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General Fiction

  • The Valley of the Dogs Dark Stories

    by James Musgrave

    Rating: 9.25

    Plot: Absurdity, wit, and piercing skills of observation allow the 11 standalone, but tonally and thematically united short stories in this collection to shine.

    Prose/Style: Musgrave's prose is smooth and easy to read, humorous, and cleverly written. In the case of the title story: after realizing the absurdity of the premise, the reader is quickly drawn in by the wry narrative and ultimately entertained by this slice of life tale told by one of Lady Gaga's dogs.

    Originality: Musgrave's stories blend elements of satire with pathos, providing insights on fame, human behavior, and love relationships. It's a thought-provoking, fun, and ultimately impactful collection.

    Character Development/Execution: The author's Kafkaesque storytelling will delight discerning readers. The influence of literary masters is apparent across the works in this collection, while the stories--from references to the gig economy to COVID--are also firmly and effectively planted in the current tumultuous moment.

  • The Roses Underneath

    by C.F. Yetmen

    Rating: 9.25

    Plot: The storyline here is clear and has enough change throughout to keep the reader interested. The scenery and characters change often, but there is a central focus that unifies the book and creates a cohesive whole. Yetmen has produced a wonderfully written, sorrowful look into post-World War 2 Germany. 

    Prose: Yetmen's prose is clear and heartfelt. The scenes are described dutifully, and the story moves at a comfortable pace. Yetmen expertly portrays simple moments with feeling, compassion, and honesty, and this pulls the reader deeply into the book immediately.

    Originality: It is common to find books painting the point of view of Jews after WWII, but less common to see the perspectives of Germans, especially in a sympathetic light. This book delicately presented the experiences of common people during and after the war with eloquence and nuance.

    Character/Execution: The characters come to life, especially little Amalia and Anna, the central heroines of the story, in their fight to survive. The portrayal of mother and daughter love is beautiful and authentic, and the rest of the players in this tale are equally well developed.

     

  • That Which Remains

    by C.F. Yetmen

    Rating: 9.25

    Plot: Yetmen once again presents the reader with a fascinating, emotional plunge into the devastation after WWII. The delicate romance between Cooper and Anna continues, slowly but surely building, while they must figure out their future. This book sets a romance in an unlikely time, between two people from very different backgrounds, and it works very effectively to keep the reader interested.

    Prose/Style: Yetmen is a wonderful writer, and captures the heart of the reader through her work. She expertly is able to bring to life subtle emotions, perfectly describing moments such as the experience of a hangover at work, deep longing after a romantic kiss, and the solitary moments one experiences while pondering death. Her writing can bring the reader both to tears and to laughter, which reflects the realness of the life that she has so eloquently created.

    Originality: A mixture of love, overcoming despair from war and copious death, and mystery, Yetmen skillfully crafts a book full of original characters, an interesting plot, and authentic emotions.

    Character Development/Execution: The characters really make the story. They are very real and genuine, and the reader will feel as though they walk alongside the characters in this novel, experiencing life with them. They are not flat, but instead round, with flaws, pain, longing, joy, and growth.

  • Dancing the Labyrinth

    by Karen Martin

    Rating: 9.25

    Plot: Hopping between current day and ancient Greece, the story of Cressida’s young adulthood and pregnancy mirror those of ancient Minoan women. The narrative is fluid, polished, and creative, despite using elaborate myth as its foundation.

    Prose: Martin’s beautiful prose is amplified by detailed description of location and emotion throughout this consistent and creative story of women in the present day and ancient Crete. A blend of the Greek language is interspersed, helping keep the reader fully engaged with an authentic feel.

    Originality: Dancing the Labyrinth is a brilliant illustration of an exploration in feminism and a journey through trauma. Knowledge of Greek mythology is not necessary to understanding the plot; all readers can greatly enjoy the immersion into myth and imagination.

    Character/Execution: Cressida and her backstory are fully formed, both of which draw the reader straight into the pain and exploration she faces. Secondary characters serve as much importance to the story and overarching meaning; women are connected to one another across time and cultures. The development of Angela, Pythia, Ashtar, and Lydia are auxiliary, but directly linked to that of Cressida’s. Cressida and her confidants will help many readers with their own sojourn.

    Blurb: This novel is sure to open minds to past, present, and future understanding of acceptance and healing, while imploring exploration into ancient and current meanings of femininity and belonging.

  • The Sound of Wings

    by Suzanne Simonetti

    Rating: 9.00

    Plot: The Sound of Wings is an interesting narrative with plenty of twists, turns and secrets to keep readers engaged. The journey that each character goes through is heartfelt and will leave the audience with a warm feeling.

    Prose/Style: The writing has an air of nostalgia surrounding it. Readers will seamlessly move in and out of past and present events throughout the story.

    Originality: There are three prominent characters and each has a unique story to tell. Their haunting pasts and their paths to self-discovery are all different and memorable.

    Character Development/Execution: Even though each character has a different story to tell, each one of them is relatable in its own way. The author has expertly fleshed their backstories out in a way that by the end of the story, readers will feel that they’ve known the characters for a long time.

  • Starring... John Dillinger

    by Bill Walker & Brian Anthony

    Rating: 9.00

    Plot: Public Enemy Number One John Dillinger becomes Hollywood Heartthrob Number One in this smart, witty page-turner. But will J. Edgar Hoover allow fame and fortune to come to his foe?

    Prose/Style: Smooth as good whiskey, packed with the curves of Jack Warner's favorite starlet, the plot races along at a dizzying pace to a conclusion that will satisfy everyone (except perhaps J. Edgar Hoover) The authors effortlessly capture the style and lingo of Hollywood's Golden Age and the effect is sheer entertainment.

    Originality: Whatever it was that inspired authors Bill Walker and Brian Anthony with the idea, "What if 1935 Hollywood had made a movie star of John Dillinger?", readers of 2021 are lucky that they took the idea and ran with it. A pure escapist delight and a Valentine to Hollywood.

    Character Development/Execution: Walker and Anthony have studied both their noir and their screwball comedy to good effect, and the result is an intoxicating cocktail composed of equal parts hard-boiled and froth shaken, not stirred. The seamless POV shifts make for well-developed characters who engage the reader's interest and sympathies early and never let go.

  • Pale Dude

    by Wally Wood

    Rating: 9.00

    Plot: Pale Dude is a book about racial disparity, set in the midst of Malcolm X’s era and the countered police brutality. This novel shows how Civil Rights followers were directly affected by the movement. In moments when Rashid struggles with his multicultural background, Wood applies Malcolm X’s teachings from his final revolution of Black nationalism.

    Prose/Style: The language is smooth and methodical like a polished conscience. The vocabulary, executed with ease, allows readers to read at the pace of their own anticipating mind, as if their thoughts consume the written passages.

    Originality: Centered in the beginning of Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency, Wood effectively uses this instrumental period to remind readers of Western civilization’s tainted past. The novel’s 1960s narrative demonstrates a time when many were unwilling to depart from ignorant ideals and capital and labor predestined Black communities to inequality.

    Character Development/Execution: Wood chooses to tell his story through a third-person intimate perspective of Matthew, a white witness to the unraveling discrimination. The external influences at play mold the character, as he wrestles with his own role in the Civil Rights movement and whether he is or has ever been an opposing participant.

  • Empire Paladin: Realm of the Dead

    by M.S. Valdez

    Rating: 9.00

    Plot: Empire Paladin: Realm of the Dead, a book that marries the physical and spiritual world, finds value in its intertextuality. With an opening excerpt from Paradise Lost, allusions to Augustine’s City of God, and copious Biblical imagery, Valdez allows readers to approach his story through these texts for a richer appreciation of the storyline.

    Prose/Style: The book's sentences unravel in a short, tidy manner that leaves no room for trudging through words. The fast-paced plot grips the reader, as one's eyes travel quickly across the page.

    Originality: In a plot woven with good and evil, the author’s story parallels the infamous tale of the devil, a rebellion in the face of rejection. Valdez provides a unique perspective that shows how easily emotions can rule the mind.

    Character Development/Execution: While the book involves a few main characters, the author seems to use his protagonist Camila to deconstruct Romans 13—what it means to practice God’s authority when it is mediated by man. The book hurries through the emotional complexities, but the characters and their moral struggles feel real.

  • Whiskey and Old Stogies

    by Lisa Angle

    Rating: 9.00

    Plot: The Prohibition era has long been the subject of novels, film, and television. Rather than sticking with tried-and-true depictions of affluent gangsters, Angle takes a more novel approach by focusing on the moonshine brewers in the backwoods.

    Prose/Style: Angle’s use of dialect and phonetic spelling can be jarring at first, but the reader soon falls under the spell of the poetic rhythm of Rufus’s narration.

    Originality: Angle’s gritty tale pushes the boundaries of what readers may come to expect in the genre. As Rufus and Jolene they a living selling whiskey in the era of Prohibition, they come across a host of unsavory characters, deepening an age-old family feud. 

    Character Development/Execution: Rufus and Jolene are colorful characters who leap off the page. Evocative descriptions immerse the readers in the gritty underbelly of 1920s and 1930s North Carolina.

  • House of Fragile Dreams

    by Anne Moose

    Rating: 9.00

    Plot: Moose’s novel is suspenseful and romantic in equal measure. Rachel’s romance with Nate is made only more poignant as she fights to understand how her brother took such a dark turn in his life.

    Prose/Style: The reader is pulled into the thick of the story through Moose’s warm, heartfelt prose. Rachel proves to be an engaging narrator.

    Originality: The author tackles the realities of an interracial romance with refreshing sensitivity.

    Character Development/Execution: Moose’s characters are likable and engaging. There is a definite mysteriousness and possible nefariousness to Dan, Rachel’s brother, which makes the story all the more intriguing.

    Blurb: Moose’s evocative novel is a must-read for our times. Newly divorced Rachel has moved back into her deceased parents’ home, finding solace in a newfound friendship with Black veteran Nate and his son Isaiah. But when her ne’er-do-well brother moves in with her, his erratic behavior and dangerous ideas may threaten all Rachel holds dear. 

  • The Old Cape Blood Ruby

    by Barbara Eppich Struna

    Rating: 8.75

    Plot: This richly compelling novel is a multi-generational saga and mystery with a family heirloom at its center. Ambitious in its scope, the work largely succeeds in capturing the events unfolding within two distinct places and time periods and satisfactorily ribbons the narrative threads together.

    Prose/Style: Despite occasionally awkward sentence structure, the prose is generally evocative and clear. The author authentically conveys circumstances of the distant past, while modern-day events are presented vividly.

    Originality: Highly original in its premise, its dual settings, and focus on the Tlingit people of Alaska, this work offers fresh appeal for fans of mystery and historical fiction.

    Character Development/Execution: There are a great many characters in this novel, some quite distinct, others simply seen in passing. The relationships between individuals are not always clear, but the author excels at creating lively portraits of significant characters--notably, her protagonist-turned-sleuth whose search for clues to the past will keep readers fully invested.

  • The Jesus Nut

    by John Prather

    Rating: 8.75

    Plot: The story deals with a basic concept, but the bizarreness of the narrative situation itself makes the book stand out from others in the genre.

    Prose/Style: The Jesus Nut is easy to read and the pace of the book is swift. It has a healthy dose of humor that effortlessly flows in the story and it's not overdone.

    Originality: Self-discovery is one of the main themes of the story, and the author explores this point skillfully. The unconventional search for the relic gives this simple theme an air of uniqueness.

    Character Development/Execution: The central character captures one's attention from the start. She has a rebellious nature with a touch of humor. The characters of the homeless veteran and the priest bring in their quirkiness, which makes the overall story interesting. Some of the minor characters, like the stripper and farmer, leave their marks in the readers’ minds as well.

  • For Thee

    by Claire Johnson

    Rating: 8.75

    Plot: Johnson’s work reads almost more like a memoir than a novel; it amazingly vivid and full of historic detail. Pauline's statements about Ernest Hemingway as a former spouse are forceful and unforgettable. She loved him and grew to despise him, lending to this intriguing narrative.

    Prose/Style: The prose is strong and makes the book hard to put down. The author writes that Pauline was an excellent editor, and this author proves herself to write extremely well, too.

    Originality: This feels wonderfully original, as there doesn't seem to exist a true memoir/biography of Pauline Pfeiffer. The bibliography is extensive and impressive; the author has done her research. Pauline has often been vilified by the press as a homewrecker (of Ernest and Hadley's marriage), but this book provides a somewhat more empathetic view of her and her motives, one of which was steadfast love. For Thee is a welcome addition to the myriad books about the Hemingway mythos.

    Character Development/Execution: This is among the most genuine of books about Hemingway's character—his charisma and genius and his flaws. His tender side and his nasty side are evident. Ernest and Pauline come across as strong characters, both empathetic and forceful. This was not a perfect romance, but for a few brief years, it was nearly that. 
     

  • fine.

    by CC Lepki

    Rating: 8.75

    Plot: Lepki takes a standard story about a teenager wanting to escape their reality and suffuses it with new energy. Readers will root for Sydney even as her situation grows ever more precarious. Sydney is the definition of a troubled teen: battling a drinking problem, she swirls in and out of consciousness at house parties. As her family and friends pull away from her, she is pulled into a vortex of depression with little hope of escape.

    Prose/Style: The reader grasps the weight of Sydney’s spiral into depression through Lepki’s taut, unflinching prose.

    Originality: Given Lepki’s background in psychology, she presents the reader with a richly detailed portrait of someone experiencing and surviving depression and suicidal ideation.

    Character Development/Execution: Even at her grimmest, Sydney’s tenacity and her plaintive cries to God are brimming with a fleeting hope. Lepki’s pacing is never hindered; she is a skillful storyteller.

  • Flower Still Blooms

    by Shukdeb Sen

    Rating: 8.75

     

    Plot: Sen takes the readers into the lives of multiple characters and creates worlds that may seem familiar on the surface; however, he is able to offer nuance and a twist on “normalcy”. A common theme is questioning and reflecting on the human experience, and his stories assert knowledge and awareness of history and culture.

    Prose/Style: Sen pulls the reader into ephemeral glances of what is most common to all humans: love and death. A few stories read like folklore, both traditional and modern. Across many different characters, Sen is able to evidence sincerity and acuity in each story.

    Originality: Each short story is entirely unique unto itself within this compilation. The stories may have influence from cross-cultural literature or religion, but Sen brings about a modern-day experience in his allusions.

    Character Development/Execution: Some stories are so short they must live on in the readers’ imagination. Across age, religion, education, and race, Sen’s characters may seem common on the surface, yet are haunting depictions of humanity.

    Blurb: A moving and intellectual collection of short stories concerning the human condition, highlighting diversity of emotion, humanity, and anguish.

  • Plot: With intriguing and clever writing, the author has encouraged the reader to think about who he is and who others might actually be. The perceptions of the reader might go one of two ways: literal or metaphorical. The author makes the reader consider who we are in society; whether the reader will buy into the premise depends on how the reader interprets the story. 

    Prose/Style: Written in first person, the reader is in the main character’s head and can thoroughly understand his state of mind. Ultimately, the reader will want an explanation for the mysterious sightings that occur throughout the story.

    Originality: The author has taken a chance with what could be an absurd idea, but it pays off. Creating a metaphor for society and helping the reader discover who they are in society. Occasionally the author addresses the reader creating even more buy into the surreality of the plot.

    Character Development/Execution: Quirky characters surround a bewildered main character. The reader feels the confusion and relief he feels when given an explanation for his sightings. The characters that surround him hang in the peripheral vision of the reader, but when they show up, the reader’s curiosity is piqued.

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