Archive for the ‘Reviews of Other Books’ Category

Recent Book Reviews

Monday, May 9th, 2016

One of the things that makes reading more of an effort than it used to be is my sense that when I read something, there’s usually something I’m trying to do with the text. I’m reading to pick up information, or edit something. I’m reading to give feedback to the author, or because my book club is going to be meeting and I want to be able to say something.

Or, sometimes, I’m reading to write a review: a self-imposed duty that comes with being friends with someone, or part of a community, or having taken it on as a commitment in some moment of insanity. Or simply because it’s become an impulse, part of my way of reacting to and processing a book: part of coming to know what I think, and then (let’s be honest here) using it as a chance to speak up and say something. Start a conversation. Because, hey, what’s a better topic of conversation than talking about a book you’ve read?

(Much insight into my character is revealed by the fact that I’m not actually joking about this last. Those with a disposition like mine, I anticipate, will see nothing odd about this: what can be a better topic of conversation than a book? Nothing, obviously.)

Judging strictly by numbers, I don’t actually write that many reviews. But each of them is, for me, a way of grappling with and trying to understand something about writing, about ideas, about myself. A review is an act of cultural and intellectual as well as literary criticism — at its best, in my view at least.

In the spirit of which, I offer up the following small list of books I’ve reviewed in the last year:

There was another book that I had agreed to review, but partway through, I determined that I was not part of the book’s target audience and couldn’t really do the book justice, so I begged off on that one. Getting that off my plate was a surprising relief: not just a matter of one fewer thing to do, but something I had come to dread doing, partly because I didn’t think I could do it well.

It’s not a coincidence that all of these are in the realm of Mormon literature, three about works of fiction, two about collections that include sf&f stories. I’m part of a fairly small community of Mormon letters; there’s a need, I feel, for feedback, for the sense that someone out there is actually reading what you write, as well as for promoting titles people might enjoy. (I’ve been known to print out my book reviews and share them with people from my Mormon congregation, in the spirit of trying to entice them into reading the book in turn.) And there’s a vague sense that in so doing, I might be contributing as well to the development of a conversation not just about literary works but about literature in general within the Mormon sphere.

It’s a small output — smaller than I feel it ought to be, especially when the work I put into the review is nothing compared to what the author put into the writing. But if a review of mine puts one or two more readers onto a specific title, or makes a writer feel that he or she has been engaged with on a meaningful level, or provides me with a new insight or two into life and/or writing, then the effort has paid for itself.

Things Rich and Strange: Mormonism through the Lens of Steve Peck, a Sympathetic Alien

Friday, August 14th, 2015

(cross-posted at A Motley Vision website)

Title: Wandering Realities: The Mormonish Short Fiction of Steven L. Peck
Author: Steven L. Peck
Publisher: Zarahemla Books
Genre: Short Story Collection
Year Published: 2015
Number of Pages: 219
Binding: Trade Paperback
ISBN13: 9780988323346
Price: $14.95
Also available as an ebook

Reviewed by Jonathan Langford.

Steve Peck is an alien. A kind of geeky-looking one (wholly appropriate for a professor of evolutionary biology), friendly, congenial, but an alien nonetheless. That’s the only explanation I can come up with for how, in this set of 16 stories, he so consistently manages to provide such startlingly different, yet at the same time deeply insightful, perspectives on the culture and religion he has adopted for his own.

Which is about the only thing these stories — which range from short to long, humor to pathos, realism to postmodernly zany, contemporary to historical to science fiction — have in common. Eight of them have been previously published, in venues ranging from Irreantum to Covenant to the Everyday Mormon Writer contest. Yet the effect is not incoherent. Rather, it provides a sense of the range of Peck’s work, which includes something that will, I guarantee, appeal to pretty much everyone with the slightest interest in reading fiction about the Mormon experience: highbrow or lowbrow, literary or popular, funny or serious, light or thought-provoking. It’s pretty much all here. And while not every story is equally polished, each provides something interesting and (here’s that word again) different.

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A Rhetorical Review of The God Who Weeps

Friday, August 16th, 2013

Givens, Terryl and Fiona. The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life. Salt Lake City: Ensign Peak (an imprint of Deseret Book), 2012. 160 pages. $19.99 in hardback, $11.49 Kindle. Reviewed by Jonathan Langford. Cross-posted at A Motley Vision website.

There’s been a lot of fuss about this little book, co-written by Terryl Givens, a professor of English at the University of Richmond, who is one of Mormonism’s most prominent current scholars and apologists, and his wife Fiona, whom I believe he has referred to as an unacknowledged collaborator on his earlier work, which has included such items as the seminal study The Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy, published by Oxford University Press in 1997 (now available in an updated 2013 version); By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion, also published by Oxford University Press in 2003; and People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture, again from Oxford University Press in 2007.

I haven’t read those other books (though some are high on my list to read at some point), so I can’t compare the style of this book to Terryl’s earlier books. My assumption would be that this book is written in a less academic style, intended to appeal to a broader audience composed both of believing Mormons and non-Mormons with a potential interest in knowing what the basis is of Mormonism’s appeal to some of its thoughtful adherents.

Certainly the book succeeds in that. This is a book I think can be read and appreciated by Mormons and non-Mormons alike. In short: the book lives up to its hype. Paraphrasing the Pythons (but with less ambiguous intent), I can wholeheartedly recommend this book for those who quite like this sort of thing — which I think will include the bulk of literate believing Mormons, and many non-Mormons with a thoughtful and tolerant frame of mind. It’s already on my Christmas gift list for several family members. In fact, I just recently bought a copy for my mother, because I didn’t want to wait until Christmas to talk about it with her.

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2012 Whitneys

Friday, April 26th, 2013

Just to let all my friends and faithful followers know — over the past month or so, in my copious free time I’ve been trying to read finalists for the 2012 Whitney Awards for best novel by an LDS writer (in various categories). So far, I’ve read and blogged about the finalists for the Middle Grades and Speculative YA categories. (And that’s probably all I’ll get to, given that votes are due this coming Monday, April 29). Check it out!

Turner, The Thief (Review)

Friday, February 1st, 2013

More than once in my youth in the west which is now forgotten (kudos to whoever catches that reference), I attended a science fiction convention where the guest of honor was someone I’d never read. Like, for example, in 1984, when I couldn’t understand why everyone at the Worldcon was so excited about this whole “final encyclopedia” thing everyone kept talking about. I mean, an encyclopedia? Come on!

And so I didn’t bother to attend any events with guest of honor Gordon R. Dickson, author of the Dorsai series. A few years later, I could only kick myself for my prior ignorance.

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2011 Whitney Finalist Reviews

Thursday, April 19th, 2012

Each year, a set of awards known as the Whitneys are given out for the best novel written by an LDS author in each of various different categories (7 genre categories this year, plus best novel by a first-time published novelist and best overall). I have fond feelings about the Whitneys, both because I think they’re a good thing for their own sake and because No Going Back was a Whitney finalist in the general fiction category back in 2009, which was probably the single most positive thing that happened for the book marketing-wise.

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Non-Mormon Reactions to No Going Back

Wednesday, January 5th, 2011

I’ve had another positive review of No Going Back from a non-LDS reviewer. Heather at Buried in Books wrote in part:

I was immediately gripped by the story of Paul a sophomore in high school who knows he is gay, but also knows it goes against everything his religion teaches…. What religion? Mormon which I knew nothing about and still know only a very small part of it. But Paul is very proud of his faith and very faithful and wants to stay true to his vows to the church…. The things [Paul] reveals to [Richard, his bishop], feels comfortable telling him, feels like he has to tell him, and the way the Bishop helps him, I have to say, I’d lie like hell. Nope nothing to confess here. I’ve been very good. Never done one thing wrong. Don’t need any help at all. Especially when I’d have to face him every time I went to my best friend’s house. My sex life in my high school years was definitely my own business and I’d never have discussed it with the minister at church. It’s a very different religion than what I grew up with…. This book is not filled with religious doctrine and preachy. Not at all! I would have returned it and said I just couldn’t read it. I have my own personal religious beliefs and I’m still trying to work a few things out so anything very preachy is a big turn off to me…. Towards the last few pages, the tissue box came out. I tried to be quiet because it was 2:00 am and everyone was sleeping, except me the insomniac or reader with a great book. Mr. Langford develops the characters so well, you feel exactly what they’re feeling and at the end you can’t help but cry with Paul and the bishop as he talks to Paul from his heart. It was gut wrenching, bittersweet, you don’t want that to be the solution…. It is not the type of book I’d usually go for, but I found so much to recommend about the book. The extremely well developed characters, their growth, the various relationships and how they grow, and how faith, in something bigger than yourself, can carry you through, guide you, help you make decisions, shape you, for better or worse. I’m not sure I’ve ever had such a deep faith in anything, like Paul. I hope I do someday.

I really couldn’t hope for a better response than that — particularly from a reader who doesn’t share Paul’s faith (and mine).

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Behind on Things

Monday, December 27th, 2010

It’s the end of the year, which means it’s time for me to mournfully contemplate my to-do list and the many unfinished items on it. As I sit writing this (on the evening of Christmas Eve, though I’m not planning to post it until next Monday), that list includes:

  • Write my Christmas newsletter
  • Send presents to people
  • Do Christmas-y cooking (e.g., shortbread, candied pecans, baklava)
  • Visit people and take them stuff (see previous bullet)
  • Help clean and organize the house for a wheelchair-bound relative to stay with us for six months (This could be a whole list in itself.)
  • Write a business proposal
  • Complete a parent involvement workshop on bullying
  • Research and write a parent involvement workshop on Internet safety
  • Review a novel manuscript
  • Line up contributors for the AML (Association for Mormon Letters) blog
  • Write several blogs for posting at various locations
  • Help my daughter with a high school research paper
  • Read A Merchant of Venice with my wife and daughter (also for my daughter’s English class)
  • Attempt contact with several people who show up on our local Church records but whom no one has seen in years
  • Start on editing/reviewing someone else’s nonfiction manuscript
  • Make progress on my own fiction writing

All of which I feel an obligation to do, or at least make substantial progress on, over the next 2 weeks. It all seems pretty unlikely — especially since I’m so easily distractible by many things not appearing on this list.

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One happy thing that I finally accomplished (a year after I took it on — ouch!) was writing a review for Adventures of the Soul, a collection of personal essays previously published by BYU Studies. It’s a lovely book, and I deeply wish that I had managed to get the review out in time for people to order copies for Christmas. Instead, the book disappeared in my stacks for a month back in November. Still, the review is done now and posted over at A Motley Vision blog. I hope it will bring at least a little attention for a most deserving collection.

Extravagant Chocolate Chip Cookies

Tuesday, September 28th, 2010

I should be writing right now. Or at least, you know, writing about writing. Instead, I’m going to write about the batch of chocolate chip cookies that I just put in the oven, basically because I want to. And maybe I’ll bring in a writing tie-in later.

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St. Paul Pioneer Press Notice

Monday, July 26th, 2010

So I have one more short but positive review to add to the list. This one appeared in last Friday’s St. Paul Pioneer Press, in a book column titled “Worthwhile midsummer fiction from Midwest writers.” You can follow the link to the article by clicking here, but there’s no real need to bother since I’ve reproduced the two paragraphs about No Going Back below:

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