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Mystery / Thriller

  • Finalist

    Fatal Rounds

    by Carrie Rubin

    Rating: 10.00

    Plot: The storyline here is mesmerizing. The intimate details of Liza's schizoid personality disorder, or antisocial personality disorder, are a convincing study in personal experience with a mental illness. The condition makes it difficult for her to interact with others, but her intelligence enables her to become a resident in pathology at Titus McCall Medical Center. She believes a charismatic doctor has been stalking her, and may even be killing people, but which part of her mind can she trust? Can her friends and colleagues trust her?

    Prose/Style: A bold, intelligent voice is enhanced by sharp wit that is sometimes gallows humor. The prose in areas of suspense is spellbinding.

    Originality: A smart pathology resident who has a mental illness, trying to find answers to what starts as “an intriguing puzzle”, is a splendidly peculiar mystery.

    Character Development: Complex characters stand out as living people. Liza Larkin is an extraordinary example of a functioning individual with a personality disorder. Her strength, courage, and determination are easy to love and root for.

    Blurb: The champion of this murder mystery will hold readers in her grip—even when she sometimes has slips of judgment—and she won't let go until she has finished wringing the truth out of every question.

  • Semi Finalist

    Shadow of Doubt

    by SL Beaumont

    Rating: 10.00

    Plot: In this timely thriller, Beaumont demonstrates a perfected art of suspense. The author expertly blends the personal with the political, depicting through a flawed yet wholly sympathetic heroine, how circumstances of social unrest impact individual lives. 

    Prose: The prose reads beautifully and fluently. Regardless of jumps forward in time, the story's structure allows readers to maintain a clear grasp on the chronology of events. Tight and riveting storytelling sings both in moments of quiet intimacy and tense action sequences. 

    Originality: Beaumont's work, while integrating certain familiar genre elements, ultimately delivers a fresh and unexpected mystery, while offering insights into current political climates and societal discord. 

    Character Development: Beaumont's characters are among the book's assets. As the complex heroine faces traumatic circumstances, loss, and the disintegration of her marriage, readers will both empathize with, fear for, and--at times--become frustrated with her. 

  • Semi Finalist

    Delphy's Rising

    by Kip Koelsch

    Rating: 10.00

    Plot: The author crafts a complex and finely constructed narrative that deftly weaves together disparate elements for a cohesive and rewarding reading experience.

    Prose/Style: The author is a gifted writer with a flair for vibrant storytelling,  riveting action, and polished dialogue. 

    Originality: This highly original work combines mystery/thriller elements with content relating to science and marine life. It's a rare mixture of topics that helps this work stand apart from others in this category.

    Character Development: The author excels at crafting believable, dimensional, and endearing characters, conveying motivations through actions as well as dialogue. There is a diverse cast of characters here, and the author shows a clear reverence for each player.

  • Quarter Finalist

    True Creature

    by Steve Zell

    Rating: 10.00

    Plot:  Reading this book is as entertaining and riveting as watching a film. However, the author should consider fewer POV characters so that readers can focus on the plot, especially at the beginning of the story.

    Prose/Style: The prose flows well, and word choice is exquisite.

    Originality: Again, the prose elevates this novel. Deanne and Sara are strong characters, but the book would benefit from less points of view so that readers can focus.

    Character Development: The characters are believable, and this book is worthy of a wide readership. Focusing on a few main characters would keep the plot and perspectives structured.

    Blurb:
    Powerful prose and strong characters make this supernatural mystery a satisfying read and a page-turner.

  • Quarter Finalist

    The Nine (The Wolf of Corwick Castle Book 1)

    by Terry Cloutier

    Rating: 10.00

    Plot: The author does a fantastic job weaving an intricate and engrossing plot that holds the reader's interest from the first line to the last. An atmospheric setting and gritty details carry visceral impact. Cloutier is a gifted storyteller and writer, deserving of a wide readership.

    Prose/Style: The story here flows effortlessly thanks to the author's seasoned skill with prose. Readers will have a hard time putting the book down even when life commitments demands they must. This is a gratifying story of trauma and vengeance, brilliantly told.

    Originality: There are many aspects of this work that stand out, and originality is at the top of the list. The setting, characters, and immersive storytelling - all are refreshingly novel.

    Character Development: Cloutier's characters are rustic, driven, and wholly distinct. The author is able to differentiate minor and major players in the story seemingly effortlessly, which helps the plot unfold smoothly for the reader.

  • Quarter Finalist

    Plot: A fast-moving pace is steeped in subterfuge and the danger of violently corrupt Big Pharma experimenting on PTSD patients in the VA Phoenix. The side story of Claire's evil sister also adds to the speed of the read.

    Prose/Style: The voice is clean, sharp, and focused. Characters’ internal dialogues are exceptionally well crafted.

    Originality: The focus on veterans abused by the VA system is unique for fiction, and when it's combined with Big Pharma greed and corruption, this story is not only original, it's also timely.

    Character Development: The determined protagonists Claire and Aaron are a good team, and the antagonists are easy to loathe. Additional characters, such as Claire's cruel sister Stacy Atkins, have realistic and relatable personalities.

    Blurb: The real-life ugliness of Big Pharma and Veterans Administration controversies are drawn into the limelight with this frighteningly believable work of fiction.

  • Quarter Finalist

    Requiem for Innocence

    by BV Lawson

    Rating: 9.50

    Plot: Lawson's novel is excellently plotted, unfolding with surprising but plausible developments. References to the previous novel in the series are well handled: brief, relevant, and elaborated upon as needed. Genre expectations are met and exceeded in this polished work.

    Prose: Prose is clear and immediately impactful, building tension slowly and consistently. Point of view shifts can be disruptive, as readers are likely to engage most strongly with Drayco's perspective.

    Originality: Lawson's novel offers a refreshing take on the traditional private-eye detective narrative. The focus on homicides targeting wheelchair using victims is especially intriguing.

    Character Development: Lawson's novel is peopled with layered characters whose actions and motivations are rarely predictable. However, the voices of the individual players do not always vary significantly in tone; the novel may benefit from fewer shifts in point of view.

  • Quarter Finalist

    Feeding the Fire

    by Amy Waeschle

    Rating: 9.50

    Plot: This novel's plot tells the story in a well-paced, suspenseful manner. The strategy of switching between Zach's and Jessie's POV is very effective both for revealing bits and pieces of the story/backstory and for building tension as the novel reaches its climax.

    Prose/Style: The author's prose style is very readable, almost transparent in the way it falls away in service to the story. At the same time, the text is beautifully written, with precise language and startling imagery. Third-person narration helps readers remain oriented despite chapter-by-chapter POV switches that create convincing and distinctively individual character perspectives. 

    Originality: This book gives fresh treatment to routine story elements like abused/neglected teens, arson, and missing persons. The story is compelling, even though the "crimes" at its heart don't develop or resolve in a way that completely satisfies the mystery genre's expectations for "justice."

    Character Development: The characters are well-drawn and original, with exceptional attention to small details that bring them convincingly to life. For example, although the tomboy aspects of Jessie's character sometimes slide close to skateboard-culture cliché, as much of her behavior is influenced by ongoing distress over outgrowing her one, ratty sports bra and the complete lack of support, understanding, or even awareness she gets from her grief-distracted mother.

  • Quarter Finalist

    Finding Nowhere

    by Jeff Wade

    Rating: 9.50

    Plot: “Mentally disturbed man kidnaps girls” may be a basic plot, but what livened this take on the well-used premise are the conflict and the action scenes. The antagonist is memorably and realistically scary, and the tension in these scenes is well done, suggesting a style that draws the reader into the story on the front page. 

    Prose/Style: The writing is technically sound and well executed when crafting the setting and action scenes. The vivid details add to the story in an engaging way. The scenes containing the abduction itself are riveting and will remain with the reader long after the last page is turned.

    Originality: The premise of the abduction and crimes committed are not wholly original and are used often in novels, TV, and movies. However, the author’s handling of these details and the antagonist is unique, intense and captivating. The antagonist’s collection of ponytails is truly chilling. 

    Character Development: While the characters are strong in description and allow the reader to easily visualize them, the dialogue misses the mark at times and the voices often sound similar. If the author focuses on remedying this aspect, there is huge promise in this work.

  • Quarter Finalist

    DEATH IS THE COOL NIGHT

    by Libby Sternberg

    Rating: 9.50

    Plot: The question of who killed the cruel scoundrel Ivan Roustakoff is especially intriguing because protagonist Gregory Silensky may be the murderer, but with his drink-fogged mind, he can't be quite sure. Gregory also suspects the beautiful, childlike vocal student Laura, but they soon fall in love and he can't imagine her going to jail. This book features excellent foreshadowing and teasers keep the pace quick.

    Prose/Style: This book’s lovely cadence and phrasing help to move the story along, and descriptions are verbal visualizations of scenes and characters. Gregory's passion for music is deliciously described. The 1940s references are accurate and engaging.

    Originality: The blend of murder, music and musicians is not fully fresh, but it's interesting as told from the perspective of a pianist with damaged hands and uncertainty about his own guilt. The finely honed prose adds to the originality of this novel.

    Character Development: The characters are dynamic individuals with fascinating neuroses and captivating quirks. The author displays an impressive technique of descriptions that dig deeper into traits than physical appearances.

    Blurb: Superior prose carries this story of a brooding pianist alcoholic who worries that he might be guilty of killing a loathsome conductor. Musicians and murder make for an especially neurotic entanglement of suspects. Bravo!

  • Quarter Finalist

    The Second Law, Lynn Dayton Thriller #3

    by L. A. Starks

    Rating: 9.50

    Plot:The plot of sabotage of oil refineries is intriguing and drives the action, setting the pace of this thriller. The plot engages the reader from the first page.

    Prose/Style:The prose is descriptive without providing too much detail, allowing the reader to use his or her imagination at will. Emotion is evoked often, and the tension drives the reader forward.

    Originality:The use of the oil industry in California helps make this thriller original. The author provides just enough history without overwhelming the reader with too much information. 

    Character Development:The characters are well developed, with their own memorable voices. The names provide a diversity that is demanded when using the oil industry and technology as a background. The dialogue is natural and believable and brings the reader easily into the story.

  • Quarter Finalist

    Plot: “Wrong spot, wrong time” is a well-worn plot device, but what makes it work for this story is the suspenseful setup of the conflict between self (Cici’s religious Do-No-Harm vs. self-preservation) paired with the harsh New Mexico wilderness and the men who will stop at nothing to kill her. Adding to the suspense is Anton’s role and the question of whether he truly is a good guy. This is an action packed thriller pitting a wholly endearing reverend against nefarious international agents. 

    Prose/Style: Written in a clear, distinct style, Padgett uses the prose to elicit tension and emotion and creates a tense, fast-paced story. Switching from Cici’s survival to Sam’s concerns for her safety creates a nice counterbalance to the overall prose.

    Originality: Set against an international spy ring hoping to create unrest in the U.S. by stealing sacred artifacts from the American Southwest, Padgett introduces a fresh take on the spy genre. Adding Cici’s religious nature (Reverend Cici) sets this book apart from most other books in the genre.

    Character Development: Being the third book in the series, the characters feel very fleshed out. They know their limitations, their desires, their hopes and loves. This is evident in how Cici reacts to having to kill a man and how she tries to come to terms with her feelings for Sam (and Sam for Cici). Cici’s ability to commune with her dead sister (as well as the spirits of the Ancient Chacoan) is somewhat of a stretch, but it is handled in a way that doesn’t seem overtly gimmicky.

  • Locked In A Box

    by Sheila Sharpe

    Rating: 9.25

    Plot: Certainly an intricately plotted work, this novel will readily engage readers. Enigmatic circumstances and an exploration of trauma provide uncommon depth and nuance.

    Prose: Sharpe’s writing is consistently clear and concise, effectively serving the storyline and characterizations. Numerous passages provide excellent, memorably evocative descriptions.

    Originality: This is an exceptionally clever psych thriller where almost no one is who they seem; there are plenty of suspects. Most compelling, however, is not the identity of the perpetrator, but the motive itself.

    Character Development: Hall/Gerard is s very complex character, made particularly multidimensional as a result of his unusual actions, which ultimately drive the novel’s mystery. The protagonist is somewhat defined by her circumstances, but her profession and drive to uncover the secrets of her past, more than sufficiently carry the story forward.

  • The Mutiny Girl (Gold & Courage Series)

    by Karen S. Gordon

    Rating: 9.25

    Plot: “The Mutiny Girl” offers a complex and rich plot, both solving a decades-old murder and a current treasure hunt of illicit drug money, with an equal amount of well-drawn details that meld within the story rather than acting as their own parts. Though the story unfolds slowly, once it finds its momentum it doesn’t let up until the very end.

    Prose/Style: Gordon clearly has a way with words, and these skills are on full display in action-packed and, at times, grotesque, descriptions. The heat, tension, and emotions are vividly captured, and the erotic and death-related scenes are very memorable.

    Originality: Based on a true story from the author’s life at the real Hotel Mutiny, there will be some familiar aspects of the story to readers of drug/crime fiction set in Miami (drug runners, crooked cops, clandestine meetings, etc.). However, Gordon infuses the reality with a clever murder/mystery alongside a story of reckoning—both familial and monetary.

    Character Development: All of the characters, from the primary ones (Vance, Lauren, Ray, and Tony) to the secondary cast (Jake, Daniel, and Davis) are well-fleshed out and given just the right amount of background story to engage readers without bogging down the plot. Especially well done was the figure of Ray Dinero, who served as El Cerebro, “the brains,” behind the drug operations.

    Blurb: An outstanding debut thriller that has it all: misdirection, intrigue, murder, and family. Captivating and engrossing.

  • Among the Ashes

    by C.L. Brees

    Rating: 9.25

    Plot: Brees' plot develops at a steady pace with a slow build to pure chaos. The twists come at a healthy clip that might leave the reader looking over their shoulders with angst.

    Prose/Style: The prose is suffused with an increasing amount of tension in paranoia as the story progresses. The motives of characters are subtly hinted at with the sophisticated writing.

    Originality: The story on its face appears "been there before", but as the action gets heated, the nuances distinguish this book from contemporaries.

    Character Development: The characters presented in the story carry a relatability in their own way. The protagonist, Caleb, is sympathetic and interesting. His circle of friends are distinguished in their caring for him. Their actions render their uniqueness.

  • Bad Keys

    by J.B. Curry

    Rating: 9.00

    Plot: Well organized and full of energy, the novel develops in unexpected manners, but never loses its focus. While there are hints at romance, the excitement of the chase is what will keep readers riveted to the pages.

    Prose/Style: Curry's writing is strong, with a well-defined narrative voice and a command of language. Suspense is consistently sustained, while dialogue is smooth, effortless and authentic.

    Originality: The story is quirky and original; the circumstances are believable and realistic. Overall, it's a riveting and memorable read.

    Character Development: The characters are distinctive and realistic, with none of them wasted or painted with a single brush. 

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