by Brynne Stevens
Plot/Idea: Stevens’s novel hits a furious pace from the get-go that immediately sucks the reader in. The book is carefully plotted, with a storyline that moves along with clarity and grace.
Prose: The prose is crafted skillfully, and the language used is often effortlessly beautiful and captivating. The author has an excellent handle on Middle English, making it understandable to readers and melding it with current language throughout the book. Striking imagery provides readers with concrete and relatable visuals.
Originality: Readers will enjoy Stevens's twist on the fantasy subgenre of magic realism cut with a hint of bildungsroman. Stevens introduces originality into the oft-written tropes of witches and magic in that her novel takes place in the 1600s and features a child protagonist who has gained her powers as the reincarnation of a powerful witch. The protagonist and her natural thirst for knowledge, intellect, and curiosity, along with her situation and circumstances, are elements that also set the novel apart.
Character Development/Execution: The characters in Stevens’s Atrocious Immoralities are convincing and relatable. Readers will empathize wholly with the cast as they grow and change; every character adds relevance, or at least contextuality, to the story’s main story threads.
by Teri Brown
Plot/Idea: The author crafts a wonderfully engaging storyline that will captivate readers. The blending of romance and politics is done exceedingly well, and the reader roots for a reunion as the story unfolds.
Prose: The author is an excellent writer, able to evoke emotion in the reader through a touching narrative and sympathetic characters. The reader becomes invested in their fate and the stakes.
Originality: This is a wholly distinctive work with a unique premise and singular characters.
Character Development/Execution: The author does a terrific job with characterization using narrative as an effective tool to gain insight into the main characters and how they think. As the characters share their innermost emotions, the reader can't help but be moved by their suffering.
by Jena M. Steinmetz
Plot/Idea: The toppling of a 150-year-old tree on a Gettysburg battlefield unearths a mystery that preservationist Breanne Walker is unable to resist: a leather-bound diary and an unidentified skeleton. A student of history and its mysteries, she soon becomes embroiled in the diarist's life, and, as the past begins to overlap with the present, Breanne truly begins to understand the importance of history and the people who lived it, and her own responsibility to conserve it—larger implications for both her professional and personal lives.
Prose: Steinmetz's storytelling is engaging and flows faultlessly between the past and present. The contents of the diary (and Abigail's tale) are so engrossing at times that it is easy to become as lost in the past as Breanne. The Witness Tree is a lovely historical drama that is beautifully written and a joy to read.
Originality: Past and present overlapping as history's mysteries are slowly revealed to a diligent first-person archivist/heroine is not steeped in originality; however, the story is so detailed, well-researched, well written, and thoughtfully executed that it is easy to become enthralled by it.
Character Development/Execution: The execution of the diarist A.M.P is wonderful—and, overall, the present takes a backseat to the 1863 account of her life of loneliness, courage, and love set to the backdrop of the bloody Battle of Gettysburg. Despite this, the parallels between the two women are undeniable and this also adds depth to both of their stories—especially Breanne's, who benefits from her empathy, passion, and devotion to preserving the past and this unknown woman's life.
by Panayotis Cacoyannis
Plot/Idea: On an unbearably hot day in London, Lily gets lost on a seemingly endless back road, and what ensues is a journey into her past and present demons accompanied by the voice of her conscience/guide/constant companion Bella. Time-warping, mythological, hallucinatory, and symbolic, Lily's sojourn into the figurative/literal woods eventually brings her back home in a conclusion that is oddly reminiscent of her time on the purgatorial road —however, now grounded in so-called-reality, the 'real' people in her life become characters in her own personal drama in an unconscious echo of lost time.
Prose: Cacoyannis's prose flows in an appreciable rhythm with the cadence of Lily's 'lost' time: introspective, bleak, and quite often beautiful, it causes the oddity of events to feel full of meaning and purpose. The reader becomes Lily, struggling to find meaning where perhaps there is none—linked to her consciousness, the audience members are held in thrall to the heat-soaked imaginings of an all too plausible alternate reality.
Originality: A tripped-out journey into introspection and temporary madness designed to expand a character's worldview and explore their hidden depths is not conspicuously original. However, the setting, Lily herself, the manifestations of her past, and the somewhat banal yet oddly symbolic conclusion all lend this tense tale an originality that makes the story a real pleasure to read.
Character Development/Execution: Lily is beautifully developed as a character—empathetic, raw, and as honest as a first-person narrator can be, the reader is not only able to forge connections with her and her journey but with the figments of her past and present life who are given life through her various epiphanies and moments of introspection.
by Sarah V. Barnes
Plot: She Who Rides Horses: A Saga of the Ancient Steppe is a rich work of historical fiction that imagines the story of the first individual who ever came to tame and ride a wild horse.
Prose: Barnes's prose is smooth, evocative, and pleasingly descriptive. The author brilliantly captures the lives of those in an ancient world with vivid and authentic detail.
Originality: In concept and execution, this is a highly unique work of historical fiction that will deeply gratify readers.
Character/Execution: Naya is a captivating and fascinating character and the author's approach to the topic of the human-animal bond is thoughtful, philosophical, and resonant.
by Lorraine Haas
Plot: This is a wonderfully engaging story that is rich in detail with colorful characters that readers will come to love or hate. The depiction of life during wartime is authentic, and readers will fully empathize with Maggie as she struggles to adjust in the days after the Pearl Harbor bombing.
Prose: The author is a gifted writer whose prose effortlessly captures the historical era.
Originality: The Scent of Gardenias is a standout work of historical fiction that offers relatable characters, moving circumstances, and insight into a critical time in America's past.
Character/Execution: Characterization is one of the many strengths of this work, as each individual comes alive on the page. Headstrong and resilient Margaret, mean as a snake J.T. Locke, honorable Edsol, and a host of others bring texture and richness to the unfolding story.
Blurb: Filled with delightful and engaging characters, The Scent of Gardenias is a poignant page-turner.
by Karen Martin
Plot/Idea: Martin's dreamy, esoteric book of female empowerment, maternal love, and overcoming abuse is dark, breathtaking, painful, and lovely, all at once. With the interwoven settings of present-day and ancient Crete, the reader will be immersed in an otherworldly tale saturated in femininity.
Prose: Keeping with its surreal quality, Martin's prose is melodious and lilting. She does not shy away from the grotesque, often supplying the reader with difficult-to-process imagery, coupled with the inherent beauty of the Grecian island on which the book takes place. Martin is able to harness complex emotions within a few sentences.
Originality: Dancing the Labyrinth is strange, beautiful, and riddled with pain and growth. The blending of past and present, myth and reality, feeling and concrete experience, makes for a highly unique read.
Character Development/Execution: Martin is excellent at writing heroines, lending a statuesque beauty to the women about which she writes. The men often seem to be caricatures of toxic masculinity, but overall the book is pretty to behold and moving to read.
by Sepehr Haddad
Plot/Idea: This plot of ill-fated love crosses cultural and socioeconomic boundaries to deliver a resonant story. Though the pace is leisurely, Haddad’s depiction of traditional romance elements juxtaposed with classical music is stunning.
Prose: Rich with poignant prose and vivid descriptions that illuminate early twentieth-century life, this novel is a lyrical ballad to love set against the Romanov era in Russia. Haddad’s writing style is immersive and elevates his character presentation in a subtle way, transcending some of the more mundane plot points with its elegant solemnity.
Originality: Despite the conventional premise of this historically-inspired fictionalized romance, Haddad splashes an intriguing mix of realism and dreamy elements into the text that heighten the novel’s impact.
Character Development/Execution: Haddad’s characters struggle to find their footing in such a complex environment, and Nasrollah’s ardor pales in comparison to the impassioned Princess Irina. Despite some aloofness in development, by the end of the story their emotional weight is significant.
by Gwydhar Gebien
Plot/Idea: Gebien’s acerbic wit and incisive voice help buoy Damen’s various misadventures as he grapples with two competing identities: rock star and stepfather.
Prose: Gebien’s prose is suffused as much with heart as with grit. Her true-to-life dialogue and atmospheric writing will engage a broad range of readers.
Originality: The author's subversive sense of humor captures the essence of a man struggling to raise himself out of obscurity. A colorful cast of characters uplifts the story: Damen’s dangerously sexy girlfriend Melody and his crooked investor, Judge, all fill out the pages to make for a wacky, erratic tale.
Character Development/Execution: Gebien’s careful plotting and clever characterization create a nuanced portrait of a man attempting to realize his own destiny.
by Mark Anthony Powers
Plot/Idea: In this riveting prequel, Dr. Phineas Mann deals with the AIDS epidemic in a New Orleans hospital and then the aftermath of a hurricane. Powers successfully captures the urgency and agony of grappling with a devastating disease.
Prose: The prose is clean and brisk, delivering clear and organic insight into the characters' motivations and intentions.
Originality: The author's familiarity with the early 1980s era is apparent, as is his understanding of hospital and end-of-life care.
Character Development/Execution: Most characters are well crafted, especially Phineas the protagonist. Dialogue is lively throughout while the sly humor is surprising and lends itself well to making the painful subject matter more readable.
by Natalie Symons
Plot: Lies in Bone tackles intergenerational secrets calcified by small-town decline. Spunky 16-year-old Frank must unravel the wounds at the heart of her town and her family in this coming-of-age thriller.
Prose: Symons's plainspoken, intimate, and darkly humorous prose draws readers in and doesn't let them go until the harrowing ending where all comes clear.
Originality: In this thrilling page-turner, a toxic fog serves as a metaphor for generational secret-keeping that keeps a dysfunctional family and a failing Pennsylvania steel town in a state of unknowing. Teenage protagonist Frank, as her name suggests, cuts through the malaise threading through the town with her quest for truth and spunky wit.
Character/Execution: Characters come alive in dialogue-rich prose cast against a complex setting of social and familial decay in this unflinching portrayal of American tragedy.
Blurb: A visceral take on intergenerational trauma told across time and through parallel disappearances.
by Chris Tomasini
Plot/Idea: Close Your Eyes: A Fairy Tale is a charming and romantic story featuring a cast of distinctive characters. Born in 1399 in Cologne, Samuel is a dwarf and becomes the King of Gora's jester. He soon makes friends with Agnieszka the cook and Tycho the storyteller, but must search for answers along his journey.
Prose: The text flows well enough, and the writing is strong. Some scenes would benefit from being more detailed, and the integration of additional historical context would help strengthen the setting and storyline.
Originality: Besides a few major titles, and a score of medieval "romances," the subject of the 1400s is not overly plentiful. The text here discusses love and the lives of a cook, jester, and storyteller, whereas other works might typically focus on knights and princesses. Even so, the narrative style falls into works that use letters or a fictional writer to tell the story after the fact, and some might ask, what's the greater meaning of setting up the story like this, instead of merely following the characters through an omniscient authorial narrator.
Character Development/Execution: Characters are colorful, endearing, and intriguing, while their motivations remain realistic and convincing.
by David R. Low
Plot/Idea: Low's impressive, eclectic collection manages to present four tales that are simultaneously distinct, yet are all linked through the mysterious idea of the "Russian Soul" and the search for connection when living outside of one's home culture. Featuring everything from a Russian RoboCop parody to one man's difficult quest to find a bathroom, Low's plots prove entertaining and often laugh-out-loud funny.
Prose: Low's prose is descriptive and flowing, yet also frenetic—perfectly capturing the wild randomness of his character's experiences in Russia. The book's punchy speech in dialect and hilarious vulgarity also serve to enhance the text's focus on absurdist themes.
Originality: While stories of expats traveling through exchange programs or people simply visiting foreign countries aren't wholly original, Low's offering stands out for its genuine combination of humorous plot devices and serious content. The book's innovative use of different formats is additionally impressive, including forays into critical essays and screenplays.
Character Development/Execution: SCHLOCK featuring Russia Cop is overall more focused on satirical plots and situations than characters, which works due to the book's general zaniness and madcap pacing. The work is not without introspective moments, however, and features several characters going through realistic changes and experiencing unexpected revelations; these sections are made all the more powerful as they don't happen that often.
Blurb: A satirical collection of connected stories focusing on Russia, David R. Low's SCHLOCK Featuring Russia Cop is a delightfully bawdy, sometimes melancholy, take on encountering another culture headfirst.
by Len Joy
Plot: Joy's moving and atmospheric small-town chronicle centers on a broad assortment of effectively drawn characters with believable entanglements, grievances, and conflicts.
Prose: Joy is a sophisticated storyteller, offering a prose style that is poised, rich, and allows readers to differentiate between characters of focus.
Originality: Stories that create a kaleidoscopic view of small-town life and its struggles are familiar. But Joy's novel succeeds in creating a vibrant picture of a place peopled by individuals with rich interior lives.
Character/Execution: Residents of Maple Springs are distinctive and authentic in their development, with Dancer Stonemason being especially powerful as he grapples with his grief.
by Michelle Fogle
Plot/Idea: City of Liars is a dark romance, set during a painful time in history that led to countless deaths, paranoia, and secrecy. Focused on anti-Semitism at the hands of the Inquisition in Barcelona, Fogle's book explores the desolate fear experienced by those threatened by the church, and what they had to do in order to survive.
Prose: Fogle's writing is gritty and dark, with highlights of beauty and nuance. She is able to place the reader into the setting, no matter how grotesque the subject material. Her descriptions of people are on point as well, writing them so that they emanate their character and values through their physical appearances, words, and actions.
Originality: Fogle has placed a spotlight on a piece of history, and has given the reader a very sympathetic love story to experience in the midst of the chaos of killings at the hands of the church.
Character Development/Execution: Fogle writes her characters well, humanizing their attributes and experiences while she gives the reader a glimpse into their psyches, even if brief.
by Toni Anderson
Plot: The plot behind Cold Silence is superb, with multiple twists and unforeseen clues. Anderson offers a polished and tightly wound thriller.
Prose: The prose is generally quite strong and capably builds tension throughout.
Originality: The author puts a fresh twist on the trope of a hacker working with the FBI to solve a case, with a number of expressive details throughout.
Character/Execution: Characters are organically developed, easy to differentiate, and effectively serve the storyline.
Blurb: A chilling mystery that will keep readers on the edge of their seats, complete with a masterful plot, astonishing twists, and an ending that no one will see coming.