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General Fiction

  • Thrown to the Wolves

    by Stephanie Starr

    Rating: 7.25

    Plot: After being acquitted for three murders, but heartily disliked by the town, Paul walks from Minnesota to the Canadian Arctic with three wolves as companions. He has decided to change his entire life based on an article he read in National Geographic. When he meets the Inuit people, he does live closely with them, still eating what apparently is nothing but seal or caribou. There are no modern conveniences, no stores, no schools. Paul manages amazingly well at this new life, and is fortunate to meet a helpful Inuit woman and a strong shaman, who becomes his mentor and "substitute" father.

    Prose/Style: The prose is clear and effective. The book might benefit from some paring down, but the second half is both more fascinating and more exciting.

    Originality: This story appears to be original, and it should interest people who enjoy adventure, Inuit culture, and the loyal personalities of wolves.

    Character Development/Execution: Paul and some of his Inuit friends do not seem entirely relatable, as they stretch to make companionable relationships, to speak in two languages, to eat the same foods. Paul, however, is quite an empathetic character in the end.

  • Weekend Pass

    by Paul Cavanagh

    Rating: 7.25

    Plot: Cavanagh tells the painful story of a complicated mother struggling with addiction and to repair almost irreparable relationships. 

    Prose/Style: The prose is straightforward, immediate, and easy to follow.

    Originality: While stories of recovery from addiction are familiar, these particular actions of a distraught, stressed, strung-out daughter come across as honest, fresh, and effective. 

    Character Development/Execution: The characters are quite well drawn and nuanced in their development. Cavanagh portrays the circumstances in a manner that is impactful and unsentimental. 

  • Terminally Unspoken

    by Benjamin Etzioni

    Rating: 7.25

    Plot: Etzioni’s twist on a coming-of-age story will tug on the heartstrings of romantics and outcasts alike. Chronicling Barnaby’s growing pains, Etzioni’s novel is bizarre yet familiar to those who have loved and lost.

    Prose/Style: Told from the first-person perspective and in past tense, the reflections of an older narrative voice lead the reader to assume high intellect or deeper understanding of the younger Barnaby. Predominately exposition, there is little dialogue. The lessons that adolescent Barnaby learns often seem forced into the plot; packed with common tropes as well as quips and quotes from literary figures, the story does lack believability, but feeds the style’s uniqueness.

    Originality: Though this is a conventional coming-of-age storyline, Etzioni’s main character keeps the reader engaged in order to learn what could possibly happen next. The blend of Barnaby’s wisdom, wealth, romanticism, age, and mental stability break the mold of anything typical.

    Character Development/Execution: The reader understands wise-beyond-his-years Barnaby’s motivations quickly. Secondary characters, who very much influence Barnaby, are a bit lackluster, but do help Barnaby shine bright even when he faces hardship. The complexity of what Barnaby experiences transforms him into someone the reader will continue to cheer for.

  • The Boy King's Tale

    by Michael January

    Rating: 7.25

    Plot: January’s plot is steeped with fast-paced betrayal and intrigue. The storyline adequately portrays intense conflict within an authentic setting, and the novel stays grounded while balancing evocative details.

    Prose/Style: January writes succinctly, with accurate period vernacular. His prose is crisp overall, despite some slight straying into moments of awkward dialogue.

    Originality: The Boy King’s Tale intermingles the historical fiction details that readers will be looking for with some added striking and tantalizing character portraits that give it an edge.

    Character Development/Execution: January’s characters stay mostly true to form and efficiently capture their bases in history. Queen Isabella will turn heads with her appeal bordering on instability, while King Edward tries to fulfill his role of a dedicated and fair ruler despite his personal demons.

  • Don't You Know Who I Am? A Rock N' Roll Hollywood Tale

    by Robert Allen Miltenberg

    Rating: 7.25

    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.

  • Bruised Purple Hearts: Ghosts of the Usa

    by Jerry Blanton

    Rating: 7.00

    Plot: Bruised Purple Hearts addresses the complexities and contradictions of the 1960s era, as seen through the coming-of-age experiences of two brothers. Blanton’s narrative sharply addresses the personal and societal impacts of the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, psychedelics, the rise of feminism, and more. 

    Prose: The author brings a sense of immediacy to many of the scenes through lively descriptions and interactions. Historical events serve as guideposts for the narrative, and the characters’ musings and active analysis of such events, is impactful. At moments, readers may crave more nuanced interpersonal connections between characters and feel that the writing is overcrowded with its myriad historical and cultural references.

    Originality: Novels set during the tumultuous 1960s are frequent. Blanton takes on a lot and succeeds in capturing much of the zeitgeist of the era. The story’s largely understated supernatural element brings a unique angle to the narrative.

    Character/Execution: The characters do not always shine as boldly as the historical events that unfold throughout the pages. Still, Blanton capably utilizes his protagonists and side characters to reflect the rapidly changing world around them.

     

     

     

     

     

  • Touch

    by Rebecca Miller

    Rating: 7.00

    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.

    Blurb:
    An archetypal coming-of-age novel peppered with some agonizing curveballs that speak to the power of hope in the midst of excruciating pain. 

  • Plot: Primarily a fictionalized memoir of George Bernard Shaw’s love life and involvement in the Fabian Society, the novel solidly balances a robust cast of characters and skillfully maps the connections between their stories. Readers will appreciate the biographical aspects of the novel as well as the romantic plotline, neither of which overpowers the other.

    Prose/Style: While the voices of major characters tend to sound alike, the writing feels natural and accurate to the period. Some lines are overdramatic, particularly when Shaw flirts with his lovers, but these instances are not disruptive to the overall quality of the prose.

    Originality: Although Shaw is a major figure in letters, the use of the epistolary form to weave together fictionalized entries from the memoirs of George Bernard Shaw and Robert Ross, letters of Beatrice Potter, and journals of Oscar Wilde displays an intricacy of craft that makes this novel stand out. Readers will appreciate how these plot lines work together to create a portrait of the early efforts of the Fabian Society.

    Character Development/Execution: Each character’s motive is clearly defined and meshes well within the lives of the others. Together, this creates a robust portrait of their growth as individuals and within their social context.

  • Absaroka War Chief

    by Bryan Ney

    Rating: 7.00

    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. 

  • The Fabulous Freaks of Monsieur Beaumont

    by Kelli Stuart

    Rating: 7.00

    Plot: With a quite literal take on “opposites attract,” The Fabulous Freaks of Monsieur Beaumont creates a broadly-appealing intergenerational story of outcasts and romance.

    Prose/Style: The novel is paced well, and each character’s voice is quite distinct. Readers will appreciate both how populated and lively the book’s cast is, as well as the enthusiasm of the prose’s delivery.

    Originality: The “freak show” focus of novels centered around a circus is popular, and therefore has built-in reader appeal; book does not train this lens on uncharted thematic territory. Still, the strength of the writing makes for an enjoyable read.

    Character Development/Execution: While Peter and Emmaline essentially grow together as individuals, the novel hews closer to Peter’s experience and perspective more so than Emmaline’s. This may lend to a sense of imbalance in a reader’s investment, even though the narrative concerns both characters.

  • Libertas

    by Danuta Pfeiffer

    Rating: 6.75

    Plot: Centering a novel upon this period of American history is a commendable undertaking, yet Pfeiffer's story proves uneven. The horrific tragedies and violence suffered by the main characters dominate the narrative; there's little true joy or triumph, especially with the growth of the main character's love story taking place off the page. Plot points regarding unsavory characters who "become" good, and good characters who seem to take a turn for the worse, do add dimension to the novel, yet these instances of character growth feel too quick and unearned.

    Prose/Style: While Pfeiffer has worked hard to be authentic with language and dialect, including the slurs of the time period of her novel, the repetition of them is overdone and, ultimately, off-putting. The modern context of this type of language can't help but be felt by the reader and, when used so often on the page, takes their attention away from the narrative of historical fiction. The descriptive prose is vivid and expansive.

    Originality: Pfeiffer should be commended for tackling such a challenging time period and subject matter. Still, an overall narrative focus on tragedy, the more nefarious side of human nature, and a heavy-handedness of messaging create a story that lacks the complexity of a sophisticated historical fiction novel.

    Character Development/Execution: The two main characters are strong and complex, and readers won't be able to resist rooting for them as they suffer both from external forces and the harsh realities of the time. The supporting characters are portrayed, especially through language, as rather one-note. One supporting character, in particular, does a swift about-face in personality halfway through the novel that comes out of nowhere and feels inauthentic.

  • Looking for Don

    by D. Krauss

    Rating: 6.50

    Plot: Krauss delves into the next tale of his main character’s life, the final installment of the Frank Vaughn Trilogy. Though this is the third book in the series, the plot line does seem to be fairly disparate from the previous two novels. The amount of subplot distracts from the major plot points, yet adds to a deeper understanding of the main character as a complex human.

    Prose/Style: The format of the prose is written in third person and stream of consciousness is used as a narrative style. The tone is informal, oftentimes irreverent. Krauss does lightly dip into first person storytelling, which some readers may find confusing.

    Originality: Krauss makes an attempt to follow a typical hero’s journey with archetypal characters, but the journey, or end goal, is not grand or unique enough to be fully gratifying.

    Character Development/Execution: As is the third installment in the Frank Vaughn Trilogy, Krauss assumes the reader has learned of Butch and other various characters throughout the series and does not offer significant development time for key characters. The narrator’s motivations are at times difficult to determine. Nevertheless, Krauss shows a knack for creating unusual personalities that resonate on the page. 

  • Cry Sanctuary

    by Carole Kulikowski

    Rating: 6.50

    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.

  • Return of the Shadows Book Two

    by Donald Marino

    Rating: 6.25

    Plot: This epic fantasy novel would benefit from a clearer focus, and a more developed plot. While often gripping, the story might be enhanced through more dramatic tension, worldbuilding, and characterization.

    Prose/Style: There is an absence of scene setting and description in this novel which keeps it from being captivating, and much of the novel is dialogue, which, though effective, ends up clogging the action and hindering characterization.

    Originality: This book is somewhat derivative of other fantasy novels and would benefit from more original worldbuilding and elaboration. For example, the hawk people are unique to this world but their origins, culture, and physicality are unclear.

    Character Development/Execution: The sheer number of named characters makes them hard to keep track of or tell them apart from one another. There book would also benefit from quieter scenes that accentuate the relationships between characters and temper the action.

  • The Serpent Bearer

    by Kara Ford

    Rating: 6.25

    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.

  • Plot: Before Paul's conversion, he is Saul, a young member of the Sanhedrin and leading persecutor of Christ's followers in a setting of conflict-fueled, divided, Roman-controlled Jerusalem and beyond. After Paul's conversion, he must battle familiar forces as he struggles to spread the message of the early church in a volatile and contentious Roman Empire.

    Prose/Style: This retelling of a Biblical tale does not benefit from the prose here, which does little to lend the story narrative momentum. It's often staccato and formal in tone, reading less like a novel than a work of nonfiction.

    Originality: The story would be enhanced through a fresher perspective, perhaps a retelling that focused less on the well-known character of Paul and more on the side characters who add texture and intrigue to the story.

    Character Development/Execution: The book harbors a compelling, but ultimately confusing cast of characters who don’t receive the full attention they deserve. Paul himself (an interesting and enigmatic New Testament leader of the early church) falls somewhat flat.

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