Speaking of Book Reviews
By Jennie Hansen
A question arose recently on a blog six LDS writers share, concerning why reviewers of LDS novels only seem to review books they like and they only have positive things to say about them. One person responded with a reminder that the reviews I write for Meridian do include a look at the flaws and weaknesses in the novels I review, though what I write tends to be primarily positive.
Frankly, the comment surprised me because the few reviews I see by mainstream reviewers are generally negative where LDS fiction is concerned. (I’ll admit the reviewers are frequently critical of other works as well.) It seems to be the delight of most reviewers to choose review subjects they can either pick apart or endorse for maximum shock value. Many follow popular trends rather than choose books for review because they personally like or dislike them or because the author has shown particular skill.
The Association for Mormon Letters provides reviews of LDS books, but they tend to show a preference for reviewing literary and edgy LDS-oriented novels, though they do occasionally review a genre novel. Their reviewers seem open-minded and fair and I haven’t noticed a tendency toward being too nice in most of their offerings. Neither do they ridicule and poke fun of books they don’t particularly like, but do point out their reasoning behind negative comments.
I admit I review primarily books I like. There are two reasons for this. A few years ago a popular reviewer in a large daily newspaper reviewed an LDS novel by an inexperienced, new writer and trashed it thoroughly. I worked at a large library at that time and was totally amazed to see how many people came in asking for that book after it got such a terrible review. A friend who worked at a local bookstore told me he noticed the same increase in sales of the book in his store.
When I became a reviewer, I decided I wouldn’t give free advertising to bad books. In time I came to realize that not only had the reviewer contributed to turning a poorly written novel into a bestseller, but he had missed an important point in his negative review. The book, in spite of its many flaws, spoke to a large number of under-represented readers who were so grateful to have their literary needs addressed, and they were willing to overlook the novel’s shortcomings.
The other reason I don’t review books I don’t like or that fail to engage my attention is time. I don’t care to waste my precious reading time finishing a book I dislike so I can humiliate the author by pointing out what a rotten book he/she wrote. I like LDS fiction and like to think that through reviews of some of the better offerings, I can offer encouragement to the writers and introduce readers to a delightful form of entertainment within the framework of LDS moral standards.
Most LDS fiction is well written, but as a whole still has some growing to do. The language is clean, the actions and concepts fall within LDS standards, and the characters are generally ones with which members of the Church can identify. The larger LDS publishing companies are also sticklers for doctrinal accuracy. The sub genres are now so varied almost everyone can find the types of books they enjoy most and are not stuck with “one size fits all” as was the case a few years ago.
I began to wonder whether the topic under consideration actually concerned reviews, or if the blogger was commenting on the reader comments found on bookstore and author web sites. Many bookstores with an online presence allow those browsing their offerings to submit a “review” of books they’ve read in hopes that comments from those who have read the book will encourage others to buy it. Authors and publishers love these little endorsements, though it’s not really accurate to call them reviews in most cases. Of course these comments are generally positive since the bookstores are not likely to post negative comments.
Many authors include reviews of their books and in some cases, reviews of other’s books, on their web sites as a means of encouraging return traffic to their sites. Again these are mostly positive in nature.
The person initiating the comments on the blog also said he wished there was a comprehensive compilation of all LDS books and that every book, good or bad, could be reviewed. That is an impossibility at this time. Eventually, I suspect some enterprising entrepreneur will produce a review journal, but for now I’m pleased to see interest in LDS novel reviews growing, along with an understanding that reviews are a means of improving an art form. Informed, honest criticism is not only meant to inform the public, but to serve as a growth tool for authors. Just a few years ago reviews of LDS fiction were hard to find. Now they are popping up in many locations as both formal reviews and casual endorsements by people who simply know what they like.
Two books I recently read have more flaws than I usually find acceptable, but both have more positive merits than negative. The negative points are basically minor flaws or matters of my personal opinion, while the positive aspects of each are major areas of achievement. I’ve chosen to review them because they demonstrate a point I’d like to make. It isn’t necessary for a book to be perfect, though that is the goal of every writer and publisher, to make it an enjoyable, worthwhile read.
The first is 80 Miles from Nowhere by Melissa Ann Aylstock. This is the story of a young man, Lance, whose car breaks down between Salt Lake City and Wendover. While he waits for a tow truck he discovers a gun and military dog tags buried in the salt and sand a short distance from his car and decides to keep them.
The tow truck diver befriends Lance and invites him to move in with him and two other roommates while they work on his car. One of the roommates, Ben, and Ben’s sister, Enin, who is a frequent visitor at the house the boys rent, become particularly close friends. Through a series of clever deductions, the man who hid the gun discovers who took it and comes after it because it links him to a murder he committed. The deranged man places all five of the young people in serious jeopardy, which brings the sheriff and their bishop who is also a sheriff’s deputy into the plot. Action and excitement follow.
Most LDS novels featuring nineteen- to early twenty-somethings, feature college students, and are terribly white collar. This book breaks that mold. The characters are very much blue collar. They work on cars, have grease under their fingernails, four-wheel, stop at outhouses, love trucks, and eat at MacDonalds. Mag lights and tow ropes are standard gear in their vehicles. They target practice with rifles for recreation and their vocabulary is not the same as that of their college-bound contemporaries. The four young men are far from being the stereotypical young LDS men of their age found in most LDS fiction. Aylstock is to be commended for her realistic portrayal of these young men and for the way she deals with the doubts and questions facing young adults in the Church.
Having lived in Hunter and worked in Magna, I found the setting for this novel sadly misplaced and suspect it will jar other readers familiar with the area. Giving an imaginary location the names of real places is not a good idea. Both Ben’s and Lance’s disaffection with the Church is too vague, leaving the reader unable to relate to the cause of their rebellion or to pinpoint what exactly set them off. Enin’s name is silly and she’s a bit too preachy. A climactic resolution relies too heavily on coincidence and the ending is a little too tidy. The book cover is dismal and there’s no page that tells something about the author. Still, I enjoyed the book and think others will too. The plot flows smoothly, the characters are likable and clever, there’s action aplenty, and the overall tone of the book is hopeful and positive. Aylstock faces a number of biases and assumptions straight on to deliver a story that won’t be quickly forgotten.
I’ll Be Seeing You by Jerry Borrowman continues the story of Dan O’Brian from ‘Til the Boys Come Home, but this time much of the story is told through the eyes of Dan’s son, Cory, and Cory’s friend, Nate Brown. Cory and Nate meet when the O’Brian family befriends a Jewish family, the Browns from New York, who play a prominent role in this story when the father arrives in Salt Lake to set up the first Tabernacle Choir broadcast.
Learning where Dan’s love of music and the compromises he must make in his life because of his wartime exposure to mustard gas take him completes the story for those who grew to love Danny in the first volume of this series. The greatest poignancy of the story is in sharing Danny’s thoughts and fears as his son goes to war.
The drama that plays out in the Brown family as their only son leaves the Jewish faith, converts to Mormonism, and marries a Mormon girl causes the reader to think about the serious nature of breaking with tradition, agency, compromise, and unconditional love. This subplot is carried out with commendable finesse.
As Borrowman usually does, he has created characters with which the reader will laugh, cry, and sometimes just ache. Being an historical novel, the author is somewhat limited in plot development by the historical facts surrounding his story, but he blends historical facts and the imagined lives of his characters superbly.
Borrowman is at his best in the battle scenes. He gives the reader a firsthand feel for both flying and being submerged beneath the sea as he places one young man in a bomber and the other in a submarine.
Dan’s obsession with music is essential to the story, but Borrowman carries it to an excess that nearly bogs the story down in places, leaving an impression that this book is slower than the first in the series. He also incorporates two huge coincidences into the ending that break the feeling of reality for me. The last few chapters have little “show” and are mostly “tell,” which relegates the end of the war to epilogue status.
I’m not aware of any “perfect” novel, but these two are excellent and are strong reminders that though LDS fiction has weaknesses, it has far more to applaud than to disparage. And though I picked these two books because I like them and it would be easy to simply point out their strong qualities, reviews of them would be less than honest if I failed to mention those few things I found disappointing.
80 Miles From Nowhere By Melissa Ann Aylstock,, Published by Bonneville Books, 223 pages, $13.99
I’ll Be Seeing You By Jerry Borrowman, Published by Covenant Communications, 386 pages, $22.95
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