by Steven Schindler
Plot/Idea: Fallout Shelter progresses at a steady pace while incorporating unexpected twists that up the entertainment value. The coming-of-age elements converge smoothly, as the three main protagonists try to navigate school and young adulthood in the face of unmistakable darkness.
Prose: Schindler is strongest when depicting early teenage angst and antics, integral components to the story's appeal, and the balance of action, dialogue, and description is spot on.
Originality: A stirring account of evil lurking where it's least expected, Fallout Shelter successfully combines betrayal, friendship, and self-discovery into one interconnected story.
Character Development/Execution: Schindler dedicates ample space to exploring the narrative arcs of Chili, Angel, and Mikey—but does so in a way that gives each priority while reconciling them with each other by the end.
by Daniel A. Smith
Plot/Idea: Smith has crafted an interesting and well-thought out storyline that will keep readers engaged. The novel unfolds as Manaha vows to be her people's storyteller, and it maintains a steady pace until the satisfying conclusion.
Prose: Smith is a skilled writer with smooth-flowing prose and concise, but rich, narration. Action, description, and dialogue are all handled adeptly, and the story's language is authentic to its time period.
Originality: Storykeeper breathes new life into historical fiction, through memorable characters and emotional writing that will evoke a sense of duty, belonging, and resilience in readers.
Character Development/Execution: Despite a large cast, Smith manages to bring the characters to life while portraying subtle nuances that enrich the story—and transports readers into the inextricably tangled fates of different cultures.
by Nikita Chinamanthur
Plot/Idea: Ants unfolds through flashbacks and changing perspectives, often with little warning or transition, but the author skillfully ties the threads together and uses the novel’s unique setup to draw readers in. The ending leaves plenty of room for imagination, allowing readers space to interpret the protagonist’s outcomes.
Prose: Chinamanthur’s prose is vivid and lyrical, hinting at larger societal themes that run throughout the novel. The writing flows smoothly without disruption, both supporting the storyline and evoking complex thoughts and emotions.
Originality: Ants is an extraordinary take on self-discovery and assurance, wrapping the characters' inner workings and doubts into one sharply defined story.
Character Development/Execution: Natasha has a profound voice that reverberates pain, awareness, and a desperate yearning for belonging, all in relatable and deeply meaningful prose. Her struggle towards self-love will resonate with readers, as will her ability to give them raw, honest glimpses into her psyche.
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 Nancy Cook Lauer
Plot/Idea: The author offers up a complex plot populated by characters in different decades who are looking to survive in a world ravaged by a deadly virus. There are many twists and turns as the reader seeks clues to figure out how life has changed in each of the time periods the characters inhabit. Lauer keeps the reader guessing and engaged as the story unfolds.
Prose: The author is a good writer who demonstrates strong command of language. In a world where there are few people and therefore less dialogue than in many novels, the author is still able to convey insight and move along the plot.
Originality: This is a highly unique work with a distinctive premise and memorable characters.
Character Development/Execution: Because the author shifts character focus frequently, the reader is able to follow each main character's story in detail. This technique allows for insightful characterization.
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 Marco North
Plot/Idea: This is a novel with a circuitous plot that readers will find easy to get lost in. Just as the plot seems to be coming together, North opens up new crevices that will leave readers breathless and unnerved.
Prose: North’s prose is brilliantly layered, with lyrical interludes that elicit the novel’s darker themes. Readers will immediately be swept into the storytelling and find themselves questioning the meaning of certain elements long after the last page.
Originality: North’s distinctive narrative sets this novel apart, delivering a raw, organic script that will unite readers in their search for significance.
Character Development/Execution: The story’s characters are composed of rough angles and pain, but they will elicit emotions readers recognize in themselves. North takes a backroads approach to character development through subtle innuendo and soft hints—a style that matches the novel’s uniqueness perfectly.
by John R. Wallis
Plot/Idea: The author offers an intriguing plot that depicts a tricky and complex premise. Subplots are also engaging as the reader struggles right along with the characters as they try to work through their challenges.
Prose: The author demonstrates strong command of language and storytelling. There is ample balance of action, dialogue, and description, which make for an engaging and quick read.
Originality: This is an original work with distinctive characters and a unique plot.
Character Development/Execution: The characters here feel like living, breathing authentic people. The reader is drawn into their complicated and very real situations and feels for their plights.
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 Josh Conley
Plot: Conely’s sequel to The Heartbreak Hotel is strategically plotted and well-paced, including certain flashback scenes that heighten the thrilling aspects of the narrative.
Prose: Conely’s prose is animated and enticing, drawing readers into snappy dialogue with added elements of humor that bring the novel and characters to life.
Originality: The novel is an accelerating, family-oriented crime drama that jumps off the page, encouraging readers to invest in the individual characters’ agendas and the overarching plot.
Character/Execution: The characters in the novel are well-developed and distinct. Main protagonists and brother/sister duo Julius and Jade are witty and strong, while side characters offer different perspectives and tones to the storyline that adds to the mystery and suspense.
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 Lee Kaiser
Plot/Idea: Kaiser presents an elaborate storyline weaving together several detailed subplots. Readers may be confused by the immense scope of the novel, as they work to differentiate the various characters and how they relate to the main protagonist, Julie—whose history, parceled out in pieces, is multi-layered and complex.
Prose: Kaiser is a strong writer who skillfully handles dialogue and action. The story's frequent descriptive sections could be further defined, particularly in relation to Julie's past.
Originality: This is an intriguing read with a solid framework, though Kaiser sacrifices clarity for extensive descriptions that could be fine-tuned in places.
Character Development/Execution: Julie's emotions and motives are thoroughly fleshed out, making her a defining character plagued by anger and resentment. Secondary characters are convincing and help advance the plot, but at times become hard to track when the story switches between past and present perspectives.
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.