by Deborah Packer
Plot/Idea: This is a captivating novel based on a true story. The story opens a few months after the bombing at Pearl Harbor, giving modern readers a glimpse into what life was like in those chaotic times. The plot also provides an eye-opening exploration of the era's toxic anti-Semitic attitudes.
Prose: The author demonstrates a strong command of language including dialogue and description. The narrative moves along briskly and holds the reader's interest, despite a few odd word choices.
Originality: The author does a good job of connecting events in real life and embellishing the story to fill in gaps.
Character Development/Execution: The author does a fine job with characterization. From the start, Bobbie is clearly resourceful and level-headed, while Eunice is boy-crazy and less astute. Murray is clearly haunted by traumatizing events in his past.
by Tina Beattie
Plot: Beattie's historically based novel is deftly plotted, alternating between the points of view of the women at its center. The protagonists are caught up in the war of Rhodesian independence, the toll it takes on lovers and children, masters and servants, colonialists, and natives.
Prose: The word-craft is unexceptionably fluent and compelling, with a variety of voices, some ethnically African, some Scots, some properly British.
Originality: The work is sometimes baldly romantic in breathless social or sexual encounters, sometimes stirring in its depictions of political and military violence. There are inevitable echoes of Hemingway, Conrad, et al., in the treatment of the experience of Europeans in colonial Africa.
Character/Execution: The main characters, after whom the chapters are named, are women. The narrative centers on their relationships with one another and with the men who are their lovers. Europeans and native Africans narrate individual sections. Their interior monologue is textured and convincing.
Blurb: An illuminating insider's view of a febrile period of Rhodesian (now Zimbabwe) history, fictionalized but hewing closely to the historical record.
by Thomas Doherty
Plot/Idea: The intriguing plot that is dominated by the flawed personalities of the two protagonists. There can, at times, be an imbalance in the pacing when it spends too much time on battlefield history.
Prose: Told in the third-person, the prose is evocative, suspenseful in parts, and showcases the bitterness of unrealized glory. There is an underlying sense of tragedy that seeps into every aspect of the tale.
Originality: This book takes a clever approach, in which the battle that neither protagonist fights in becomes central to both their lives.
Character Development/Execution: The novel is dominated by John Spenser and Jack Hagan, who are both expertly drawn. While neither man is at all likable, the reader will feel a mixture of pity, embarrassment, and disgust for both. The myriad of soldiers that Spenser interviews for his book feel unflinchingly real.
by Clare Flynn
Plot: Jasmine in Paris is a charming historical coming-of-age story with far-flung international settings. Jasmine Barrington, an aspiring artist, relocates from Penang and Nairobi to Paris to enroll at the Beaux Arts school.
Prose: Flynn's prose is balanced, descriptive, and captures a clear sense of time and place.
Originality: At its heart, this is the story of a young woman finding herself and her artistic vision in the city of lights. However, Jasmine in Paris is unique in its integration of Malaysian politics and Jasmine's continued connection to her country of origin.
Character/Execution: Readers will certainly benefit from having read the previous books in the series, though this work does successfully stand alone. While the connection between Jasmine and Howard is somewhat strained (by distance and via the placement of their narratives in the novel), readers will be eager for them to find happiness together.
by Sue Jaskula
Plot/Idea: Castle Gordon is both a compelling family drama and an engrossing romance story, filled with plenty of suspense and twists. Some of the book's plot points, though, can seem a little far-fetched, like Joseph and Graham meeting in the war and Graham saving money aside for Anna.
Prose: Jaskula's writing is elegant, exciting, and often impossible to stop reading, especially when the tension ramps up later in the novel. The book is largely dialogue-driven, and while the author's portrayal of conversations is strong, allowing more page time for description could help balance out the narrative.
Originality: Castle Gordon creatively and sensitively depicts women's hardships during the historical period, particularly the struggle to gain financial independence, like men. The time and place, Kincardine, Canada, immediately post-WWII, is also a unique setting choice.
Character Development/Execution: Jaskula's characters, like the kind, yet mysterious Joseph and the strong-willed Anna, practically pop off the page, with their exceptional voices and strong personalities. Character development does sometimes slow down narrative momentum, however, like the repeated similar arguments between Ian and Anna throughout the course of the novel.
by Tamar Anolic
Plot/Idea: Tales of the Romanov Empire is an impressive historical epic novel that chronicles slightly over 300 years of Russian history in short vignette chapters. Some of these sections, however, work better than others: the most successful passages integrate the wider historical context seamlessly into the narrative, and tend to be more character-driven: for example, the chapters about the plight of the Jewish people. The book's relentless brutality can also make for a difficult read at times.
Prose: Anolic's prose is polished, elaborate, and gorgeously descriptive overall. The writing runs into issues with awkwardly inserting information into dialogue, especially when the author is trying to clarify the historical context for readers.
Originality: Tales of the Romanov Empire is a bold, innovative project that compellingly overviews more obscure history, like manipulative bride shows, alongside more well-known material like Russia's dealings with Napoleon. Anolic also has a real knack for imaginative reveals and inserting surprisingly timely elements into the narrative.
Character Development/Execution: Generally, Anolic is more concerned with the wider machinations of history and chronicling linear time than individual character development, which can be to the novel's detriment. Some characters who are given more page time do stand out, though, like the headstrong and emotionally-developed Catherine.
by Diane Olsen
Plot/Idea: Olsen has presented the reader with a complex—and sometimes difficult to follow—plot that involves climate change, poverty, Indigenous peoples, ancient and modern history, and many other components. The reader may struggle a bit to get situated with the workings of the story.
Prose: The story is full of dialogue, ancient lore, and delicate moments. Although written appealingly in pleasant prose, it can be hard to follow as topics change, or new characters are introduced.
Originality: Olsen's story is highly original, with different inspirations culminating from throughout the world and history.
Character Development/Execution: The dialogue can be challenging to follow at times, so readers must pay close attention to whom is speaking throughout the book. However, once the reader is more acquainted with the characters, their vivid personalities come to light.
by Lee-Ann Khoh
Plot: Mixing together moments of heartbreak and levity while having the main character navigate her identity, mental health, career, family, and more, Khoh's spins an engaging plot in this novel.
Prose: Khoh opts for straightforward prose in her novel to ensure the focus remains on the internal monologue of the main character as she navigates the world around her.
Originality: Recent years have seen an uptick of books centered on mental health that stand against stigma and shame. Black and Blue navigates similar conversations in ways that many will find relatable and powerful.
Character/Execution: As the book focuses on the main character Jade, readers are given ample time and space to get a full picture of her realities.
by Mike H. Mizrahi
Plot/Idea: Tattered Coat successfully manages to be a murder mystery, a journalistic investigation, and a social commentary on racism all at once. While some transitions to memory read awkwardly on the page, Mizrahi's excellent foreshadowing propels readers forward throughout the novel.
Prose: Mizrahi's writing is beautifully voice-driven, featuring a lyrical first-person point of view and gorgeous descriptions of place. The narrative effortlessly switches between multiple character perspectives, smartly depicting events from different viewpoints.
Originality: Tattered Coat is an honest portrayal of the harshness of oppression, covering subjects from the fight for women's rights to the horrors of racism. While the book is compelling, the narrative follows a similar trajectory to other novels about racially-motivated accusations.
Character Development/Execution: Mizrahi's strong, powerful characters carry the novel, especially insightful Hickory and determined Anna. The cast showcases the complexity of interracial friendships and the limits of allyship, as characters weigh whether to protect themselves or fight for what's right.
by Mic Fox
Plot/Idea: The story follows Mic the bartender's life in the Midwest and all of the wacky, tacky, weird, sad people he's come in contact with. Returning home for a funeral, he recalls his adventures with longtime friends and reveals that the funeral is a sham. As the chaos ensues, Mic realizes that he misses his messy hometown and all of the characters in it.
Prose: The writing here is very conversational, at times hyper-realistic. Paragraphs are short and snappy moving the narrative along at a nice clip. The asides and footnotes are nicely experimental, but at moments come across as forced.
Originality: Fox brings freshness to a story about returning home. By digging into the truths of a region, the story is enhanced, along with the humor that comes from plans gone awry.
Character Development/Execution: The characters here are all very "real" and the narration doesn't just show them without "telling" more of their stories. They are fleshed out through their interactions with one another and via their sturdy dialogue.
by Laura Bonazzoli
Plot: This is a solid, meditative collection of interconnected short stories that weave together seemingly disparate narratives into a satisfying and cohesive whole.
Prose: Bonazzoli opts for a poetic and introspective approach to writing in this collection, which fits the mood of the book well. Intriguingly, many of the stories are presented as narrators conversing with another, often unseen, individual. This provides an especially intimate feeling to the prose.
Originality: Anchoring these distinct characters to the same rural Maine location, while not wholly original, does have a strong impact on the overall narrative of the book.
Character/Execution: With each story in the collection, readers come to know characters through personal, voice-driven prose. As their circumstances and dilemmas reveal themselves, the collection begins to leave a gently haunting impression on readers.
by Juliet Rose
Plot/Idea: This is an honest and heartfelt coming-out narrative, and a feel-good story of a young man meeting his goals. All this is not without some violence and tough circumstances, as well as a welcome layer of suspense.
Prose: The prose is generally smooth and readable, if prone to occasional moments of awkwardness.
Originality: There are many coming-out stories, but this one of a young man becoming a documentary filmmaker feels quite original.
Character Development/Execution: Aiden, Zeke, their friends, and their newfound dog are all portrayed as extremely kind, authentic people, who care deeply for one another. In a lesser writer's hands, this may come across as idealistic, but here, readers will revel in the characters' successes and experiences of joy.
by Laura Bartnick
Plot/Idea: The situations presented in this multigenerational story are alluring and convincing. The novel offers an intimate exploration of relationship dynamics and emotional conflicts. The text is also somewhat overwritten and extends itself, encompassing too much territory to effectively cover all of the ground.
Prose: The prose is rich and finely detailed, although some phrasing can come across as overinflated.
Originality: This work has an unusual premise and there's a grandness to the scope. Although somewhat overstuffed, the work is nonetheless an epic accomplishment.
Character Development/Execution: Some characters come across as stiff and serve as narrative tools rather than fully realized characters. Regardless, the dialogue is effective and helps illuminate characters and their relationships with others.
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 Jan M. Walton
Plot/Idea: Walton’s plot follows a family in the 1930s as they struggle to come to terms with betrayal and loss. Dan, the oldest child in a home with an abusive father and absent mother, epitomizes the classic coming-of-age transformation as he tries to protect his siblings while growing up at the same time. The straightforward storyline will keep readers engaged, although the finale will leave them with a sense of unfinished business.
Prose: Walton writes concisely and clearly, and sets the stage nicely for this work of historical fiction. Comparisons and imagery evoke the story’s dark atmosphere, while the prose commands attention in some of the more intense scenes.
Originality: River Avenue delivers some twists in the end that will divert readers – but overall this novel is a reliable story of one family’s painful metamorphosis.
Character Development/Execution: Dan is a standout character with an internal monologue that both progresses the plot and gives readers an insider’s experience of his heartache – and the immense pressure he feels throughout the story. Supporting characters, though colorful at times, serve mainly to advance his personal evolution.
by J. Daniel Reed
Plot/Idea: The First Wolf Pack is an inventive story about the original pack of the title, chronicling both the group's coming together and their conflicts. The plot tends to be the most compelling when it drives forward through tense action scenes, as opposed to more abstract musings that have a tendency to grow repetitive.
Prose: Reed's prose, coming from the voice of Bingley, is refined, polished, and entertainingly professorial in nature. While Bingley's personal intrusions into the narrative are often delightful and informative, they can come across as jarring at other moments.
Originality: The First Wolf Pack has a highly original premise, about one dog's valiant attempt to speak to humans and correct the historical record. These ideas are teased out creatively over the course of the narrative, with the pack's similarity to humans and connection to modern animals being explored in imaginative ways.
Character Development/Execution: Reed nails down a canine's complicated, complex personality, particularly in moments of infighting within the pack itself. In terms of character motivations, though, the text (due to Bingley's POV) has a tendency to keep defining decisions as unknowable mysteries, as opposed to providing answers.