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:
- Best Fiction (Tuesday)
- Best Creative Nonfiction (Wednesday)
- Best Poetry (Thursday)
- Best Debut (Friday)
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.
Jesse 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.
Wesley 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.
Gina 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?”
Abby 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.”
Mary 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.”
Christine 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:
- Suzy Takacs, The Book Cellar
- Rebecca George, Volumes Bookcafe
- Thomas Flynn, Volumes Bookcafe
- Timothy Moore, Unabridged Bookstore
- Sara Hollenbeck, Women & Children First
- Jeff Deutsch, Seminary Co-op and 57th Street Books
- Linda Quinde, Seminary Co-op and 57th Street Books
- Wayne Giacalone, RoscoeBooks
As well as members of the Chicago Review of Books and Arcturus magazine editorial and contributing staff:
- Adam Morgan, CHIRB and Arcturus Editor-in-Chief
- Kristen Raddatz, CHIRB Executive Editor
- Lauren Stacks, CHIRB Fiction Editor
- Sara Cutaia, Managing Editor at Arcturus magazine
- Rachel León, Visual Arts Editor at Arcturus magazine
- Lori Rader-Day, Mary Higgins Clark Award-winning Novelist
- Christina Kloess, CHIRB contributing staff
- Tovah Burstein, CHIRB contributing staff
Stay tuned for the remaining shortlist announcements later this week!
Adam Morgan is the founding editor of the Chicago Review of Books and the Southern Review of Books. His essays and criticism have appeared in The Paris Review, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Chicago magazine, and elsewhere.