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Sunday, November 22, 2009

Who You Calling Soft?: Playing Hard Ball With Heather Justesen

It has been suggested by some that I'm going "soft." Really? Me? Your friendly neighborhood tell-it-like-it-is book reviewer? Well, maybe I have been giving out more A's and B's than usual. I think it's because this time last year, I was getting ready to fly to Louisiana to pick up my newly-born daughter. Adopting her has been a life-changing experience, one that's been so tender and joyful that it's affected every aspect of my life - even blogging, apparently. It's impossible to look at the sheer happiness in her eyes and not be softened just a little. She makes me want to be a kinder, gentler person - maybe not the best traits for a tough book reviewer like yours truly :) Since my baby's turning 1 tomorrow, I guess now's a good time to get back to those hard-hitting reviews you know and love ...

You can tell I'm feeling all sentimental inside, because I really don't want to say anything bad about first-time novelist Heather Justesen. Judging from her photos and blog, she's like the nicest person in the world. This makes it so much harder for me to say this about her debut novel, The Ball's In Her Court, but the fact remains: Someone should have edited the heck out of this novel before it came anywhere near publication. I know. It's a harsh thing to say. And the two readers who reviewed the book on Amazon did not agree with me at all. So, here's the good, the bad, and the really, really ugly (in my humble opinion, of course); you can judge for yourself.

The Good: I like the premise of the book:

Computer programmer Denise DeWalt has an enviable life - she's got a loving adoptive family, a great job, fierce basketball skills, and now, a handsome, very interested man. Rich Jensen seems perfect; even though he's her boss, she finds herself attracted to his kind, easygoing manner. He obviously feels the same way, but Denise can't stop the panic that rises in her every time he tries to get close to her. If he only knew about her tumultuous childhood, he'd realize she's not the perfect Mormon woman he's seeking. If he knew what she'd been through, he would run away as fast as he can. Flashbacks and nightmares plague her every waking moment - if she can't stop them by facing her past, she could lose everything, including the only man she's ever loved.

When I read the synopsis of Justesen's book on her publisher's website, it intrigued me. Both the adoption and foster care issues appealed, especially since issues like those are rarely addressed in LDS fiction. I love it when authors trade cookie-cutter perfect Molly Mormon heroines for characters who are more true-to-life. It makes for far more rounded, interesting story people. Since Justesen and her husband have fostered 15 children, she definitely has an insider's view of the foster care system. It shows in this book.

The Bad: Did I mention the editing? It's not so much the misspellings and typos that bugged me as the content. The story's in desperate need of condensing, shaping, and tightening. It reads more like a first draft than a final version. Flat characters need to be fleshed out; run-on sentences, paragraphs and pages need to be whittled down; and all the dull telling needs to be transformed into vibrant showing. I think its length could also be cut down by half. It dragged on so long that I kept telling my husband, "This book just doesn't end." A good editor would have a field day with this book. I wish one would have, because The Ball's In Her Court could have been a much more engrossing, effective novel.

The Really, Really Ugly: There's a HUGE coincidence in the ending of the book that just made me roll my eyes. The "surprise" is not just contrived, it's obviously, ridiculously contrived. Not that I was loving the book up until that point anyway, but still ... ugh.

The Upside: Since this is Justesen's first novel, we can expect her to improve, right? I believe there's a sequel to The Ball's In Her Court coming out soon. Also, my opinion isn't the only one out there (It's not? Really?) - you can get different perspectives by reading reviews here, here and here. Finally, I haven't been feeling really well this morning, but the book trailer gave me a much-needed laugh. It's hysterical. Sorry, but it is.

I know, I know, I'm a terrible person.

My friend and I are planning to attend the LDS Storymakers Conference this April. Do you think I'll survive? I have a feeling I'm going to be beaten up by an angry mob of LDS authors. In my defense, I can only say that it's never my intention to ridicule any book or author. I always try to "grade" books fairly, pointing out both the book's positives and negatives so that readers can judge for themselves whether or not it's the kind of book they want to read. I've gained a reputation as an honest reviewer who tells it like it is (just call me Dr. Phil) - I don't want to let down my readers, so that's exactly what I do. Always remember that my opinion is not the only one out there (Really? It's not?). My real aim for this blog is to promote books and reading. If I've learned anything, it's that no two people are ever going to read the same book the same way. To each his own, I always say.

Authors, you can take comfort in the fact that you've got a published book to your credit and I don't. Plus, you know where I'll be come the end of April. I'll be the one in body armor.

Grade: C-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for mature themes

To the FTC, with love: I got this book for free from Cedar Fort. Obviously, that didn't influence my opinion of the book.


  1. Okay. That book trailer? Makes this book the last book I want to read. Your review did more for the book than that video.

  2. Hi there,

    Speaking as a person on the committee for said conference, no, we're not going to beat you up. :)

    A hard review is tough to take, I'll grant you that. But it's part of being an author, to get reviews and go through them carefully, determining how to address concerns or, in some cases, how to slough them off. I've never personally witnessed a reviewer get mobbed and beaten up. A few have disappeared to parts unknown, but I didn't witness them. :)

    That said, sometimes it's hard to get a good edit. I'm in Heather's critique group and we started with the spin-off to this novel, and I'm excited to see it come out in print. Heather has a very fresh way of using words and she works diligently at honing her craft. If I know Heather (and, coincidentally, I do) she'll take your review in stride, learn from it, and move on.

  3. I found this review a bit redundant ("Really? It's not?" bears no appreciable difference to "It's not? Really?") but ultimately satisfying. Mainly because I've been trying to IM you to get the name of the LDSStorymakers conference we're going to (I do so love spotting references to myself in your blog!) but you're obviously too busy to notice. :)

    Tristi--looking forward to meeting you! :)


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