I’ve been busy reading the Whitney finalists, but sadly, not writing much about them this year. The Whitney Awards Gala is this Saturday, though, and I’m really excited to find out who wins. I did not finish all the categories this year (Romance divided into two categories, Contemporary and Historical, making a total of 45 books to read).
I’m very impressed with the quality of the books I read this year—every year I discover new authors, and every year the overall caliber of the writing seems to improve.
My favorites in each category:
When I’m Gone, by Emily Bleeker, the story of a woman who, knowing she’s going to die, leaves letters for her husband to help him discover a secret she’s been keeping from him their entire marriage. It’s my favorite of the ones I read, but I didn’t finish the category.
A Place for Miss Snow, by Jennifer Moore, the story of a British ladies’ companion who gets kidnapped by a Greek revolutionary in the war between Greece and Turkey. I’ve never read a story set in that particular conflict, and it was interesting and well-researched. This is the only book I read in the category, though, so it’s possible there are others that were more compelling.
It’s always fun when I discover a new author through the Whitneys. For me, the big recommendation is Sheralyn Pratt! I’ve never read her before, and I loved both Pimpernel and Walk of Infamy. Pimpernel was my favorite, though. Pimpernel is twisty turny mystery with a great romantic thread and a fantastic modern version of the Scarlet Pimpernel character. I’m a huge fan of the old movie with Jane Seymour, and I felt she captured the essence of the old character perfectly in this new book. My book club is reading it in May at my request (we like lighter reads in May, since May is so busy)—highly recommended. You can find it on Amazon for $4.99 or free if you’ve got Kindle Unlimited.
Janette Rallison’s How I Met Your Brother charmed me—it’s a pitch-perfect romantic comedy about a woman who, encouraged by a mysterious matchmaker (this book is part of the indie Power of the Matchmaker series), looks up an old flame and then mistakes him for his twin brother. It’s a trope that works well here, and Rallison brings an unexpected depth to her protagonists, including themes of the importance of family and forgiveness. I’ve always enjoyed Rallison’s YA books, but I think this is my favorite of her writing. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Melanie Jacobson’s Southern Charmed win, though—this is a category she would have won several years running if it had existed.
These were all pretty darn good, if you like this genre. My favorite was Willowkeep, by Julie Daines, about Charlotte, a girl struggling to care for herself and her disabled sister, when she unexpectedly inherits a large estate and fortune. She’s a fish out of water, not sure how to act or behave towards the people who expected to inherit or towards the handsome steward who is guiding her.
Over Your Dead Body, Dan Wells’ latest John Cleaver book, was my favorite—I don’t think it would have been if I hadn’t read all the other John Cleaver books, but since I have, I loved it. John Cleaver is the monster-hunting not-serial-killer who’s been trying to hunt monsters without giving in to his desires to make others suffer. In this book, John and Brooke are hunting more monsters as Brooke deals with the thousands of personalities living inside her. I love the voice of the John Cleaver books—it’s meditative and at times poetic, with shocking images tossed in to remind you that as sympathetic as John has become, he’s still got issues.
Summerlost, by Ally Condie, about a girl named Cedar, in pain from the death of her brother and father, as she makes friends with a boy named Leo and starts working with him giving not-quite-legal celebrity ours of their town. It’s a gentle book — Cedar solves mysteries about a local celebrity and gradually moves forward, confronting her own pain and loss. We reviewed this book in more detail a couple of weeks ago, if you’d like to read more.
Young Adult General:
A tie between The Passion of Dolssa, by Julie Berry, and The Serpent King, by Jeff Zentner, with The Serpent King edging out a win for me. These were my two favorite books of all the Whitney finalists this year. The Passion of Dolssa, about an unlikely friendship betwen Dolssa, an upper-crust heretic on the run from the Church, and Botille, a matchmaker who lives in a tavern. Botille works to hide Dolssa from the wrath of the Church, and Dolssa tries to stay true to her visions while realizing their terrible cost.
As gorgeous as Passion of Dolssa was, I find myself talking about The Serpent King even more. I’ve recommended it and bought copies of it as gifts. Zentner’s book centers around the small-town friendship of Dill, Lydia, and Travis. Dill’s father, in prison for possession of child pornography, was a preacher who handled deadly serpents as a sign of faith. He’s working to come to terms with the circumstances of his father’s imprisonment. His friend Lydia runs a fashion blog and plans to leave their town and get her friends out of there too. And Travis escapes from his own reality through epic fantasy novels.
I really can’t overstate how powerful I found this book. It comes with content warning (PG-13), but I highly recommend it. I love Zentner’s treatment of faith, and faithful people. It’s easy when you talk about flawed faithful people, like Dill’s father, to make every person of faith into a caricature, but Zentner doesn’t do this. He makes faith seem like a viable choice, even in the face of evil and pain. It’s a great book club read.
Young Adult Speculative:
Bluescreen, by Dan Wells. I read this quite a while before Whitneys, and it has stayed with me. It’s a cyber thriller set in 2050, a world in which everyone has a djinni implanted in their brains that allows instant access to the connected universe, including gaming, video feeds, and ubiquitous adware. Bluescreen is a digital drug that’s causing bad reactions, and Mari and her friends plot to get the drug off the streets. I loved the layers in this book — the djinni felt like a commentary on the current digital landscape, both good and bad. The internet unites us and divides us at the same time, and Bluescreen explores this dichotomy well.
Check out the Whitney Awards website (link: http://whitneyawards.com/) next week to find out who won! And congratulations to all the finalists!