by Stephanie Alexander
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.
by Lindsey Issow Averill
Plot: This is a mature, wonderful, provocative and starkly memorable narrative that unfolds seamlessly.
Prose/Style: The prose is well-crafted and embellished in a high-literary style and flows smoothly throughout the book.
Originality: This wise novel is one of love, loss, seduction, and growth. While the complex circumstances of a third individual entering a marriage is a literary convention that has been explored before, the author is up to the task and does so in a manner that reflects an understanding of the many types of human love and the manifestations of grief.
Character Development: The characters are complex, truly human, and relatable. Readers may crave additional backstory for Sissy and other individuals, but the author shows great finesse in crafting a layered and charismatic cast.
by Mark Buchanan
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.
by Sally Vedros
Plot: Vedros's 'Fixer' is a whip-smart, unflinching look at the hyper-competitive culture of Silicon Valley and the pursuit of the grind. The bold, quick plotting drives the story, along with its convincing depictions of fraught personal and professional relationships.
Prose/Style: Vedros's prose is sharp and dynamic and helps to establish the energetic pace of the novel. Characters' voices are distinct enough to add individual texture to the narrative, while the language is unpretentious and easily accessible.
Originality: This witty story of misguided aspiration, modern social mores, and the quest for self actualization blends contemporary fiction with sci-fi elements. The artful integration of each genre's respective elements result in an unconventional and thoroughly enjoyable novel.
Character Development: Meghan is by far the standout figure in this novel. Her emotional journey drives the story as she and Diego navigate the growing tensions within their relationship. Kari and Kira succeed as the ambitious, uncompromising couple they're meant to be.
by Daniel Greene
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.
by Abbey Seitz
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.
by Jack Young
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.
by Kiki Denis
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.
by Kimberly Wenzler
Plot: The dual timelines of this story make for an engaging plot, though the portions of the story set in 2010 tend to move at a bit of faster, more dynamic pace than those in the past.
Prose/Style: Wenzler's prose captivates and entices. The witty, flirty banter between Olivia and Chris as they role-play pulls readers in and the prose remains engaging throughout.
Originality: Though the story of a married couple in distress isn't particularly novel, Olivia and Chris are such endearing and deep characters that readers will likely find this more enjoyable and compelling than your average contemporary.
Character Development: Olivia's strength and vulnerability around her unexpected pregnancy and feelings of betrayal creates a deeply sympathetic character whose voice is strong throughout the novel. Chris is a worthy secondary character whose distinctions of characterization balance well with Olivia's. The remaining cast members, especially Dana, round out the novel nicely.
Blurb: A sharply paced, engaging novel that is at once engrossing and heartbreaking.
by Andrew Himmel
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.
by Jamie Zerndt
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.
by Carrie Hayes
Plot: This lush and immersive novel seamlessly blends history and fiction to the lives of early feminists Tennesee and Victoria Claflin.
Prose/Style: The prose is fine and lively, with a style and tone appropriate for the era of focus. Cogent references and descriptions further show the author’s investment in writing with historical verisimilitude.
Originality: With its convincing setting and electrifying characterizations, Hayes offers a uniquely engaging work of historical fiction.
Character Development: Hayes’s protagonists are authentic, compelling, and show a refreshing degree of agency and moral complexity. Readers will relish reading about famed figures from the past and their connections to one another, while Hayes’s Victorian New York backdrop is a showstopper.
by Beena Khan
Plot: This storyline starts off slowly, but picks up pace as the emotional core of the central relationship unfolds. While most plot points are believable and well-placed in the story, one in particular seems to come late in the narrative and may end up adversely affecting readers’ investment in and enjoyment of the novel.
Prose/Style: The prose of this story is mostly dialogue. Distinct and realistic, it does an admirable job of relating the emotional trials and tribulations of the main characters as they struggle to grown both individually and as a couple. The inclusion of diverse characters with differing religions and languages is engaging and informative, while never seeming overbearing or preachy.
Originality: An intimate character piece, this novel explores the connection between two compelling characters whose emotional bond helps heal old wounds, while leading to a surprising ending.
Character Development: Complex and compelling, the two main characters jump off the page with fully-realized personalities. Their growing relationship with each other--the main narrative of the story--is well constructed and engages the reader from start to finish. The supporting characters are strong, as well.
by Rhonda Frankhouser
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.
by Deanna Lynn Sletten
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.
by Chris Mullen
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.