Three debut authors and a New York Times Best-Selling author who self-published his latest work are the winners of the Chicago Writers Association’s first Book of the Year Awards.

The awards will be presented at 7 p.m. Jan. 14 at The Book Cellar, 4736-38 Lincoln Ave., in Chicago’s Lincoln Square. The event is free and open to the public.

The winning books are “Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry” by Christine Sneed, “Honk Honk, My Darling: A Rex Koko Private Clown Mystery” by James Finn Garner, “Three Wishes: A True Story of Good Friends, Crushing Heartbreak, and Astonishing Luck on our Way to Love and Motherhood” by Pamela Ferdinand, Carey Goldberg and Beth Jones, and “Giants in the Park: A Guide to Portrait Statues in Chicago’s Lincoln Park” by Krista August.

The finalist judges included three best-selling authors – Jonathan Eig (“Get Capone: The True Story of Al Capone” and “Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig), Julie Hyzy (Manor House Mysteries and White House Chef Mysteries), and Robert W. Walker (“City for Ransom,” “Children of Salem” and “Shadows in the White City”) and Chicago publisher Sharon Woodhouse (Lake Claremont Press).

“These are all outstanding, truly deserving works,” said Randy Richardson, CWA President. “I commend all of the winners, and, indeed all of the eight finalists. These awards show what a talented group of writers we have. The judges did not have an easy job at all. They had to make some very tough choices between an extremely competitive field of finalists. I am so thankful for the work that the judges put into this.”

Walker, author of more than 50 books, who judged the non-traditionally published fiction category, which featured Garner’s book Rex Koko book and a short story collection by Michael Burke, acknowledged the difficulty in making a decision. “Let me begin by saying that my task was no easy one,” Walker wrote in support of his decision to choose the “clown noir” over the short story collection.

Garner previously traditionally published three books, including the New York Times Best Seller “Politically Correct Bedtime Stories,” which has sold more than 2.5 million copies in the United States, self-published the Rex Koko book because he could not find a traditional publisher to take it on. Walker credited Garner for taking literary risks. “The novel defies categorization and flies in the face of convention while at the same time using the conventions of humor and mystery, a rare find,” Walker wrote, “a paradox that works.”

Similarly, Hyzy found it to be a tough call. The award-winning mystery writer judged the traditional fiction category, which featured Sneed’s “Portraits” and Kelly O’Connor Mcnees’ historical fiction, “The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott.” “They’re so different – so completely different – that I had difficulty choosing one over the other,” Hyzy wrote. “Both authors are extremely talented at setting scenes and creating believable characters.” She gave the edge to Sneed’s book. “Wonderful, wonderful read,” she wrote. “I enjoyed every word.”

In the traditionally published non-fiction category, Eig selected the co-authored “Three Wishes,” as “A well-written, powerfully honest, and uplifting book.”

Lake Claremont’s Woodhouse judged the non-traditionally published non-fiction category. She described August’s “Giants” as “beautifully executed,” and “a passionate, personal project (combining history, art, love of Chicago, love of books).”

The awards, divided into four categories (traditionally and non-traditionally published fiction and non-fiction), were open to books published in 2010 and the first half of 2011 and authored by CWA members. (Non-traditional is defined as self- and print-on-demand published.)

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