by Robert M Gerson
Plot: Gerson employs elements of magical realism and mysticism to explore a man's path back to creativity and purposeful living.
Prose: The author provides an engaging blend of dreamlike prose with clear exposition and impactful dialogue.
Originality: This novel takes a unique approach to exploring ideas relating to life purpose, disillusionment, and the tensions between inner desires and practical needs.
Character/Execution: Readers will readily empathize with Nicholas Affini as he takes a metaphysical journey into his past and to his subconscious self. Additional characters effectively serve the fable-like aspects of the narrative.
by Mary Cresse
Plot: Cresse taut literary novel tells the story of an ambitious writer and editor whose life spirals into uncertainty and dysfunction. Cresse soundly details the circumstances that lead from New York City dreams to being a live-in resident at a derelict hotel.
Prose: Cresse's novel is a polished, well-conceived story of one individual's path to self-destruction. The author excels at in-scene development and effectively balances exposition and dialogue.
Originality: Stories of descent from empowerment and opportunity to addiction and despair are frequent, but the vivid 1980's Manhattan setting, and Mary Clement's unique set of circumstances are noteworthy.
Character/Execution: The novel's nonlinear structure allows readers to trace the events of Mary Clement's life in Manhattan and her subsequent decline, while the novel maintains a sense of hope for her future. The protagonist's cynicism is offset by moments of honest self-reflection and yearning for redemption. Side characters are convincing and well-established.
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 David Martin Anderson
Plot: This painful, powerfully rendered work of historical fiction focuses on the unconscionable practice of capturing and slaughtering horses and a man’s struggle to reconcile his past.
Prose: Anderson’s writing is both raw and melancholic. Descriptions of the Montana prairie lands and horses are lyrical, while the violence inflicted upon the wild animals is both stark and at times unbearable for sensitive readers.
Originality: Anderson’s story is highly original as, in part, the subject matter reflects such a dark and infrequently broached chapter of animal cruelty in America’s past. In execution, the novel takes a unique, retrospective approach to storytelling.
Character Execution: Readers will struggle with their relationship to the central character, as he is sympathetic despite his acts of violence. Additional characters allow the historical place and period to come alive.
by RICHARD ROBBINS
Plot: The story of Richard Robbins' Panicles covers the surprising changes in fortune of two American families, the Murnanes, a to-the-manor-born clan with a family compound and political ambitions, and the Waxes, middle class, Pennsylvanian, and Jewish. Robbins' clever plotting entwines the families, establishing them as fascinating contrasts to each other as their youngest generations grow up, head to college, and consider careers. Their lives twist, as lives do, with the Murnanes gaining and losing a governorship, mostly due to Robert Murnane's failure to understand how far his father and his father's fixer would go to protect power, while the Waxes make good with a surprise inheritance, shrewd investing, and a sense of duty to country. The Waxes face tragedy but also seize opportunity, including, at the end, the political nomination that the Murnanes had been groomed for. That audacious reversal comes as a surprise, partially because of its implausibility, as it depends on an American political party daring to choose a dark horse presidential nominee at its convention. Like much of what occurs in the novel, this development happens quickly, without much scenic detail, a technique that proves effective when the story sweeps over years of the characters' youthful development but is less convincing when facing the gritty reality of American politics.
Prose/Style: Robbins' prose is stamped with his humanity and curiosity. He's attentive to nuances of character, to the ways people speak and behave in the moment, and he often lets his cast speak for themselves. Many scenes unfold as dialogues between friends and family members. He's especially good at suggesting the value characters' put on their own shared histories as they share their lives with each other. The novel's scenecraft is less strong than the dialogue, as Robbins only on occasion fully dramatizes, with attention to the senses and scenic detail, what it would feel like to be one of the characters in a particular moment. For example, readers are told that Matthew had never before experienced camaraderie like he did once he was deployed to Afghanistan, but the novel doesn't depict those friendships or why Matthew might treasure them.
Originality: Robbins' survey of two very different American families, and the expectations that each has for its place in its country, is fresh and often incisive. The book is at its best when his characters dish their observations and opinions, which are often striking, surprising, and unique. One of the novelist's most heartening and original choices: these two families from different backgrounds find their fates entwined but never really are at odds with each other.
Character Development: Robbins focuses on dialogue over scenecraft or interiority. His character surprise readers as they grow and change, as they should, but the novel rarely invites readers into the families' heads and hearts. The detached third-person narration observes them, at a distance. The crucial early scene where the Waxes and the Murnanes enjoy a downmarket beach-town excursion together passes quickly, with little attention to the parents' in-the-moment anxieties or efforts to comfort each other, and readers are never given the chance to feel the urgency of the burgeoning friendship between Emily Murnane and Matthew Wax, the relationship that powers the book.
by Heather W. Cobham
Plot: The lives of women intersect in a lyrical, character-driven novel about recovery, self-reflection, and healing.
Prose: Cobham's prose is graceful, even, and offers a fine balance between exposition, description, and dialogue.
Originality: The story's focus on a sacred tree and its abilities to sooth, heal, and nurture those who need seek its powers, is wholly original.
Character/Execution: While Cobham’s primary characters are not exceptional in nature, readers will relate to Sloan and Maya as they individually grapple with past trauma, troubled relationships, grief, and regret. Honest emotion permeates this gentle story about finding internal peace through community.
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 D. Krauss
Plot: Krauss's smart, ghostly novel of family and piecing together the past, is quickly paced and sustains momentum throughout. From the second Art arrives in Enterprise to the end of the novel, readers will be engaged in the story and eager to learn what comes next.
Prose/Style: Krauss's prose is enjoyable and smooth, with a knack for evocative descriptions. The third-person narration is a strong choice.
Originality: The author artfully integrates elements of the supernatural, ensuring broad appeal for lovers of gothic tales and ghost stories. Art and his brother are distinctive personalities, and help elevate the work above standard fare, while the Alabama setting is notably well-established.
Character Development: Art and Butch are fascinating and developed characters that play well off one another. Art is a sometimes confusing individual with uncertain motivations, but his emotions are nonetheless deeply felt and established. Butch is the less compelling of the two, but in a way that enhances rather than detracts from his characterization.
by Michael R. Lane
Plot/Idea: Lane's plot is entertaining and strongly developed. Willie's Market as a setting feels real and memorable and the story reads rather nostalgically. Though there doesn't seem to be any real central conflict outside of characters navigating daily trials and tribulations, readers will find an emotional and engaging story throughout as they journey through the inner lives of the market's customers.
Prose/Style: Lane's prose is entertaining but also extremely detailed, with substantial descriptions throughout, especially of the setting. The writing is lovely; however, the somewhat excessive detail slows the pace of the story.
Originality: A strong contender within the "slice of life" style narrative, the characters here notably set this work apart from the rest.
Character/Execution: The characters are who truly shine in Lane's novel. The mother-son relationship between Dwight and Winona is both loving and trying, while the various customers and cast of characters that visit Willie's help bring the story to life and paint a vibrant picture of the neighborhood and community of East Liberty. However, the strongest character is the market itself, and Lane has crafted a beautiful and moving tribute to community and family through this novel's central location.
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 Fred Misurella
Plot: A beautiful and heart-wrenching tale about what defines a family. Jamie's story is both moving and devastating as she works to heal and learn the truth about her origins.
Prose/Style: Misurella's prose is beautiful and clear, and Jamie's voice is as distinct and bold as her character’s personality and motivations.
Originality: The strength of Jamie's character and the intimacy of the relationships within help build the novel into something greater than the sum of its parts, despite not being particularly fresh in concept.
Character Development: Jamie is a deeply sympathetic character who endures much throughout the course of the novel. The relationships she forges with Mischa and Mr. Santa in particular are lovely and imbue the novel with a lot of heart and soul.
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 Peter Rush
Plot: Rush's plot immediately grabs readers as it boldly opens in the aftermath of the Kent State shooting. The fear and urgency continues through the entirety of the novel for a fast-paced, engrossing ride.
Prose/Style: Rush's prose is bold and memorable. Short, clipped sentences convey the tense emotions of the story, and brings a heightened but never overwrought sense of gravity to the writing.
Originality: Though many aspects of the storytelling are conventional in execution, Rush brings freshness to a story of systemic corruption, personal growth, and activism via its well-realized 1970's backdrop and references to pivotal historical events.
Character/Execution: Steve's journey as an activist is compelling as he learns how deep the corruption of the legal system truly goes. He is a strong and grounded protagonist and Roxy works effectively as his equal.
by Teri Davis
Plot: Davis's finely developed historical story is one of perseverance and coming to terms with familial, personal, and national identity. Readers will be immediately immersed in the story of the protagonists learning the truth of their lineage, and will remain invested in their deeply moving journey.
Prose/Style: Davis's prose is poignant and strong. The dual perspectives of Bill and Freddie as the chapters progress add dynamism to the plot and help both the characters and their relationship feel more fully realized.
Originality: The central relationships at the heart of the novel make this novel far more than a work of military fiction.
Character Development: Billy and Freddie's bond immediately leaps off the page. Readers will root for the family at the story's heart as they navigate upheaval and world-changing events while fighting to remain connected.
by Deborah Gaal
Plot: Gaal's whip-smart plot compels from the first page. The choice to give the protagonist a bipolar diagnosis seems to be handled with respect and the effort is there to avoid it being merely a plot device; however, some of the discussions e.g. around treatment and medication, may read as less sensitive or delicately handled than the rest of the plot.
Prose: Gaal's prose is as distinct and sharp as the plot. At times hilarious and other times serious, it matches the pace of the novel beat for beat.
Originality: Despite being a fun and highly engaging journey, the story plays directly into many conventions of the genre.
Character/Execution: There's a wild cast of characters found throughout this novel. As a protagonist, Noah is sometimes the least compelling person on the page; however, his experiences are so riveting, it's easy to over look. Additionally, the relationships between him and his band of misfits is more than entertaining enough to make up for any potential weaknesses in character development.