Notes from the GAYA Judges

Below are the judges remarks on the winners and finalists of last year’s Georgia Author of the Year Awards.

Biography

Judge: Dr. Jim Elledge

Finalist

To Make a Difference: James T. McAffee, Jr.

Scott Walker

James T. McAffee, Jr. was not only a leader in the healthcare industry, but also a defender and patron of higher education, giving his time, energy, and vision to a triumvirate of notable schools: Belmont, Mercer, and Union universities. For giving visibility to this little-recognized giant in the world of business as well as education, Scott Walker’s rendition of McAfee’s very complicated life is a welcomed addition to biography of our time, at once personal and engaging.

Winner

Suffer and Grow Strong: The Life of Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas, 1834-1907

Carolyn Newton Curry

Carolyn Neston Curry’s wonderful biography, Suffer and Grow Strong, chronicles the life of one of Georgia’s unsung daughters, Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas, with an unflinching grace and erudition. Curry’s subject, Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas, led a life of privilege in antebellum Georgia, something that changed dramatically with the Civil War. Like many, she suffered—the deaths of four of her ten children, bankruptcy, and devastating personal illness— but like few, she grew strong through the travail. Curry deserves many accolades for bringing this stirring story to readers’ attention.

Children’s Book

Judge: Peggy Mercer

Finalist

Summers at Howard Creek

Gloria Ludlam Bennett, Written and Illustrated By

In the tradition of memory pieces, Summers at Howard Creek invites young readers along as a character named Gloria visits her grandparents in their cabin in North Florida. The storytelling style has a lyrical flow with nice details, and the bright illustrations are enticing and translate the story in beautiful brilliance. Children love tales of fishing and fun times with grandparents and this is a sure page turner for ages pre-K through 2nd.

Winner

Little Pearl’s Circus World

Charmain Zimmerman Brackett, Illustrated by Erica Pastecki

A delightful memory piece based on a true story, and turned into a children’s interesting tale, Little Pearl’s Circus World invites children into the life of a young circus performer, Pearl. Accompanied by delightful, traditional drawings of animals and circus features children will enjoy, the story is told  in a contemporary telling whereas child readers get a look at a circus from times gone by, from the inside out.  A glossary and reference material about the real Pearl are included in the back so young readers can dig deeper into this real story of an American folk hero.  Delightful read, great illustrations.  A true winner for children.

Detective/Mystery

Judge: Melanie Sumner

Finalist

Death in Perspective

Larissa Reinhart

An addition to the successful Cherry Tucker Mystery series, Death in Perspective reveals Reinhart’s strong prose style and knack for dialogue. The easy-going first person narrative of a very likable detective, Cherry Tucker, draws the reader into a story that is fun to read, if not always believable. Subplots entailing romances and family feuds move drive the plot along the way, making the story as easy to listen to as gossip. These are great small town characters – funny and heart-warming – if only they wouldn’t die so much!

Winner

Wasted

David Darracott

Darracott writes this suspenseful story with tight, polished prose, allowing his characters to reveal themselves with authentic, controlled dialogue. The carefully chosen details of his settings, such as the protagonist’s old Triumph and his modest house outside of Decatur, Georgia, with an inch of pine needles on the roof, and a cracked concrete driveway, bring the reader smack into the middle of the story. More exotic scenes on the Caribbean are illustrated in detail that is both exquisite and essential to the plot. Although the characters of Player and Sharpe are well-portrayed, the female character, Jaye, suffers from the usual stereotyping of women in suspense novels. Up until the final pages, she is a beautiful body, empty of a soul or a reason to exist outside her service to men. However, a brilliant ending reveals the subtle satire of her dead weight in the story, and with that, Wasted becomes a profound novel, as well as a good read.

Essay

Judge: Dr. William Rice

Finalist

The CEO as Urban Statesman:  Harnessing the Power of CEOs to Make Cities Thrive

Sam Williams

In The CEO as Urban Statesman Sam Williams explores the ways in which CEOs can be a positive force in the cities in which they work. CEOs working in synergy with leaders in their communities can be a positive force for changes that benefit not only businesses but also the entire community.  By focusing on examples from cities such as Atlanta, Oklahoma City, Salt Lake City, and Columbus, Williams outlines a powerful blueprint for creating better communities by mutual cooperation.

Winner

American Afterlife:  Encounters in the Customs of Mourning

Kate Sweeney

Kate Sweeney’s American Afterlife is a bold exploration of a subject that is at once very personal and totally universal:  the many ways in which people, particularly Americans, express themselves in the context of death.  In language that is often witty and always compelling and precise, Sweeney explores the history of American mourning as well as the new and inventive ways in which Americans confront the face of death. From conventions of obituary writers to the confessions of memorial tattoo artists and memorial photographers, Kate Sweeney’s American Afterlife gives us glimpses of ourselves as we confront the inevitable end of the only life we know.

First Novel

Judge: Elaine Drennon Little

Honorable Mentions

Another Long, Hot Day by Stan Waits

THRU – An Appalachian Trail Love Story by Richard Judy

Finalist

A Murder Country

Brandon Daily

A Murder Country is a gothic tale that weaves reality with folklore, religion with evil, and pain with justice. Set just before the nineteenth century, Brandon Daily’s prose has been compared with that of Cormac McCarthy and other American greats. Three unforgettable characters—Josiah Fuller, William Corvin, and The Rider—tell a frightening story of Appalachian towns and rural backwoods homes where “an eye for an eye” is the law of the land, and already tortured souls can see any degree of violence. A Murder Country is not for the faint of heart; it leaves a chilling memory on every reader.

Winner

The Memory of Flight

Debra Bowling

Sometimes the best stories are full of questions never answered. Debra Bowling’s The Memory of Flight is told from two poignant viewpoints: Marilyn, the young wife of an abusive alcoholic, fights and eventually follows the voices in her head which few believed in or understood in 1960s rural Alabama. Marilyn’s daughter Ginny watches her parents while creating her own answers in a world where children are seen and not heard. As a self-made defense mechanism to deal with the pain of everyday life, Ginny finds solace through her father’s Brownie camera, embarking on a lifelong obsession with photographing strangers. The Memory of Flight is a journey through pain and beauty, and the balance of the two that will bring tears, occasional laughter, and thoughtful nostalgia to readers again and again.

History

Judge: James Taylor

Finalist

Without Mercy: the Stunning True Story of Race, Crime, and Corruption in the Deep South

David Beasley

On December 9, 1938, six black men were executed in eighty-one minutes in the electric chair of Tattnall Prison, near Reidsville, Georgia.  Against this shocking tableau, David Beasley describes a period of Georgia history so governmentally corrupt, so judicially racial, that the present-day reader may experience both outrage and delight in the author’s narrative  handling of these explosive historical events.

Winner

Defiant: the POWs Who Endured Vietnam’s Most Infamous Prison, the Women Who Fought For Them, and the One Who Never Returned

Alvin Townley

While hundreds of American POWs faced years of brutal imprisonment during the Vietnamese conflict (1964-1975), eleven prisoners thought of as leaders were singled out for special treatment and sent to a hellish prison destined to be known as Alcatraz. Based on countless interviews with all involved, Alvin Townley presents their story in unflinching yet uplifting prose. Defiant reads like a novel; it is history with a punch.

Humor

Judge: Patricia Cardona

Finalist

Toonamint of Champions and why Golf is so Exciting

Todd Sentell

The Toonamint of Champions brings a bit of spice to the game of golf. Completely unexpected, the writing changes like the game it portrays. Sometimes, like a fast green the writing takes you by surprise; other times you find yourself amused at where you’ve landed.

Winner

Luck be a Chicken

Jameson Gregg

I found in Luck Be a Chicken an authenticity in tone, description, and situational comedy that is seldom so charmingly displayed. The wit is reminiscent of Twain. The writing captures the vernacular with spelling that lets the reader hear the dialect. The book is a must-read for all those that enjoyed the Jeff Foxworthy series, “You might be a Redneck.”

Inspirational-Secular

Judge: Patricia Cardona

Finalist

The Well-Fed Self-Publisher

Peter Bowerman

The Well-Fed Self-Publisher  gives more than just salient advice; it provides a strategy for successful self-publishing. Unlike previously written books of its kind, the writing style is engaging and sure to keep the reader amused while learning the ins and outs of the publishing industry. The fresh approach to what could otherwise be a dry topic energizes and inspires wanna-be’s and would-be’s to actualize their ambition to become published authors.

Winner

Letitia Sweitzer

The Elephant in the ADHD Room: Beating Boredom as the Secret to Managing ADHD

The Elephant in the ADHD Room goes beyond the perimeters implied by its title to enlighten the reader about what might be learned from the experience of boredom. Personally, I have never been more fascinated by boredom before. This book takes a Gladwellian approach, demonstrating that perhaps we have had it wrong all along: perhaps looking at moments of boredom we might launch our greatest adventures as we rediscover ourselves.  Of particular usefulness for parents, educators and clinicians is the concept of applying “Elements of Interest to otherwise boring situations.” Such an approach can be especially helpful to those struggling with ADHD, as well as anyone experiencing that irritating malaise we call boredom.

Inspirational – Religious

Judge: Dr. Laura Dabundo

Winner

Falling Up: Lessons Learned on the way Down

Connie Carey

This is a sage and thoughtful reflection, offering inspirational lessons borne of grief. Tautly organized around the author’s first, shared parachute jump and her father’s suicide, it presents scripturally based counsel, gently and succinctly. It teaches without being paternalistic, intolerant, sanctimonious, or superior. Connie Carey clearly has a deep and abiding faith, and she is honest and respectful of others and always generous and kind. The book is nicely written and effectively substantiated by references to other writers. It is a book one would return to often.

Literary Fiction

Judge: Joseph Sam Starnes

Finalists – Tie

Sweetwater Blues

Raymond Atkins

Atkins’ novel is a sympathetic, sometimes lyrical story of Palmer Cray, a young man whose drunk-driving accident kills his best friend following their high school graduation. This character-driven novel follows his struggle through an extended prison term and his subsequent efforts to do right by his dead friend by caring for his Alzheimer’s stricken mother. Atkins’ easy, conversational third person voice doesn’t hurry the action, adding some levity to a tragic story, and he deftly blends his authorial voice with passages of Palmer’s first person voice addressed to his dead friend.

Gone West: Book Two from Southern Son, The Saga of Doc Holliday series

Victoria Wilcox

Wilcox’s second in a trilogy of historical novels about Georgia-born John Henry Holliday deftly covers much ground in the life of the dentist who transformed himself into the legendary lawman known as Doc Holliday. Starting in Texas in 1873 and ending in Las Vegas sixteen years later, the novel imagines the often dangerous day-to-day life of Holliday as he matures in the Wild West practicing dentistry, gambling, and enjoying the company of a feisty actress-turned-dance hall girl. Wilcox’s attention to historical detail—and her ability to mold it into an enthralling story—make for a significant feat.

Winner

Somewhere a River

Michael K. Brown

Brown’s story centering on a fallen Alabama football hero who finds himself homeless and suicidal in his late forties in Wyoming is a tightly-written, structurally complex novel that keeps the reader keenly engaged in chapters that move back and forth across decades. Through compelling scenes, Brown’s novel confronts issues of race, abortion, and broken love and family relationships without ever becoming didactic or preachy. His narrative immerses the reader into the world of his characters’ lives and the decisions they make on the hard road to redemption. Many moments in the novel resonate with the reader long after the final page.

Memoir/Autobiography

Judge: Dr. Anne Richards

Finalist

Out of Iran

Bahram Darugar

Out of Iran is a sensitively detailed and movingly told story of the life of one of many thousands of Iranian immigrants living in the United States, about a quarter of whom are refugees or asylum seekers. The “Oriental” memoir is a genre dominated by women, and Bahram Darugar’s book, constructed out of gemlike episodes from his boyhood, adulthood, and old age and concerning the life of an Iranian-American Baha’i, offers a perspective all-too rarely encountered by readers today.

Winner

History Lessons

Clifton Crais

Clifton Crais’s History Lessons: A Memoir of Madness, Memory, and the Brain is both a moving account of how childhood poverty, violence, and neglect have shaped the life of a teacher, and a meditation on the relation between trauma and memory. Unable to recall the central events of his youth, Crais weaves an unexpected narrative in which the love of family, the reactions of acquaintances who knew him as a child, the narrow places that still have power to devastate, and the few clear memories he can muster, together construct a compelling and credible history of a life.

Poetry

Judge: Ralph Tejeda Wilson

Finalist

The View from Saturn (Louisiana State University Press)

Alice Friman

The poems in Alice Friman’s latest book are witty, irreverent, and full of both humor and charm. A mature poet of exceptional skill, her vision is deep and wide, whether contemplating the ringed planet or the joys and grief arising from life here on earth. Always inventive in language and spry in thought, these poems continue to resonate long after reading.

Winner

I Watched You Disappear (Louisiana State University Press)

Anya Krugovoy Silver

Not only a work of uncommon craft and uncanny, eerie lyric beauty, the poems contained herein partake of a characteristic often lacking in contemporary poetry — a sense of urgency that these poems had to be written. Never was a book more accurately described than by Frost’s famous lines: “Only where love and need are one,/And the play is for mortal stakes,/Is the deed ever really done/For Heaven’s and the future’s sakes.” These poems are a testament to art, life, and fortitude.

Romance

Judge: Lillian Richey

Finalist

Return to Eden

Richard Taylor

Richard Taylor’s Return to Eden depicts the tragedies and passions of war and the sacrifices people are forced to make in the name of love and loyalty. Mr. Taylor intersperses his fast-paced romance novel with historical facts, giving his readers a behind- the-scenes look at guerilla warfare in the Philippines during World War II. His hero and heroine risk their lives to prove their love for their country and each other.  Return to Eden is both heart-wrenching and heart-warming; it is a story of great deprivation and enduring love.

Winner

Journey of Hope

Debbie Kaufman

In the tradition of The African Queen, Journey of Hope is an adventurous story of love and redemption. Debbie Kaufman sets her romantic story in the exotic jungle of Liberia in the early twentieth century.  Despite ever-looming danger and deadlines, Journey of Hope’s determined hero and missionary heroine forge bonds of faith and unconditional love.  Ms. Kaufman effectively uses all the elements of romance writing to create an inspiring love story.

Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Paranormal

Judge: Dr. Sergio Figueiredo

Finalist

Blood Exchange

Sandra Hood

A self-published novel, Blood Exchange is an engaging read from start to finish about Emmalyn “Explorer” Trew’s investigation into what the First Baptist Church in Graceville has been doing with the congregation’s daily blood donations, all while avoiding their suspicions. With plot twists weaved in at almost every turn, this novel will keep readers intrigued and wanting more at the end of each chapter (and waiting in anticipation for a sequel).

Winner

Coming Home

Jack McDevitt

McDevitt’s novel offers a vision of a future where the artifacts and history of humankind’s first one thousand years of space exploration. Part mystery and all science fiction, Coming Home traces the downfall of societies through economic collapse, environmental deterioration, and political upheaval, and presents a narrative that resonates with contemporary social, cultural, and political issues. Well-written with an engaging plot, McDevitt’s Coming Home does what most of the best Sci-Fi works have always done: speculate on the present by envisioning a less than desirable future.

Short Stories

Judge: Ann Hite

Finalist

American Blues

Evan Guilford-Blake

This collection of short stories is a love letter to the Blues. The stories are lyrically written with well-developed characters that ring true and will remain with readers long after. Each story is written in a different era of America and of course the Blues. They are not placed in chronological order and this adds a dynamic movement to the book. Each story’s setting becomes its own character. Amazing work. Enriching read.

Winner

The Lost Woods

William Rice

The beautiful language found in this book is a pure joy to read. This collection sweeps the reader away with its sense of place and surroundings. The fictional town of Sledge, South Carolina could be any reader’s hometown. I love the wide-range of characters that have remained with me. The hunter’s perspective, whether man, woman, or child, lends a unique and captivating beauty to this intricately woven collection of stories. Southern storytelling at its best.

Specialty Book

Judge: Bill Starr

Winner

Confederate Odyssey

Gordon L. Jones

Confederate Odyssey is an unusually comprehensive and detailed examination of a large and unique assemblage of Civil War artifacts from the George Wray collection at the Atlanta History Center. Historian/curator Gordon Jones provides a wealth of information about these documents based in part on the materials collected by Wray and from his own far-reaching research. The result, amply illustrated by Jack Melton’s archival color photographs, is a book that reaches beyond armaments and uniforms and relics of the Confederate cause to give a full heroic yet sad and tragic picture of a nation struggling at war. A most handsome, enduring production.

Finalist

Courthouses of Georgia

George Justice w/photos by Greg Newington

Courthouses of Georgia is a very attractive book which showcases each of the courthouses centering Georgia’s 159 counties. Greg Newington’s color photographs, some quite strikingly produced at night, provide memorable, distinctive glimpses of building exteriors and their landscapes. The text adds useful information about each, making the book a welcome addition to the shelves of Georgia’s history while adding a sense of one of the uniting elements in the state’s far-flung system of counties.

Young Adult

Judge: Dr. Aaron Levy

Winner

A Bird on Water Street

Elizabeth O. Dulemba

Welcome to the barren, mining town of Coppertown, Tennessee, about 50 miles shy of Dalton, Georgia. Because of the mining residue on a daily basis, there’s no trees or vegetation growing in Coppertown. No bugs, no birds, just the dirty mining dust. Meet 13 year old Jack Hicks and his family. Jack is destined to work in the mines too, just like his dad and his dad’s dad, and so on. It’s a dangerous lifestyle, and Jack fears that one day his dad will die down there just as much as he fears fessing up to his dad that Jack doesn’t want to follow his father’s footsteps. Jack loves his family and life in Coppertown, but he also has a passion for trees. Once the miners go on strike, and the the Company pretty much is forced to shut down, the air clears and slowly but surely Jack is dazzled by the green growing life sprouting up all over his hometown. Meanwhile, with his father out of work, his family like most of the Coppertown families, is struggling to put food on their table. As things are growing and Jack discovers his dream job of becoming a forest ranger in Coppertown, he and his family may have to leave the only home they’ve ever known forever just to survive. This is an important and moving story about the environment and family, and a 13-year-old boy’s amazing journey to save both.

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