Category Archives: Reviews

Florida’s top local young-adult authors

Tortuga Bay takes home three awards in 2016 Royal Palm Literary Award competition.

National authors are easy to spot–they are the ones on the best-seller lists of the New York Times, USA Today, and other national publications. But what about local authors? These writers are often unknown and lack the national distribution networks of big publishers, but they also produce exceptional work from small and independent presses. The problem for readers (and bookstores) is assessing the quality of their work in a crowded field. One way to set them apart is to look at their performance in literary competitions that are referred by independent judges.

Florida Literary Competitions

Tortuga Bay earned two gold medals in the FAPA President’s Awards

Fortunately, several organizations exist in Florida that hold statewide competitions. These competitions generate hundreds of submissions from Florida authors and publishers, but they award top prizes to just a few.  The better literary competitions employ rubrics that independent judges use for numeric scoring to rank submissions. These rubrics generate overall scores that must meet certain minimum thresholds before a book can advance in the competition.

I examined data on the first, second, and third place awards for three established statewide literary competitions: The Florida Book Awards (FBA) hosted by Florida State University, the President’s Awards run by the Florida Authors and Publishers Association (FAPA), and the Royal Palm Literary Awards (RPLA) hosted by the Florida Writers Association. I then analyzed the places earned by Florida authors and ranked them by the number of wins.

Since a first place is generally considered superior in quality to second place (and third place), a first place award was given 10 points, a second place award 5 points, and a third place award 3 points. Thus, an author who earned two first place awards would score 20 points, and an author who earned a first place and a second place award would score 15.

These competitions, of course, are not inclusive of all authors. Authors may not submit their books because they are unaware of the competitions, find the entry fees too costly, don’t need or want the visibility, or already have an established marketing and distribution platform. Nevertheless, as a general indicator, placing well multiple times in a competitive literary contest is probably a reasonable indicator of quality.

Full disclosure: I have done well in recent literary competitions, albeit in multiple categories, and have won awards in the FAPA (Tortuga Bay), RPLA (Tortuga Bay, St. Nic, Inc.), and Seven Hills Literary Competition (Renegade) run by the Tallahassee Writers Association (and not included in the rankings for this article). The results below are based on the methodology above which focuses exclusively on weighted, numeric scoring.

Florida Young Adult Author Rankings

The FBA, FAPA, and RPLA competitions provide lists of all award winners going back several years. I wanted to capture active writers and those committed to the Florida literary scene. Thus, the rankings include only those for the last five years.

Since 2011, 53 authors have received first, second, or third place awards from one of these three organizations. Just six have received multiple awards. The top five young adult authors were multi-award winners and placed first in at least one competition, and are

  1. Leslee Horner (Tallahassee), coming of age, http://lesleehorner.com
  2. SR Staley (Tallahassee), action adventure, http://www.srstaley.com
  3. Jade Kerrion (Orlando), science fiction, fantasy, http://jadekerrion.com
  4. Kyle Prue (Naples), fantasy, http://kyleprue.com.
  5. M.R. Street (Tallahassee), coming of age, horror,  http://turtlecovepress.com  

Leslee Horner’s work is notable since her books have taken home four awards–the most of all authors entering the competitions–in the young adult categories in FAPA and FBA competitions. Honorable mention also goes to Alex Finn (http://alexfinn.com), also a multiple award winner (although not first place).

Other Florida authors who earned first place awards in one of these competitions included:

  • Gino Bardi
  • Mary Dawson
  • Dennis Cooper
  • Debbie Reed Fisher
  • Carl Hiassen
  • Christina Diaz Gonzalez
  • Shaun David Hutchinson
  • Joe Iriarte
  • Linda Kelley
  • Madeline Kuderick
  • Alison McMahan
  • Mark McWaters
  • K.B. Schaller
  • Ryan Van Cleave
  • Rick Yancey

Future blog posts will include rankings for the categories of historical fiction, mainstream/literary and thriller/suspense.

For additional information on the rankings, contact Sam Staley at sam@srstaley.com.

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Katniss vs. Tris: Who is the stronger character?

KatnissVSTrisAs the DC Comics superhero clash movie Superman Vs. Batman hits the theaters this weekend, I began to think about some of the stronger female characters in recent young adult action books and films. More specifically, we now have a new heroine to consider with the release of Alligiant, the third movie in the Divergent series: Tris Prior.

We will explore two questions: Whether Tris a strong female character and whether Tris is a stronger character than Katniss Everdeen.

In a previous post, I argued that Katniss Everdeen is not a particularly strong character based on a few key criteria. I believe strong characters, male or female, human or alien, should:

  1. Have strong identities;
  2. Relates to peers as a peer;
  3. Make important choices;
  4. Take personal responsibility;
  5. Exhibit courage.

These characteristics allow the protogonist to influence the trajectory of the story, and I think this is essential for a character to be considered strong, rather than weak (or passive).

Characters don’t have to start out strong in each of these criteria, but they should grow into them or end strong on each characteristics them before the story ends or progresses too far. Katniss Everdeen, despite her reputation among fans, falls short on a number of these criteria. She doesn’t have a strong sense of herself or place and appears emotionally and physically weak among her peers. She does make a few important choices, but even the most important ones–like taking her sister’s place during the lottery for the Hunger Games–are driven by circumstances rather than an exertion of her own free will. She plays defense rather than offense. On a good note, she takes personal responsibility for her actions, and she exhibits a tremendous amount of courage. Nevertheless, in literature and the films, all these criteria need to be met before she can be considered a truly strong character. Courage is not enough.

So, how does Tris Prior, the heroine in the Divergent books and films, stack up against Katniss? I decided to apply the same rubric to test my own framework, and here are the results:

Characteristic Katniss Everdeen Tris Prior
Strong identity

weak

Medium-Strong
Relate to peers as a peer

weak

Strong

Make important choices

medium

Strong

Take personal responsibility

strong

Strong

Exhibit courage

strong

Strong

While these comparisons always carry some degree of subjectivity, I think Tris Prior is a stronger character than Katniss Everdeen on a number of different metrics. While she faces the uncertainty of the psychological aptitude test to determine which faction best suits her, she opts for Dauntless even though the tests are inconclusive. She enters her training determined to be equal if not superior to her peers, and she is unafraid to make choices–whether to flee, return to Chicago, or track down her nemesis to kill them to avoid greater tragedies from taking place. She also never flinches from taking responsibility for her actions even when she is unsure of whether she can accomplish the task. She is willing to pursue her objectives even without help. She is on the offense, and doesn’t simply react to events around her; she tries to change the trajectory of those events. Tris, like Katniss, exhibits a tremendous amount of courage throughout her journey. Indeed, this is demonstrated early in the first book/movie when she jumps through the hole in the Dauntless training facility without realizing she would be saved by a net at the bottom.

The biggest difference between the two characters, in my view, is that Tris begins with a stronger personality. She is willing to stand up against injustice,d despite the risks, and she is willing to try to change the trajectory of events. She is not interested in fading into the background. Unlike Katniss, Tris embraces her new skills and identity. While she doesn’t accept the leadership role she creates through her resistance to the authoritarian Erudite rule, she does not try to avoid the responsibility of leadership.

Thus, in the end, Tris is leader and stronger character.

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Will Tracy Lawson’s novels become this generation’s Ayn Rand substitute?

By SR Staley

Resist, the second novel in Tracy Lawson’s Resistance Series, picks up right where Counteract leaves off: Heroine Careen Catecher and love interest Tommy Bailey are on the run after the murder of the director of the national Office of Civilian Safety and Defense (OCSD). The OCSD is a federal umbrella agency that has subsumed major bureaucracies such as the FBI, CIA, Department of Homeland Security, and presumably even the Centers for Disease Control. Careen and Tommy have discovered the director of this super agency and his cronies are plotting to use terrorism as a cover to drug the general population under the pretense of inoculating them against biological warfare.LawsonResist,1

Set in the near future (15 years from current day), the Resistance Series explores the loss of freedom that can creep up on individuals and society through incremental changes that seem small but loom large over time. As Lawson says: “In the Resistance Series, there has been no rebellion, no cataclysmic event. The dystopian world in which they live has been created by fear, engineered by an enemy masquerading as a protector.” The premise is scary enough, and remarkably rooted in modern events and policies, as the controversy surrounding Edward Snowden and leaked classified information on domestic and international spying remind us.

The setting and premise could easily lend itself to an adult thriller by Michael Crichton, but Lawson’s series is firmly rooted in the young adult/new adult genre. The action is faster, and the story carries a syncopated beat that lends itself to the pace of a YA trilogy, not unlike the Hunger Games. In fact, like Katniss Everdeen, Peeta Mellark, and Gale Hawthorne, the protagonists are older teens who are simply trying to get on with their everyday lives. Rather than the post-apocalyptic setting of Panem, in which the vast majority of the population lives in servitude to the Capitol, Lawson’s protagonists are recent high-school graduates focused on the normal current-day activities of enrolling in college and participating in sports. Only an unanticipated series of small events leads them to discover the sinister plot to turn the nation into a mass of compliant citizens under the thumbs of politically powerful bureaucrats. In this way, Lawson’s series is very much grounded in another characteristic of the YA genre: everyday young adults forced to make significant life decisions without the luxury of experience or preparation. Not surprisingly, both Counteract and Resist tend to be plot- and setting-driven stories although the characters have an opportunity to flesh out in important ways in the second book.

Lawson,CounteractMy review of Counteract compared Lawson’s novel to 1984, George Orwell’s classic dystopian story the coined the term Big Brother and wrestled with government over reach, the tyranny of collectivism, and the implications for freedom. About halfway through Resist, I couldn’t stop thinking about the novels of Ayn Rand, especially her 1937 novella Anthem. In Anthem, Rand tells the story of a Equality 7-2521, a person who lives in a community in which individuality has been purged from the formal institutions of society. A Council of Vocations assigns jobs to people based on what they determine is their Life Mandate. The story follows Equality’s evolution into an individual as he discovers his natural inquisitiveness and intelligence leads him to innovate and produce. Through unregulated exploration, he discovers the word “I” and finds freedom.

Resist, fortunately, is not nearly as abstract as Anthem, making it much more suitable for YA audiences. It’s relentless focus on personal freedom and the right to live independently of the government is strong and tightly woven into the plot, and the action keeps the reader engaged. More importantly, however, as the characters develop, we see in Resist the makings of a trilogy that provokes readers in ways that more popular genre fiction doesn’t. Katniss Everdeen, for example, remains remarkably apolitical through the trilogy despite bearing witness to extraordinary oppression.AnthemBookCover

Lawson has the refreshing courage to push her characters to act and take responsibility for their actions. They don’t just bear witness. They recognize and accept the responsibilities that come with the knowledge they gain. And they act. Thus, unlike other YA fare, the Resistance Series admirably challenges its readers to ask themselves “What would you do?” and explores the implications of acting on those decisions.

For those looking for an engaging, YA adventure/thriller with strong pro-personal liberty themes, the Resistance Series should have a highly visible place in their book case or on their e-reader.

 

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Tracy Lawson’s dystopian “Resist” challenges, engages

When Tracy Lawson published Counteract, her first novel in the Resistance Series (now with 41 reviews, including one by me!), I let out a breath of fresh air. I think dystopian thrillers are at their best when they are challenging conventional ideas about our role as individuals in society or the role institutions such as government play. (See Claire Staley’s take on the unrecognized depth in young-adult literature here, and my take in the context of The Hunger Games here and my short video here.) These are themes that really play out in my books, most clearly in Tortuga Bay, which will be released on September 5, 2015.LawsonResist,1

Tracy’s story, featuring college students Careen and Tommy as star-crossed lovers, did a great job, in my view, of really pushing against conventional ideas in thought provoking but entertaining ways. This is a dystopian series for our times.

Set in the “near” future, the Resistance Series, is squarely in the dystopian science fiction genre. Careen and Tommy discover that the government’s plan to inoculate the general public with a vaccine to combat biological warfare is actually an attempt to control the population. They stumble across the plan, and end up joining the resistance. It’s remarkably plausible and right in tune with modern controversies such as the federal government’s secret spying on Americans in the name of national security. My longer review can be found here.

Lawson,CounteractResist is the second in the series, and it promises to be even better crafted and better paced. In future posts, I will feature an interview with Tracy and provide a more detailed review of the book itselt. In the meantime, check out Resist on amazon. Better yet, buy it, it’s well worth the $3.99. Resist is an entertaining read and, in many ways, more thought provoking and deeper than the Hunger Games and other young-adult dystopian fare.

Here’s what Tracy has to say about the story in the second book:

“Being part of the Resistance presents them with new challenges. Not everyone working for change will prove trustworthy, and plans to spark revolution go awry with consequences greater than they could’ve imagined. Tommy and Careen’s relationship is tested when their philosophical differences and the pressures of interpersonal rivalries and jealousy put a strain on their romance. Can they make time for each other while trying to start a revolution?”

I’ll posting more on this series in the near future. For now, bravo, Tracy Stone Lawson!

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Narcissism and the one-star amazon review

By SR Staley

I received my first one star review on amazon.com a couple of weeks ago, my first in 47 reviews of my fiction. While I know my books won’t appeal to all readers, a one star is quite deflating. But then I looked at the larger picture, and I realized how narcissistic and impulsive the person posting the one-star review must be. Let me explain.

“Big Bad John”–yes, that’s his on-line handle–posted his review with the title “Save Your Money!” and basically trashes my newest novel, St. Nic., Inc., in four sentences. (He also didn’t buy the book from amazon.) I have no doubt this is his honest opinion of the book. And he is entitled to his opinion and post it on amazon.com. I have no objection with that.

But here’s the context: Big Bad John’s review was the 17th review. The lowest review before his was a 3 star, and these unenthusiastic readers wrote that the book was a “good seasonal read” and “a nice way to pass the time.” St. Nic, Inc. has 10 five-star reviews, seven of which were “verified” purchases from amazon.com. All the four and three-star reviews were verified purchases from amazon.com or the kindle store. So, BBJ has to either ignore all the other reviews, or believe his lone opinion was so superior to the others that potential readers should put aside everyone else’s views except his. I think this pretty much defines narcissism in the world of book reviews.

My biggest disappointment, however, was not BBJ’s displeasure although I do care what readers think. In fact, I incorporate their feedback–positive and negative–in my writing all the time. Rather, it was BBJ’s complete lack of content in his criticism. He had an opportunity to be constructive, but chose simply to trash talk the book.

Fortunately, I doubt Big Bad John will have much effect on my book sales. My book is better than he thinks, and I know that because the vast majority of the reviews on amazon are by people I don’t know. I have also won awards for my fiction.

I guess BBJ doesn’t want to be put on my Christmas card list.

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The case for modern teen & YA fiction in school classrooms

by Claire W. Staley

Some people tell me that they wish they read as much as I do, but they either don’t have the time, or they don’t enjoy it. The way teenagers or college students see reading confounds me, especially when their faces are like most children’s when they are told to eat vegetables. Most students look at reading as a requirement for class, and most don’t even read those books. And yet, they want to read.

My friends believe they should read, and even have a desire to do so, but they haven’t had an experience with reading that makes them act upon this.

To enjoy reading, teenagers think they must enjoy all types of books, or, even worse, that they must enjoy the classic literature they are force fed from eighth grade onward. If students are not getting good books at home, the only experience with literature comes from school. I’m sorry to say that A Christmas Carol—or any other book by Charles Dickens for that matter—has done nothing to inspire me to pick up books and read them. And it has not inspired anyone else I know, either. If teachers honestly expect students to be avid readers after reading Shakespeare I think they are quite mistaken. I am not saying to this cut Shakespeare (or Dickens) out of the curriculum (I, for one, adore Shakespeare), but perhaps infusing it with modern YA books would create a new generation of readers.

Harry Potter got me started on books in fourth grade. The books taught me about the values of kindness, courage, intelligence, wit, reflection, loss, love, fortitude, standing up for my beliefs, and the power of a single individual. This is only a fraction of what I could say about Harry Potter, but there are a multitude of books that students love and are usable in the classroom. Divergent, Eragon, Artemis Foul, anything by Tamora Pierce, The Hunger Games, and countless others have created powerful role models that changed my life. When I have a problem I look to them. I look to Hermione, I look to Tris, I look to Peeta, I look to Percy Jackson, and I look to Hazel Grace. They always provide me with answers and support. They have never let me down, and I wonder why these characters aren’t a part of my education experience at school.

To pretend that John Green (The Fault in Our Stars and Paper Towns) is just teen fiction and has no basis in a classroom because his books are not “old” or about certain subjects is to deny every student and what they love. It reinforces the idea that there are good books to read and bad books to read, and that only one kind has value. Once teenagers find books with relevance to their lives and are well written, then they will read.

My next blog post will explore this concept even more as I discuss different books that I recommend for classrooms.

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Reason magazine reviews “comic thriller” St. Nic, Inc.

Books editor Jesse Walker reviews St. Nic, Inc. in it’s January 2015 issue of Reason magazine (on p. 60), calling the novel a “comic thriller.” Walker writes:

If Santa Claus existed, the feds would probably mistake the operation for a drug cartel. So goes the premise of St. Nic, Inc. (Southern Yellow Pine), S.R. Staley’s comic thriller about a Drug Enforcement Administration operation that nearly takes Christmas down.

Staley, a frequent contributor to reason, teaches economics at Florida State when he isn’t writing novels. He draws on both careers when describing NP Enterprise, an Arctic software firm and toy distribution network run by one Nicole Klaas. Nicole, the fourth Klaas to run the family business, relies heavily on the skills of the world’s little people, for whom the company’s polar community is a haven against the discrimination they face down south.

Their cash transactions catch the government’s eye, and soon a federal agent is convinced he’s found a nest of narco-traffickers. He hasn’t spotted any actual drugs, but the pattern looks unmistakable. And then a bona fide War on Christmas begins.

 

 

 

 

 

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Pirate of Panther Bay: “A Thrilling Caribbean Ride”

An excellent review of The Pirate of Panther Bay by award-winning young adult author M.R. Street appeared recently on one of the Tallahassee Democrat’s community blogs. M.R. Street, author of The Werewolf’s Daughter and Hunter’s Moon, recommended readers find “a hammock swaying in a balmy breeze and hold on for this thrilling Caribbean ride.”

The review is quite extensive and appeared on the TWA blog. I think this is the essence of  her take on The Pirate of Panther Bay,

“Staley’s swashbuckling adventure takes place in historically accurate settings.  His research into the Caribbean region and time period (1780) encompasses the political dynamics, attention to detail of ships of war, and sailors’ superstitions.  The battles at sea are breathtakingly realistic, with cannon balls whistling by and swordfights that require both skill and psychology.  Staley deftly creates a lead character with multi-layered texture:  a scared former slave girl who at a young age has lost her first love; but who is, at the same time, a self-assured young woman with military cunning and skill.  As I read The Pirate of Panther Bay, I flinched each time Isabella was whipped in her cell in El Morro.  Why doesn’t she just give up?  She is beaten mercilessly, emotionally and physically.  But her will to survive is fueled by her mother’s prophecy.  Before Isabella was even born, the spirits told her mother what Isabella’s future would hold.  To Isabella, the prophecy is a promise that this is not how she is meant to die.”

View the Official Book Trailer here.

Buy The Pirate of Panther Bay here.

 

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St. Nic, Inc: “quirky, fun and very clever.”

A 5-Star review is in from Jack Magnus at Readersfavorite.com! (I have added the emphasis in bold.)

“St. Nic, Inc, is an action and adventure thriller written by SR Staley. Peter Peary is a washed-up explorer in his early twenties. He excelled in school, graduated on a fast track and was making waves as the consummate explorer until the fateful trip to Mount Everest where a squall claimed the lives of his group as well as his mentor and father figure. The trip up to the North Pole with his friend Sheila Livingston was hard to fund as no one wanted to trust him anymore, but Sheila was finally able to procure sufficient funds for their sled and dog team. When Peter regains consciousness, he’s in some sort of hospital room, and his head is throbbing. His nurse, Jeff, is kind and considerate and is, Peter notices, rather short. Quite a few people in this hospital, or medical facility, are little people. Peter has difficulty remembering the circumstances that led his being here, and his attempt to leave the facility leaves him totally confused and under guard.
SR Staley’s action and adventure thriller, St. Nic, Inc. is quirky, fun and very clever. Peter, descendant of the famed Arctic explorer, finds himself embarking on a grand adventure indeed, as he attempts to understand just what he’s landed himself in this time. Nic Klaas, the driven CEO and computer genius, is a great foil for Peter, and I enjoyed watching as the two damaged psyches work at establishing rapport. I’ve never read anything like this book. You know where it’s going based on the modern mythology, but Staley takes you there via a marvelous and exciting thriller that has some pretty unpredictable turns. I enjoyed St. Nic, Inc. It’s especially bound to appeal to those of us who’ve never quite gotten the hang of growing up, and it’s highly recommended.”

 

 

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New Novel, “Counteract,” Asks What We Would Do to Preserve Our Freedom

My friend Tracy Lawson is launching her newest dystopian thriller, Counteract, the first of a series, on Wednesday, August 6th, and we’ve got a sneak peek! Tracy’s book is a fast-paced adventure examining how we might act in a world in which terrorism has defined every element of our relationship with the government.

CounteractBookCover

With the population under tight restrictionssupervised by the Office of Civilian Safety and Defense, the government uses the threat of bio terror via chemical weapons to keep us under their control via an “antidote.” Would you have the courage to resist? Is it too late to recapture our freedom?

Win chances to win in her special giveaways by leaving a comment on this blog post or clicking here!

Here’s the press release:

Ripped from the headlines…The year is 2034, and the United States as we know it is no more. In thefuture, the concept of “Big Brother is always watching” has taken on new meaning.

NSA drone flyovers and government surveillance of citizens’ emails and phone conversations are the least of anyone’s worries. With the rampant threat of terrorism a constant presence, the government has had to take extreme measures to ensure the public’s safety.
The Office of Civilian Safety and Defense (OCSD) has been enacted as an offensive against terrorist attacks. And make no mistake, attack is imminent. Citizens in 2034 now live in carefully monitored quadrants, with regulations governing food distribution, driving, entertainment, and much more. For college student Careen Catecher, and recovering accident victim, Tommy Bailey, life is far from carefree and easy.
Anyone who loves a good dystopian thriller will find a new favorite in Counteract. Lawson joins the ranks of authors like Aldous Huxley, and his Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984, as she questions whether the government should be allowed to usurp personal freedoms under the guise of doing
what’s best for the people.
Readers will find themselves eagerly turning the pages as Careen and Tommy uncover the enemy in their own backyard and discover just how far they are willing to go to fight for a freer way of life.

 

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