by Susanne Dunlap
Plot/Idea: Dunlap’s historical New York City-set novel centers on the the aspirations of a daughter as they come into conflict with her mother's expectations for her and her own complex past. The plot builds evenly as Sylvie navigates her way in the world, with several subplots that tie in effortlessly to the main storyline. Though the ending comes across as a touch too smooth after the novel’s intense unfolding, readers will relish the evocative setting, believable circumstances, and fascinating characters.
Prose: Dunlap uses the alternating perspectives of Sylvie and her mother to bring the plot to life, with clear prose that excels at scene-setting and shows a definitive knack for building suspense.
Originality: The story has a rich setting that comes to life through well-developed tension and polished characters. Sylvie’s journey—and her mother’s attempts to save her from dangerous choices—is crafted with finesse and passion.
Character/Execution: Seventeen-year-old Sylvie is lovable from the start, full of idealism and extravagant dreams, while her mother desperately works to escape the past. The relationship between Sylvie and Paolo takes off quickly, affording Sylvie the opportunities she’s longing for—though those very opportunities open a world of danger for both women.
by Alice McVeigh
Plot: McVeigh adheres closely to the Pride and Prejudice storyline but gives the book extra panache by using Darcy’s viewpoint as the main vehicle for the plot’s progression.
Prose: McVeigh is clearly a polished writer, skilled at period-perfect prose that walks the delicate line between comedy, realism, and the favored tropes of the genre. There is a slight overdependence on Jane Austen’s original writing that distracts at times.
Originality: The viewpoint gleaned from Darcy’s diaries give this Jane Austen reworking a freshness that is often missing in similar titles. McVeigh also spotlights Darcy’s relationships with other characters—such as his affection for opera singer Giuditta Menotti—in a way that adds flair and intrigue to the original material.
Character/Execution: Characters are richly developed here, and the main players interrelate and intermingle in a way that advances the story. Darcy’s viewpoint is intriguing and allows readers deeper insight into his feelings and perceptions that were more obscured in the original story. Mary Bennet’s excerpts are entertaining and insightful—and a much-appreciated addition to the Pride and Prejudice canon.
by Vince Sgambati
Plot/Idea: This stunning novel, set in the 1950s through the early '70s, originates primarily in New York City, although the story takes a brief foray into Vermont. Themes of racism, sexuality, and self-discovery are richly developed through the narrative's multilayered characters and their intense experiences.
Prose: Dramatic, evocative prose transports readers directly to 1960s New York City: the Village, gay bars, and even parochial schools are forcefully depicted, interspersed with colorful food and clothing descriptions. Communes in Vermont make an appearance as well, dynamic and immersive in their portrayal.
Originality: New York City in the '60s is a common setting, but the strength of the characters makes this novel come alive. The story seamlessly melds the Vietnam War, racism, and growing up gay—as well as fragments of the second World War—into a powerful journey of self-discovery and social justice.
Character/Execution: The characters are multilayered and powerful, with distinctive emotions and experiences that yield meaningful narrative arcs. Especially memorable are central protagonist Gianni; Italian Jewish Holocaust survivor Raffaella; and Black drag queen Gabriel, whose immeasurable kindness gives Gianni a safe place to come into his own.
by kl kiefer
Plot/Idea: This is a compelling read, pulling the reader in as events transpire. The pace is even and the story is never rushed.
Prose: The third-person perspective suits the narrative well, and the language is fluid. Locations, in particular, are treated with detail, so the reader feels quite present and immersed as events unfold.
Originality: This interesting and original story elucidates the consequences of a series of seemingly benign choices. Although it is essentially a coming-of-age tale, Kiefer skillfully drives home the stark reality of how different Jonna’s life could have been.
Character/Execution: Jonna’s motivations are presented in such a way that the reader understands how she fell into the situation with Jacko. The journey from young adult into full-fledged adult is well-presented.
by J.A. Wright
Plot/Idea: The novel is a coming-of-age story tied to uncovering family secrets and accepting the flaws that often accompany love. Many of the plot points intersect with the Vietnam War, and much of the characters' personalities and decisions are deeply impacted by the trauma of their involvement in that war. The story is gradually revealed through Evan's point of view, and the book's events are both relatable and unexpected—from the mistreatment of Evan by her father, to the chaotic dynamics between Evan's parents and dysfunction of the family in its entirety
Prose: Evan's first-person perspective drives home the story's emotional impact, though it limits the interiority of other characters. As Evan discovers more about the world around her, readers will gain an intimate glimpse of her vulnerability and resolve, alongside the forces at work behind the scenes in her family. The short bursts of narration build suspense for later revelations, and the author's transitions are smooth and precise.
Originality: The story's conclusion wins it major originality points, as the author leaves it satisfyingly open-ended. Readers will be left pondering Evan's future against the backdrop of this powerful portrait of a troubled family.
Character/Execution: Characters take their time to develop, but through Evan's capable eyes they gradually come to life, replete with raw, palpable emotion and intense decisions. Evan remains the brightest throughout, and her empathy for those around her will draw readers in.
by Kevin Hincker
Plot/Idea: The Little Queen is an epic tale of speculative fiction that starts with a bee and a boy, both struggling to escape yet connect and move forward, while still looking back. The story is a sweeping chronicle of love and loss, bravery and courage, seamlessly capturing the mysteries of the natural world while also flowing beyond it, imagining an Earth where humankind has attempted to significantly speed up evolution, inadvertently creating a double-edged sword of both beauty and danger.
Prose: Lyrical, thoughtful, and compelling, Hincker's prose forms the backbone of this magical tale, immersing readers in both worlds: Anthony, a lonely, lost boy with a powerful secret and a need for connection, and the Little Queen, fighting a generations-long battle for survival with intelligence, guile, and powers of her own.
Originality: The Little Queen's originality shines through on every page, captivating readers with its expressive prose and courageous characters. Most stunning of all is the plot that resonates with imagination, tenderness, and creativity.
Character/Execution: Anthony and the Little Queen are the heart and soul of the narrative, and both are written with care and brilliantly executed. From the beginning, their stories—which start independently then smoothly dovetail—are not just about survival, but about courage, loss, and the relationships that bind us to those we love—and the natural world around us.
by WILLIAM MCCLAIN
Plot/Idea: A gripping plot—a grandmother compelled to care for two of her grandchildren during the second World War—develops into a nuanced snapshot of life in Weymouth, England, during the war.
Prose: Gracefully written, the prose captures Weymouth’s natural beauty as well as the horrors of war and the characters’ emotions as they undergo radical changes and personal transformations.
Originality: The novel’s structure initially follows Alice, who, as an older woman who’s never truly been on her own before but is looking forward to it, offers an interesting, refreshing perspective. The later chapters that follow Martin are more conventional.
Character/Execution: Alice is the novel’s central star, and the chapters emphasizing her perspective are the strongest, as they depict her complexities while she works to reinvent herself amidst a war and new, unforeseen responsibilities. Martin’s character is a contradiction, and his self-centered nature stays prominent until the novel’s end. Sonja remains an enigma, with her interiority denied to readers for most of the novel.
Blurb: Alice’s War is a sweeping, impactful portrait of life in coastal England during the second World War.
by Teri M Brown
Plot/Idea: An Enemy Like Me is a genuinely enjoyable story that balances three generations of familial history beautifully. The author particularly focuses on the hardships of war and generational trauma, while exploring the roots of patriotism and xenophobia.
Prose: This work effectively balances multiple viewpoints while maintaining quick and concise pacing. Each characters' thoughts and circumstances develop distinctly through the third-person narration.
Originality: An Enemy Like Me is a rich and layered historical story. While the WWII focus is a familiar one, the well-woven perspectives and thought-provoking reflections on identity, war, love, and family, uplift the narrative.
Character/Execution: Each character's path is laid out clearly and vividly; readers will gain an intimate sense of the emotions, sacrifices, and struggles associated with war.
by John Bebout
Plot/Idea: Till the Sun Grows Cold is a work of historical fiction centered on a man teaming up with an endearing female Pinkerton detective to discover who was behind an ambush that killed his son. His motive for investigating the crime is believable. The novel may, however, benefit from a slower reveal of the culprit.
Prose: The prose is clear, propulsive, and inviting, while the setting is particularly vivid.
Originality: Bebout infuses the story with originality through an investigation into outside involvement in an attack on a military payroll convoy. There is a solid tradition of nineteenth-century female detectives, and Kate fits believably into the mold.
Character/Execution: This is a solid story with a credible narrative and a gratifying denouement. However, the narrative is somewhat lacking in narrative tension. Kate Warne is distinctive and alluring, while Merritt Cowles will garner empathy from readers. Though the chemistry between them is not always palpable, both are individually memorable.
by Jessica McCann
Plot/Idea: As three generations of a family set out together on a long distance trip, the central idea—retrieving memories and discovering ties between the past and present—is skillfully woven into the story's backdrop of murder, mystery, and cultural heritage.
Prose: Timelines alternate fluidly between the 1950s and '90s, gifting the story unique perspectives on racial tensions and gender stereotypes in each time period. McCann's prose is above average, crafted with vibrant imagery and stark contrasts between the past and present.
Originality: This is a memorable portrait of the Ojibwe culture and their stories, spirituality, and customs as an indigenous tribe. McCann treats important topics, including discrimination, racism, and sexism, with grace and a gentle spirit.
Character/Execution: The story's grandmother, Evelyn, along with her son Frank and his daughter, April, are well-honed characters with intricate thoughts and emotions. Maakade, a Black Ojibwe man in the 1950s timeline, is a study in the devastating effects of assimilation. His nature-born wisdom is delightful, and his influence in both Evelyn and Frank's development is moving.
by Betty Kuffel
Plot/Idea: Papa Dearest is a powerful and unflinching story that surrounds a young girl's abuse at the hands of her father. Kuffel avoids creating a message-driven or sentimental narrative, instead focusing on quality storytelling that will immediately hook readers.
Prose: Kuffel is a gifted writer with impactful, stark prose that strips away any softness in Anna's world, leaving nothing but vulnerability while reflecting the bareness of her existence.
Originality: Readers will find this story equal parts haunting and inspiring, and Anna’s travails are unforgettable.
Character/Execution: Characterization is strong here, not only for Anna, who endures the unthinkable, but also for her abusive father.
by Mary Camarillo
Plot/Idea: Those People Behind Us, a story about community, divisions, and modern day living, is clever and engaging, with the perfect level of drama to capture and hold readers' attention from beginning to end.
Prose: The author is a skilled writer, able to create believable characters with intricate personalities. The prose flows effortlessly, and dialogue is handled proficiently.
Originality: This intriguing book offers intimate and raw perspectives on everyday people in everyday circumstances, delivered in a way that makes each character's experiences feel inspired and pivotal to the plot.
Character/Execution: The author devotes chapters to each of the main characters, offering insight into how that particular person thinks, what their situation is, and how they view the world—a clever and fresh way to tell this nuanced story.
by Stephen Robbins
Plot/Idea: The Healer's Miraculous Discovery is an inventive story that offers an intriguing blend of historical fiction and science fiction.
Prose: The author is an effective writer and storyteller, able to maintain the reader's engagement throughout. Robbins does have a tendency to provide a lot of detail, which on its own is a strength, but cumulatively can be overwhelming.
Originality: This is a highly original work, with a unique plot line that doesn't fit neatly into a genre. The 1960s Cleveland setting--and the contrast established between the more comfortable suburbs and inner-city environs--enrich the narrative.
Character/Execution: Robbins does a fine job with characterization, particularly with Stevie/Steve and the peripheral characters. The author freshly integrates social issues and systems of belief into the story without overwhelming the more playful elements.
by Brian McMahon
Plot/Idea: McMahon delivers a deeply human and humor-filled story of a young man hopelessly in love and embroiled in the political career of his love interest's father.
Prose: Teddy's narration is immediately engrossing, warm, and gently self-deprecating. McMahon provides a skillful blend of candor and subtlety in the storytelling, with consistently memorable lines and passages throughout, along with a fresh and dynamic narrative structure.
Originality: Campus-based novels are a familiar sub-genre, but McMahon's blend of political machinations, endearing romance, and a sprinkling of mystery, add up to a unique and highly enjoyable read.
Character/Execution: Character development is top notch. Teddy's endearing voice will capture readers from the first page. Meanwhile, Charlotte Pennington is far more than an idealized senator's daughter Teddy pines for, but a whole and complex character in her own right.
Blurb: McMahon's smart and endearing Georgetown-based novel centers on a young man's unrequited love and embroilment in the political aspirations of his love interest's father.
by Jennifer Kasman
Plot/Idea: Kasman crafts a stirring dystopian story that will strike many readers as timely. Told from the perspective of protagonist Anna, the story evolves from her early perceptions of life--one of relative freedom--to her commentary on the social and political shifts and shrinking opportunities occurring in the world around her. Jumps in time can be somewhat jarring, but Kasman's voice remains consistent and anchoring throughout the text.
Prose: The first-person perspective immediately pulls the reader in, so when the prose veers into the third person, it takes a beat to recalibrate. Nevertheless, Kasman's prose is solidly rendered.
Originality: The vehicle of following one character’s trajectory post-overturned election is highly original. Through Anna’s eyes, we see how the world changes, and how those changes came to be. While the novel echoes some circumstances of the recent past, Kasman wisely avoids directly mirroring present-day politics and social divisions.
Character/Execution: Anna's character arc is a full and eventful one; readers will relish how her perspectives are colored by circumstances beyond her control. Additional characters are well-drawn, though readers may be left wanting to know more about their fates.
by Cyrus Cassells
Plot/Idea: Maceo is a fictionalized Harlem Renaissance poet and playwright whose life and loves are presented here as a "puzzle-portrait," with each section easily serving as a standalone short story. The novel is composed of entertaining vignettes to be pieced together for the full tale, resulting in an intriguing, fast-paced plot.
Prose: Cassells writes lyrically, though at times it feels as if the dialogue carries on too long, making the story read more like a play than a book. Shakespeare references abound, and Maceo is both a poet and playwright—two elements that support the book's distinctive structure.
Originality: The book's design—a puzzle-portrait to to piece together the life of an intriguing man—is an interesting take, and Cassells's style elevates the storytelling.
Character/Execution: Cassells employs several different narrators and characters, and, in combination with the time jumps, that choice makes it challenging to track the story's main relationships. The book's exploration of important themes—namely sexuality and colorism—makes the relationships satisfyingly complex, even if readers never fully connect with individual characters.