The awards process is always a unique one - comparing books to the point of determining a winner is not something that you have to (get to) do every day - but when the two finalists are similar in merits and drawbacks, the decision is that much more complex. (I could insert a comment about the Pulitzer Prize here, but I'll resist.)
One of the things that all the books on the Indie Lit Awards short list had in common was that they were fairly quick to read. Last year there were a couple (Great House, C) that took a bit of perseverance, but not so this year. Of the five books, two didn't impress me much, and one shone with a polished gleam and an intense publicity campaign but didn't seem to have a lot of depth.
Comparing the final two: winner (Silver Sparrow) and the runner-up (Dance Lessons) was an especially stimulating process. Both were good books: enjoyable, thoughtful, with interesting characters and a plot that kept me hooked. The conversation and ultimate decision got down to details and nuances.
Silver Sparrow was a book about bigamy, but even more it is a book about sisters, about family, in the various ways it may be defined. I love how Jones showed a different side of bigamy by making each character quite a real person. In fact, by switching point-of-view midway, you really get a close look at each of the sisters and their unique perspectives.
My complaints were few: there was a sentence or two that seemed very odd/out of place to me, and I didn't think that the epilogue was faithful to the characters' personalities. Truth be told, it made me angry initially...though that opinion improved upon discussion.
The largest thing that discussion illuminated for me was that the themes jumping out to me weren't the themes that jumped out to others. Carrie (NomadReader), especially, picked up on a lot of things that I didn't, or viewed them in a way I hadn't, likely because she is from the area where the book takes place and understands the nuances. That's one of the wonderful things about really talking about a book, don't you think? Getting to view it from a different perspective?
Thanks to Tayari Jones, the author, for creating such vivd characters and being gracious enough to spend the time to do an interview (posted on the awards site) and thank you, readers, for enjoying her book enough to take the time to nominate it for the awards. Pick it up if you get the chance.
I personally connected more with Dance Lessons (despite the terrible--& terribly misleading--cover art) partially because it felt so Irish (good thing, since the author is Irish) and made me miss Ireland even more than usual. This is another book about family in its many forms whose characters really came alive. Greaney wove the past and the present together in an enticing manner. (I may have even gasped a time or two whilst discovering of some of those deep dark secrets.)
In this book it was the prologue instead of the epilogue that threw me. I read it through a few times and still wasn't sure what was happening or who the main characters were. The writing style was different than the rest of the book, and overall didn't add anything to the story.
Some of the characters were very layered and complex: I loved Jo even though she had some major issues with bitterness and a capacity for cruelty. Other characters, however, remained somewhat flat. It was Fintan's and Jo's story that held prominence. Ellen, rather than being the main character she seemed to be, was more of a vehicle to tell her husband's story. Dance Lessons is a wonderful example of how bitterness and secrecy can ruin lives, as well as showing the contrast between a small town's warmth & welcome and their ultimate reticence & privacy.
The characters, for me, is what the decision boiled down to. The plot, pacing, and writing quality of the two books were at similar levels. One had an epilogue I didn't like, the other a prologue. I connected with the themes in Dance Lessons more than I did with those in Silver Sparrow, but the minor characters were much more fully fleshed out in Sparrow. Even those that were only encountered for a page or two were very real people.
It was a difficult decision, but we persevered and came up with a winner (unlike other awards, ahem). I think that both are on par for quality, and both are worth reading.