I’ve told various people snippets, but here is the whole story. The awards are arranged and sponsored by the Friends of the St. Paul Public Library, I follow them on Twitter and saw, last September, I believe, a tweet how they were looking for judges. I checked into it and you need no special training or skill, just a love of books and reading. I applied and was chosen.
There are many categories to choose from, I chose Genre Fiction, but there is also, teen, middle grade and children’s (those are all fiction and NF both) there are picture books, adult non fiction, adult literary fiction, poetry, and….that might be it. I could look but whatever. You select which categories interest you most and they try to match you with one of your top two choices. I got my first choice.
There are also two types of judges. Preliminary round and final round. I chose to be a preliminary round judge as those are the ones they have trouble staffing. Preliminary judges will read every single submitted book in their category. Some categories have a lot of entries. My category, genre fic, is one of the biggest, annually receiving 35 books on average. Which is a lot for full length novels. Because the judges have to read them all that scares a lot of people off. Not me, clearly, but others. So I said I’d be happy to do this because I read a lot anyway. My major miscalculation was not realizing that genre fic is generally a euphemism for “mystery” I read a lot of genre fiction, but mystery is the one genre I do not like. At all. I didn’t think it through. But, lesson learned.
After being selected, I began receiving the books shipped to my home, a few at a time. Then I read, while taking notes and filling out the form the Friends supply with each book. While the form is not required, it was very helpful to me because you read so many and they tend to blur together.
My category ended up with 25 books, which is considerably lower than expected. I was okay with it only because I was sick of reading mysteries. Of the 25, 20 were straight mysteries. Yuck. The other five were a mix of other genres.
On January 28, about four months after applying, we met to do the judging. The panel for genre fiction was three people, me and two others. Our goal was to whittle our 25 books down to four choices. We had three hours to get this done. If you talked to me about this before the 28th, you probably heard some negativity from me, I wasn’t having a ton of fun reading all these mysteries and wasn’t enjoying the process. Toward the end I read all the best books and then after the 28th, I was thrilled. I loved the judging process, it was everything I thought it would be. Talking books with other book lovers, but knowing we are expected to be judgmental, and not saccharine, made the discussion more fun. It took us an hour to get the first book decided. Then we picked the next three over the next hour and were done in two. That’s pretty great.
I was worried my picks wouldn’t line up because I’m not a mystery reader. I needn’t have worried. I read enough that I can tell a good book from a bad one regardless of what the book is about. Maybe that sounds egotistical. It isn’t. I really am good at judging what makes a good book. I had a top 5 from the 25 I read. 3 of my top five were also in the other judges top 5s. And the other two were high maybes for both of them. So I was right on target with this, which was great.
If you are curious about the books we read, you can find the list here. It was the first 25 I read in January. Listed alphabetically by title.
The four we chose to be finalists are:
The Heavens May Fall by Allen Eskens
The Born and the Made by Robert Spande
Rise of the Spring Tide by James Stitt
Stealing the Countess by David Housewright
Rise of the Spring Tide isn’t a mystery, it has elements of mystery but it is more of a fantasy novel/historical fiction, I guess. It’s a different book. The other three are mysteries. I like them all. My number one pick out of all 25 was The Heavens May Fall. If you are going to try one, that would be the one. It’s terrific. Just an all around good book. Other honorable mentions:
Sagar’s Tale by James Stitt (this is actually a companion book to Rise of the Spring Tide, a precursor novel, so if you read that one, read this too.)
Salem’s Cipher by Jess Lourey
Little Girl Gone by Gerry Schmidt
Demon in the Hole by Richard A Thompson (this was my #2 pick overall, but they both had it lower on their lists, so it didn’t get in the top four but I think it should have. It’s a thriller, with mystery elements and very well written, I would recommend this strongly as well.)
That’s about it. Like I said, I am not hugely into mystery. Now, the final round judges do their work. They will take the four books we recommended and narrow them down to the winner of the award this year.
When I do this next year, that is what I’d like to try next. I’d be very interested in choosing a winner and only having to read four books that you already expect to be good. I’d also like to try again in a different category. The point being, I’d be happy to be a book judge for years to come.
And that is the whole story. It was a great process and learning experience for me, in addition to being a wonderful and important thing to do. For the love of reading.