Book Awards | Literary Arts

Works by Michael Mejia, James McLaughlin and George B. Handley are Finalists for the 15 Bytes Book Award for Fiction

Artists of Utah is excited to announce the finalists for this year’s 15 Bytes Book Award for Fiction. 2019 marks the 7th year for this annual award, given to recognize excellence in publishing for books written by a Utah author or with a Utah connection.

We received a record number of entries this year. The finalists were determined by 15 Bytes’ staff and guest judges based on the overall conception of the book and the quality of the writing.

This year’s finalists (in no particular order) are:

Bearskin (Ecco/HarperCollins) by James McLaughlin

In his debut novel Bearskin, James McLaughlin employs vivid descriptions, expansive setting, and multiple layers of plot to draw the reader into an adventure that is not soon forgotten. Bearskin is a mystery set in the rural wilderness of a game preserve in the mountains of western Virginia where Rice Moore must sacrifice the safety of his solitude to investigate the poaching of several bears on the preserve. We learn gradually of Rice’s former life as a smuggler along the Mexican border, a violent past that threatens to catch up with him if he is not diligent in protecting his identity. McLaughlin provides us with a protagonist who is dedicated to justice, but recognizes his own fallibility, a hero who chooses to protect the vulnerable at the cost of confronting his own troubled past.

In addition to the excitement of the primary plotline, McLaughlin also provides insight on conservation, solitude, and man’s relationship with the wild. Rather than impose a particular system of values on the reader, McLaughlin illustrates several points and raises questions for us to consider long after reaching the final page of the novel. It is a page turner that is also an impressive piece of literary fiction.

James McLaughlin holds law and MFA degrees from the University of Virginia. He grew up in the mountains of Virginia and now lives in the Wasatch Range east of Salt Lake City. He is the recipient of the 2019 Edgar Award for Best First Novel, and a finalist for several other first novel awards. Bearskin has received outstanding reviews in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Entertainment Weekly, and USA Today.

Read our review here.


American Fork (Roundfire Books) by George B. Handley

One of the most remarkable traits of an artist is an ability to find a relationship or common theme to items and elements that might not at first have an obvious connection. In American Fork, author George Handley illustrates the relationships between people, locations, and philosophies that we might not otherwise recognize as being connected (like botanty, the culture of Utah County and the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile). This story urges the reader to remain true to personal convictions, but also challenges us to consider truths that may be beyond our own experience. Carefully developed characters create an emotional connection, and unparalleled descriptions of the wilderness around northern Utah draw us into the story.

American Fork is set primarily in and around the Wasatch Mountains, but also involves a young woman’s journey to the valleys and coast of Chile on a search for her father. The story centers initially on the tenuous relationship of a college student, Alba, and an aging botanist, Zacharias Harker, who has hired the young woman to draw and paint the wildflowers of the mountains near his home. Harker is abrasive, demanding, and opinionated; testing Alba’s patience and challenging her religious convictions at every opportunity. Despite initial difficulties, the two of them form a working relationship and share a love for nature. Through his interactions with his young apprentice, Harker finds strength to confront the tragedy of his past. In turn, Harker encourages Alba to find out about her heritage and her missing father.

George Handley is a professor of humanities at Brigham Young University. His creative writing, literary criticism, and civic engagement focus on the intersection between religion, literature, and the environment. He is the author of several books of nonfiction and essays. American Fork is his first novel.

Read our review here.


Tokyo (Fiction Collective 2) by Michael Mejia

Michael Mejia’s second novel Tokyo is an inventive work that requires — and rewards — rereadings. Flush with references to the Japanese literary tradition and contemporary history, the novel is built up with intertwining narratives that blur and transform the lines between themselves and between the fantastic and the realistic. Within this dense, polyphonic tapestry, the novel explores gender fluidity, cultural and ethnic identity, and the societal and environmental dangers of late capitalism

The novel is structured in three related parts. The first is a bureaucratic report that devolves into personal confession, describing “The Tuna Affair,” a surreal episode in which naked human forms are found within the bellies of freshly-caught bluefish tuna in Tokyo’s famous Toyosu fish market. A second, shorter section, told through multiple voices, includes references to characters, images and themes that will appear in the third section, as well as a channel-surfing Emperor seen against the backdrop of the 2011 tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster. In the final section, three fragmented narratives are collaged together against the backdrop of three national disasters: the subway sarin gas attack in 1995, the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake, and a fictional future (2082) beset by widespread sterility. Three fluid characters — S, M and Yoko — appear in a love triangle in each scenario. As difficult a book as it may be to begin, with its experimental form and mashup of Japanese literature, Kabuki theater, Yakuza-style gangs, profiteering corporations, genetic engineering and environmental disaster, Tokyo is not one that will soon be forgotten.

Michael Mejia is editor in chief of Western Humanities Review, co-founding editor of Ninebark Press, and a professor creative writing at the University of Utah. In addition to Tokyo, he is the author of the novel Forgetfulness, and his writing has been published in many journals and anthologies.

Read our review here.


The 7th annual 15 Bytes Book Awards are made possible with a generous grant from:

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