Long After Dark: Stories and a Novella
tttBy Todd Robert Petersen
tZarahemla Books, 2007, 164 pages; $14.95
tIn “Sunday Schoolâ€'just one of the terrific tales in Petersen’s collection of LDS-themed stories'the author peers behind the serene smiles at a Sabbath service, an omniscient narrator exposing the dark secrets the assembled members would never speak aloud. Petersen carries that notion throughout the 16 stories that this work comprises, exploring the contemporary Mormon experience with an openness too few of his contemporaries risk. The characters’ woes range from the simple (a man who accidentally sees a friend’s wife naked) to the profound (a convert dealing with the father who never forgave him for changing religions), but Petersen examines them all with honest, compassionate and clear-eyed prose, allowing his characters to stumble and doubt as they attempt to reconcile their failings with their faith.
Petersen’s writing is generally so efficient that it’s a bit startling when the multigenerational novella “Family History” takes an awkward detour into speculative fiction, describing a near-future of economic collapse and international chaos. Yet, ultimately, he uses the story as a concise argument for the value of narratives with challenging, not-entirely-“uplifting” content. “These stories don’t get told in our church,” notes one character. “We want stories of success without having to hear about the struggles of sin.” Like filmmaker Richard Dutcher, Petersen takes a chance at doing exactly that and crafts a powerful testimony that defies easy categorization.
The Missionary Journal of Rulon Moak
tttEdited by Richard Severy
tMouldyflag Books, 2006, 128 pages; $14.95
tIt’s a shame when somebody comes up with a great satirical concept for a book then doesn’t deliver on the wonderful idea. The premise in this case involves an idealistic LDS missionary writing in his journal about a series of hilarious, not at all faith-promoting, misadventures. Anyone who has experienced missionary life can bear testimony to the fact that Severy captures everything that makes for “the best two years” of your life'the mentally ill companions, the even crazier investigators, the horrible living conditions, the constant temptations of the flesh, etc.'and he brings it all together into a humorous plot. The problem is that satire is best when it’s accurate, and Moak’s writing style is more like that of an English writer with several books under his belt (which Severy is) than a 19-year-old Utahn seeing another side of the world for the first time. Moak’s voice as well as other aspects of the book'since when do missionaries carry holy water?'don’t ring true as LDS artifacts, and therefore detract from the overall effect.
Jack Knife: A Novel of Jack The Ripper
tttBy Virginia Baker
tJove Books, 2007, 343 pages; $7.99
tComing up with a new spin on the Jack the Ripper story is no easy task, but Baker, a Utah resident, pulls it off by mixing a mystery about London’s most famous serial killer with a time-travel tale that throws some present-day characters into the mix to create a plotline that reads like a thriller. With a variety of characters moving around between multiple times and places, things can become a bit unfocused and difficult to keep track of. Baker nevertheless demonstrates the ability to combine the fast pace of a thriller with the technical precision of science fiction and the gradual revelation of facts used in mystery writing. The result is an interesting mix of genres that will make for a fun summer beach read.
Beyond the Horizon
tttBy Judy C. Olsen
tCovenant Communications, 2007, 272 pages; $15.95
tBritney Spears once said that independent movies were “weird” because she had to “think” while watching them. True, some works of art refuse to beat you over the head; some even require a little effort to put their pieces together. Often, this sort of art is called “good art.” Unfortunately, in Olsen’s LDS-themed novel, the message comes so repetitive and direct that within the first few lines of each of its six parts, the reader knows exactly what will happen and continues only â€¦ well, in my case, because I had to.
At the very least, it does a decent enough job of entertaining readers while they halfheartedly plow through it. Olsen’s carefully researched story details the challenges faced by six generations of the Madigan family, each man depending on his faith to guide him through conflict. It is difficult to blame a writer for repeatedly using a deus ex machina ending when the moral of the story is, frankly, to be moral and to ask God for help. However bluntly, the book succeeds in conveying that message. If Britney gets around to reading it, Olsen may have won an unexpected convert to her faith. Think of it: No more pantyless binge drinking! Everybody wins.