Just recently I’ve found myself reading books by LDS (or ex-LDS) authors consecutively, not that common an occurrence, so I thought I did give a quick review of my thoughts. The most recent was:

“The Angel Court Affair” by Anne Perry

I have long enjoyed Anne Perry’s Thomas Pitt, and Hester & William Monk series of books. Both series are set in Victorian London, and both have strong, independent female as well as male characters. The books explore the thoughts, actions and motivations of all the characters and ethical and moral themes such as poverty and privilege in a thoughtful way, that can occasionally slow the pace and feel repetitive, but is normally a positive contribution to the story. Novels discussing strong moral themes can be difficult to do well, but Perry usually manages it successfully. I didn’t enjoy her fantasy books, Tathea being the first. Seeing so many LDS beliefs form the explicit basis of a fantasy novel in the way that it did was a very uncomfortable experience that made it difficult to become immersed in the story.

With The Angel Court Affair, a Commander Pitt novel, Perry is representing a belief held by most LDS members I know as an extraordinary, inflammatory belief being preached by a ‘Spanish saint’ establishing a religious following, visiting and preaching in England. Initially I felt the same difficulty and discomfort I’d felt with Tathea. That said, the choice of belief, and the motivations of the ‘Spanish saint’ discussed are very interesting in the current LDS church climate.

The belief Anne Perry chose to use in this book is the one best represented by the Lorenzo Snow’s famous couplet:

“As man now is, God once was; as God now is, man may be.”

And the book takes as it’s themes of ethical exploration, those connected with religious organisations and movements.

When the Spanish saint disappears and it looks as though she may be a fraud, Perry writes of Pitt:

“..he acknowledged with a jolt of understanding that he too was disillusioned. He had believed that she was sincere, even that she had a vision of a glory in the world that made sense of some of the pain, the waste, and the seeming chaos.
“And it seemed now as if she were very probably a charlatan. The taste it left in his mouth was bitter.”

The book goes on to explore what it means to established religions to be faced with those preaching doctrines they see as blasphemous, and what it means to families whose members adopt those beliefs. Perry asks us to consider why adherents might join a religious group. She looks at power struggles within a religious movement, and the watering down of teachings because it’s leaders “would rather have many people beginning their journey towards faith than a few who accept it all.” She asks us to consider what a believer may be capable of doing in the name of that belief, and how a leader might respond to the burdens of leadership, trying to live up to the expectations of adherents. What of financial investments of religious organisations and their transparency or not? The role of women in religion? These are also included in a discussion which takes place amidst a main story of murder, fraud, international politics, anarchists, and the threat of war.

Recognising many of the themes discussed as those ongoing online made this a rather different read than I usually experience with Perry, and it was harder to get into the main story as a consequence. Possibly Perry was having the same difficulty, as the plot didn’t seem to be as believable or to hang together as well, was more disjointed than those of her earlier novels.  An interesting read though.

Next up a pair of books, part of an ongoing series:

“The Eye of Minds” and “The Rule of Thoughts” by James Dashner

These are books 1 and 2 respectively in his Mortality Doctrine series, and are geared towards teens. In the opening book, The Eye of Minds, we meet three friends Michael, Sarah and Bryson who form a great team in the fully immersive virtual gaming world VirtNet, but have never met in real life. Things are going wrong in the VirtNet. An elusive but powerful character Kaine is doing something that is preventing some gamers from returning to their real lives. Michael, Sarah and Bryson are commandeered to use their impressive hacking skills to track down Kaine in the game for the VirtNet security services VNS.

In The Rule of Thoughts, the three finally meet in real life and are pushed and pulled by Kaine on the one hand and a factionalised VNS on the other. They try to do what they judge to be the right thing in difficult circumstances, unsure of who or what they can trust.

Both books end with a plot twist that leaves you hanging on for next, and examine questions about what is real, what is fantasy, how can we know? They also ask what is independent consciousness, what is life? Some characters are “Tangents”, pieces of computer code gone rogue; they have taken on an independent life and personality of their own, no longer in the control of the game.

A fun and thoughtful read. I like the way in which themes in LDS belief seem to be used as an implicit jumping off point for the story which explores those themes. As a fellow Mormon, I’m left thinking Dashner meant something in particular by the selection of the names Michael and Kaine.

Now, a standalone teen adventure:

“Dangerous” by Shannon Hale
Maisie’s middle name really is Danger. She’s also a home-schooled science and technology geek, with an ambition to go to space and has only one hand (well, her second is artificial). She wins a place to astronaut boot camp, which turns out to be a whole lot more than she anticipated. A trip up a space elevator results in her team developing super powers. Complicated by boy trouble, and learning who can and can’t be trusted, Maisie discovers the purpose of the powers, and ends up saving the world from alien invasion.

It was great to read a book in which a disabled girl is the hero, and in which the disability isn’t overplayed, but simply a normal part of the character’s life. Ditto a book in which science, technology and geekiness are celebrated. Lots of adventure, though I found events sometimes improbable and jarring, they were no more so than in other teen books of a similar genre. I didn’t always find it easy to suspend disbelief with this book, but it wasn’t geared to me.

Finally, there has been a review for this already, but I couldn’t resist adding my own:

“A Song for Issy Bradley” by Carys Bray

I had heard an abridged version of this first (thank you BBC R4 Book at Bedtime), and then reserved the book at my local library. I liked the framing of the book, the linking of the opening with the ending, and the presentation of the points of view of the different family members to the sudden illness and death of the youngest child Issy. I enjoyed the depiction of British Mormonism; it was something which rang true to me though others commenting on other reviews elsewhere have disagreed. The book is set in the north-west of England, in what I would describe as a predominantly working or lower middle class community. I recognise and love the well-meaning, faithful but unsophisticated members depicted in this book.

The main characters are the bishop and his family, particularly his wife Claire. As is not uncommon, the Bishop is a young harried family man with a demanding job (as school maths teacher), doing his best to do what he thinks the Lord wants him to do. They are not well-off financially, as evidenced by where they shop; needed home-improvements have yet to take place (though this is as much to do with lack of time as of money in my experience). Claire is a convert, who feels she is obeying the counsel of church leaders to stay home to raise her family, and they have four children ranging from 4 year old Issy through Jacob to teens Alma and Zipporah. This makes them my generation (or that of my younger siblings). I can relate. I don’t know how long Ian Bradley has served as Bishop when the story opens, but he comes across as relatively new, given his eagerness to do things right and to prove himself to the stake president, and an apparent inability to delegate (though it may be his counsellors aren’t pulling their weight). Ian’s attitude, and the expectations of at least one member, are already grating on Claire: as a lifelong member raised with the expectation of sacrifice (his parents are serving a mission, and decide not to return for the funeral of Issy) Ian seems blind to the resentment of the extent to which he expects his family to take second place building in his wife. Without the tragedy they’d still be heading for burnout quickly.

Non-family members are shown through lens of the family members with whom they interact. For example: Alma sees the stake president as someone far more easy-going than his father the Bishop, Ian sees him as his immediate Priesthood leader, who he should obey; Sister Anderson has high expectations of the Bishop, for support with her sick husband. Perhaps she harries RS and her home/visiting teachers in the same way, but as this isn’t her story we don’t see that. I think criticism that these other characters come across as caricatures or insufficiently rounded is unfair on that basis.

It’s a moving book. I also heartily recommend the interview with the author on this podcast. A lovely interview. It’s very rare I get to hear a voice that sounds so like mine (timbre, inflections, accent etc.); it was uncanny.