by Sam Ernst
Plot: The New Manifesto assumes readers approach the story informed, as if knowledge is willed and experiences are only as palpable as the words that define them. Time loses all form and becomes an invented, immaterial fabric of reality. The narrator’s travels and successes shift with transience, where impermanent things hold lasting effects. Ernst’s novel queries absolute truth—a world where imagination is the illusory precursor to reality.
Prose: A philosophical skepticism is inseparable from the prose. The New Manifesto is told through a voice which is unestablished and unsure of itself. This voice meanders, disappears, and resurfaces, leaving the reader a heap of unscrambled words that have no right to pair together so peacefully.
Originality: In a book about a book, Ernst chooses to title his novel after a fabricated text, attaching his own, true New Manifesto to a sliver of nonexistence. With a playful guile, Ernst describes himself as his narrator’s editor and mocks the role of the author—as if he is the uncredited inventor of his three-tiered world. The ending, which uses second-person perspective and makes the reader an active participant, perfectly ties the chaos together like a maze—returning to the same spots and unable to escape the words on the page. The reader makes different choices, yet all outcomes parallel each other, as if to say the human mind is one’s biggest obstacle.
Character Development: Halfway through the book, the narrator segues into fictionalized academia. A mix of environmental and ecological science sometimes strips the sensation of weightlessness, but the pedantic moments ground the story like anchors that tie the plot to real life.
Blurb: This is a book that reveres visual imagery, while challenging what the eye perceives. Ernst’s complexity muddles the mind so readers grasp for the concrete—the simple—but in those moments of filtering through the disorder, exists a tale that is beautifully human.
by Kate Reynolds
Plot: Reynolds’s intricate plot transports the reader to sixteenth-century Spain. Ernestine is a plucky, likable heroine, surrounded by equally intriguing characters.
Prose/Style: Atmospheric writing brimming with well-placed historical details pulls the reader into the heart of the story.
Originality: Reynolds crafts a realistic, believable picture of a distant era. Her focus on the idiosyncratic, deeply religious life at the abbey at Granada is a breath of fresh air.
Character Development/Execution: Reynolds’s elegant prose buoys the plot. Ernestine is a delightful character who readers will empathize with.
Blurb: This work of historical fiction brims with life and heart. A story of religiosity, love, and friendship in sixteenth-century Spain are painted with sweeping swathes of color.
by TC Kennedy
Plot: Piano prodigy Karen Robertson is forced to leave San Francisco with her family after the Great Earthquake—however, after a return to the city, her life grows more complicated as she learns to balance her ambition and talent with a desire to be part of the lives of her family and friends. In a poignant side narrative, her parents must struggle with their own demons once they move to Arequipa, a sanitarium where they both try to make a life for themselves—Alexander with his teaching and talent, and Annalie with her depression and loneliness.
Prose/Style: Kennedy's prose is beautifully written and lyrical, the perfect counterpoint to the musical talents of Karen, who is a virtuoso on the piano, yet struggles with day-to-day relationships and realities.
Originality: Arequipa is more than a coming-of-age-tale about a young woman and her desire to fulfill her dreams—it is a passionate exploration of ambition: what is lost, what is gained, and ultimately, how sometimes our paths are manipulated by circumstance and often misfortune. Ultimately, it is a lovely, lyrical period piece that cleverly wends known historical context (San Francisco's Great Earthquake) with an often heartbreaking tale of loneliness and personal sacrifice.
Character Development/Execution: The characters are beautifully written, and the dichotomy between mother and daughter is explored cleverly through both the juxtaposition of their stories and their distance, both physical and emotional, from one another. Karen's passion and talent easily builds empathy from the reader as we see her struggles to develop a co-existing identity as both 'woman' and 'musician' through sacrifice and discipline.
by Stephen Evans Jordan
Plot: Haunted by his mother’s death and the emotional hole she’s left him with, Alexander Romanovsky’s life is detailed across the 1980s. Throughout the novel, Alexander experiences both the typical and the atypical of the time period and exacerbates his discomfort in order to understand himself deeper.
Prose/Style: Jordan’s descriptions—particularly of settings—are lyrical and vivid. Readers familiar with these locales will find enjoyment in Jordan’s descriptions and those unfamiliar will be offered superb detail for scene-building.
Originality: Jordan’s imagery of Russian wolves as a metaphor for Tatiana’s mental illness is powerful, and the culmination of what Alexander learns of his family’s past is gripping. Jordan is clearly knowledgeable of Russian history and the human psyche. Themes of grief and loss, love, and how the past can set one free run throughout.
Character Development/Execution: Tatiana and the Wolves is truly a character-driven story and Jordan has done a lovely job expressing the complications of life and questions so many have about their past and lineage. Jordan displays his own emotional intelligence through the depth of his character development.
Blurb: A book to not judge by its cover, Tatiana and the Wolves is an exploration into relationships and family history with rich characters and storyline.
by Bunye Ngene
Plot: In The Bodies That Move, Bunye Ngene unforgettably depicts the journey of a young Nigerian man, Nosa, who falls into the brutal hands of human smugglers in his quest for a better life abroad. Harrowing and deeply moving, this novel will haunt the dreams and consciences of its readers for some time.
Prose/Style: From the very first page of the book, readers will know they are in the hands of a good writers, but soon they will realize they are under the spell of a great one. Ngene writes sparely, cleanly, and with quiet force.
Originality: Nosa's odyssey is a depressingly familiar one to any who read or watch the news, but Bunye Ngene makes his protagonist's inner life so transparently real to the reader that no news story can compare. The Bodies That Move is a superbly crafted novel.
Character Development/Execution: Perhaps the greatest thing about the protagonist of the novel is that his creator allows him to be flawed. Setting out as a young man who is by turns envious, anxious, ambitious, and vain, Nosa grows in stature, becoming a survivor adamant in his determination to stay alive and get where he is going.
Blurb: Ngene writes sparely, cleanly, and with quiet force. The Bodies That Move will haunt its readers' dreams and consciences for some time.
by Alice McVeigh
Plot: The storyline transpires with the rush of a dress rehearsal, which is only fitting for this Austenian prologue. As the characters perform A Midsummer Night’s Dream, McVeigh fictionalizes even Shakespeare’s work in an exquisite diversion from the classics.
Prose/Style: The ornate words wholly reflect the language of the nineteenth century. The author’s writing fashions antiquity, where the sentences feel posh and intellectual.
Originality: This book contains a charming awareness of Jane Austen’s novels that careful readers can collect like small tokens. As Susan says, she is neither “handsome, clever, well-travelled, rich,” and McVeigh flaunts her success with reinvention.
Character Development/Execution: Some characters feel strikingly similar to Austen’s characters, while others including Mr. Darcy, Mr. Hawthorn, and Frank Churchill come straight from the original novels. In this nineteenth-century portrayal, Emma mingles with Pride and Prejudice in a delightful confrontation between the two books' worlds.
by Mary Camarillo
Plot: An engrossing storyline that sucks in the reader as Brenda's world collapses around her. Fast-paced and set amid drama of the OJ Simpson scandal, this work combines a great plot with strong, likeable characters, and insightful dialogue.
Prose/Style: The author is clearly a talented writer who crafts strong, impactful dialogue that sheds great insight into her characters. A perfect blend of action, description, and dialogue.
Originality: This is an original work with a distinctive story line and well-defined, unique characters.
Character Development/Execution: The author does a fabulous job with characterization which significantly contributes to the appeal of this work. Through skillful narrative and dialogue, the reader is privy to inner thoughts as well as conversations that really convey what makes the characters tick.
by James Y. Bartlett
Plot: Without one main character, The Year of the Sheep masterfully presents a stream of consciousness that creates an out-of-body experience, where the reader seamlessly drifts from one interior to the next. Sodden with detail, it is a work that can be marveled for its geographical, economic, and political structure.
Prose/Style: Bartlett manipulates the English language, so every word possesses feeling. With prose that are plain-spoken yet polished, he writes with a modesty that is skillful yet entirely approachable. The formal language is somber and nostalgic, which feels appropriate for the Scottish setting. Bartlett merges the physical with the emotional to create a warm, rich, and quaint landscape.
Originality: Bartlett reveals his 30 years of research with his thorough retracing of the Highland Clearances. His background in journalism seeps into his storytelling, as it is structured, concise, and never muddled. Despite the sobering events, the author manages to include a subtlety in his humor—a technique that captures an unmistakable British wit.
Character Development/Execution: The author maintains precise control over every conscience. In a narrative with over 40 recurring characters, he manages to create three-dimensional personalities that each approach a conflict and a denouement. The book demands its readers’ attention, but the end result is like a completed puzzle. When the townspeople sit around the fire sharing old Celtic myths, there is a satisfaction that comes with knowing each person’s voice and their personal story.
Blurb: A fusion of the gothic novel and Virginia Woolf, this book delights in storytelling. Something mystical looms in Bartlett’s writing, making it a tale just as enchanting as its folklore.
by Laurie Stone
Plot: Rose Perry, rising star at a prestigious Manhattan advertising firm, is dismayed to be handed the account of her nightmares—promoting a political candidate who stands for everything she and her family oppose. Will she sell out for the big bucks and the bling, or will she choose the harder path?
Prose/Style: Stone writes with the ease and grace of one who has walked in her heroine's shoes on the same Manhattan sidewalks. A book in which everything happens as it must, yet nothing is predictable.
Originality: Peace, Love and Cockroaches is a novel about integrity—personal, political, and ideological. It also broaches the important theme of women and the complexities of the career and relationship choices they face in the twenty-first century.
Character Development/Execution: One of the pleasures of this novel is Rose's realistic yielding to the temptations that beset a young, ambitious woman in New York City, and her gain in stature as she learns from her missteps. Rose is repeatedly tested in her ability to stay true to herself and her values, and the result is a complex and thoroughly believable protagonist, as well as a plot that avoids pat solutions and trite outcomes.
by Joan Spilman
Plot: Silver Bottle, a book that portrays a loss of innocence, places women as the moral center of the family. Spilman creates an emotional and physical disconnect that instills a feeling of impermanence, similar to the theme of transience in Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping. Like Robinson’s character Sylvie, Spilman writes her characters’ oddities in such a way that leaves readers wildly uneasy but unable to explain why.
Prose/Style: Spilman maintains exquisite narrative control throughout her novel. Her writing captures a poetic weightlessness, bound by feelings rather than structure. The isolated narratives wind around each other, tangling memories only to unravel into a precise, linear narrative.
Originality: In a book about lived patterns, the author depicts characters that are alone but together in kinship. Tied to one artifact that traces lineage, the book’s title and returning artifact—a silver bottle—symbolizes a material and emotional connection between one family. The story pleas for reflection, as a way to let go.
Character Development/Execution: This book explores motherhood and delights in the dynamic of parent-child relationships. The strained moments feel sincere, bitter, yet affectionate. The author cleverly writes each characters’ childhood from an aged perspective, so readers witness an adequate account of childish naivety.
by Panayotis Cacoyannis
Plot: To George Hareman, aka Mr. Magikoo, whose signature illusion of pulling a rabbit out of two hats involved actually halving the rabbit, are added a cacophony of variously flawed characters. Sixteen-year-old Jane’s mother was accidentally electrocuted as a result of a mishap during another of her father’s illusions ten years earlier and now she must find her way to adulthood with only Auntie Ada; George’s atypical girlfriend Mia-Mia; Jane’s musical boyfriend Karl; and his mother, Reichian psychologist Dr. Schmidt who believes the moon landing was a hoax, as her allies, compromised though they may be.
Prose: Panayotis Cacoyannis has committed to a straightforward, often humorous, style of writing to describe an unrelenting barrage of unusual and often absurd events. He creates a bizarre fictional world where each unlikely event is followed by one even more unlikely, that the reader accepts without question.
Originality: A unique effort that combines a deep understanding of emotion, of the need to live and to grow, with an unfailing control of language and a more than proficient ability to tell a story.
Character/Execution: Jane’s coming of age is immensely complicated by her mother’s death and her father’s guilt and denial, but still she finds her own ways to make peace with her past and her present, to risk, and to grow. Cacoyannis has deftly captured the interplay of reluctance, denial, courage and vulnerability that such a journey requires.
Blurb: A rollicking good read in which profound truths about the human psyche, about memory and betrayal, about love and forgiveness, emerge with such finesse that the reader is carried along hardly aware of the complexity and depth of the novel.
by Margaret Hontos
Plot: This is a wonderful feel-good story that readers will relish. At times, the implausible happens, but the reader will forgive these oversights because the storyline is so engrossing.
Prose: The prose here is top-notch. The first person narrative brings a sense of emotional resonance and immediacy to the reading experience.
Originality: Hontos offers a highly original premise. The focus on animal life and the solace to be found from helping another, provides a memorable and inspiring story.
Character/Execution: This is an engaging work full of notable, sympathetic, and distinctive characters that will captivate and move readers.
by Libby Sternberg
Plot: Introducing a feisty protagonist with a girlish charm, Sternberg’s book shifts the storytelling genius from Fitzgerald to Nick Carraway, applying the Austenian concept of an unreliable narrator to The Great Gatsby. Sternberg requires readers to submit to layers of fantasy, by contrasting different realities in her still fictional world.
Prose/Style: The author writes with a poised composure that reads like a continuation of Fitzgerald’s prose. However, the novel feels like a classical fusion of nineteenth-century literature with Jane Eyre’s direct address to the reader and Emma’s protagonist that cleverly orchestrates all things.
Originality: The author reconstructs a timeless American novel by adding compassion to Fitzgerald’s superficial relationships. Rather than defining her characters by wealth, she strips her story of financial interest and focuses on romance and female empowerment. Her book offers a new perspective that alters how one perceives Fitzgerald’s characters.
Character Development/Execution: This book’s modernization applies the female agenda in today’s society to the social construct of the 1920s. It provides an inspirational heroine that escapes gender inferiority. In Fitzgerald’s novel, Daisy acts as an ornament to the male species, yet in this book, the author gives her agency.
Blurb: A delightful portrayal of a female character claiming the story as her own, repossessing her own voice.
by Tori Starling
Plot: This is the story of three generations of women—Emily, her mother, Pam, and Pam's mother Kora—whose lives are interconnected through both the past and present. Family history, long-held secrets, mental illness, ambition, and the ties that connect families and bind them together come together to create a moving narrative of three women struggling to find their own way, despite their hardships.
Prose/Style: Starling's prose is fluid and beautiful, and the story, though it spans three generations of women, moves seamlessly between each woman's perspective. The passages about Kora are especially haunting and lovely, as she tries to free herself despite her imprisonment and terrible circumstances.
Originality: What makes this story original not its subject matter, but how well it's told—Starling jumps delicately between stories, creating connections for the reader and building plot and character relationships that are meaningful and emotional.
Character Development/Execution: Character is one of the strongest aspects of this narrative. All three women are developed beautifully and allowed to exist in their own space, while still clearly being connected to one another, not only through genetics, but through determination, strength, and love.
by Levi Rogers
Plot: This thought-provoking novel captures a reader's attention with its timely subjects and compelling characters, and keeps them on the edge of their seats throughout. The plot points are believable, well-structured, and, most importantly, honest in their depiction of the various shades of gray inherent in every issue. This novel is engaging from start to finish.
Prose/Style: Rogers's prose is sophisticated and flows relatively well, with few hiccups. The alternative POV format works really well for the novel's theme and storyline. The dialogue is realistic, and even the internal monologue of an unlikable character is believable. The depictions of Utah—both the state's physical landscape and its cultures/traditions, including the Mormon religion—are well-written and informative without being didactic.
Originality: Rogers's timely and engaging novel doesn't shy away from questioning the big issues of today and how the Mormon and evangelical religious faiths are responding to them. Using the threat of a natural disaster as the catalyst that informs the various plot points and characters' actions is smart and works really well at creating a truly entertaining and enlightening novel.
Character Development/Execution: Divided up by chapters, each belonging to the voice of a different character, this novel does a wonderful job giving each a distinct voice. Their motivations and true concern about the questions inherent in both religion and life in general are genuine, believable, and thought-provoking.
by Diane Wald
Plot: Wald’s My Famous Brain takes on a unique approach to describing life and perhaps what life after death can look like. Wald is especially adept at describing the complexity and nuances of the human psyche.
Prose/Style: A non-linear story conveyed to the reader through the ghost of Jack MacLeod, Wald’s narrative has a beautiful rhythm. The pace is aptly slow, but the dazzling prose does not disengage the reader.
Originality: This story of friendship, love, loss, and autonomy is a testimony to a life lived and how reflection and curiosity can set a person free.
Character/Execution: Protagonist Jack and his close friends and lovers are beautifully written and fully understood by the reader. Wald gives ample time and effort to their development. Similarly, tertiary players, such as Frances and Mussel, are exquisitely characterized.
Blurb: A captivating story through and through, Diane Wald showcases her skills in this profound story told from the perspective of a deceased genius, lover, and friend.