2012 Massachusetts Book Award Winners

Winners of the 2012 Massachusetts Book Awards were announced on Friday!Massachusetts Book Award seal

Fiction
Alice Bliss by Laura Harrington

Nonfiction
Killer Stuff and Tons of Money
by Maureen P. Stanton

Poetry
The Trouble Ball by Martin Espada

Children’s/YA
Chasing the Nightbird by Krista Russell

Visit the Massachusetts Center for the Book for details about the winners and about the 12 Must-Read titles in each category.

Follow Massachusetts Center for the Book (@massbook) on Twitter and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/masscenterforthebook.

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This One’s a Winner!: Beauty Queens by Libba Bray (AUDIO)

I take back everything I’ve ever said about authors narrating their own audiobooks (don’t, please, don’t!) after listening to Libba Bray‘s incredible performance on Beauty Queens. She brings to life her own satirical look at advertising and news media, corporate ethics, commercialism, and pop culture, through the darkly humorous story of teen beauty pageant contestants who survive a plane crash onto a jungle island. (Only a small percentage of the original fifty states’ contestants survive. Miss Massachusetts is not among them, although her gown does come in handy at one point.) The airline staff, the camera crew…all dead. As if in a reality show without the show, the girls appear to be on their own with only few supplies other than some waterlogged bags of airline pretzels and a surfeit of beauty aids.

With this year her last chance to win before she ages out, the bold and brassy Taylor Rene Krystal Hawkins, representing Texas, takes charge, insisting that the girls keep up their pageant routines while Adina (Miss New Hampshire) sardonically observes that shelter, food, and water should probably take priority, but is ignored. Each of the main characters has a story that gets revealed as they begin to trust each other, but there’s no time to sentimentalize each girl’s individual discovery of strengths she didn’t know she had, as the author throws the girls into one dangerous situation after another, and not just snakes, tropical storms, slumbering volcanos, or other jungle threats. The author’s wild subplots involving terrorist, politics, reality shows, and more, keep the action and humor going strong. And, yes, some hot boys do eventually come into the picture, so there’s romance too, but with a few twists on the usual YA romance fare.

Like the Miss Teen Dream contestants themselves, who are not all as they present themselves to pageant judges and each other, this young adult novel is more than meets the eye. Under the hilarious satire, skewering everything from product placement to international arms dealing, lie serious themes that readers of both sexes can think about and form opinions on. The salty language, frank talk about sexual desire in teens, left-leaning politics, and the distinctly Sarah-Palin-by-way-of-Tina-Fey voice of Ladybird Hope (former Miss Teen Dream now presidential candidate) might make this book slightly less humorous to social conservatives than to more liberal-leaning readers. But I was impressed by the author’s even-handedness in many parts of the book where she avoided the common pitfall of only being open-minded about opinions that match our own, allowing for the girls from both red and blue states to experience some brief, eye-opening moments of understanding before switching the story over to crazed villains or hot pirates.

The audiobook production – with its distinctive voices for each contestant, sound effects signaling the end of a CD, and Saturday Night Live-worthy “commercial breaks” – is far more than just a reading of the book. It deservedly won this year’s Audie Award for best narration by an author. An interview with Libba Bray at the end of the audiobook is also humorous and enlightening.

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Miracles of Science in the Amazon: State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (AUDIO)

Cover image of State of Wonder audiobookNarrated by Hope Davis, State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (Harper Audio) recently won the 2012 Audie Award for literary fiction. Very well deserved! It is an incredible performance of a story that starts with the barest of news of the death of a colleague somewhere in the Brazilian jungle and gradually develops into a Heart of Darkness-style journey from Minnesota to the Amazon for Dr. Marina Singh.
A tall, dark-haired woman of Indian-American descent, Marina (pronounced on the audiobook as “More-ray-na”) was the consummate outsider among the other Minnesota natives – tall, blond, and easily sunburned. The idea that she would be sent alone to the Amazon, after the death of the last emissary of the Vogel Pharmaceutical Company, Anders Eckman, Morena’s lab-mate and friend, father of three young boys, who also went along, seems crazy, but is explained by the delicacy of the mission and the dangerously eccentric secrecy demanded by the doctor in charge of the jungle camp, Annick Swenson, who is on the verge of developing a fertility drug that will make Vogel’s fortune. The complexity of the story grows rapidly from the opening scene, developing tendrils and offshoots in a matter of hours like a rainforest vine.
In a remarkable reading, greatly enhancing my enjoyment of the story and the characters, narrator Hope Davis conveys Marina’s natural scientific detachment, outsider’s tendency to observe without engagement, and reluctant probes into her own state of mind after she is transported to a setting far more exotic and remote than her childhood trips to visit her father in India prepared her for.
The psychological, suspenseful, and topical aspects of the complicated story intertwine in combinations that seem unbelievable yet inevitable, making this an excellent choice for a book discussion group. I highly recommend this as an audiobook!

Listen to an excerpt from the HarperAudio edition of State of Wonder here.

Other opinions of State of Wonder audiobook (mixed):
Audiobook Jukebox (Find links to other reviews here)
Devourer of Books
Everyday I Write the Book
Literate Housewife

State of Wonder
Patchett, Ann
HarperAudio, 2011
ISBN: 9780062072498
Unabridged Length: 12 h, 25 m
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More Speed Dating with Must-Read MassBook Authors, Part 2

Speed dating with the Must Read Massachusetts Authors at the Massachusetts Library Association conference on Wednesday, May 9, was so much fun. Six of the authors whose books have been selected as finalists for Massachusetts Book Awards in one of four categories (Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, and Children’s/Young Adult) had just 4½ minutes at six different tables crowded with librarians to get each group excited to read their books.

Photo of the six authors

L to R: Laura Harrington, Diana Gordon, Kimberly Marcus, Jef Czekaj, Lawrence Vincent, and Leonard Rosen

Book cover image of All Cry Chaos

Leonard Rosen drew on his academic and nonfiction writing background to write his first literary thriller.

Leonard Rosen‘s experience in teaching writing classes at Bentley University and Harvard University came through as soon as he sat down and hooked the attention of the classroom table with a show-and-tell. “The idea for All Cry Chaos came to me when I was on a flight from Boston to L.A. and looked out the window and saw this,” he said, showing the group a enlarged aerial photograph of ridge lines branching out from a main trunk in a dry desert landscape. Flipping through a succession of photos of hands, bloodshot eyes, trees, and a cabbage leaf (“even my appetizer at dinner”) he explained how he began to notice a similar pattern all over the place. “It made me wonder, ‘Is there a Pattern-maker?’ That is to say, ‘Is there a God?’ And that is the question the character in my book takes on.” His main character, Henri Poincaré, is close to retirement as an Interpol agent when a prominent mathematician/Harvard professor is dramatically murdered at the World Trade Organization meeting in Amsterdam. Poincaré gets drawn into the victim’s complex theories and mathematical discoveries to solve the case.

Cover image of book Nightly, at the Institute of the Possible

D.M. Gordon’s book is from Hedgerow Press, a new poetry imprint from Levellers Press in Western Mass.

Somewhat sadly, Diana Gordon, whose second collection of poetry has the intriguing title Nightly, at the Institute of the Possible, had to endure a moment of awkward silence when she sat down and asked the group at the table: “Do you like to read poetry?” When no one answered, however, she smoothly segued into the relationship of authors and librarians (“Writers need libraries and libraries need writers.”) and read a short poem from her book. She suggested offering poetry readings at the library where people would read and discuss other people’s poems, not just share their own poetry, and that librarians would not have to be poetry experts to facilitate a group like this. She herself facilitates a weekly poetry discussion group at the Forbes Library in Northampton.

Photo of Jef Czekaj

Jef Czekaj of Somerville explaining how he came to write and illustrate  the children’s book, A Call for a New Alphabet.

Jef Czekaj is a cartoonist, children’s book author/illustrator, and a D.J. He uses his real name for his writing and illustrating (“Czekaj” is pronounced CHECK-eye,) but D.J.s under a pseudonym. His Must-Read children’s picture book, A Call for a New Alphabet, is about an exasperated letter X. Jef took the confessional approach at our table, announcing straightaway, “I was a linguistics major, and when I graduated, I realized I couldn’t do anything with my linguistics degree.” Luckily, he found an artistic niche that also allows him to use his fondness for language. His books Hip and Hop, Don’t Stop!, Cat Secrets, and The Circulatory Story were all Junior Library Guild selections.

See the previous post, More Speed Dating with Must-Read MassBook Authors, Part One, for the speed-dating skinny on Kimberly Marcus, author of the YA novel Exposed; L.M. Vincent, author of the quirky microhistory In Search of Motif No. 1; and Laura Harrington, author of Alice Bliss.

All six of the Must-Read authors were friendly and engaging to talk with, and all were open to a second date, i.e. being invited to libraries to speak. The full list of Must Read authors will be posted by the Massachusetts Center for the Book, and all Massachusetts libraries will be receiving a copy of the poster showing all of the Must Read titles.

Photo of Must-Read Books Banner 2012

Must-Read Books selected by Massachusetts Book Awards judges

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More Speed Dating with Must-Read MassBook Authors, Part 1

Authors wait as they are introduced

Authors appear a little nervous waiting for their first table assignments.

Speed Dating with the Authors sponsored by the Massachusetts Center for the Book was a big hit for the second year in a row, with over a hundred attendees on the opening day of the Massachusetts Library Association conference. Twelve finalists for Massachusetts Book Awards have been selected as Must Reads in each of four categories – Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, and Children’s/Young Adult. Six intrepid Must-Read authors agreed to take part in matchmaking with a roomful of librarians eagerly looking for their newest favorite book. All of the authors were great sports about being rotated around the six packed tables to talk about their books, their writing process, and themselves.

Photo of Kimberly Marcus

Author Kimberly Marcus drew on her knowledge as a clinical social worker to write Exposed, her first YA novel.

The action of Kimberly Marcus‘s first young adult novel, Exposed, set in Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard, begins when 16-year-old Liz – a gifted photographer – learns that her brother is accused of raping her best friend. How did she come to write the entire novel in free verse? A friend suggested writing a scene she was stuck on as a poem to get unstuck. That advice helped her get unstuck, and later on, it helped again. That’s when she realized “the idea of snapshots and verse really worked” and she wrote the whole book that way. Kimberly Marcus has also written a children’s picture book, Scritch-Scratch A Perfect Match. A North Dartmouth resident, she lives near the beach and has set Exposed in a fictional town on the Cape.

Cover image of In Search of Motif No. 1

In Search of Motif No. 1 by L. M. Vincent

L.M. Vincent’s “quirky” new book, In Search of Motif No. 1: The History of a Fish Shack, intrigued librarians with its eye-catching cover art and Rockport theme. Comfortable with an audience, Lawrence Vincent (a multi-talented humorist and playwright, as well as radiologist in a Boston hospital) talked about how he came to write about the iconic Cape Ann shack lost in the Blizzard of ’78 and later rebuilt. “I didn’t even know what a fish shack was when I moved to Massachusetts,” he said, but he became curious about the proliferation of paintings and photographs – good and bad – with the shack as their subject. Researching the “truly fabulous pieces” that came out of the heyday of the artists’ colony there (1920-1946) led him to write the history of the shack, which is, he says, “in many ways, the history of small-town America.”

Blurry photo of Laura Harrington

Alice Bliss, Laura Harrington’s first novel, is getting a lot of buzz.

Laura Harrington, author of Alice Bliss, her first novel, is also a playwright. She made instant friends at the table I was at by sitting down and declaring, “Librarians are my favorite people.” A Gloucester resident and native of Rochester, New York, Laura said that her own family’s history (Her father fought in World War II and her two brothers in Vietnam) led her to write about the war in Iraq. “I want to get people thinking about the war,” she said, “but I hope the book will also get people thinking about a girl. Alice Bliss, centered around a 15-year-old daughter’s relationship with her father, is about the Iraq War but is “really a classic coming-of-age story,” she said. Alice Bliss has also been named a Best Adult Book for Teens by School Library Journal.

All six of the authors were friendly and engaging to talk with, and all were open to a second date, i.e. being invited to libraries to speak. Part Two of this blog post will talk about Jef Czekaj, author/illustrator of A Call for a New Alphabet; D. M. Gordon, author of the poetry collection Nightly, at the Institute of the Possible; and Leonard Rosen’s literary thriller All Cry Chaos.

Photo of Must-Read Books Banner 2012

Must-Read Books selected by Massachusetts Book Awards judges

The full list of Must Read authors will be posted soon by the Massachusetts Center for the Book, and all Massachusetts libraries will be receiving a copy of the beautiful poster that premiered at the Speed Dating with the Must Read Authors yesterday.

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A Novelist’s Novel: Snow by Orhan Pamuk

Most of the events in Snow by Orhan Pamuk, winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature, take place over the space of a few days, but they are described and commented on by an (at first) unknown narrator from a distance of four years in the future. A Turkish poet known only as “Ka” returns to Istanbul, the city of his youth, after twelve years of political exile, and impulsively decides, on the suggestion of a friend, to travel for days through a blizzard out to the impoverished, backwards border city of Kars in a far-off corner of the country, where the unending snow almost immediately makes the roads impassible. Ostensibly Ka has gone there to report on a recent spate of suicides of local Islamic girls, who are being forced to remove their headscarves for school, but Ka is actually more interested in finding a former classmate there, İpek, whom he remembers as being beautiful, and he is ready to fall in love with someone from the time of his youthful happiness.
The events that happen in this time out of time while Kars is snowed-in are surreal. People are shot, Ka is followed, plots are hatched and carried out. Newspaper reports of events are printed before the events occur; the line between what is real and what is staged gets increasingly blurry. The melancholic Ka, though thoroughly Westernized, is drawn to the fervent radicalism of the Islamic fundamentalists in Kars, gets caught in the clash of religious and secular cultures. Poems come to Ka whole-cloth, as if divinely inspired, during his short stay there, and they seem to him all together to encapsulate the whole of his life, somehow making sense of it.
Ka is described near the beginning of the book this way:

Ka, you see, was one of those moralists who believe that the greatest happiness comes from never doing anything for the sake of personal happiness.

The whole book is blanketed by Ka’s melancholy and guilt for any happiness he feels. Ka is racked with guilt and pessamistic about the future almost all of the time, but he has moments of pure happiness in Kars and experiences an artist’s joy from the perfectly formed poems he is able to write. The reader feels muffled and distanced from Ka, not only by Ka’s trancelike state but also by the narrator of the story, a friend of Ka’s, who painstakingly and conscientiously reconstructs events from Ka’s notes and later conversations, but doesn’t try to place the reader at the immediate scene.
Snow is an intense read, along the lines of a classic Russian novel, with its tortured souls agonizing over how to act and where their political, national, religious, family, and personal loyalties should lie (i.e. how they should live) while at the same time they watch TV, eat dinner, and go about their daily business along with everyone else.

Snow
Pamuk, Orhan
Translated by Maureen Freely
0-375-70686-0, paperback
Vintage Books (Random House)
2005 (original English translation, Knopf, 2004)

Disclosure: I read Snow from a public library copy (two weeks overdue) as part of the 2012 TBR Pile Challenge laid down by Roof Beam Reader.
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No Pulitzer Prize for fiction this year!

No Pulitzer Prize for fiction this year! — Post from The Bluestocking Society this afternoon

I missed seeing The Bluestocking Society as part of Bloggiesta, but discovered it just now during the Twitter frenzy that there is no #Pulitzer Prize awarded for fiction this year.

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