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General Fiction

  • Charleston Green

    by Stephanie Alexander

    Rating: 9.50

    Plot: Charleston Green is a charming and clever novel, set in South Carolina in contemporary times. Tipsy, who has long been able to communicate with the deceased (including her chatty, opinioned grandmother) moves into a grand old house in the city following her divorce, hoping to be inspired to paint again. Tipsy’s search to rekindle her creativity also means cohabiting with—and learning from—the house’s ghostly residents. The ghost story element and the ensuing mystery that unravels, allows a familiar story of personal growth and rediscovery, to uniquely shine.

    Prose: Alexander's novel features a wry, agile prose style that, while contemporary, carries an echo of a distant era. The author effectively captures the essence of an old, storied house whose troubled former tenants still exist within its walls.

    Originality: As the protagonist navigates her life and career post-divorce, the ghosts inhabiting her living quarters provide a lightly spooky and darkly humorous element to the story. Eminently readable and quietly inventive, the novel’s unusual tone casts a lingering spell.

    Character Development: Charleston Green is colorfully peopled by eccentric individuals, both living and deceased. Perhaps inevitably, the secondary characters and their tragic mystery can at times overshadow the protagonist and her own quest for independence and artistic fulfillment. Intriguingly, this is also a love story to Charleston and the surrounding Low Country, and the author richly establishes a distinctive sense of place.

     

  • David: Rise

    by Mark Buchanan

    Rating: 9.50

    Plot: Buchanan's ‘David’ trilogy promises to dramatize all the seasons of the life of the most famous king of Israel. This first volume dashes through David's earliest years, including his showdown with Goliath, his marriage to the daughter of King Saul, and Saul's later efforts to kill the young hero anointed to wear the crown. Buchanan retells the stories with swiftness, clarity, and a poetic sensibility befitting a novel about the author of the Psalms. Supplementing these exciting chapters about David's youth are first-person reflections, from much later in life, from David and other key figures. These speculative glimpses into the minds of biblical figures are compelling, surprising, and revealing. The story of David's rise is one of heroics, violence, and outsize artistic brilliance; Buchanan's first-person chapters persuasively argue that it's also deeply, relatably human.

    Prose/Style: Overall, the prose in ‘David: Rise’ is both fleet and arrestingly fragmented, with memorable details and descriptions broken up in short, staccato sentences. There are confusing grammatical patterns, a technique that creates an effect of focused intensity, where every line seems to be about David, even when the character is not actually in a scene. Buchanan is adept at quickly nailing a poetic image and then moving on to another, though once in a while they pile up and clash with each other.

    Originality: The story of David has been the basis for countless books, from inspirational fiction to works from writers as renowned as Robert Pinsky and Joseph Heller. Buchanan's re-imagining is thoughtful, literary, and vivid in its retelling, honoring the complexity and the fundamental unknowability of its subject. He invigorates familiar material.

    Character Development: In a foreword, Buchanan acknowledges to readers that his novel imagines the specifics of David's character. The book has been written in a spirit of novelistic inquiry; rather than declarative, it's humble in its speculations, imbuing a distant, fascinating figure with a touching humanity.

    Blurb: With rare poetic power, Mark Buchanan's ‘David: Rise,’ the start of a trilogy, immerses readers in the world and mind of King David, not just retelling the familiar story but daring to summon the psalmist's very presence. 

  • Northern Wolf (Northern Wolf Series Book 1)

    by Daniel Greene

    Rating: 9.25

    Plot: Greene's story of a Michigander who enlists, after a drunken brawl, in the Northern cavalry builds toward a lesser-known engagement at the Battle of Gettysburg, a fitting climax for a novel that focuses on everyday soldiers whose drills, marches, and skirmishes keep glancing up against history. "Northern Wolf" is part historical travelogue, part spirited Bildungsroman, and part battle novel, inviting readers to immerse themselves in what life as a Civil War soldier might actually have felt like. At times, though, the narrative's focus on the journey of Johannes Wolf comes second to appearances from historic figures, whose point-of-view chapters slow an otherwise compelling story.

    Prose/Style: Greene's prose is crisp, inviting, memorable, and period-appropriate. The dialogue is especially strong, with characters' idiomatic speech revealing both the drift of mind of these individuals but also of an era now otherwise lost to us. Greene excels at capturing the rough wit and camaraderie of his soldiers, as well as the poetic flourishes in the speech of a population that has the cadences of the King James bible echoing in its blood.

    Originality: Stories of enlisted men seeking adventure and then finding loss and glory on the battlefield are commonplace, as are Civil War stories that march end at Gettysburg. But Greene's trek over a well-trod past is fresh and vital, fully imagined and bursting with life.

    Character Development: Greene's novel adeptly captures, in its own words, the "training, marching, gambling, and drinking" of Michigan's most raggedy recruits in the late war. Then those recruits find themselves tested, in rousing, vivid scenes of battle. Greene captures the feeling of military life, of waiting and parsing rumors, of pre-fight jitters and boredom interrupted by sudden terror. The book's final third loses some of its engaging power, however, as the perspectives of officers and considerations of the strategies of battle increasingly share the spotlight with the scrappy experiences of Greene's fictional Michigan 13th Cavalry.

  • Perseverance Flooded the Streets

    by Abbey Seitz

    Rating: 9.00

    Plot: A sexually assaulted academic uses universal outrage to motivate her altruistic need to help less fortunate women, even those oblivious to requiring assistance. Her lighthearted romance with a native of India softens the intense storyline, a plot that focuses on overcoming neglect and discrimination.

    Prose/Style: Concise editing enhances this high-grade novel, a book aptly suitable for college students and discussion groups. The emphasis on psychological renewal places this title in a sophisticated class appropriate for instruction.

    Originality: Realistic and based on factual observation as opposed to fabrication, the story reaches beyond mainstream fiction into informative guidance. This short book is a distinctive blend of social education and travel entertainment, with an underlying pedagogical punch.

    Character Development: The in-depth portrayal of the protagonist paints a detailed portrait of an intellectual woman seeking answers to achieving gender equality, especially in downtrodden parts of urban India. This heroine’s past, filled with turmoil, propels her quest for utopian resolution.

  • Fensetter Falls

    by Jack Young

    Rating: 9.00

    Plot: Young’s novel is smart, atmospheric, and darkly funny. Readers will have no trouble following this smoothly flowing story wherein the Fensetter family and the inhabitants of Fensetter Falls decide to take their fate into their own hands.

    Prose/Style: Young’s well-crafted prose transports readers to the fading town of Fensetter Falls. Young has developed distinct voices for this large cast of characters, including hitmen, drunks, police officers, attorneys, a religious zealot, and a gypsy. Young’s prose proves sharp and clever.

    Originality: Young takes a premise familiar to readers – one where a wealthy family gathers to learn the fate of their large estate – and delivers a sharp, witty story that grows increasingly outrageous.

    Character Development: The characters of Fensetter Falls are highly memorable and authentic. Young juggles multiple distinct and eccentric characters, all of whom are necessary to tell the story of this aging New England town.  

  • Life Is Big

    by Kiki Denis

    Rating: 8.75

    Plot: Denis's crackling, clever, and intricately plotted novel unfolds at almost breakneck speed. Readers will be immediately engaged by the book’s inventive, absurdist premise and far-reaching examinations of  life, death, and the pitfalls of being human.

    Prose/Style: Denis's text is compulsively readable and clear, though at times stiff and simplistic in delivery.

    Originality: Denis's novel is refreshingly original and well-developed. Though there are elements that lend themselves to sci-fi, the novel avoids genre trappings, instead striking a charmingly esoteric and idiosyncratic note all its own.

    Character Development: Inconsistent character development is a minor hinderance in an otherwise captivating and memorable novel. AJ, Mighty-11, and Lila are standout, lively, and engaging characters that are worthy of a cast of characters that pull equal weight.

  • The Reluctant Healer

    by Andrew Himmel

    Rating: 8.25

    Plot: The plot and idea of Reluctant Healer are truly original, and even intriguingly unusual. The book may be better served by the inclusion of more realism to offset the more metaphysical elements.

    Prose/Style: The prose is clear and professional. The sure-footed storytelling allows readers to shelve their skepticism related to the alternative healing methodologies that the protagonist ultimately embraces.

    Originality: The concept of a lawyer becoming a spiritual healer is completely original, compelling, and fresh. 

    Character Development: Will and Erica are likable, dynamic characters that readers will remember once they put the book down. The work’s moments of implausibility ultimately don’t detract from the story’s energy and power.

  • Jerkwater

    by Jamie Zerndt

    Rating: 8.00

    Plot: The lives of three fairly ordinary characters in rural Wisconsin – one Ojibwa and the other two white – intertwine in a story that cogently explores racism, the toll of poverty, and complicated love. Cruel violence stirs up the narrative about mid-way, which creates a need for inevitable revenge.

    Prose/Style: The prose in this appealing novel flows smoothly and effectively. The dialogue is appropriate for these rural characters and their often painful attachments and losses. 

    Originality: Although the exploration of animosity and distrust between white people and Native Americans is familiar, the book’s alternating points-of-view provide intriguing insight into these tensions.

    Character Development: The characters and their respective points-of-view are consistent and distinct. They love and lose; they talk and grow. Racism and poverty play their parts. The three main characters, Shawna, Kay, and Douglas, each love others: a horse; a son and a dead husband; a mother. Kay – a lonely, alcoholic woman with mid-stage Alzheimer's, is extremely poignant.

  • Beyond Forever (Let Yourself Believe Series)

    by Rhonda Frankhouser

    Rating: 7.75

    Plot: This is a gentle, small (yet not insignificant) story of a 33-year-old wife dying from uterine cancer in her home over her last few days. Her husband, Kisa, movingly cares for her while grappling with his own insurmountable pain; satisfyingly, his wife ultimately experiences what could be called a “good” death.

    Prose/Style: The prose is heartfelt and poignant. The dialogue and actions feel organic and realistic, while the relative brevity of the narrative—paired with its sense of great immediacy—enhances its readability.

    Originality: Many memoirs and novels today recount deaths; as such, the story itself is not wholly original, but is genuine and grounded in truth.

    Character Development: Lily and Kisa are relatable, caring, and share authentic chemistry. Frankhouser particularly excels at portraying how the living well prepare for a loved one’s final transition. The author has hospice experience, which is clear from the nature of the characters and their actions and motives.

  • The Women of Great Heron Lake

    by Deanna Lynn Sletten

    Rating: 7.75

    Plot: While the frame of finding and reading a journal from another era is hardly novel, the author executes the concept well, allowing the lives of both protagonists to linger in memory.

    Prose/Style: The prose is smooth and clear as chapters alternate between two women's unique stories. One stylistic point of confusion concerns the transitions between first and third person perspectives, though readers will ultimately adjust to this narrative structure.

    Originality: Aside from the familiar device of a journal, the text here is largely original. Comparing two women of different centuries is quite fascinating, and the parallels to her own lived experience that Marla finds in Alaina's journal are intriguing.

    Character Development: Both the contemporary and historic women are quite real and complex. The author compassionately portrays the women’s individual struggles and efforts to stand strong in the face of male domination in a patriarchal society.

  • Rowdy: Wild and Mean, Sharp and Keen

    by Chris Mullen

    Rating: 7.50

    Plot: Mullen's story is well-paced and compulsively readable. Though the story drags somewhat in the middle, readers will be drawn back in by Rowdy's unusual journey and eager to know what comes next for these characters.

    Prose/Style: Mullen's prose is strong and realistic given the young age of the protagonist. Rowdy's language at the beginning of the story feels genuine and authentic for that of a 13-year-old and is appropriately elevated when the story skips ahead three years. Honest emotion permeates the text.

    Originality: All of the trappings of a standard adventure fiction novel are present, but Mullen’s characterization and keen plotting advance what could easily have become a predictable read.

    Character Development: The cast of characters at play are well-developed and diverse. Relationships  are relatable, genuine, and organically grown.

  • Arnold Falls

    by Charlie Suisman

    Rating: 7.50

    Plot: Suisman's story is well-paced and near expertly comedically timed. The chapters often read as self-contained stories, though it's unclear if they add up to a sum that's greater than its parts.

    Prose/Style: The writing is lively and comedic. Jeebie makes for a fascinating and eccentric narrator, however, the level of detail Jeebie provides at times weighs down the story, impacting the forward momentum.

    Originality: The focus on idiosyncratic small town hijinks, though not particularly novel, is elevated by the depth felt in Suisman's characters, adding freshness to the setup.

    Character Development: The author’s ability to craft character shines as every member of the ensemble cast feels fully fleshed out, genuine, and charmingly flawed.

  • 978-1-892617-26-2

    by David Martin Anderson

    Rating: 7.50

    Plot: Beaty Butte, a sequel that effectively stands alone, is a hopeful, engagingly developed story, and one that will likely move many readers, particularly those who love horses. The story offers a rich and compelling premise, though the novel may be strengthened further if the divergent plot lines were better harmonized.

    Prose/Style: Anderson's prose is serviceable, but fails to move the plot along with any urgency. Though written clearly, the substantial detail in the text can add unnecessary weight to the story rather than enriching it.

    Originality: Anderson elevates the historical fiction genre through the deployment of two separate narratives, indicated by left and right chapter headings, though the success of this strategy is inconsistent.

    Character Development: Billy Bartell is an intriguing character whose circumstances afford the story much of its power and depth. Samantha's confident, sassy demeanor is a welcome juxtaposition to Billy and is worthy of a bit more shine.

  • Plot: Wimsett's novel is quickly paced without the events of the story feeling rushed. Margret's  desire to expand her skills in oil paints, combined with the necessity to keep them secret, adds an intriguing level of suspense. The inclusion of a selkie and supernatural elements strikes just the right balance without pushing the plot into the realm of absurdity.

    Prose/Style: Wimsett's prose is serviceable. It doesn't particularly enhance the story, but the plotting is so strong that it outshines any weaker elements of the prose.

    Originality: Engaging characters and the right amount of fantasy help elevate the novel above standard genre trappings while retaining enough of the conventional elements of historical fiction.

    Character Development:  Margaret is an engaging protagonist whose ruthless pursuit of happiness will likely captivate readers. Her abusive husband Jonathan is a worthy antagonist and the rest of the characters round out the novel nicely.

  • Dragonflies at Night: More Than a Love Story

    by Anne Marie Bennett

    Rating: 6.50

    Plot: The plot of Bennett's novel unfolds at a measured pace that allows the character arcs and relationships to develop genuinely. The interludes from Deirdre and Savannah add a level of complexity and deeper emotion to the plot that will likely delight romance readers.

    Prose/Style: Neither overwrought or overly simplistic, Bennett's prose is serviceable and easily readable.

    Originality: Readers will find many standard contemporary romance trappings in this novel, making for an entertaining if not particularly exciting addition to the genre.

    Character Development: Readers will be moved by the relationships throughout the novel, particularly that of Savannah and her mother Deirdre. Though the core romance between Savannah and Ben is interesting, and there are many reasons to root for them, at times Deirdre's interludes threaten to overshadow the central story.

  • Social Work

    by Thomas Duffy

    Rating: 6.25

    Plot: The narrative here is easy to follow and the author writes with intention. While the novel’s thematic pieces don’t entirely coalesce meaningfully, the relationship at the heart of the story is ultimately compelling.

    Prose/Style: The novel employs much conversation and dialogue, some of it stilted. Sentences are clear, but often blunt in their delivery, with a reliance on exposition. 

    Originality: The plot line about the relationship between a social worker and her client seems quite original, as do the parallels of searching for love and meaningful work in their lives.

    Character Development: While each primary character carries great potential, in execution, neither is afforded sufficient emotional and psychological development or motivation. Marc is afflicted with schizo-affective disorder, which provides dimension to his character, but is not always consistently or believability portrayed.

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