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 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 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 Alice McVeigh
Idea: McVeigh’s plot is well-developed and delivered at an even, smooth pace. The events unfold in a natural progression, with enough curveballs to keep readers interested.
Prose: McVeigh employs period-appropriate prose that is emphatic and natural – reminiscent of others in the genre. Her dialogue is effortless and flows smoothly between a broad range of characters.
Originality: Harriet stays within the expected limits of the Austen universe, while also delivering a few fresh twists. Readers fond of the genre will be gratified with its breezy writing and polished delivery.
Character/Execution: McVeigh’s characters are well-developed and manage to offer some surprises, despite being limited somewhat by their stylistic range. Readers will find them engaging and commanding, until the very last page.
by Laurie Boris
Plot/Idea: Boychik is a well-plotted and smartly paced tale that follows Eli and Evelyn, two teenagers during the Great Depression, as they struggle with family obligations and fall for one another. The novel is an entertaining and exciting read, with plenty of tense mob activities, murder, and blackmail on the way to a positive, uplifting conclusion.
Prose: Laurie Boris's prose is so realistic and conversational that readers can actually hear the accent in the lines. The third-person voice always reads like a strong character, and the author's precision and eye for detail consistently enhance the reading experience.
Originality: Boychik is novel in the way the work integrates Eli's artistic ambitions into the main storyline, using movies and cinema as a metaphor. Additionally, the book presents the reader with some surprising turns.
Character Development/Execution: Boris excels at balancing and maintaining both Eli and Evelyn's storylines, which are presented in alternating sections. Information is also uncovered gradually during the course of the narrative in genuinely compelling ways, like the introduction of the mob plot and revelations about who's really reading and commenting on Eli's scripts.
Blurb: An emotional tale of mafia violence and young forbidden love in 1930s Brooklyn, Laurie Boris' Boychik is a compulsively readable blend of magical cinematic triumph and great personal tragedy.
by Peter McDade
Plot/Idea: McDade suffuses this drama with heart and a hearty helping of magical realism. Ben and Nina’s separate odysseys still manage to be artfully interwoven.
Prose: McDade’s prose is full of life; the author manages to capture the weirdness of the narrative through compelling characterization and welcome touches of humor throughout.
Originality: McDade takes a standard drama centered around couples growing apart and turns it on its head. Readers will find themselves immersed in a work of literary fiction that is surprising in all the right ways.
Character Development/Execution: McDade successfully captures the attitudes of university students. Nina and Ben are both rich characters whose journeys readers will relate to.
Blurb: This compelling drama follows couple Ben and Nina as their lives converge and diverge.
by Charlie Suisman
Plot/Idea: In a sequel to Arnold Falls, Suisman returns to the distinctive upstate New York town to reengage with its charming small-town inhabitants, including queer couples, older folks, stoners, and numerous other bubbly characters. The plot is goofy, layered, and fun, and effectively integrates the many characters in meaningful ways.
Prose: As gratifying as Hot Air is, the conversational prose can result in a degree of confusion. Additional exposition may benefit the work and allow the interactions between characters to resonate even more strongly.
Originality: The book has a lot of quirky bits to it, including movie stars, mayoral races, town-specific baseball alternatives, and the like. Suisman brilliantly captures the essence of small-town America.
Character Development/Execution: The characters are all highly personable, alluring, and unique. However, it can be difficult to tell individual characters apart when complex conversations are unfolding.
by Jean Rover
Plot/Idea: Rover’s tense plot about a boy lost in the Oregon wilderness builds on the very adult fear of losing one’s child. Rover manages to fuse the frustrations of a crime investigation with the prejudices of a small town for a blend that mystery fans will find engrossing.
Prose: Rover writes with a clear sense of place. Her prose is sharp and succinct, capturing the idiosyncratic life of the citizens of a small, rural town.
Originality: Rover manages to suffuse a standard missing child plot with enough twists and turns to keep even the most seasoned reader entertained.
Character Development/Execution: In some instances, Rover’s descriptions of Native American characters would benefit from additional nuance. Other characters are rendered in more sympathetic terms, and they brim with color and life.
Blurb: This heartrending mystery in the Oregon backwoods follows Cody, a precocious young child who goes missing.
by Rod Palmer
Plot/Idea: While The Things We Bring To The Table has an impressively ambitious plot, involving both realist elements and fantasy sections related to the multiverse, these two aspects of the narrative could converge more clearly for readers. The ultimate speculative ending also feels a bit easy, considering the complexity of the preceding story.
Prose: Palmer's prose positively lends a frenetic energy to a fast-paced novel where a lot happens, but the way the story relies on dialogue for exposition can read awkwardly and often occurs too quickly, making the plot confusing to follow at times. Necessary information also comes in information dumps outside of scenes, which unfortunately pulls the reader out of the narrative flow.
Originality: The way that The Things We Bring To The Table attempts to reconcile a plot about multiple worlds with a Christian element involving an angelic figure is original among titles discussing the multiverse. The novel could benefit from this element of the plot being further fleshed out and explored with more nuance.
Character Development/Execution: Palmer's characterizations are a mixed bag, with some characters developing into well-rounded figures, while others could be developed more. Cree comes off like a rich caricature, but she transforms into a figure with complex emotional depth. Nathaniel, on the other hand, could benefit from deeper characterization, as he currently reads like an angel-like device to forward the plot.