Critical Mass, The Blog of the National Book Critics Circle

Next Steps for #NBCCLeonard Award Judging

by Gregg Barrios | Dec-15-2018

Leonard Prize Judges: The NBCC 2018 John Leonard Prize finalists have been chosen. Here is this year’s excellent list. 

FRIDAY BLACK by Nana Kwami Adjei-Brenyah (Mariner)

A LUCKY MAN by Jamel Brinkley (Graywolf Press)

THE LINE BECOMES A RIVER: Dispatches from the Border by Francisco Cantú (Riverhead)

ASYMMETRY: A NOVEL by Lisa Halliday (Simon and Schuster) 

THE INCENDIARIES by R.O. Kwon (Riverhead)                                                                                      

THERE THERE by Tommy Orange (Knopf) 

EDUCATED: A Memoir by Tara Westover (Random House)

Your work as a Leonard Prize reader/judge begins. We ask that you give each of the finalists a fair and honest reading.  To accomplish this in a month’s reading, we have secured e-galleys and PDFs of these finalists through the cooperation of their publishers. These can be read on your Kindle or other e-book device or computer. Attached to the email packet sent today, you will find a widget or a PDF for each finalist. To access the widgets, you must sign in or create a free account at Then click on the widget. Netgalley will ask for your account name and password. You then have access to that book. 

For the finalists that are PDFs, you don’t have to use Netgalley. Instead load the PDF into your Kindle or other e-book device. If you are using a computer, click on the PDF to read. We ask that you use your discretion with this copyrighted material and not share or forward any of these widgets or PDFs. 

You have until January 14, 2019 to select one book as the best. Prior to this deadline, we will send you a survey / ballot on January 9, 2019 to cast your vote for one book. All ballots must be received by 6 pm EST on January 14, 2019. 

Enjoy these amazing debut books. Your volunteering for this undertaking is much appreciated. It also provides the membership in having a vote in selecting the winner of the 2018 John Leonard Prize that will be announced on January 21, 2019 as will the finalists in our other award categories. The John Leonard Prize will be presented at the NBCC Awards Ceremony at The New School in New York City on March 14, 2019.

Without further ado, Let the reading begin!                                                                                                                               

PS If you encounter any problems in accessing any of the books, please send me a brief note and I will forward it to our tech person to provide you with a prompt reply. 

#NBCCLeonard: Letitia Montgomery-Rodgers on NoNieqa Ramos’s “The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary”

by admin | Dec-15-2018

This week we announced the finalists for the John Leonard Prize, our annual award for the best first book in any genre based on member nominations and chosen by a panel of member volunteers. As part of that process we invited members to contribute appreciations of their favorite titles. Below, member Letitia Montgomery-Rodgers writes on NoNieqa Ramos's novel "The Disturbed Girl's Dictionary" (Carolrhoda Lab). This review was first published in Foreword Reviews.

NoNieqa Ramos’s The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary turns the spotlight on Macy Cashmere, a high school girl who lives in the margins of society. Noncompliant and proudly emotionally disturbed, she’s a problem that refuses to be solved, whether at home or at school.

Poverty’s where Macy is from, and she’s acutely aware of how it shapes and labels her, but she’s determined to reconfigure who’s defined by such labels and who’s doing the defining. You see, Macy’s writing her own book—a secret dictionary that lays out the terms of the world as she understands them.

Macy’s childhood is long past. Her father is in prison. Home is chaotic, and basic necessities—from food to heat to a place to sleep—are never assured. Child Protective Services removed her younger brother and would like to take Macy too, but Macy stubbornly insists on remaining, stuck between her yearning to salvage some sense of home and her desire to burn it all down.

Her life swings between this tension and her school routine. A problem student, Macy is nonetheless deeply engaged—in the well-being of her best friends, Alma and George; in the comforting control of breaking school rules and fulfilling her “bad kid” role; and in all that she ponders deeply.

Macy’s charisma is riveting. A keen observer, she’s unsparing in her assessment of herself and the world around her. Her blunt, no-nonsense voice lays out her most gruesome circumstances alongside bald yearning and makes her world of pain compellingly irresistible. More than anything, she's an unexpected narrator. Again and again, she directly addresses readers and slaps down assumptions. A study in contradictions, she insists on her world’s complexity, and she’s right. The story jukes and jinks and demands you follow.

As in Macy’s world, nothing in this dictionary is blunted or made safe for children; the circumstances of her life are laid bare. The result is a harrowing, heartbreaking tour de force, a story of will and determination against all odds.

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