My annual overview starts with fiction and memoirs written for the national market. Next month I will post reviews of the Mormon/Independent market and more.
Speculative fiction has been among the most popular and most successful genres for Mormon authors for the last 20 years. 2013 was a particularly newsworthy year for Mormon speculative fiction authors, with Hugo Award wins, a wide release film adaption, public controversy and boycotts, loads of best-sellers, and promising debuts. Elsewhere, ex-Mormons seem more interested in literary depictions of Mormons than practicing Mormons, and the cornucopia of Young Adult and Middle Grade fiction continued to flow.
2013 was Brandon Sanderson’s year. Sanderson wrote the best-selling novel by a Mormon in 2013, A Memory of Light, completing the Wheel of Time series created by the late Robert Jordan. He also started two new YA series, won two Hugo Awards (for his 2012 novella The Emperor’s Soul and his podcast Writing Excuses), and published several novellas and short stories. Sanderson’s output, in terms of both sheer volume as well as quality, is amazing. It is no wonder that Writing Excuses (a team effort, which also includes Mary Robinette Kowal, Jordan Sanderson, Howard Tayler, and Dan Wells) is regarded as one of the best tutorials for speculative fiction authors.
Sanderson wrote the final three volumes of Jordan’s epic fantasy series, based on Jordan’s extensive notes and outlines. Publishers Weekly wrote, “Those unfamiliar with the series may be left cold by chapter after chapter of battle scenes, death, glory, and heroism, which are interspersed with tactics, politics, and plotting. Those more invested in the series, however, will be on the edge of their seats to witness first-hand the fates of their favorite characters as well as the world itself. Sanderson successfully channels Jordan’s voice to produce this stunningly thorough wrap-up to a long and impressive series.” The book debuted at #1 on multiple lists, and sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Amazon says it was its 22nd best-selling 2013 adult print book, and Barnes & Noble say it was its 30th best-selling adult print book.
Sanderson’s began two new Young Adult fantasy series in 2013. The Rithmatist is set in an alternative universe where twentieth-century North America still has Di Vinci-era technology (“gearpunk”), and groups of children are chosen to be trained in magical skills at a Hogwarts-type school. It received starred reviews from both Kirkus and Publishers Weekly (“The inhumanly prolific author of the Mistborn trilogy conjures similarly baroque magic for a lapidary series opener aimed at a somewhat younger audience . . . Fantasy readers should devour this well-crafted mix of action and setup, enriched by a thoroughly detailed cultural and historical background and capped by a distinctly unsettling twist.”). It was also named one of the New York Times’ seven “Notable Children’s Books of 2013”. Steelheart is set in contemporary Chicago, where a “calamity” gives a few people superpowers, and the powers corrupt the new “Epics” into becoming cruel tyrants. It has a Marvel comic tone, violent but playful. (PW: “Although readers may not be surprised at the twists that arise, the near-constant action, Sanderson’s whiz-bang imaginings, and a fully realized sense of danger (the brutal opening scene alone will hook many) make this an absolute page-turner.”). It was named Audible Audience Favorite in the voting for Audiobook of the Year, one of the AV Club’s 5 Unsung Gems of the year, among the 15 Barnes and Noble Best New Books for Teens and among the 20 Amazon Best Teen & Young Adult Books.
Mormons in literary fiction
More on speculative fiction in a bit. Before that, I want to talk about an uptick in nationally published novels and memoirs in which Mormonism is a central theme. This is exciting for me. I think a major point of this blog and my column is an interest in literature that addresses our faith and culture in thought- and spirit-provoking ways. And after our recent “Mormon moment”, one would think that authors and publishers would become more interested in creating such works. Sure enough, some did appear in 2013. The only problem was that (nearly) all of them were by ex-Mormons! Yep, finally some people are talking seriously about Mormonism in nationally published literature, it just isn’t practicing Mormons themselves. In literary fiction, two well-regarded young authors published portraits of contemporary Mormons in a variety of stages of faith, American author Ryan McIlvain’s Elders and British author Jenn Ashworth’s The Friday Gospels.
McIlvain, a returned missionary, set his debut novel in Brazil, where a serious, ambitious Brazilian Elder and a troubled American Elder struggle with their faith and their callings. The book received high marks for depicting the interior lives of the missionaries. One reviewer said, “It is one of the best cultural depictions of a mission I’ve come across in terms of capturing the everyday experience while also being attuned to deeper issues that come with global missionary work (situating the church within different cultures, the politics of scriptural translations, etc.)”. Mormon reviewers in particular, however, have criticized the book for its cynicism and the too-familiar post-Mormon ending of the fallen missionary. Jesse Christensen wrote, “This is a cynical novel that is more about losing faith than finding it. However, I also think that the argument could be made that this book is one of the most true depictions of the modern Mormon experience published to date. One of the major tensions in modern Mormon culture is between doing and being; a common theme in General Conference talks for at least a decade has been the importance of true conversion in place of busy-ness or activity. Mission presidents, ward leaders, and parents all have to balance measuring and encourage specific behavior such as lessons, church attendance, and baptism while still trying to convey the idea that is not the behavior itself that is the end goal. McIlvain’s novel may not be the story of Mormonism that we want to tell, but it realistically portrays the danger of what can happen when expectations created by a performance-based model for religion meet reality.”
Jenn Ashworth’s The Friday Gospels has received less attention than Elders, perhaps because it was published in the United Kingdom. It is the story of a disastrous missionary homecoming Friday in the lives of a Lancashire family. “His homecoming is the tipping domino in a line of plot twists, which eventually sees all the family secrets come spilling out. Told in the family’s five voices or ‘gospels’, this novel explores the shame and guilt that can arise in tight religious communities” (Scottish Review of Books). Julie Nichols wrote, “I admire how Ashworth presents prototypical Mormon moments to an audience that may or may not be LDS. They’re neither apologetic nor false. The focus is on the characters, their individual flaws and needs, so that the Mormon part of their lives is seen to be both cause and motivator and the essential backdrop for the decisions they finally make . . . Ashworth’s skill throughout in creating character and scene; her facility in allowing plot to move forward and backward in just the right order so that we understand why what’s happening on this Friday has to come together in just this way; and her watchful care in weaving Mormonness into the fabric of the story, so that it’s essential but not overbearing.” The novel mixes humor with violence, and in the end the five find redemption in their family bonds, not religion.
Shawn Vestal, another ex-Mormon author, and a writer for the Spokane Spokesman-Review, saw the release of his debut short story collection Godforsaken Idaho. In includes stories of the afterlife, the rugged Northwest, and the early days of Mormonism. Kirkus Reviews, in a starred review, said it was “A provocative and revelatory debut, filled with stories about losing faith and trying (often in vain) to find purpose, mainly set amid the sparsely populated Mormon country of the rugged Northwest.”
Then there is Nicole Hardy’s memoir Confessions of a Latter-day Virgin, about aging out of a singles ward, her frustrated sexuality, and eventually leaving the Church at age 36. Kirkus Reviews commented, “She still managed to maintain respect for the imperfect and often contradictory system that, though unable to completely accept or understand her need for independence, still ‘taught [her] so much about integrity and love.’ A searching, sensual celebration of one woman’s struggle for identity and autonomy.” When I outline the 2013 in Mormon theater, we will also see an interesting uptick of non-Mormons writing plays with significant Mormon content.
There was one nationally-published memoir by a practicing Mormon, Josh Hanagarne’s The World’s Strongest Librarian. Hanagarne talks about his struggle with Tourette’s Syndrome, including the role of his religion in his struggle. Kirkus Reviews said, “Filled with patently imaginary discourse, clever invented conversation and just a hint of the inspirational, this text on how the writer copes is surprisingly amiable. Along the way, readers will learn about the workings of LDS ministration and a puzzling physical disorder. A clever, affable story of one Mormon, his family, his vocation and his implacable ailment.” It was named one of NPR’s Great Reads of 2013, and placed third in the GoodReads readers’ poll for favorite memoirs of 2013.
Now, I am not saying that Mormon authors need to write about Mormon topics. I am happy Mormon authors follow their muse, and write all kinds of works. I have a tribal interest in their successes. But with all of the able Mormon authors publishing today, I am disappointed that most national literary works which look at the impact of Mormon faith are written by non- or ex-Mormons, rather than active participants. Mark Oppenheimer’s New York Times piece “Mormons Offer Cautionary Lesson on Sunny Outlook vs. Literary Greatness” was widely criticized by Mormon authors for the claim that Mormon authors favored “sunny and optimistic” themes over tragedy and negative emotions. I agree with those who thought that Oppenheimer was off-base in his appraisal. But what a critic could say is that Mormon authors have avoided serious depictions of their faith in fiction (with some exceptions within the smaller Mormon market world). One prominent older Mormon author said to me in an email last week, “I guess what concerns me is that twenty or thirty years ago we were all talking about a blossoming Mormon literature, but I don’t see much evidence of it now . . . What we don’t see are probing, ambiguous pictures of Mormon life. I’m not sure we’re going to have a literature of that kind.”
Writing about Mormon characters or issues is probably not seen as a winning career move. Orson Scott Card’s career may be illuminating. From 1983 to 2004 Card interspersed several novels with Mormon or ancient scripture themes (Saints, Folk of the Fringe, Seventh Son, Lost Boys, The Memory of Earth, Stone Tables, Women of the Covenant series). I think these books tended to be the lowest selling of Card’s large oeuvre (probably excepting Seventh Son). I greatly appreciate Card’s interest in using Mormon symbols and tropes in his work, and I can understand if he really has decided to avoid them recently.
UPDATE: I was not aware of Jennifer Quist’s Love Letters of the Angels of Death when I wrote this. All my complaints are gone, I now declare 2013 a lovely year for literary Mormon fiction. A Canadian author with her debut novel from a Canadian press, most of us here at this blog learned about it when it was named a finalist for a Whitney Award. Written in the second person, from a husband to his wife, the novel tells the story of a young-ish couple, never identified explicitly as Mormons, but the story is thick with a mature Mormon faith. Publishers Weekly wrote, “Cheerfully unsentimental, the work manages a surprising joyful tone for a novel obsessed with inexorable death, with the idea that to be born is to take the first step towards the grave. Told in the second person, the work is a song of praise to mono no aware, the pathos of transience. It nevertheless celebrates the sweet moments in life along with the bitter. It reminds readers that life is short but along the way are moments that can make it worthwhile, if one only takes the time to appreciate them. A striking examination of life and death, the work is a promising debut novel.”
Speaking of Card brings us back to speculative fiction. Orson Scott Card had a big year, with his career-making book Ender’s Game finally appearing as a big budget studio motion picture. Unfortunately the movie met with mixed critical reviews, and performed well below expectations at the box office, making only $61.7 million domestically. The run-up to the film was filled with lots of negative chatter about Card, with many calling for a boycott of the film and Card’s books because of his public statements on homosexuality and other hot-button political issues. A planned DC Superman graphic novel that Card was going to co-author was cancelled when the artist backed out of the project, apparently in the face of protests against Card’s participation. Card may have taken some comfort in the continuing success of his books, particularly Ender’s Game. No other book in modern memory has stayed so long on the top of best-seller lists, nearly thirty years after its initial publication. Ender’s Game was the second-best selling Mormon-authored novel of the year, and spent almost the entire year on the New York Times Mass Market Paperback bestseller list, including 11 weeks at #1. That is an amazing feat. Card also produced two new works, the Mithermages sequel The Lost Gate, which Eric James Stone called “one of Card’s best books, with an absolutely brilliant ending”, and the Ender prequel Earth Afire, co-written with Aaron Johnson. He also helmed a new audio dramatization called Ender’s Game Alive, and saw Ender’s Game lionized in the collection Ender’s World: Fresh Perspectives on the SF Classic Ender’s Game.
Several alternative histories were written in 2013. I already mentioned Sanderson’s “gearpunk” The Rithmatist. Sanderson teaches writing at BYU, and one of his former students, Brian McClellan, produced his debut novel, Promise of Blood, an epic “flintlock fantasy”, mixing magic into an early industrializing society experiencing a French Revolution-type movement. It has appeared on several “Best Fantasy of the Year” lists. Laura Andersen produced the first two volumes in her debut The Boleyn Trilogy, which postulates what might happen if Anne Boleyn had given birth to a boy who grew up to become king of England. Larry Correia continues to delight his fans with Warbound, the third in his Grinmor Chronicles series set in an alternative magic noir 1930s. Correia also wrote two military steampunk novellas based on the WarMachine role playing game (Dan Wells and Howard Tayler also participated in that series), and co-wrote the military thriller Swords of Exodus.
FF is a Marvel Comic Fantastic Four companion series illustrated by Mike Allred since 2012. The first author left the series this fall, and was replaced by Mike’s brother Lee. The series, drawn in a “bronze age” (1970-1985) style, with (mostly) humorous content. It has been named to several best-of 2013 lists. Other notable speculative fiction in 2013 include Brad R. Torgerson’s short story collection Lights in the Deep, the multi-author Space Eldritch II: The Haunted Stars short story collection (space opera meets Lovecraftian cosmic horror), and short stories by Lee Allred, Dave Farland, Nancy Fulda, M. K. Hutchins, Steven L. Peck, W. H. Pugmire, Eric James Stone, David J. West, and James Wymore. Also, the speculative fiction community in Utah was strengthened by strong attendance and participation at both the Salt Lake City Comic Con and the LTUE conference.
I can fit the remaining non-speculative, non-juvenile books in one paragraph. Jamie Ford followed up his massively popular Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet with his second novel, Songs of Willow Frost. It is set in the 1920s and 1930s, where a Chinese-American orphan in Seattle escapes to find an actress he is convinced is his mother. Kirkus wrote, “Ford writes of American life in the 1920s and ’30s, bustling with go-getters and burdened with trampled masses. Often muted and simplified, his prose underscores the emotional depression of his main characters; yet that same flatness tethers the tale, inhibiting lyricism. A heartbreaking yet subdued story.” Richard Paul Evans’ A Step of Faith is the fourth in his The Walk series. Anne Perry kept up her annual pace of three novels a year: one Pitt, one Monk, and one Christmas. P. D. Mallamo, Heidi Naylor, and the prolific Ryan Shoemaker had stories published in literary journals. There were also several nationally published romance novels.
Young Adult novels remain a popular genre for Mormon authors. I count 37 national YA novels by Mormon authors in 2013. The large majority are speculative, with paranormal romance and dystopia continuing to lead the pack. Eight had contemporary settings. Only one had a historical setting, and it was the best reviewed of the group. Julie Berry’s All the Truth That’s In Me a mystery with a vaguely American colonial setting. Horn Review, in a starred review, said, “Bit by bit, readers gradually learn “all the truth” from eighteen-year-old narrator, whose present-tense description of unfolding events, along with memories of the past, tells a harrowing tale . . . Berry keeps her readers on edge, tantalizing us with pieces of the puzzle right up until the gripping conclusion . . . Readers racing through the story’s murder mystery and thrilling romance may miss much of Berry’s lovely, poetic writing; luckily, many will finish only to turn right back to the beginning, this time to savor a more leisurely paced, equally satisfying read.” The book ended on several best-of lists, including Kirkus Reviews 50 Best Teen Books of 2013, the School Library Journal 29 Best Books 2013, The Horn Book Fanfare list of best 2013 books for young people, and the Boston Globe’s “Best Young Adult Books of 2013”.
I have already mentioned Sanderson’s YA successes. Other YA critical favorites include Brodi Ashton’s afterlife paranormal romance Everbound (“An interesting, complicated, literary, thoughtful story”), Kiersten White’s paranormal thriller Mind Games (“Two narrators, a kaleidoscope of time snippets, the distortions of lies, memories, and precognition—White’s paranormal thriller is a tour de force of perspective and unreliability”), Dan Wells’ dystopia Fragments (“Clearly written, fast-paced, and the world building was amazing”), J. R. Johansson paranormal dream thriller Insomnia (“The narrator’s psychic plight will convince readers, although they will not know if he’s innocent or psychotic until the final pages”), Jessica Martinez’s contemporary “marriage to trick the INS” romance The Vow (“A well-told, fast paced story, with strong characters and lots of jokes”), and Kasie West’s paranormal Pivot Point, which follows two different plot lines that diverged at a single choice (“The premise is a winner, and Addie is the kind of heroine readers would want as a best friend . . . what truly makes West’s story memorable is Addie’s wry humor”).
Other top-selling YA novels were Richard Paul Evans’ superpower adventure Michael Vey 3: Battle of the Ampere and James Dashner’s virtual reality science fiction The Eye of Minds. There were also two authors who reached the best-seller lists almost entirely through ebook sales and their own self-generated publicity. Amy Harmon’s self-published contemporary romance A Different Blue reached #6 on the New York Times Ebook fiction list, an amazing feat that gives great hope to the many authors turning to self-publishing. Wendy Knight’s paranormal romance The Feudlings was published by a small E-publisher, and was Amazon’s 93rd Best-selling Teens and Kids fiction ebook.
I count 17 Middle Grade novels by Mormon authors in 2013. A sizable majority of them were set in some kind of fantasy milieu. The best-reviewed author, for the second year in a row, was Jennifer A. Nielsen, for The Runaway King, the second in her Ascendance Trilogy. Barnes and Noble named it one of its Best New Books for Teens. Kirkus commented, “Ever flippant, Jaron narrates his story with dark humor. Readers will continue to find this arrogant, fearless, utterly reckless hero intriguing, fascinating and complex as he battles the odds to protect the kingdom and people he now holds dear. High adventure abounds with nail-biting drama.”
Multi-platform/multi-author series are taking up every-widening space on Middle Grade bookshelves. Publishers are hoping Middle Grade readers will buy the video games, toys, and dolls that come with these books. Jennifer Nielsen and Matthew Kirby wrote books in Scholastic’s James Dashner-led Infinity Ring series, featuring time-traveling kids. Brandon Mull is the lead author in Scholastic’s new superpower Spirit Animals series. Shannon Hale is leading up Ever After High, a partnership between the publisher Little, Brown and the toy maker Mattel, following up their previous Monster High series. It is set at a boarding school for the children of classic fairy-tale heroes and villains. A the author of a recent Kirkus Reviews article on the series launch wrote, “Much as we might decry the marketing-driven approach to children’s books in general, we all really felt that if anyone could pull this off, it would be Shannon Hale. And, by golly, she does. In the first book in the Ever After High series, The Storybook of Legends, Hale takes a concept created by Madison Avenue and has a total blast. She weaves story elements that were no doubt required by Mattel—lots of descriptions of groovy dresses and frankly dopey character names, as well as the basic plot—into a frothy, funny and smart story.”
Other well-reviewed Middle Grade novels include J. Scott Savage’s comic monster fantasy Case 13: Making the Team (“The Three Monsterteers are back and ready for another hair-raising, funny-bone–tickling adventure”), Matthew Kirby’s colonial America-era steampunk adventure The Lost Kingdom (“Deftly combines historical truths with rich, multilayered creative imaginings including mystery, cultural discord and ongoing father-son conflict”), Liesl Shurtliff’s fractured fairy tales Rump (“Turns the Rumpelstiltskin tale on end, providing the heartbreaking yet humorous history of the manikin’s dilemma . . . as good as gold”), and Nathan Hale’s historical graphic novel Donner Dinner Party (“Despite the heaviness of the topic, the book is imbued with his trademark humor and the art is, as always superb”). Buzzfeed named Donner Dinner Party as one of the 20 Best Children’s Books Of 2013.
Because Publishers Weekly now includes weekly Book Scan sales numbers in its bestselling lists, I was able to I was better able to estimate the best-selling Mormon-authored novels of 2013 than I was in the past. Before, with just the New York Times and USA Today lists and no hard numbers, I was not very able to figure out how YA bestsellers stood against adult bestsellers, or how February books compared to November books. I am still increasingly unsure once I get below the top ten, especially for the older legacy books.
1. A Memory of Light, by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson
2. Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card.
3. The Host, by Stephanie Meyer
4. Steelheart, by Brandon Sanderson.
5. Spirit Animals Book 1: Wild Born, by Brandon Mull.
6. Ever After: The Storybook of Legends, by Shannon Hale.
7. Speaker for the Dead, by Orson Scott Card
8. Leopard’s Prey, by Christine Feehan.
9. Michael Vey 3: Battle of the Ampree, by Richard Paul Evans.
10. A Step of Faith, by Richard Paul Evans.
12. Christmas in Snowflake Canyon, by RaeAnne Thayne
13. Dark Storm, by Christine Feehan.
14. Chasing the Prophecy, by Brandon Mull.
15. The Maze Runner Trilogy, by James Dashner.
16. The Twilight Saga, by Stephenie Meyer.
17. The Matched Trilogy, by Ally Condie.
18. Dark Lycan, by Christene Feehan.
19. Songs of Willow Frost, by Jamie Ford.
20. The Rithmatist, by Brandon Sanderson.
21. The Eye of Minds, by James Dashner.
22. A Different Blue, by Amy Harmon.
23. Midnight at Marble Arch, by Anne Perry
24. Blind Justice, by Anne Perry.
25. Take Me Home for Christmas, by Brenda Novak.
26. Earth Afire, by Orson Scott Card and Aaron Johnston
27. The Gate Thief, by Orson Scott Card
28. Home to Whiskey Creek, by Brenda Novak.
29. Current Creek Valley, by RaeAnne Thayne.
30. Willowleaf Late, by RaeAnne Thayne.
31. Making Faces, by Amy Harmon.
32. Roses in Midnight, by Lynn Kurland.
33. The Runaway King, by Jennifer A. Nielsen.
34. Feudlings, by Wendy Knight.
35. The Distance Between Us, by Kasie West.
36. Everbound, by Brodi Ashton.
37. Fragments, by Dan Wells.
38. Wednesdays in the Tower, by Jessica Day George.