by Jamie Zerndt
Plot: Though racism simmers beneath the surface of this engrossing story, it is certainly not the focal point. Rather, Zerndt's plot is a beautifully written exploration of the relationships, loneliness, secrets, and past heartaches of three Mercer, Wisconsin residents trying to navigate their way through their troubled lives, each in very different ways.
Prose/Style: The prose is smooth and poetic at times, and the main characters' inner thoughts are expressed with beauty and introspection as well as pain and regret. Potent symbols like the loon, gypsy moths, Shawna's horse Seven, and Norm's Don Quixote statue further explore and expand the impact of both the dreamy (and sometimes nightmarish) quality of the characters' thoughts, fears, and anger.
Originality: Zerndt explores the tropes of loneliness, secrets, and racism without reverting to hollow platitudes or unnecessary language. The story is the characters themselves--and its beauty is largely due to its character-driven motivations and inner explorations of both everyday and existential problems.
Character Development/Execution: The characters are well-written and tied together not only through their proximity in a small town, but through their shared experiences that transverse age, race, and individual heartaches. Trapped by both the town and their own minds, they are somehow both static and dynamic; the story-ending inferno somehow symbolic of their journey and rebirth into something new.
by James Hutson-Wiley
Plot: Hutson-Wiley’s intricate plot charts Thomas’s travels across the heart of the Christian and Muslim worlds. The author’s sensitive portrayal of the time period will resonate with readers.
Prose/Style: Hutson-Wiley’s prose is atmospheric, capturing the realities of the time – including its prejudices – with accuracy.
Originality: Hutson-Wiley’s lively story reimagines a world confined to history book with dynamism and surprisingly heartfelt writing.
Character Development/Execution: Thomas’s likability and frank narration will draw in any reader.
Blurb: This well-researched historical drama is a must for readers who love being swept away to a different time. Thomas’s adventures as a physician during early medieval period are filled with political intrigue.
by Curtis Burdick
Plot: With an inventive and alluring concept, this work is well-conceived and properly paced. With its appealing blend of fiction and fact, it will especially delight war and history buffs.
Prose/Style: The prose and the dialogue are clear and effective; there are many action-packed and high stakes moments, such as in the bombings and in the Italian excursions.
Originality: This novel-within-a-novel feels original and fresh, with fictionalized subject matter inspired by real events.
Character Development/Execution: General Patton, wounded and captured by the Germans, is finely characterized. Additional historical figures are both lively and authentic.
by Strobe Witherspoon
Plot: Strobe Witherspoon’s OOF, a book of cynicism and social commentary, debates satire’s place in the media and the shielded coverage of public figures. With an ironic fictional setting— a genre intended to entertain— the author inspects what amount of nonfiction actually involves the real world, how much is sensationalized, and how publications and news consumers choose to respond to these reports.
Prose/Style: Witherspoon tiptoes around the language formed in Schenck v. U.S. Even his character’s dilemma feels strikingly similar to modern cases like Hustler Magazine v. Falwell. With his fictional narrative, he continues the free press debate and dramatizes First Amendment history, moments where even comic falsehood was close to censorship.
Originality: OOF ask readers to determine the role of authorship in both fiction and nonfiction and the journalistic ethics while representing subjects. At times, the novel in question disappears from the story completely, but that may be Witherspoon’s purpose—to show that people care less about the topic itself and more about their voice on the matter.
Character Development/Execution: OOF is a chaotic meld of misinformation and competing notions of truth. It is a discussion on what constitutes news, and who is eligible to provide that information. Witherspoon’s novel seems to suggest that in the new era of journalists this includes anyone with a platform, an audience, and an opinion.
by Todd McGee
Plot: Well-researched and imbued with suspense, this novel is easy to get wrapped up in, particularly for fans of WWII. The action is just enough to catapult the reader forward.
Prose/Style: Matter-of-fact and somber, the tone here is typical of one involving the World Wars and military fiction.
Originality: Readers that have enjoyed WWII novels will find a familiar background here, coupled with a unique predicament and suspenseful action.
Character Development/Execution: The book features wise and experienced characters who are hopeful and full of faith work together for a positive outcome.
by Kimki Kita
Plot: Set in the greater Toronto Area, Kita’s autobiographical novel grapples with the realities of the inadequacies of Ontario’s mental health system. As the narrator falls deeper and deeper into mental illness, her hopelessness and exasperation are palpable.
Prose/Style: Heavy-handed exposition dulls the immediacy of the plot. However, there are evocative descriptive passages of hallucinatory imagery that will draw in any reader.
Originality: Kita’s openness and raw prose give this standard tale of battling mental illness a decidedly sharp edge.
Character Development/Execution: Kokoro’s inner demons and insecurities take center stage. Her struggles are perhaps best realized in her arguments with her Asian immigrant parents and through her hallucinations.
Blurb: This fast-paced work of autofiction sees a young woman strive to overcome mental illness during her university years.
by Geoff Robberts
Plot: The reader is immersed in the action right away. The plot is intense throughout the novel, with significant suspense and integration of ideologies that mirror the present-day political climate.
Prose/Style: The author writes clearly and confidently, while showing a strong command of storytelling.
Originality: The author states in the acknowledgements that using the word "polemic" in the subtitle should have been a clue that readers were going to be in for an intriguing ride. The author has made a strong statement about society that is truly of the moment.
Character Development/Execution: Using dialect, the author has created characters that fit the storyline well. Fearless individuals make their beliefs known within an increasingly divided climate. While somewhat more defined by their beliefs than other traits, they are effectively rendered and dialogue is convincing.
by Dan Hendrickson
Plot: The novel will hold readers’ interests with its high energy and exciting plotline, whether or not they’re typically fans of pirates. The slavery and abolitionist plotlines make the story more complex and interesting, as do the huge changes that Brandy experiences throughout her journey.
Prose/Style: The prose and the dialogue are clear and effective. The dialogue seems quite realistic to the setting, but the book would benefit greatly from a thorough edit.
Originality: This storyline, and a female pirate protagonist, feel original despite the vast array of pirate tales in the adventure story genre.
Character Development/Execution: The characters are quite finely executed throughout. Though little attention is given to why they maraud and kill so often and so easily, Hendrickson does supply uncommon depth to the cast. Some complex familial relationships are explored and conflicts resolved, while individuals carry more nuance than might otherwise be expected for an action tale on the high seas. Historical circumstances also play a role in character development, while also contributing additional substance to the story.
by Robert Allen Miltenberg
Plot: Don't You Know Who I Am? presents the unpolished side of Hollywood and society’s misunderstanding of the entertainment industry. With a recurring theme of postmodernity, the book explores the theories of Jean-François Lyotard and dissects the meta-narrative referred to as “the celebrity.”
Prose/Style: Robert Allen Miltenberg’s prose captures the disco decade with its funky lingo and racy quality. The narrative voice is impartial and provides a reliable account of each character. However, as the author flips between nickname, first name, and last name references, the reader may struggle to differentiate managers, band members, and the dedicated posse, along with the various titles they go by.
Originality: Underneath the story of a once sensationalized band, Miltenberg hurtles a social commentary on cultural dissonance. He approaches these discussions of abuse and racism with a callousness that laughs in the face of PC culture. The sexually explicit content successfully depicts a period in the height of political and social reform, but it still feels shockingly twisted.
Character Development/Execution: While Miltenberg provides complex characters, the book begs for a hero. The author intends for the characters to be pompous and ungrateful to accentuate the trope of fame and fortune, yet their perverse comments and actions make them intolerable. Randy Root fetishizes underaged girls, while Jeffy Jabonno becomes a reserved schizophrenic, occupied with the voice of John Lennon. It is a dizzying narrative that feels haphazard but, nonetheless, interesting.
by Rebecca Miller
Plot: Miller's novel boasts a classic plot with even pacing and is bolstered by a satisfyingly unexpected conclusion. The intensity of action is nicely balanced with an element of humanity and weightiness.
Prose/Style: Miller's prose is straightforward but frequently sidetracked by bouts of ill-timed and vicious profanity. Told in the first person, Megan's voice is unpolished, genuine, and irrefutably real - adding authenticity for readers who crave a more personal connection.
Originality: Readers will easily recognize Miller's fundamental coming-of-age story, but the rawness of her characters' suffering and the unforeseen plot curves add novelty.
Character Development/Execution: The characters in Miller's Touch are believable in their brokenness. Protagonist Megan Brennar, though remarkably trusting and naïve, is a beacon of light - especially to the grim and tortured Shawn Harris. Supporting characters give the story dimension and make the narrative more cohesive.
An archetypal coming-of-age novel peppered with some agonizing curveballs that speak to the power of hope in the midst of excruciating pain.
by Bryan Ney
Plot: The author’s admitted “Hollywoodization” of Beckwourth’s life makes a detailed history accessible to a more casual readership.
Prose/Style: Ney’s prose is careful and engaging. While some odd turns of phrase may give some readers moments of pause, Ney keeps the pace fresh with plenty of action.
Originality: Ney’s intimate portrait of Beckwourth is as tender as it is multi-faceted. The author vividly captures the struggles of life in the 1820s American West.
Character Development/Execution: While Beckwourth is an engaging protagonist, Ney’s Indigenous characters can sometimes come across as stiff, their dialogue bordering on caricature. This becomes a question of cultural sensitivity.
Blurb: This daring historical novel chronicles the life and times of James Beckwourth. Set in the American West in the 1820s, Ney’s atmospheric writing captures something of the life of one of America’s Black heroes.
by Carole Kulikowski
Plot: This is the story, via witness statement, of 19-year-old Anna as she chronicles her life growing up in Nazi Germany, her familial relationships, and the hardships of being a "genetic undesirable" during WWII and the rise of Hitler. Ultimately, this is a powerful first-person account a girl, who, because of her cleft palate, is part of a historically underrepresented group: children of German birth who were brutalized and victimized by their own country.
Prose/Style: Kulikowski's story has promise, but becomes bogged down by excessive family history that reads more like a textbook than historical fiction and does not add context. Her prose is most effective as she explores Anna's emotions and conflict as she, like many Germans, struggle to reconcile their daily lives and hardships with a government that thrives on terror, intimidation, and cruelty.
Originality: While Anna's account is an alternate look into Nazi cruelty against German citizens (in this case, children deemed "undesirables"), it ultimately loses focus and diverges at times into a more generalized historical account of Nazi Germany--albeit through the lens of this particular young woman--which has been well-documented and explored in both fiction and non-fiction. The parallels between the Diary of Anne Frank, though perhaps unintentional, make the story seem even less fraught--and less relevant and poignant.
Character Development/Execution: Anna's firsthand accounts are the highlight of the book--especially as she explores her conflicting feelings about Hitler and Nazi Germany, and, like many other Germans, tries to build a new life after the war. She is a well-developed, thoughtful, mature character and first-person narrator.
by Kara Ford
Plot: A solid primary story arc about building self-esteem and self-forgiveness through the support of a romantic partner trips over facile overlays of sexual abuse, PTSD, racism, and the coronavirus pandemic. The family drama here is resolved too superficially to feel realistic, but the heavy topics in the background block the feel-good parts of the romance.
Prose/Style: The prose reads smoothly and is expresses the story’s ideas well, but dialogue expressing conflict can feel stilted and the slow reveal of the trauma in the protagonist’s background through snippets of flashback feels contrived to keep information from the reader for too long. The novel would benefit from a paring down, as readers may feel frustrated with the length, digging through its slow pacing to get to the happy ending.
Originality: Romance in the age of coronavirus is an interesting take, and the author leans into it in some ways (the romantic interest and his mother are medical professionals, and the mother becomes ill), while ignoring it in others – there’s little masking in the characters’ daily lives. But this novel would be improved by more attention to the classic beats of romance stories.
Character Development/Execution: Although the protagonist and her romantic interest are appealing and exhibit growth, most secondary characters, especially those in antagonistic roles, are unidimensional. The characters are college and graduate students, but their social behavior and relationship to their parents feels immature and more typical of high schoolers.