Whitney Awards: Our Midterm Report

The Whitney finalists were announced on February 2nd and ballots are due April 23rd, which means that we’ve reached the halfway point, so we thought it would be a great time for Team Segullah to give you an update on what we’ve read and loved, books that didn’t make the short list that we think deserve a shout-out, and things we’ve been thinking about as we’ve been doing our Whitney reading. I’ve read 20 of the 35 books, so I think I’m on pace to finish by the end of April, unless the famously long books in the Adult Speculative category get the better of me.

Books We’ve Loved: Tuesdays at the Castle by Jessica Day George (Youth Fiction Speculative). All of us who have read it really enjoyed it, and Emily says, ” It’s more middle grade than YA, but I thought it was darling and it wouldn’t surprise me if it won.” Sean Griswold’s Head by Lindsey Leavitt (Youth Fiction General) is another book we’ve all enjoyed. I’m absolutely crazy about Kristen Chandler’s Girls Don’t Fly (Youth Fiction General). I voted for Chandler’s Wolves, Boys, and Other Things that Might Kill Me in all of the categories for which it was eligible last year, and I’m still bummed that it didn’t win. This new book is equally strong, although some people on our panel thought that Myra’s budding relationship with a grad student was kind of icky (and I guess agree). We’re also fan’s of Gale Sears’s Letters in the Jade Dragon Box (Historical).

Jessie has been reading the romances, and she says, “I just finished reading all the romances (probably explains why I’ve been in a bad mood for two weeks–real life does not work out that well). I think I liked Borrowed Light the most–it felt like a mature story, with a lot of internal character development to go along with the romance storyline. I think the guy in Not My Type is the one I would most like to date :) That book was my second favorite.”

Books that aren’t finalists that deserve a shout-out: Rosalyn says that Matthew Kirby’s Icefall (Youth Fiction Speculative) is “beautifully, stunningly written.” Shelah and Angela lamented that David Clark’s Death of a Disco Dancer and Steven Peck’s The Scholar of Moab didn’t make the cut for the General category. And Jessie says, “Besides Death of a Disco Dancer I can think of several other General fiction books that I was surprised not to see including The Shaken Earth by Toni Sorensen and The Upside of Down by Rebecca Talley.”

Our musings as we’ve read: We like books that have inner conflict. Rosalyn noted that one of the finalists that we predict may win “has a thrilling outer conflict–and almost no inner conflict. It was a fun, fast read, but I didn’t feel particularly moved by it.” Jessie notes that she likes books with great character development and careful attention to storytelling. She notes of one of the books, “The characters were all so stereotypical, and there was no challenging or questioning of their stereotypes, and so much of the action was just told to us by the characters rather than unfolded through their actions or thoughts.” Melonie has been surprised that so few of the books in the Mystery/Suspense category are traditional mysteries (only Anne Perry’s Acceptable Loss). She says she’d classify them as “absolutely not mysteries, but action thrillers interwoven with some romance.” She was also surprised by how authors “throw in the Mormon stuff” and dropping casual comments about their missions without really working that information into the backstory. But she has also really enjoyed Gregg Luke’s Bloodborne. She says, “It is well-written.  Again, its more of an action-thriller, but the writing is definitely more complex and the characters have depth.”
We’ve also had an ongoing conversation about the General fiction finalists, which baffle us a little bit, since we know how many great nominees were overlooked in favor of other books that we don’t find as strong. Angela, whose book Bound on Earth was a General fiction finalist in 2009 and won the Whitney Award for Best Book by a New Author, says, “I decided to read the general fiction category this year for two reasons. First, realistic fiction for adults it the genre I tend to read, write, teach, and edit. Second, as one who’s interested in Mormon literature, I want to be more familiar with the realistic fiction for adults published by Deseret Book, Covenant, and Cedar Fort. I have read, or partially read, three of the finalists in the general fiction category so far. While one of them, The Evolution of Thomas Hall by Kieth Merril, seems promising (I’ve only read two chapters thus far), the other two have been frankly disappointing. I realize there are plenty of people who seem to love these novels, even though I found them quite problematic. Five star ratings up and down Amazon.com and Goodreads. So many five star ratings, in fact, that I’ve decided I actually don’t have experience reading the genre of “General Fiction” as envisioned by the current Whitney committee, since it seems many of the finalists aren’t “contemporary fiction” (which is what I read) but are instead “inspirational fiction,” a genre in its own right, with expectations and tropes and a literary value system with which I’m utterly unfamiliar. As soon as I finish reading all the finalists, I plan to write a blog post about the difference, as I see it, between inspirational and contemporary realistic fiction for adults, and report back on my overall impression of how the category of general fiction has been trending for the Whitneys. At any rate, I’m hoping to read at least one novel that takes away the sting of David Clark’s Death of a Disco Dancer missing out on a finalist slot since I believe it’s a much better novel than the two finalists that disappointed me.”
We have 40 days to finish our reading– wish us luck! We’ll write up a post with our final impressions before we submit our ballots.

About Shelah

(Editor-in-Chief) lives in Salt Lake City with her husband and six kids. She has a BA in English Teaching from BYU, an MA in American Culture Studies from Washington University in St. Louis, and an MFA in Creative Writing at BYU. Her work has been published in Dialogue, the Mormon Women Project, Irreantum, BYU Studies, and Segullah. When she’s not writing or wrangling, she can often be found running through the city in the pre-dawn darkness.

6 thoughts on “Whitney Awards: Our Midterm Report

  1. Angela is right, inspirational is a whole other category. Love this discussion and have added some books to my to read list.

  2. Glad Not My Type was a a palate cleanser. Whew.

    I’d have to agree that I’m a little taken aback by the general fiction category so far. I’ve read two and neither was great. They remind me of the work of another massive NYT bestseller who is adored by the public and loathed by critics and other writers. In fact, it made me decide to read Death of a Disco Dancer as soon as I’m done with all the Whitney nominees. I love great contemporary fiction and this category hasn’t delivered it yet. I’ll be keeping an eye out for Angela’s post on inspirational versus general fiction, because I think we’re dealing with inspirational fiction in this category, and it really is its own genre.

    What’s come to mind for me as I read is a question of what makes great LDS fiction. I absolutely agree with your assessment of the YA General category. I ADORED Girl’s Don’t Fly. And yet one of my friends who is voting this year is putting the book I found barely average in that category as her first choice. She’s a MASSIVE consumer of LDS fiction and she judges purely as a reader. I think if I actually looked at the consumer side of the LDS fiction market specifically, I’d be shocked by how little my opinions and preferences line up with the regular Seagull and Deseret Book customer, which surprises me since I write for them.

    Anyway, I’m discovering that I’m judging purely on the writing (is it well-crafted? nuanced? tight?), and others are looking more at the entertainment value. Neither approach is wrong, I think. But it’s going to lead to some vigorous debate when these winners are announced.

    (Oh, and I read every single nominee, 37 of them, for the YA spec category. Icefall was the number one book on my list and it’s a travesty that it didn’t make the cut. Truly excellent.)

  3. Melanie–I loved both your books, I really did. I’ve been recommending them to everyone who likes a good, fun romance :)

    It is hard to figure out what makes a book ‘good’ and deserving of an award. As Melanie mentions, different readers read for different reasons. I tend to look more at writing, and that makes certain books stand out more to me than others. Apparently other readers are looking more at the reading experience and whether they felt entertained/comfortable/enlightened/unoffended.I think one thing that’s interesting about the Whitneys is that they bring together a really diverse group of people to judge and vote on the books.

  4. Completely agree with Rosalyn and Melanie about Icefall. Several of us in the family read it and were disappointed it wasn’t a finalist. Beautiful book. For youth speculative: Also thought Tuesdays was middle grade. We liked Variant and Unfair Godmother around here, too. Getting around to reading the others!

  5. The Whitney rules allow for a vote of “No Award” in any category, so if you really don’t feel like any of the General Fiction nominees are worthy, you can vote for “No Award”. Just a thought.

  6. Thank you so much for the shout out about my book, “The Upside of Down.” Of course, I was disappointed it wasn’t a finalist, but I really appreciate you mentioning it. Thank you!!

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