Rachel Reads: Massachusetts Book Awards Nominees

The Massachusetts Book Awards recognize significant works of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and children’s/young adult literature published by current Commonwealth residents. As a judge for the 21st Annual Awards, I’ve been tasked with reading all fourteen fiction nominees.

Looking for an eccentric short story collection? Try Julian K. Jarboe’s Everyone on the Moon Is Essential Personnel. It was a little too strange for my tastes, but I did appreciate Jarboe’s writing style and off-center narratives. While most of the stories are short (no more than a couple of pages), and some were long (as well as the longest, “Everyone on the Moon Is Essential Personnel”), only a few really stick out to me—and, even then, I’m not sure I could tell you their title. Jarboe is a talented writer, but their work is not something I will find myself drawn to in the future.

Master of Poisons is a sweeping tale of politics, identity, and climate change told through the lens of African-inspired fantasy. This book was a hard sell for me, and I struggled through the first 100 or so pages. (Andrea Hairston includes a character list and glossary, but an info-dump is still an info-dump.) …But then found myself thinking about the story and anticipating my reading sessions because I couldn’t wait to find out what happened to Djola and Awa. Did I totally understand the book by the end? Not really, but it may have inspired me to give different genres a try every once in a while.

I went into Saint X—of which I had no other knowledge except the summary—thinking I was going to read a fictionalized account of Natalee Holloway’s disappearance. Were there similarities in the crime that spurs the novel’s plot? Yes, but I got so much more out of the novel than I was expecting. Alexis Schaitkin uses time jumps and shifting POVs in an epistolary style to narrate the murky details main character Claire either remembers, imagines, or finds out on her obsessive quest to uncover how her sister died. While slim, this novel packs a punch.

My copy of Separation Anxiety screams “cute slice of life about a middle-age woman who overbonds with her dog!” but that’s slightly misleading. Laura Zigman’s account of a separated 50-year-old who puts her dog in a baby sling on a whim touches on long-term relationships, motherhood, professional happiness, and grief. It wasn’t a bad book but also not nearly as thought-provoking or delightful as the copy would suggest. (But I did love the cover.) With that said, I do agree that, “for anyone taking fumbling steps toward happiness,” Separation Anxiety’s cast of characters will keep you company.

Still on my list: