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 Monica Brillhart
Plot/Idea: The story moves forward well and keeps the reader invested. In tackling the myth of Persephone, the author subtly layers themes relating to grief, lust, power, and control.
Prose: The author displays a strong command of language as well as a clear understanding of the source material. Ancient Greece fully comes to life in Brillhart's capable hands.
Originality: While restagings of Greek myths are familiar territory, The Rape of Persephone offers a unique, measured, and often harrowing look at a lesser-examined tale.
Character Development/Execution: The characters, particularly given that they are mythological in nature, are finely fleshed out well and deserving of empathy. The Gods are portrayed with a welcome degree of nuance and substance.
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.
by Patrick Earl Dwyer
Plot/Idea: History lovers will relish this descent into Irish heritage that follows a family across generations, as they encounter heartache, hardship, and success. Dwyer weaves fact with fiction, and despite a slow start, the novel quickly picks up speed, but it never loses focus on the details essential to the plot.
Prose: Dwyer melds animated dialogue with satisfying character interactions to create a rich saga, and he manages to avoid history lessons in favor of a passionate immigration story with generational impacts.
Originality: Ascendancy is classic historical fiction, though Dwyer includes photographs and illustrations throughout to bring the story to life.
Character Development/Execution: Hopeful and optimistic characters form the backbone of the story, as they interact at various levels of government, church, and society. Dwyer chooses conversation and interactions amongst the cast as the main vehicle for action, and overcoming adversity is a central theme for the primary characters.
by B.K. Greenwood
Plot/Idea: Greenwood delivers a tightly paced, action-packed novel with strong character development, an unusual hero's tale that will have readers anxiously waiting for the next installment. Alternating between the ancient past and modern times, the reader is witness to an unfolding narrative pitting eternal good against the ultimate evil.
Prose: Told in third-person perspective, the story is well crafted with attention-grabbing scenes delivered in a concise manner.
Originality: A gripping novel that blends several genre elements such as historical fiction, biblical lore, thriller and paranormal while maintaining a cohesive and absorbing storyline.
Character Development/Execution: A brilliant juxtaposition is employed between the stoic and honorable Marcus and the bitter and cynical Thomas. A strong supporting cast rounds out the novel well, including the doomed love interest, Isabella.
by Jamie Boud
Plot/Idea: Figurines is a poignant and gripping novel that focuses on loss, love, and mental illness. Boud tells the story in chapters with alternating points-of-view, each detailing Anna and Rachel's experiences. It may take readers some time to understand the dynamics and relationships between the characters. Both women's lives emerge as profound and lonely.
Prose: This prose is clearly crafted and is quite literary in style. Though the author identifies as male, he depicts women's emotions and mindsets with nuance and realism.
Originality: Stories of institutionalized mentally ill individuals are familiar. Nevertheless, Anna and Rachel's circumstances come across as original and memorable.
Character Development/Execution: The characters in Figurines are genuine, nuanced, and evoke empathy from readers.
by Michael Putegnat
Plot: The Settling delivers a solidly conceived plot in which one man's research into his family intersects with a military search to track down a potential war hero.
Prose: The prose is readable and straightforward. Putegnat gracefully develops the pieces of the storyline, building a sense of intrigue as Tom and Elly begin to unravel the secrets left behind by Tom's father. The past and present, personal and universal, nicely comingle throughout the novel, which offers a compelling, multidimensional mystery element.
Originality: The plot line of the military investigator tracking down claims of (potentially fake) heroism is unique and adds an interesting angle to the story.
Character/Execution: Tom initially appears as a frustrated and cynical professor. His character growth is authentic and redemptive. Elly, meanwhile, is compassionate, reflective, and proves herself to be far more than an occasional love interest.
by Jessica Dainty
Plot/Idea: Although unremarkable male characters have graced the pages of fiction many times, Patrick’s journey into underground vampirism has hallmarks of a simmering horror story that straddles the mundane and the strange.
Prose: Dainty captures Patrick’s affability and awkwardness in her compelling, realistic prose.
Originality: Dainty’s strong characterization buoys a rather inventive tale of a man finding himself among a cultish group of people. Her ability to capture the simultaneous fear of the unknown and Patrick’s feeling of freedom makes for an engrossing story.
Character Development/Execution: Many of Dainty’s characters are well-rounded, making for an engaging story. A few minor editing errors could be easily remedied to smooth out the flow of the narrative.
Blurb: This story of an unremarkable man embarking on a remarkable journey into the seedy underbelly of underground vampirism is an elegantly plotted piece of suspense fiction.
by Valerie Niemerg
Plot/Idea: The well-worn trope of time travel nonetheless proves effective in this story, centered around a historic opera, that will be especially enjoyed by music and opera buffs.
Prose: The author, a retired opera singer, is an excellent and strong writer. The only bolded musical terms prove distracting and perhaps could be transferred to footnotes, though the glossary proves helpful.
Originality: Although time travel itself is not an original idea, the idea of setting the story within an opera is unique. The text is not only original, but proves highly humorous in parts.
Character Development/Execution: Elizabeth is a very clear, well-developed character. Her rescuer in the 18th century, Gaspar, is empathetic and kind. A number of the other figures here read like fairy tale characters. The details of the women's clothing prove particularly vivid.
by Juliet Rose
Plot/Idea: The bones of this work are solid, but the linear progression of the story is unclear. The story lacks pacing - there is little mystery or tension to keep the reader interested. Telling her tale in a series of shorter flashbacks might be much more effective and would keep the reader engaged.
Prose: The author is a strong writer who handles detail, action, and dialogue well. However, the narrative approach is very straightforward and simple, so there's still room to create some complexity to add richness to the reading experience.
Originality: This is an original work with a distinctive premise and memorable characters.
Character Development/Execution: The author does an effective job with characterization, particularly with Sam and Smitty, offering the reader valuable insight into what makes them tick.
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 William Jack Sibley
Plot/Idea: Sibley’s screwball comedy takes the best elements of sweeping soaps like Dallas and Dynasty and splatters them with a gritty coat of Texas mud. Unflinching and true to life, Sibley unravels the machinations and private intentions of wealthy Texans.
Prose: Sibley’s punchy prose will hook even the most seasoned comedy reader.
Originality: Although a tale of warring families has been explored before, Sibley’s panache will draw readers in. There are enough twists and turns to this story, but readers may find the large cast of kooky characters overwhelming.
Character Development/Execution: Sibley’s heavy-handed characterization and broad vulgarity may be unappealing to some readers, though entertaining to others.
Blurb: This colorful tale set in the small town of Rita Blanca, Texas, follows the misadventures of the Pennebaker and Lyndecker clans as they fall in and out of love, swindle each other, and are subsumed by lust.
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.