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The Fiction Shortlist for the 2016 Chicago Review of Books Awards

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The inaugural Chicago Review of Books Awards (“Chirbys,” for short) will celebrate the best books published in 2016 by writers in the Chicago Metropolitan Area. The winners in each category will be announced live on December 8 from 7:30 to 9 p.m. at Volumes Bookcafe in Wicker Park, at a free public awards ceremony and book signing that will feature panel conversations between some of the authors in each category about their books, writing process, and Chicago inspirations.

Every day this week, we’re announcing finalists in four categories:

The judges (see below for a full list) include representatives from Chicago’s independent bookstores along with editorial and contributing staff at the Chicago Review of Books and Arcturus magazine. In alphabetical order, here is the fiction shortlist.


9781101870570_5620aJesse Ball, How to Set a Fire and Why
Pantheon Books, July 5

A truly unique voice in surrealist prose and poetry, Jesse Ball teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. How to Set a Fire and Why, his sixth novel, is more grounded in realism than most of his fiction. Its precocious narrator is a 14-year-old girl, Lucia Stanton, who lives in poverty with her aunt thanks to the death and institutionalization, respectively, of her father and mother. After she’s expelled from (another) high school for stabbing a boy with a pencil, Lucia finds solace in the local Arson Club, which urges her to start a fire with her father’s Zippo. In the vein of Salinger and Chicago’s own Adam Levin, How to Set a Fire and Why is a stunning, stream-of-consciousness coming-of-age novel.


9780765377548_db97aWesley Chu, Time Siege
Tor Books, July 12

One of the most exciting science fiction writers working today, Wesley Chu moved to Chicago from Nebraska in 1990. Last summer, Time Salvager was optioned for a major motion picture by Michael Bay. This year, Time Siege continued the adventures of the time-traveling James Griffin-Mars in a solar system controlled by the Valta corporation. Instead of revisiting the past, Griffin-Mars and his team of scientists travel to the future, where the Earth—including Chicago and New York, specifically—is an almost-abandoned wasteland. Like the first book in the series, it’s a fun mashup between Star Trek and Looper.


9781511304221_ac80aGina Frangello, Every Kind of Wanting
Counterpoint Press, September 13

A resident of Chicago’s North Center, Gina Frangello has taught at two universities in town—Roosevelt and UIC. In her third novel, Every Kind of Wanting, four Chicago couples from very different worlds combine their efforts to make and raise a single child. Our reviewer, Sara Cutaia, called it “heartbreaking … intimate … the kind of trauma that cracks you open over time. Frangello is a sculptor who has carved out the truest and most intimate parts of a human life. The root of the novel is about lives being upended: Who really owns a baby? Why did you get married in the first place? What will it take to stay? And what if you don’t have a choice?”


geniAbby Geni, The Lightkeepers
Counterpoint Press, January 12

A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop who now teaches at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, Abby Geni’s fiction explores the natural world. In her first novel, The Lightkeepers, a wildlife photographer attempts to solve a murder mystery on the isolated Farallon Islands, thirty miles off the coast of San Francisco. The first-ever Chicago Review of Books review called it “a haunting, brutal, rain- and blood-soaked story of humans at the mercy of nature … ” heralding the arrival of a young novelist with a singular perspective. “Geni writes in small, perfect sentences stripped of ornamentation, often single clauses. It’s a beautiful effect.”


9780765378255_8047cMary Robinette Kowal, Ghost Talkers
Tor Books, August 16

Mary Robinette Kowal is a Hugo Award-winning novelist, audiobook narrator, and puppeteer who moved to Chicago from North Carolina. In Ghost Talkers, the English army forms a top-secret group of mediums during World War I to take final reports from the spirits of killed soldiers on the battlefield. The best medium in the corps, Ginger Stuyvesant, becomes a highly prized target of the Germans and discovers the existence of a mole in the English army. According to our contributing staff, “Kowal’s re-imagining of this era in history is seamless. Ginger’s smart and savvy take-charge attitude cements her as a dynamic character you will not forget.”


9781620406953_9a1e0Christine Sneed, The Virginity of Famous Men: Stories
Bloomsbury, September 16

Christine Sneed lives in Evanston and teaches creative writing at Northwestern University and the University of Illinois. Her second collection of short stories, The Virginity of Famous Men, tackles divergent themes of loneliness and family. In “The Prettiest Girls,” a Hollywood location scout decides to smuggle a woman he lusts after out of Mexico. In “Beach Vacation,” a mother comes to terms with the unpleasantness of her own son. Harking back to her 2013 novel Little Known Facts, several stories are concerned with the notion of celebrity—particularly the Tinsel Town variety. Considered as a whole, the collection imparts a lifetime of wisdom on the difficulties of love.


Judges for the 2016 Chicago Review of Books Awards—who selected the finalists out of nearly 100 books—include many representatives from Chicago’s independent bookstores:

As well as members of the Chicago Review of Books and Arcturus magazine editorial and contributing staff:

Stay tuned for the remaining shortlist announcements later this week!

7 comments on “The Fiction Shortlist for the 2016 Chicago Review of Books Awards

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