Theresa Sneed, No Angel. (Speculative) This novel--the prequel to Sneed's previous novel, No Angel--has an interesting premise (pre-earth life) and dramatic subject matter. The topic seems particularly apt for a Whitney candidate, since it deals with a peculiarly Mormon perspective on Heaven. The novel moved along at a reasonably fast pace (appropriate, since it also deals with the cataclysmic battle in Heaven that led to the expulsion of Lucifer and 1/3 of the hosts of Heaven). However, the novel didn't entirely work for me. One of the main issues, for me, is that this topic calls for an epic voice or approach (think Milton's Paradise Lost). And while Sophie, as narrator, is relatable, the tone of the novel didn't feel epic enough for me--it was much closer to a contemporary YA novel. While that works on one level (presumably most of those in Heaven would be like us, right?), it doesn't help give the novel the epic heft it needs. It also made it harder for me to see Sophie as the heroine that she was meant to be. It was also a little strange to me that Heaven looked so much like 21st century white/western culture (the characters communicate through text-speak; they care a lot about their clothes, and the general aesthetic seems very modern-day). I appreciated Sneed's attempt to understand why people would choose something other than God's plan (her view: they didn't like that some people would fail), but I would have liked to see Sophie more conflicted about her choices. She does have some questions, but they always seemed to get resolved within a few pages or so. I think more conflict for Sophie would have resulted in more tension and a stronger book.
Annette Lyon, Paige. (General) Cute story. I like the idea of four interlocking stories; I'd previously read Olivia (Livvy's story), so it was interesting to me to see how the glimpses I had of Paige were fleshed out in this story. The writing wasn't particularly beautiful, but it was clean (it didn't tend to distract me from the story), and I liked that Paige seemed very real and human to me, and that the ending wasn't necessarily what readers might expect.
Tanya Parker Mills, A Night on Moon Hill. Daphne Lessing, a reclusive professor and writer, has lived more-or-less satisfied with her life until the night she comes home and finds a favorite student drowned in her pool. The discovery of his identity--and connection to her past--shocks Daphne, but not as much as the discovery that this boy expects her to take on the care of a highly unusual child, Eric, who has Asperger's syndrome. Not surprisingly, this child comes to utterly disrupt and remake her life. The opening of this story was incredibly lovely--the writing was lyrical and the imagery very vivid. I loved the description of Daphne's teen relationship (I don't want to spoil the story by sharing anything too detailed), and I liked Daphne herself a lot, despite the fact that she was reserved and sometimes found emotions hard to manage. (I feel like that sometimes too, although not to that extent). The only downside I had to this story was that I didn't feel like the last third or so of the book matched the lyrical quality of the opening. The genre shifts a little, too, into a sort of suspense novel near the end that didn't quite seem to fit the tone of the earlier part of the novel. Still, the novel is worth reading--lovely, flawed characters and a moving storyline.
Camron Wright, The Rent Collector. This story is told in first person by Sang Ly, a young Cambodian woman who lives with her husband, Ki Lim, on the outskirts of Stung Meanchey, the largest municipal waste dump in Cambodia. She, her husband, and their young son eke out a living by "picking"--collecting recyclable garbage and selling it for money. Despite the grim surroundings, they are reasonably happy, surrounded with family and friends. Sang Ly's only real unhappiness is the poor health of her son. One day, however, as things seem to crumble around them, Sang Ly discovers something remarkable: the grumpy old woman who collects their rent (and is called "Cow" behind her back) knows how to read. Sang Ly begs the Rent Collector to teach her to read--this experience will ultimately transform her life. I enjoyed the story--the writing was clear and not too gimicky (a temptation in a story like this). Sang Ly had a clear voice throughout. I liked, too, how the author interwove a variety of different kinds of literature into Sang Ly's life and showed how those things changed her life. As other reviewers have mentioned, this is a story of hope. One of the most interesting things to me was the portrayal of life living near the dump--like Katharine Boo's Beyond the Beautiful Forevers, this book portrays the rather grim life of garbage pickers. Unlike Boo's book (and despite that book's subtitle), this book really did feel hopeful. I'm still not entirely sure whether that is a good thing or not--the literacy that Ly used to transform her life may not realistically succeed in this environment (as it did not always succeed for the real-life characters in Boo's book). Literacy is certainly unlikely to succeed as dramatically as Sang Ly succeeds in the novel (if success is marked by ownership of material goods). Ultimately, though, I think the reader in me would rather have a happy ending at the expense of some realism.