things with which to sympathize in both major characters. I liked the secondary characters too and felt they were authentic individuals in their own right.
This is another book I can recommend to all readers.
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Artie Call is one of those kids who is always in some kind of trouble and if he isn’t, he gets blamed for it anyway. He is the featured character in Jerry Borrowman’s newest novel, One Last Chance, set in the depression era.
Artie has no one, but an elderly, senile grandfather to look after him. Sometimes he steals for food and sometimes he goes along with a prank for something to do. When one of Artie’s pranks lands him in juvenile court and his grandfather is sent to an old folks home, Artie becomes the ward of a man who treats him badly.
Resentment and blackmail by a couple of boys with serious mischief in mind lead him to involvement in a robbery. When the robbery goes bad and Artie stays behind to help the injured victim instead of escaping with the other two thieves, his guardian refuses to have any more to do with him and he’s soon heading for juvenile hall.
His victim, a wealthy, but elderly widow sees something good in him and volunteers for custody of him. Between the outspoken widow and her chauffeur, he learns lessons in becoming a man and an honorable citizen, but the lessons don’t come easy. Along with a new way of living, he is exposed to the world of automobiles. These cars aren’t the ordinary Fords of the day, but the grand old luxury and racing cars such as the Dusenberg.
As Artie learns to trust the new people in his life, he faces threats and must defend his honor with his life. He learns the meaning of family, discovers his own faith, and witnesses true honor.
This timely story speaks frankly of the trials of the depression era, but it also reveals the strengths ordinary people drew on in their time of economic trial. It presents a timeless message of hope, never giving up, and making the best of the circumstances life presents each individual in spite of discouraging trials.
Borrowman’s Artie is an interesting character and it was enjoyable to watch him grow from a defensive, desperate child to a young man who knows the meaning of integrity. Though the story is set during a desperate time, easily equated with today’s economic problems, there is something uplifting in seeing people find meaning in their lives by reaching out to others for help and to give help.
The world of vintage cars was a fun change of pace and one that held my attention. I liked the budding romance as Artie grew older. The discovery of moral truths is handled well without becoming preachy. The characters are realistic and show believable growth. The Boise , Idaho setting was nice and revealed historical facts about that city not well-known to many people. My only fault with this book is the interruptive point of view changes which muddle the story’s clarity. Though the book is intended for an adult audience, I think it will also serve to fill one of LDS fiction’s worst gaps, that of the adolescent, non-fantasy reading male. This book too receives my recommendation.
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How does a man come to terms with the loss of his wife and children, his career, and his faith? Shadow Hunter is a modern espionage story of a CIA agent, Sam Ryker, who is stationed in Cairo and on the trail of a terrorist who has savaged the Middle East for twenty years. His pursuit goes terribly wrong, leaving him officially dead, and all he loves gone. Nine months later his despair has led him to the verge of ending his life when the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, an old friend from an earlier time, tracks him down believing he is still alive and calls to ask for his help. A missionary has been killed and three others kidnapped. Enlisting the aid of two trusted agents and friends, one from Egypt and one from Israel , the three set out without official sanctions and skirting the laws of three nations to free the missionaries and capture a terrorist called the Chameleon.
This is a novel that keeps the reader at a high tension level and is filled with breath-taking twists and turns. There’s a strong feel of authenticity in both the setting and the background details of the three intelligence services involved. I liked the way the authors brought out strong, positive aspects of the cultural and religious beliefs of the countries and characters involved. Not only are religious beliefs and customs of the three major religions of the area handled tastefully, but the portions specific to the Church are believable and moving. The two authors’ credentials point up their familiarity with their subject. Jeffrey R. Galli’s career was devoted to law enforcement having served as a military policeman in Cold War Germany and later as warden of the Utah State Prison. Guy M. Galli is a professional mediator, negotiator, and technical writer who was born abroad and educated in Middle Eastern studies.
Though I found the plot and characters in this novel handled well and I thoroughly enjoyed the high action, I was disappointed in the copy editing. There are far more omitted words and small typos than there should be, especially for a story of this caliber. Fans of action/suspense fiction will enjoy this book, and like the other three books reviewed today, it receives my highest recommendation.
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THE LAST WALTZ by G.G. Vandagriff, published by Shadow Mountain , softcover, 591 pages, $19.95
COUNTING THE COST by Liz Adair, published by Inglestone Publishing, softcover, 335 pages, $17.95
ONE LAST CHANCE by Jerry Borrowman, published by Covenant Communications, softcover, 273 pages, $16.95
SHADOW HUNTER by Guy M. Galli and Jeffrey R. Galli, published by Covenant Communications, softcover, 291 pages, $17.95