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General Fiction

  • 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.

  • Life in Motion

    by Michael McCullough

    Rating: 6.25

    Plot: A novel that reads like memoir, Life In Motion chronicles the hitch-hiking travels of a couple of college boys in the mid 1970's. As they make their way from upstate New York to Big Sur, then up the Pacific Coast and finally across Canada, they encounter a variety of people in their travels.

    Prose/Style: There are moments of descriptive detail about the landscape that verge on the poetic. But too much of the text is devoted to lists of minutiae: what the narrator put in his backpack, and how many peanut butter sandwiches he had to consume before getting someplace where he could buy an actual hot meal.

    Originality: The narrator is inspired by On the Road, but the missing element is the rejection of middle-class values embodied in Kerouac's narrative, and the absence of a Dean Moriarty-like Dionysus figure is keenly felt as one reads on. The haiku interspersed throughout the text are well-crafted and are a nice touch.

    Character Development/Execution: The author convincingly re-creates the mindset of a few college athletes of the era. Sean and Paul are preoccupied with drinking, smoking weed and getting lucky with the surprising number of attractive women who are not afraid to invite two guys into their car.

  • Streets of Golfito

    by Jim LaBate

    Rating: 6.25

    Plot: In the early 1970s, Peace Corps volunteer Jim (Diego) travels to Costa Rica, hoping to improve lives. There he meets Lilli, a beautiful young girl who undergoes a shocking act of violence and who will need Jim's help in ways no one could have anticipated.

    Prose/Style: LaBate convincingly and painstakingly depicts the small Costa Rican village in which he lays his scene. The past tense third-person omniscient narration is somewhat static, with not enough dialogue to convey a sense of interest and immediacy to the tale.

    Originality: Streets of Golfito is a heartfelt account of youthful idealism in a simpler age. Based on the author's own experiences, the novel deals with cultural identity and a young man's attempt to change the world for the better.

    Character Development/Execution: The relationship between Lilli and Jim (Diego) is delicate and is tenderly portrayed. The characters could be more complex, in order to sustain a plot that holds few surprises.

  • Family Illness

    by Evan Wechman

    Rating: 5.75

    Plot: Wechman’s plot is initially compelling and ambitious, but it is ultimately undersized and would benefit from a faster pace. Readers who like well-developed endings may be let down, and the storyline ultimately feels somewhat hollow.

    Prose/Style: Wechman’s prose strikes an appropriate tone, but can be awkward and muddled. Forced and unnatural dialogue interferes with the narrative’s flow.

    Originality: Family Illness is unique in its focus on Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. However, the work quickly loses focus and never entirely finds its footing.

    Character Development/Execution: The characters in Family Illness are noteworthy and have potential. Steve Goldberg’s voice is intriguing and impactful, but the supporting characters are not given adequate attention to develop into their own.

  • Plot: The concept of telling the story of Moses in the form of a documentary is a promising one. Ultimately, though, the intended audience for the book remains unclear. 

    Prose/Style: This manuscript is bogged down with somewhat awkward prose. Long monologues that read like extended exposition also interfere with the smoothness of the writing and  reading experience.

    Originality: The notion of presenting historical events as news is tried-and-true. This project utilizes this conceit to often fine effect and also integrates a fresh Biblical twist.

    Character Development/Execution: While this is a solid idea, the execution would benefit from additional finessing. The newscasters speak in a way that is unnatural and may strike readers as slightly condescending at times.