BookLife Prize in Fiction
- by Em Elless
Born worrier Jerry Becker goes to see enigmatic psyche investigator -- or “brain dick” -- Mason Burr to save his relationship in this smart, relevant comedy. While Jerry and Mason’s voices are sometimes too similar, Elless has a knack for bringing wit to the book’s action and physical descriptions so that not a word feels wasted. The author pulls off some of literature’s harder tactics (long speeches, flashbacks) with comic timing reminiscent of your favorite irreverent stand-up.
- by Linda Rettstatt
Liv, Markie, Andi, and Julia -- all over the age of 50 -- and Cee Cee (only 32) meet at a beach house in Cape May for a New Beginnings Retreat. Left on their own after their mentor, Bree Gilmore, is detoured, the women find their time together therapeutic and begin shedding the past. While a satisfying reminder to readers that issues are part of being human, the strength of this novel is the well-defined characters whose reactions to adversity make them seem true to life. Women over 50 will find solitude among the author's prose.
- by Steven Evans
Searching for answers and a sense of closure, Michael revisits his life through a diary he penned in 1987, decades before his life went from adventurous to dire. The journal retraces his estrangement from his former life after moving to St. Louis. Desperate for something to fill his loneliness and occupy his spare time, Michael reinvents himself and his sense of fun by employing what he calls "urban exploration" and breaks into abandoned buildings. Evans does manage to drum up some suspenseful moments through the observation of a crime. And Michael's journal entries display the mindset behind his increasingly daring exploits into the not-so-empty confines of abandoned buildings. This unique story construction tends to be clunky, however, because the prose is stiff and the story becomes stalled by the stop-start momentum of the diary entries. A fun concept hobbled by style and prose limitations.
- by Lori Hart Beninger
Amid the wildness of 1850s San Francisco, Beninger's well-written tale does not lack for action. Teenage Guinevere Walker chafes at the dictums of high society, rebelling against her doctor father's wishes that she act like a lady. Though she's a strong character, Guine's very spunkiness sometimes comes off as cliche. Meanwhile, John Patrick, aka Jack Moylan, feels more original -- a kind of Huck Finn who makes the best of the terrible things life throws at him. While the story is solid, shading in more depth and complexity to these characters would take this novel to the next level.
- by Emma Gates
Through intense dialogue and vivid characterization, Gates creates a somber and powerful portrayal of a preteen girl suffering sexual abuse amid a mentally-ill American mother's struggles to raise her children in England. The victimization of Lottie Arkwright by her piano tutor Master Rory is presented in convincing psychological complexity and rings true to life. Although Lottie's final revenge on Rory seems more symbolic than plausible, Gates shuns simplistic moral imperatives, delivering a chilling mingling of the monstrous and human.
- by Jeffrey Deitz
Exploring both the severity of mental illness and the nurturing benefits of the doctor-patient relationship, Deitz's impressive novel features protagonist Dr. Jonas Speller, a mental heath professional who has known Victoria Schone Braun for many years. But when they begin to influence each other, the lines between doctor and patient blur. This narrative is fast-paced, emotionally resonant, and reflects the important and life-altering work done on the couches of psychoanalysts. While this is not necessarily an original plot line, Deitz livens up the medical fiction genre with nuanced prose and interior knowledge lending the novel authenticity and depth.
- by Marina Osipova
A deftly-woven tapestry that spans the volatile 1940s and 1950s in Russia, this novel follows protagonist Serafima as her life intersects with three men and, eventually, a boy. Despite the generic title, the writing is dynamic and bursting with nimble turns of phrase, and the layers of family secrets and European history are handled with authority. Though the twists and turns are sometimes too convenient, the conclusion is appropriately dark.
- by Kristin A. Oakley
Oakley's novel offers up the story of an investigative journalist finding his big break in a small town in Illinois that only homeschools its children. The procedural story -- which features well drawn characters and excellent plotting -- gives readers a glimpse of the political history of Illinois as well as the modern day politics of education.
- by Scott Kauffman
At its strongest when recounting Jamie Hamilton's experiences, Kauffman's thoughtful novel explores a candy-striper's grief for her brother who was killed in Vietnam. Some of the sections set in the 1970s need fine-tuning -- there are moments when the action is unclear to readers, and sometimes the book's tone shifts, making for an uneven reading experience. Betsy is a complex, well-drawn character, but her dialogue sometimes fails to ring true. Overall, the story is well-plotted and moving, and the characters fully developed.
- by Gretta Curran Browne
In this rich biographical novel, we meet George Gordon first as a boy, crippled and lambasted by his mother, and follow his development as Lord Byron through her death. Browne’s narrative voice easily welds wry objective observations with character voice, often to humorous effect. The book doesn’t always work—frequent italicization distracts, descriptions taking on the lofty can be too generic or cloying, and too often sections packed with satisfying detail finish with lines summarizing or interpreting the material—but overall, Browne has created a fascinated portrait of an enduring legend.
- by Robert Wuench
In Wuench’s sweeping historical novel focused broadly on the American West and specifically on Texas Ranger John “Jack” Coffee Hays, occasional overly-obvious observations and clunky metaphors are balanced by a great deal of fresh phrasing that does justice to the idea of the tough, whiskey-soaked West. The pacing shows some finesse, with quick, staccato sentences used in fight scenes and intense exchanges. While the book would benefit from fewer Western-genre clichés, overall it offers a fun and lively representation of a storied time in the country’s past.
- by Julie Oleszek
A teenager’s struggle to find a reason to live after the death of a beloved sibling is convincingly portrayed in this moving and well-crafted novel. The use of flashbacks is effective; the lead is first introduced meeting with a series of doctors concerned by her refusal to eat, and the author’s incremental exploration of what brought her to that point serves to make the reader to empathize with her. The book's eventual resolution feels well earned, while the dynamics of a large family are also skillfully portrayed.