This weekend authors, editors, publishers, bloggers, and their fans will convene at the Provo Marriott for the announcement of the 2012 Whitney Awards. Which means that, for me at least, my work is done for another nine months. Despite the trip to China, the two toddlers demanding my days and the four bigger kids demanding my evenings, I somehow managed to finish all forty books. The Whitney reading always falls during the Academy Awards, and I’ll admit that sometimes I’m a little jealous of those judges– they can just watch movies! But this year, I was really impressed by the quality of the finalists, and now that I’m four years into this endeavor, I can definitely see progress in the work that is being chosen as finalists. So congratulations to all of the authors– you are doing great work.
At Segullah we love reading the Whitney books. In fact, it’s one of my favorite things we do all year, and I love the conversations that come from the reading. We were lucky to have a great group of readers this year. Rosalyn and I read all forty books. Emily M read most of them. Jessie read the 25 adult books and blogged about them at the AML blog. Sandra read the Historicals, Kellie read Mystery/Suspense, Blue read the Romances and whatever else I had lying around when she came over, and Sharlee read the Middle Grade books. In the spirit of a wrap up, here are my thoughts (and a whole bunch of Rosalyn’s) about the books nominated in all eleven categories:
General: Although the General category is where my heart is as a reader (and a writer– if I ever have a novel published, I am sure it would be a “General”), I didn’t have very high hopes for the General books this year. Over the last couple of years, the books have seemed a lot more like Inspirational fiction than contemporary fiction for a general audience (which is how I would define “General”), but I was pleasantly surprised that only one of the books felt overtly Inspirational (The 13th Day of Christmas), while the others all felt more like true Generals. Both Paige and A Night on Moon Hill were engaging but somewhat uneven in terms of character development and genre. I found myself completely caught up in the story of The Rent Collector but had some issues with the narrative voice. But I was delighted by Ka Hancock’s Dancing on Broken Glass. I read it late in the contest, when I’m not above skimming a bit when the stories drag, and this was a book that I just couldn’t skim. In fact, I was sad when the book ended. It was a tearjerker, but the story felt organic and not designed just to give readers a good cry.
Historical: This year, we felt equally drawn to two books in the Historical category, but for very different reasons. I loved Carla Kelly’s finalists in the Romance category last year, and her Historical finalist, My Loving Vigil Keeping, was just as rich as those books were. I found the book nearly impossible to put down, and since I was not familiar with the Scofield mine disaster that inspired the story, I felt that I was learning a lot about both the history of Utah and the melting pot culture of a mining town. We also really enjoyed James Goldberg’s The Five Books of Jesus, which was poetic and a little bit mystical as it retold the events in Christ’s ministry. It was probably the most ambitious book in the contest, and I’m always happy to see Mormon writers gently pushing against the boundaries of our comfort zones as readers.
Romance: While it’s often easy for the Segullah readers to come to a consensus, our opinions diverged the most in the Romance category this year. We were almost evenly divided in our admiration for Krista Lynne Jensen’s Of Grace and Chocolate, which might be more aptly named a Romantic Thriller, Melanie Jacobson’s Smart Move (I love how both books make the Mormon part of the story feel organic), and Julianne Donaldson’s Regency Romance, Edenbrooke. Once again, the Romance category was full of strong contenders and delightful to read.
Mystery/Suspense: I would bet that the authors in the Mystery/Suspense category were just a little bit happy when Josi Kilpack was president of the Whitney Academy and her books were not able to be considered for awards. But her reign is over, and for me, the category was clearly Kilpack v. Kilpack. I felt that there was a lot more interesting interior tension in Banana Split, the Hawaiian installment of Kilpack’s culinary mysteries, and it was the obvious choice for me. However, I’d also like to give a shout out to Traci Hunter Abramson– I believe she has had a finalist in this category for each of the last four years (an impressive accomplishment in and of itself) and Code Word was definitely the strongest Saint Squad novel I’ve read yet.
Speculative: Oh the Speculatives, always my Achilles’ Heel. They’re long. They’re a little weird. They usually require readers to jump into the middle of a series and to care about some kind of alternate world. But Mormon writers have typically been known for accomplishment in two genres: Science Fiction (Speculative) and Young Adult. This year, I was surprised by how weak the category felt. I read Dan Wells’s The Hollow City several months before I started reading the finalists and was underwhelmed by the turn it took in the second half of the novel (I wanted it to be a different story in a very bad way), but it was clearly the best of the bunch. The Mormon vampires and Mormon steampunk were cool ideas that didn’t quite live up to expectations, and nothing else in this category hit its mark.
Young Adult: When the YA novels broke into Young Adult and Youth Speculative a few years ago, I was excited, because we’ve typically had such strong YA offerings that I always wondered what great books I was not getting to read. This year the books were further split into YA, Youth Speculative, and Middle Grade, and I’m not sure I like the change, because this year’s YA novels, with a single exception, felt a lot like teen romances, and I’m not sure a whole category should be devoted to that genre. After a while all of the romance books blended together in my mind, so the standout for me was Jessica Martinez’s The Space Between Us which had great interior tension and a really fantastic sense of place. Other Segullah readers were also impressed with Kelly Oram’s V is for Virgin, for its snappy dialogue and its ability to tackle an issue like sexual abstinence in a non-preachy way.
Youth Speculative: I learned a lot about writing books in a series by reading the Youth Speculative category this year. All of the books in the category were part of multi-book series, and in most cases I had not read all of the prior books. This fact really alerted me as a reader to how authors bring readers up to speed in a story when they haven’t read the previous books. I wonder if it’s a coincidence that my favorite book in the category, Brodi Ashton’s Everneath, is also the only one that was the first book in the series. I don’t think so, because Ashton does a great job weaving in Greek Mythology and classic literature into a story with really strong characters.
Middle Grade: This new category was one of the strongest categories this year, with four of the five entries published with national presses. I enjoyed many of the books in the middle grade category this year, but Jennifer A. Nielsen’s The False Prince was such a great story, with such interesting characters and such fascinating plot twists that it really outshone the others. However, Sage, the protagonist, was a teenager wise beyond his years. Some of our readers wondered why the book was considered middle grade and not YA, but a couple of factors may help explain its placement. The Whitney authors are allowed to choose which category their novel best fits, and Nielsen strongly identifies as a middle grade author. Interestingly enough, The False Prince *was* initially pitched as a YA novel, with an older protagonist, but Scholastic (her publisher) encouraged her to make Sage younger and has since marketed the novel as middle grade. While Sage is admittedly a much older spirit than the other protagonists in this category, the novel does still have the sense of wonder and exploration–an almost fairy-tale-like feel–that characterize the work of many other middle grade books, including Shannon Hale’s Palace of Stone and the books of Jessica Day George (who will probably have nominees in this category in future years).
Adult Novel of the Year: The book I enjoyed reading most was Ka Hancock’s Dancing on Broken Glass.
Youth Novel of the Year: Definitely False Prince.
Best Novel by a New Author: I’m going to pull what the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences did with Ben Affleck and Argo this year. Although Ka Hancock’s Dancing on Broken Glass would be eligible to win both Adult Novel of the Year and Best Novel by a New Author, I admire the lyrical quality of James Goldberg’s writing so much that his Five Books of Jesus gets my vote. Not completely consistent, I know, but I’m doing it anyway.