It’s been a little more than two months, and we’ve been hard at work reading the finalists for the 2011 Whitney Awards, which honors novels written by LDS authors. Angela, Emily M, Jessie, Melonie, Rosalyn, and I have spent the last couple of months discovering new voices, cheering for old favorites, and occasionally wishing we could throw our Kindles against the wall. But now we’re emerging, pale and myopic, from our reading cocoons, and we’d like to share what we’ve found with you as we submit our ballots to the Whitney Awards Committee. Jessie, Rosalyn, and I all blogged about some of what we read on our blogs.
We could go on and on about how the overall quality of the books has improved in the years we’ve been reading the finalists (it has) or about how frustrated we were with some of the ways books were categorized (fodder for other posts), but we’re just going to cut to the chase and tell you how we voted. We were instructed to rank all five of the finalists in each of the seven categories. Then we had to vote for our favorite book by a new author and our favorite book of the year. So without further ado…
General: Before I Say Goodbye by Rachel Ann Nunes. Nunes’s book, about a woman with terminal cancer who returns to Utah County with her two children, hoping to get them settled before she has to leave them, was our pick this year. Nunes seems to have her finger on the pulse of what her audience wants to read, and she did a nice job weaving together the multiple points of view.
Historical: Emily, Jessie, and I were all fans of Gale Sears’s Letters in the Jade Dragon Box, a story about a young girl coming to terms with her relationship with her parents (who sent her to live with an uncle in Hong Kong during a period of unrest in her native China) against the backdrop of the establishment of the LDS Church in Hong Kong. While the main narrative felt more like a YA novel than a historical novel at times, we nonetheless enjoyed the interesting subject matter and the characters Sears created.
Romance: When I started reading the Whitney finalists three years ago, I was anti-Romance. But reading the finalists has converted me. In fact, we had a really hard time picking a book in this category because so many of them were so strong. Ultimately, our first-place vote went for seasoned novelist Carla Kelly’s Borrowed Light (after a protracted conversation about whether the book was, in fact, a historical novel rather than a historical romance), the story of a young woman who flees her boring fiance in Salt Lake in the early 1900s and goes to Wyoming to cook on a ranch. While in Wyoming, she not only finds love, but also finds her own devotion to her faith rather than relying on the faith of her parents and community. But the best surprise of 2011 came in the form of Melanie Jacobson, whose two Romance novels, Not My Type and The List, showed that she really understands how her young protagonists talk and act, and that she’s willing to explore some of the trickier aspects of Mormon culture. I know I’m really looking forward to her finalist next year, because I don’t doubt that her next book will also be a finalist.
Mystery/Suspense: This was another tricky category for us as readers because we felt that we were comparing apples and oranges. Some of the books were straightforward mysteries, while others were Dan Brown-type suspense novels. We had a really hard time coming to a consensus here. Since the ballot was emailed to me, I ended up putting my favorite novel in the category, Anne Perry’s Acceptable Loss, as the first choice. But one of the readers in our group found the subject matter (which involved child sex abuse) so disturbing that she didn’t finish the book. Then we found ourselves divided among the other books in the category. I also liked Stephanie Black’s Rearview Mirror, which had interesting, complicated characters.
Speculative: We’ve liked Dan Wells’s John Wayne Cleaver books every year, so it should come as no surprise that we were big fans of the final book (or is it?) in the trilogy, I Don’t Want to Kill You which brought the events in the three novels to a satisfying, horrifying, somehow exactly perfect conclusion. However, Wells managed to wow us again with his quirky, zany, weird The Night of Blacker Darkness, a Vampire novel featuring John Keats and Mary Shelley as main characters.
Youth Fiction- Speculative: In this very strong category (I could see any of the five books winning the award), Rosalyn and I were completely charmed by Jessica Day George’s Tuesdays at the Castle. We loved Princess Celie and how she manipulated her magic castle to save her family and her kingdom. We were also big fans of how Bethany Wiggins modernized the Navajo Skinwalkers legend in Shifting, and, to be honest, every other book in this category.
Youth Fiction- General: It’s a good problem when all of the books in the category are strong, isn’t it? We found that challenge again in the Youth Fiction- General category. We particularly liked Tess Hilmo’s sweet Southern coming-of-age story With a Name Like Love, but I absolutely loved Kristen Chandler’s Girls Don’t Fly, and we also liked Sean Griswold’s Head.
We were very happy to be able to rank books in the last two categories (Best Novel by a New Author and Novel of the Year) rather than picking a single book.
Best Novel by a New Author: We loved Tess Hilmo’s With a Name Like Love, and we also loved Melanie Jacobson’s The List. In fact, we liked both so much that we’re reluctant to disclose which one got our top pick.
Novel of the Year: Once again, we found it hard to pick just one book, so we were glad we could rank our top ten. We were such big fans of Borrowed Light, With a Name Like Love, I Don’t Want to Kill You, Tuesdays at the Castle, and both of the Jacobson books. Which one got our top vote? We’re not telling. Which one will win? We’ll all have to wait until May 5th to find out.
If you’d like to attend the May 5th awards gala at the Provo Marriott, you can purchase your tickets here. You’ll get to see many of your favorite authors (maybe they’ll even sign your iPad!), and might even get to rub elbows with a few of your favorite bloggers!