Notes From the GAYA Judges 2016

Below are the judges’ statements on the Winners and Finalists of the 52nd Georgia Author of the Year Awards.



Judge: Pat Garrett


Finalist: The Birthday Candle by Jamie Bobo

The Birthday Candle is a whimsical tale that will delight young readers. Children will enjoy reading this book with its colorful illustrations and its engaging story. As the kingdom celebrates the birthday of the Princess, a terrible thing happens just as the cake is brought out; the lights go out in the castle. This means an end to the celebration.  However, the Queen has a great idea that not only saves the day, but begins a birthday tradition that is still celebrated today. The idea of telling a story to explain how a tradition was started will plant seeds in the mind of the reader to explore how others began and perhaps make up some explanations of their own. Children will find this book to be a favorite.


Winner: The Magician’s Hat by Malcolm Mitchell

The Magician’s Hat is an original story with characters that are real and can be identified with by the young reader.  The story is entertaining and enjoyable to read. It is written simply and directly with illustrations that add interest to the story. When the magician is challenged as to whether his magic is real or not, there is an element of suspense added to the story. The author puts the answer to the challenge in the character’s hands, making the positive solution real to the children.  The story ends with a question to entice the reader to consider his dreams for his own future. This book will be a favorite to read and to be read aloud.



Judge: C. Hope Clark


Finalist: Hoochy Koochy: A Jake Eliam ChickenBone Mystery  by Cliff Yeargin

With a taste of noir in the storytelling, Hoochy Koochy grabbed me from the beginning with voice and action. Dialogue runs this story, which is a special interest of mine when it comes to reading a new author. Clipped one-liners. Snappy retorts. Guys who accept their lots in life and roll with the punches. Loved the fact this protagonist had so many flaws yet I found myself loving him still. It’s terse, quick writing, my favorite type of prose. Minimalist with no wasted words. Yet the words used were spot on in keeping me engaged. Loved it. Really did.


Winner: 3 Women Walk into a Bar by Linda Sands

The title drew me in. The cover rocked. But when I opened the book to read the first chapter, I felt comfortable enough to crack the spine and invest in this story. Love, love, love this author’s voice. The dry humor and descriptions sucked me right in. I’m not a love of multiple POVs, but I was four chapters into the book before I realized the author was doing it, because I was so enjoying the ride. Ms. Sands has such a savvy, clever wit about her that I was already wondering what else she’d published because I was on this author train. The voice is amazingly fresh and strong. Dialogue is my favorite part of a book, and as a close second, characterization, and in this case, 3 Women Walk into a Bar snared me from the very beginning. Nicely done.



Judge: Anne Corbitt


Finalist: Bull Mountain by Brian Panowich

Generations of Burroughs men have led lives as secretive and hardened as the mountain they call home, where the stills run plenty, violence is the cost of doing business, and old sins are never forgotten. Panowich deftly intertwines the stories of those tied to the mountain’s history—from a young woman who abandons her abusive home with dreams of the stage to a local sheriff trying to make good on the family name. Readers may recognize the rough South lineage of William Gay or Larry Brown in this novel, but the story is undoubtedly Panowich’s own. With beautiful, haunting prose and a plot as twisted and surprising as a mountain road, it’s tempting to speed through these pages, but take your time here. You’ll be sorry when there are no more pages to turn.


Winner: The Courtesan by Alexandra Curry

A blind fortune teller called “the Master of Wind and Water” speaks these words over the young Sai Jinhua: “She will be both one and many people. She will lead both one and many lives.” The fortune is realized not only for Jinhua, the novel’s vulnerable and flawed protagonist, but also for the book itself. Curry transports readers to a vivid, lyrical, painful, dazzling world with her detailed and thorough imagining of this legendary woman’s life, following her from a happy childhood in Suzhou, to a brothel and then a concubine’s courtyard, to an embassy in Vienna, to Peking during the Boxer Rebellion, and finally to the home she has long pursued. In each place, Jinhua lives one of her “many lives” with curiosity and dignity, even amidst isolation, shame, and unthinkable violence. Through it all, Curry builds an enchanting world that any reader would be lucky to visit.



Judge: James Taylor


Finalist: The Triumph of the Ecunnau-Nuxulgee: Land Speculators, George M. Troup, States Rights, and the Removal of the Creek Indians from Georgia and Alabama, 1825-38 by William W. Winn

Ecunnau-nuxulgee  is the Creek Indian expression for “those greedily grasping after lands.”  While the story of the Cherokee expulsion from Georgia is fairly well known, Mr. Winn focuses on the equally tragic story of the forced removal of the Creek Indian nation from Georgia and Alabama lands. Many of the issues involved, land, greed, slavery, and states rights, eerily portended the Civil War. Twelve years of research coupled with lively writing make for compelling reading.


Winner: Reporting the Cuban Revolution: How Castro Manipulated American Journalists by Leonard Ray Teel

Superbly researched and eminently readable, Reporting the Cuban Revolution is a timely exposition of how the best and sometimes worst intentions of thirteen American journalists reporting on the Cuban Revolution of 1957/58 were subverted by Fidel Castro. The book is a profound story of journalism gone awry; it is an important historical study of reporting Castro’s revolution as not what was, but what one wished to see.



Judge: Anne Richards


Finalist: Worship Matters:  A Collection of Essays on the Practical and Spiritual Discipline of Worship by Lisa M. Allen-McLaurin

Dr. Lisa M. Allen-McLaurin’s Worship Matters:  A Collection of Essays on the Practical and Spiritual Discipline of Worship explores the question of which worship practices are most likely to lead “to a transformative encounter with G-d.”  This eloquent collection concerns topics as diverse as the use of social media during service, to the asphyxiation of authentic Christian worship within her own community.   According to the author, such worship emerges from the “invisible institution” of Black African Christianity, an antidote to the form of White Christianity that has asserted slavery to be an institution approved by God, and Blacks to be inferior to Whites.  The author regrets that today the ethos of the Black Church is being submerged in “a very Western, capitalist, individualistic” approach to worship that highlights evangelism, individual conversion and salvation, and the gospel of prosperity.  In her own religious tradition, justice is an overarching concern; and the essays collected here explore the question of how to craft localized, holistic, and community-oriented services that can re-awaken a commitment to justice in all worshippers.  “We believe that the G-d who delivered slaves out of Egypt is the same G-d who delivered the slaves out of Georgia,” she writes, “[I]s the same G-d who broke through history in the person of Jesus Christ, and is the same G-d who breaks through history to deliver us.  We know that G-d is a G-d of justice and liberation.”  Although her focus is the Black/African/American Church, Allen-McLaurin’s insights will be relevant to church leaders, clergy or laity, from across the spectrum of practicing Christians who are interested in reinvigorating authentic worship and social action in their communities.  Concluding with an annotated bibliography of resources regarding African-American practices of communion and baptism, the book will also be of value to scholars of religious studies.


Winner: Befriending Silence:  Discovering the Gifts of Cistercian Spirituality by Carl McColman

Befriending Silence:  Discovering the Gifts of Cistercian Spirituality sketches the facets of a nine-hundred-year-old European monastic tradition with surprising relevance to American culture in the twenty-first century.  On the outskirts of a fiercely competitive society that urges individuals to “use judgment to promote [themselves], to condemn others, and to create walls of separation,” the Cistercian community offers an alternative lifeway.  According to Cistercians, humankind has been offered a gift, or Charism, of potential union with the Divine.  The path to union involves conversion, stability, prayer, humility, compassion, contemplation, hospitality, and perseverance, all of which McColman explores in some depth.  Revealing “a lovely and richly contemplative way of life,” this path requires immersion not only in the Scriptures and the Liturgy of the Hours, but in the lives of the Cistercian saints and the Rule of St. Benedict.  A lay monk himself, McColman clearly has striven to make this book understandable to all readers.  And in the spirit of much of Thomas Merton’s work, Befriending Silence is “an important step toward making Cistercian spirituality available to all people who seek a deeper relationship with God.”



Judge: Patricia Cardona


Honorable Mention: Write Naked!  Secrets of Dynamic Prose Laid Bare! by Josh Langston

Write Naked! is as much a textbook as a humor book.  Josh Langston writes “My primary goal has always been to entertain.”  He achieves this goal throughout the pages of Write Naked with provocative images and wit.  His intention is to “share the stuff that works,” but his passion is making instruction fun.  Langston succeeds at both.  I defy anyone to read Write Naked and not laugh out loud.


 Finalist: Mastering the Challenges of Leading Change:  Inspire the People and Succeed Where Others Fail by H. James Dallas

Mastering the Challenges of Leading Change, is an essential read for anyone navigating the choppy and treacherous waters of surviving today’s tumultuous business environment.  The current economy demands that companies become more agile to survive the rapidly changing times.  H. James Dallas provides a clear approach to creating a culture that makes organizations more pliable and prepared to respond to these rapidly changing times.  He offers ways to identifying change makers and change resisters– Mavericks and Machiavellis.  With practical and tried techniques for crafting messages that motivate and overcome resistance, Mastering the Challenges of Leading Change offers powerful tools for successfully creating a culture poised for success.


Winner: Secrets of a Zen Millionaire:  8 Steps to Personal Wealth with Real Estate by David Ryback, PH.D.

In Secrets of a Zen Millionaire, David Ryback takes the reader on a unique zen journey towards financial success in real estate by being compassionate and by doing the right thing.  Ryback’s approach to real estate does not focus on merely building a business, but rather building a family of friends by providing homes to others.  As a world traveler, his perspective is informed by several philosophies, cultures and religions.  One such cannon is summed up in Matthew 6:33, “Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”  Secrets of a Zen Millionaire takes that message to heart by not only affirming the precept, but by also demonstrating how this promise is fulfilled when we act honorably and remember that “nothing matters as much as appreciating each moment for its uniqueness and meaning in our lives.” Secrets of a Zen Millionaire offers an inspirational approach to “Living more happily and getting rich by doing the right thing,”



Judge: Joe Samuel Starnes


Finalist: Finding Tambri: A Novel in Stories by Sherry Meeks

Meeks’s stories told from various character first-person points of view are deftly woven together to reveal a compelling, overarching narrative about Tambri, a young woman struggling with the death of her four-year-old son and the end of her idyllic first marriage. Well-measured, vivid scenes built of poignant details bring the characters to life, allowing the reader to experience the deep internal emotion of this moving story firsthand.


Winner: Driving the King by Ravi Howard

 This novel that plays with history achieves the rare feat of layering great depth and complexity into the story while being an extremely enjoyable read. Howard’s inventiveness of moving the on-stage attack by white supremacists on Nat “King” Cole in time and place (from Birmingham 1956 to Montgomery 1945) allows for explorations of the Civil Rights movement’s foundations. The novel is narrated by the fictional main character, Nat Weary, a soldier home from World War II who jumps onto the stage to protect Cole and ends up serving ten hard years in prison for beating the assailant. Upon his release, Cole hires him to be his limo driver in Los Angeles. Weary’s engaging, smooth voice rings as true and moving as any of the iconic singer’s melodies.



Judge: Iraj Omidvar


Honorable Mention: A Full Life, Reflections at Ninety by Jimmy Carter

Jimmy Carter’s A Full Life, Reflections at Ninety reviews a long life marked by challenges tackled with humility, persistence, and creativity often through consultations with thoughtful and thoughtfully selected friends and advisers.  From the lessons of the early challenges in life and career emerges a moral vision committed to honesty, human rights, peace, conflict resolution, and the health of people across the world.  The author’s unwavering pursuit of that moral vision creates the more formidable challenges of his life:  Running for governor of Georgia and the presidency, establishing the Carter Center, undertaking diplomatic missions, and taking public positions on controversial topics such as the war in Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Besides fascinating anecdotes, often not covered in other works, the memoir contains assessments of the author’s decisions, noting missed opportunities, shortcomings in some of his decision-making processes, and even errors of judgment—assessments that stand out by virtue not only of their honesty but of the invaluable insights that can only come by way of a long, full life.


Honorable Mention: Peace behind the Wire, A Nonviolent Resolution by Kit Cummings

Peace behind the Wire, A Nonviolent Resolution by Kit Cummings is receiving an honorable mention for its account of the author’s extraordinary work over many years to bring peace to inmates in some of the most violent prisons in the United States and abroad.  Cummings goes out of his way to reach out to people who have been put away by society and who live under extremely harsh conditions.  The inmates he works with are often considered violent and dangerous, but he approaches them as a fellow human, with understanding and compassion.  The memoir offers remarkable examples of conflicts resolved in the most unlikely of places among the most unlikely of participants.  With his work in prisons, Cummings brings hope for peace to the inmates.  With his memoir, he offers a powerful reminder that peace in our world is attainable, if sought with passion and perseverance.


Finalist: All the Above: My Son’s Battle with Brain Cancer by Julia McDermott

Julia McDermott’s All the Above, My Son’s Battle with Brain Cancer is replete with powerful dialogues and descriptions that bring to life the circumstances leading to — as well as the significance of — each of the often life-and-death decisions involved in fighting brain cancer.  At the center of this drama is Jack, the courageous and much-loved young man whose struggle reminds us of the often invisible social ties that underpin our lives.  In recounting the events, McDermott exposes the powerful relationships among parents and children, siblings, and relatives and friends that sustain life and work, here in face of tremendous stressors. The memoir is also a poignantly appreciative look at the dedicated physicians, nurses, and other medical professionals the family relied on for Jack’s surgeries and recovery.


Winner: Remain Free by Gautam Narula

In 2008, at the age of 15, Gautam Narula became acquainted with death-row inmate Troy Davis.  Remain Free is the moving account of Narula’s growing friendship with Davis until Davis’s execution in 2011, which took place in the context of worldwide calls for retrial and clemency by Amnesty International, Pope Benedict XVI, and a number of Nobel Peace Prize laureates.  Meticulously documenting interactions with Davis by sharing letters and detailed accounts of visits and interviews, the memoir creates a textured portrayal of Davis that goes way beyond his often sensationalist media coverage.  As we see the growing friendship between Narula and Davis, we come to appreciate the significance of the weighty issues Narula grapples with:  The morality of the death penalty, the flaws of the justice system and the flawed people who run it, and the inhuman cost of living in the social habitat of a “high-security prison.”



Judge: Kevin Cantwell


Finalist: Sky Blue Enough To Drink, Beth Gylys

In her fifth collection of poems this Georgia State University professor demonstrates a particular affinity for phrasing that cuts the syntax of emotion into a harder remove than we might otherwise find in a less disciplined tonality of sentences. Certainly, there is emotion, certainly an undeniable affection at times for her subject, even a sadness, as in the poem “For My Father,” where the poet grants that “he had a daughter/who needed a father: the one/he was—the one he couldn’t be.” The more we read these poems, the more we settle into familiar intimacies we might know as our own. These are matter of fact poems written by an adult who knows the world of dying friends, of neighborhoods where a woman might not want to jog by herself, or of a friend’s boy, “his long hair pulled away from a face/both soft and strong.” This is a book of poems whose lives we recognize, lives that are yet shaped by a craft that is reserved and hardened by what art makes real.


Winner: Tree Heresies by William Wright

In his title poem the poet speaks of “the hex of words guarding the central dark,” an apt configuration suggesting how we both summon and encounter language to bring its mystery into a kind of focus, while positioning knowledge in shadow to maintain its essential power over us. In William Wright, it is the past that is essentially powerful, yet it is the present that seems vexed by what feels like the past, as in “Prologue” where the poet addresses, it seems, himself, who has “taken a road into a place you do not know”—much like the speaker in the famous Robert Frost poem who strikes the rhythm of language so firmly that it makes the present journey of his opening sentences both frightening and seductive. Wright himself is seduced by words he obviously loves. His language is so rich in places that it might be the mulch of the past we hold to our faces. It is a pleasure to recognize in this poet who has done much for poetry in Georgia the power of language that does so much for poetry itself.



Judge: Erika Marks


Finalist: His Best Friend’s Baby by Susan Carlisle

An army medic, and the pregnant widow of his best friend who arrives on his doorstep for help, make for a compelling and heartfelt romance in Susan Carlisle’s His Best Friend’s Baby. Drawn together by a common loss, Ryan and Phoebe feel a connection at the start. But when Phoebe asks Ryan to be her midwife, what begins as a partnership grows into something far deeper and Ryan feels his devotion become more than just duty. The emotional stakes are high, and Ms. Carlisle keeps them there expertly, allowing the reader crucial and tender insight to both conflicted hearts on the journey by building her heroine and hero’s growing affections in a believable and effortlessly-paced way. Ms. Carlisle’s appreciation and knowledge of the exotic setting—Melbourne, Australia—is rendered with fascinating detail to give this romance an added twist, and her Happily Ever After delivers—in more ways than one!


Winner: Girl Meets Class by Karin Gillespie

Author Karin Gillespie knows the perfect recipe for romantic fiction and Girl Meets Class serves up a delicious feast for her readers when our heroine, Toni Lee Wells, is tossed abruptly out of her life of luxury and forced to support herself for the first time. Full of pluck and spunk, and armed with enough sass and spirit to make me root for her success in life—and love—Toni Lee is one the most memorable leading ladies I’ve had the pleasure of reading in a while. Indeed, she has some growing up to do—and Ms. Gillespie does a flawless job of making her journey from self-absorbed to self-aware both believable and poignant, adding a cast of well-drawn and memorable supporting characters along the way. But it is in her romance with Carl, a fellow teacher, where Toni Lee—and Ms. Gillespie—shine brightest, infusing their spicy and tender relationship with just the right amount of roadblocks to keep the reader wondering will-they or won’t-they until the deliciously satisfying ending. Ms. Gillespie’s writing flows effortlessly and her turns of phrases are memorable and unique, as is her snappy, witty dialogue which showcases her infectious sense of humor.



Judge: Sergio C. Figueiredo


Finalist: The Healer’s Choice by Kathryn Hinds

The Healer’s Choice is the story of a leader cast into a battle that brings her into confrontation with her long-held beliefs. Through a drawn out battle with an invading army, led by Lord Corvalen, we see Kel Nira reveal long-suppressed anger that drives her re-think her values and worldviews. The battles between the two, Kel Nira and Lord Corvalen, draw them closer to each other than they pull them apart; their story is one of ‘star-crossed lovers’ where every day magics guide each through a journey of self-discovery.


Winner: The Girl in the Mirror by Constance McKee

The Girl in the Mirror by Constance McKee begins Jodi Kendall having an out-of-body experience the night before her husband suddenly dies. When the police officers who have come to notify her the next day, she has a similar experience, hovering near the ceiling of the living room and unable to accept the news. In the following months, we see that Jodi has been grappling with her husband’s passing by self-medicating; one evening, she inadvertently overdoses and has a near-death experience in which she has a romantic evening with her late husband. As a psychiatrist, Jodi acknowledges that this experience demands some action on her part and identifies Dr. Simon Bentley, a near-death expert, to help her work through the psychological significance of this event. The rest of the novel takes the reader through Jodi’s path toward discovering how to travel to Michael’s (after-death) world to be with him and discovering a part of herself in the process. A mix of the afterworld, love story, and coming-of-age, McKee’s novel speaks to a part of the ongoing human struggle with personal loss and (re-)discovery—and the psychological growth that comes with those experiences.



Judge: Raymond L. Atkins


Finalist: Women Longing to Fly by Sara Kay Rupnik

In Women Longing to Fly, Sara Kay Rupnik explores the lives of remarkable women going about the business of living. The stories are funny and sad, the characters are eccentric and believable, and the language is clever and poetic. These are women we wish we knew, flawed yet heroic individuals filled with full measures of courage, love, devotion, faith, loyalty, and goodness. Sara Kay Rupnik is a remarkable writer, and Women Longing to Fly is nothing less than a gem.


Winner: A Clear View of the Southern Sky by Mary Hood

Mary Hood’s A Clear View of the Southern Sky is a finely-crafted collection of short fiction. Her rich language and lovely turns of phrase invite us to linger on page after page.  Her characters are carefully drawn inhabitants of the Southern landscape who remind us of someone we know, or perhaps that we wish we could someday meet. Her settings are unique, yet at the same time reminiscent of places we have been or that we yearn to visit. Her storytelling is easygoing and profound, unsettling and satisfying. Her voice is elegant, honest, and clear. Mary Hood is an exceptional writer, and A Clear View of the Southern Sky is, quite simply, one of the best books I have read in a long time.



Judge: Dr. H. William Rice


Finalist: Without Regard to Sex, Race, or Color:  The Past, Present, and Future of One Historically Black College by Andrew Feiler

The demise of Morris Brown College, once the largest of the Atlanta University Center institutions, began in 2002 and continues in 2016. In 2003 when the College lost its SACS accreditation due to financial mismanagement and debt of around 23 million dollars, the enrollment was close to 2,500.  Since then the College has gone bankrupt and has lived on volunteer faculty and community donations.  Still, it is alive, though the enrollment is less than one hundred students and its future is far from certain.  Andrew Feiler’s imaginative collection of photographs tells the story of the school’s proud history, its ragged and tattered present, and its uncertain future.  Feiler forces us to look at peeling paint, empty rooms with trash on the floor, shattered walls, and rotting handrails.  But among these photographs, he also insists that we remember the people who learned and grew here: a photograph of a collection of keys students used to get in dorm rooms, a picture of a trumpet someone once played, a photograph of empty mailboxes that once brought letters from home.   Part elegy, part history, and part question, Andrew Feiler’s Without Regard to Sex, Race, or Color:  The Past, Present, and Future of One Historically Black College provides us with a moving, unforgettable visual journey.


Winner: Memories of the Mansion:  The Story of Georgia’s Governor’s Mansion by Sandra D. Deal, Jennifer W. Dickey, and Catherine M. Lewis

Sandra Deal, Jennifer Dickey, and Catherine Lewis’s Memories of the Mansion is a carefully documented and beautifully illustrated history of Georgia’s Governor’s Mansion from conception to architectural design to construction, and even to renovation after the 1975 tornado.  The authors contextualize the house in the lives of the families who lived behind its beautiful walls, focusing not only on the governor and the first lady, but also on children, celebrity guests, dogs–even Mac the goose from the 1960s.  Finally, the authors examine and illustrate formal celebrations at the Mansion by providing pictures of plates and invitations to inaugural events, state dinners, weddings, and open houses.   No collection of books about the history of the State of Georgia will be complete without this book..



Judge: Elaine Drennon


Finalist: Halley’s Hope by C.M. Fleming

As a finalist, I chose Halley’s Hope by C.M. Fleming. I came to this decision due to the structure of the novel, its ability to grip the reader during both adventurous and heartfelt sections, and most of all because of this short book’s easiness with a complex time in history. Fleming’s descriptive language and command of dialogue make history come alive–a part of history that might never have been seen as particularly exciting to young readers. The story takes place during the Civil War, yet Halley’s questions about life, emotions, and relationships could easily belong to a boy (or girl!) in the 21st century! I can imagine this book being used as supplementary reading material in a middle school history class, giving the names of real battles and formerly stuffy-sounding generals a refreshing rediscovery. Hats off to this author for this treat for young readers!


Winner: Circus Mirandus by Cassie Beasley

Though I enjoyed reading all the selected books, this year’s winner was the easiest to decide.  This book is not “local good” or “first novel good,” this one is what I consider Charlotte’s Web/Alice In Wonderland good. Though I am not a fan of time travel, I gladly left reality and wanted to stay there. I’ve never been a great lover of the circus, but reading this story made me long to live under the big top.  The idea of “magic” through Doug Henning or Penn & Teller has never intrigued me more than a few minutes, yet this amazing book kept me enthralled in a magical journey like none other. Circus Mirandus by Cassie Beasley blends the concepts of friendship, pain and loss, and the trials and tribulations of growing up with a magical story I could easily believe. With every page of this book, I wanted to BE young Micah: I wanted to live in his house, mock his ill-tempered great aunt, spend a night in a tree house with his new best friend, and most of all to hold tightly to the beloved grandfather Micah knows will not be around much longer.  Circus Mirandus is a coming of age novel I’ll want to read to grandchildren, but will also read again just for myself.  This beautiful story is for readers of ALL ages—especially those of us in need of our own personal dose of magic.