For those of you who heard me make allusion to a book award that I was involved with, I can finally actually talk about it! The winners for the 2016 Mass Book Awards have been announced!
This was loads of fun, if a bit chaotic. I read a lot, but I read for several book clubs as well as review copies furnished by publishers... on top of any personal reading I want to do. Shoehorning in a box of 12 books to read over about two months was plausible but required me to actually schedule reading. Also, since I can't have one crazy thing in my life this also overlapped almost perfectly with the two month period from putting in an offer on a house to closing, as well as moving from part-time to full-time at my library.
I took part along with several others as judges for Adult Fiction, with the purpose of whittling down the long list (the 12 finalists) to one Winner and three Honors. Some of the books were very easy to eliminate from the running, others took some dithering. The winner stood out to all of us.
I do want to stress that just because I don't think highly of a book doesn't mean it's bad, just not for me. Every book on the list already made it through a screening and narrowing down process, and we had to pull apart and rate them. They all have their merits.
And now, the books and some thoughts from me on them.
A Head Full of Ghosts / Paul Tremblay (WINNER)
I didn't think I was going to like this book. All three of us went into it with some trepidation, none of us were particularly into Horror, and everything about this book from the cover, to the synopsis, to the praise from other authors, said we were holding a horror novel in our hands.
And we loved it.
A Head Full of Ghosts isn't a book where the horror is a monster that goes bump in the night or a murderous villain in the dark. Rather we get a self-aware book that exposes the horror genre while revealing itself. The horror here is in misunderstanding and maltreatment of mental illness and in the exploitation of celebrity culture. Don't go in with preconceptions of what the story is, let it show you.
Only the Strong / Jabari Asim (Honors)
I only fell in love with two books out of the twelve, and this was one of them. Asim delivers masterful use of language and flawless shifting between narratives and narrators as the story comes full circle. Read this book.
Honey From the Lion / Matthew Neill Null (Honors)
This book didn't work for me as a novel, but it definitely worked for the other to judges. And even if I couldn't get into the book doesn't mean that it can't appreciate the craft of it. Historical fiction tangled up in post-Civil War economics and environmentalism.
The Muralist / B. A. Shapiro (Honors)
Eminently readable and excellent as a book club pick. The Muralist searches for the life of an artist in the center of the Abstract Expressionism movement. A descendant seeking proof of a family legend and a young woman seeking to save her family from the Holocaust. The story treats famous figures with a balance of respect and familiarity, and is very relateable to the ongoing discussions around immigration and refugees.
The Secret Chord / Geraldine Brooks (Long List)
Very close to making the Honors list. Brooks is undeniably a skilled writer and she rose to the challenge of taking on historical figures of legend as the central story. This book posed a challenge to me due to a general skittishness of anything I connect with my escaped childhood within the Church, and to due to my general skepticism when approaching novels about such significant figures.
The Rumor / Elin Hilderbrand (Long List)
I have discovered that I'm not a fan of Hilderbrand's writing. I understand that her novels are incredibly popular beach reads, but they're just not for me. This book is made up of characters who desperately need hobbies. If I wanted this level of drama I'd read Sweet Valley High.
A Marriage of Opposites / Alice Hoffman (Long List)
Well written, but after deep investment in one character it jarringly switches half-way through to a different one. In many ways your standard Hoffman novel, including possibly magical romance.
Bird / Noy Holland (Long List)
I still can't decide if I like or really dislike this one. I could see what it was working towards, and there's a level of brilliance in the writing, but at the same time I was left wondering what I was reading.
On Hurricane Island / Ellen Meeropol (Long List)
Very timely novel, but suffers from too many individual story lines and perhaps not enough editing.
It started out with a good rating, but that dropped a bit as I read. I personally feel that a "civillian Gitmo" off the coast of Maine misses the whole point of Guantanamo being off US soil, and various other plot wholes just niggled at me too much. The main villain was a mustache away from being Snidely Whiplash, and the sexual assault he perpetrated (as well as his extended daydreaming about it) was really hard for me to stomach (which is partially the point, but I also have issues with how sexual assault and rape is generally written about).
Complaints aside, it was well worth the read.
The Last Bookaneer / Matthew Pearl (Long List)
Pre-copyright book pirates sounds like an amazing premise to me. Conceptually a great novel, but it failed to deliver on the action and adventure we hoped for. Neat read, but drawn out.
Honeydew / Edith Pearlman (Long List)
Short story collections are hard. As Helen Ellis says, "'For a collection of short stories' is the 'For your age' of the book world." Overall this collection to me was made up of slice-of-life stories that failed at their hoped for intimacy.
Find Me / Laura Van Den Berg (Long List)
This book delivers a fresh take on the pandemic story line, told with a deliberately wandering and confused narrative. Perhaps bordering on YA in tone, but a solid read.