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General Fiction

  • My Gingerbread Shakespeare

    by Cyrus Cassells

    Rating: 8.25

    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.

  • The War Ends At Four

    by Rosanna Staffa

    Rating: 8.25

    Plot/Idea: Deftly interlacing the past and present of the characters and their setting, Staffa pens an appealing novel about grief, finding home, and transformation.

    Prose: With elegant, clear, and poignant prose, Staffa moves the story forward, portraying characters that will deeply impact readers.

    Originality: Though the story's themes may feel familiar, the delicate way in which Staffa explores them distinguishes this novel.

    Character/Execution: Staffa's characters are realistically lovely and flawed. Their relationships with each other—or lack thereof—beautifully drive the plot and themes.

    Blurb: Staffa weaves a moving and realistic portrait of grief, belonging, and transformation. 

  • BRUSH: A NOVEL

    by Penn Anderson

    Rating: 8.25

    Plot/Idea: Anderson’s storyline—following the alternating perspectives of Chris, a successful businessman who stumbles onto a magical paintbrush, and Jo, a florist burdened with secrets—takes its time to develop, but the plot is engaging. The wealth of details and meticulous descriptions sometimes detract from the narrative flow.

    Prose: Anderson favors energetic descriptions and extensive dialogue, but the story is enjoyable, with a steady balance of exposition and action.

    Originality: The novel’s penetrating and memorable characters add distinction, and how their individual arcs eventually converge is particularly creative.

    Character/Execution: Anderson is able to portray the thoughts and emotions of the story’s characters remarkably well.  Jo’s anxiety about her secrets is palpable, and readers will be moved by Chris’s rawness when dealing with his strong emotions.

  • The Knotted Ring

    by Myra Hargrave McILvain

    Rating: 8.25

    Plot/Idea: McILvain offers readers a sweeping forbidden romance between Susannah, the daughter of enslavers, and Philippe, one of her father’s enslaved people. The plot spans several years, from 1817 to 1832, and overflows with tension, hidden meaning, and deep, abiding love.

    Prose: The prose is evocative and paints vivid images of the story’s events. Some transitions feel less smooth than others, but overall McILvain writes fluidly, with arresting descriptions.

    Originality: The premise is familiar, but McILvain endows the characters with vibrant personalities that carry the story.

    Character/Execution: Readers will be drawn in by McILvain’s characters, who are richly developed with powerful voices. The tension crafted between Susannah’s past and present is palpable throughout, and McILvain skillfully depicts her warring emotions. 

  • Crossing Lake Pontchartrain

    by Arthur Byrd

    Rating: 8.00

    Plot/Idea: As Larry’s life implodes, leaving him separated from his wife and drinking far too much, some newfound friends help him see a way out of the darkness. The story is relatable, though predictable in parts. Ultimately it is about finding one's way after being lost and is a lovely tale about growth and forgiveness.

    Prose: The author writes in a clear, poetic style, with rich dialogue and charming moments throughout. 

    Originality: While stories of struggling writers and self-medicating through alcohol are familiar, the well-conveyed backdrop of New Orleans uplifts the storytelling, while the exploration of art in its many forms provides a layer of meaning.

    Character/Execution: Larry shows significant growth throughout the book. Readers will root for him as he struggles to reclaim his life and forge new human connections. The side characters are nicely developed as well, established on their own terms rather than solely in connection to Larry.

  • The Self-Sufficient Princess

    by Sanguine Addams

    Rating: 8.00

    Plot/Idea: The author has crafted a light and engaging fairy tale that is tonally appropriate for younger readers. With humor, irreverence, and lots of references to modern life, Addams delivers a gentle yet empowering message. 

    Prose: Addams has an appealing, liberating, and humor-filled writing style that frequently breaks the third wall. 

    Originality: Through the framework of classic fairytale tropes, Addams delivers a fresh and inviting story about individuality, agency, and making one's own way in the world. 

    Character/Execution: The author offers lively characterizations, particularly with Nightingale who is unlike any fairy tale princess ever. 

  • Plot/Idea: The interweaving plotlines of this engaging story come together smoothly, with minimal unnecessary overlap. The struggles of the story's main characters are poignantly rendered, and Samuelson shines when sketching relatable, convincing conflict. 

    Prose: Samuelson switches perspectives between Mac, Enrique, and Frankie, giving the narrative a rawness that skillfully showcases the complexities of everyday life. Every scene is bursting with energy and incisive prose.

    Originality: Complicated family ties is a familiar topic, but Samuelson heightens the narrative by exploring three distinct—and riveting—perspectives. Each protagonist possesses their own charm and voice to enhance the storyline, and even the supporting cast add individuality to the book.

    Character/Execution: Characters form the backbone of this novel, and, despite their singularity, their plights are moving. Samuelson depicts their pain, search for meaning, and moments of beauty exceptionally well. 

    Blurb: A polished sketch of family complexities alongside the beauty—and pain—of life's unexpected paths.

  • A Lost Woman

    by Ann Brooks

    Rating: 8.00

    Plot/Idea: Brooks's masterful text takes Norah Crawford on a heart-breaking journey back to her hometown, where she is forced to come to terms with her ailing mother and a plethora of unresolved personal relationships. Brutal and relentless, A Lost Woman is an astute study of the all-encompassing effects of generational domestic abuse.

    Prose: A Lost Woman is a devastating, pummeling text that vividly describes acts of harrowing brutality. Peppered with storm metaphors, Brooks's chapters are short and tense, enhancing the horrific drama as it unfolds.

    Originality: Brooks delivers a powerful and passionately written story about a past crudely obliterated by domestic abuse. The story explores the pain involved in facing up to a tortuous upbringing, and the arc becomes even more tragic when unexpected and punishing revelations are exposed in the book's final pages.

    Character/Execution: Brooks's characters are extremely raw and real, painfully negotiating their dank, miserable lives with seemingly little hope for redemption. Norah slowly realizes she is becoming her mother, drowning out the noise of the outside world with alcohol, and her situation becomes so helpless that death seems the easiest and most convenient way out.

    Blurb: A powerful and heart-wrenching story of loss and suffering.

  • Lost Seeds: The Beginning

    by Teresa Mosley Sebastian

    Rating: 8.00

    Plot/Idea: This is a moving portrait of a Black family grappling with enslavement and racism. Sebastian depicts their everyday life in arresting detail, and the long-term impacts of their mistreatment are unforgettable alone.

    Prose: The stark contrast Sebastian paints between the world of the Briscos and their white enslavers and neighbors is vividly rendered, evoking the family’s pain and generational struggles due to the abuse they suffer. Some events lack buildup, but that doesn’t detract from the story’s powerful message.

    Originality: The strength of this novel lies in Sebastian’s ability to draw out the crucial themes of racial discrimination, enslavement, and the right to freedom through a sweeping narrative of one family’s struggles and victories.

    Character/Execution: The disparate circumstances between brothers Dub and Tim are skillfully tied into their family history, and Sebastian excels at illuminating the undercurrents that drive the men’s life choices. Readers will feel transported into the family’s experiences, and the main characters are compelling.

     

  • Plot/Idea: While Wonders in the Waves is a sequel, the novel successfully stands alone. 
    Larissa's calm demeanor as she grapples with the painful circumstances of her loss and interacts with the universe around her, will pull at reader’s heartstrings. 

    Prose: Collins writes with a clear sense of purpose. Her lyrical writing will inspire and comfort others, even as the text confronts weighty topics.

    Originality: Collin’s novel uniquely integrates elements of mystery into a story of working through grief.

    Character/Execution: Initially it is confusing as to who the male characters are, but as the story unfolds, it becomes more clear. Overall, the male characters come across as more stiff in nature than the leading female characters, who are realistic, authentic, and relatable.

  • The Mother Gene

    by Lynne Bryant

    Rating: 8.00

    Plot/Idea: Bryant’s plot delivers satisfying twists, and she hints at those early on to keep readers invested. The theme carries a deeper, relevant meaning that will resonate with modern audiences.

    Prose: The Mother Gene is told through changing perspectives and flashbacks, and, though the flashbacks happen abruptly in places, the author skillfully uses them to hint at coming plot twists.

    Originality: This is a thoughtful, multigenerational chronicle of the strength of love and the value of chosen family, told in a compelling and suspenseful way.

    Character/Execution: Bryant reveals the dichotomy between her characters in a natural way, showcasing Miriam’s fierce but waning independence against her daughter Olivia’s more trendy autonomy—and, in the end, uses their differences to unite them. The characters are complex and appealing, with intertwined lives that support the plot’s momentum.

  • Days of Slint, Redux

    by Ted Guevara

    Rating: 8.00

    Plot/Idea: The plot follows Black protagonist Haim as he navigates college in Indiana in the 1940s.  While he goes about his daily routine, the effects of casual racism—and how that racism ultimately leads to his death—are skillfully depicted. Actor James Dean is incorporated into the storyline as a close personal friend of Haim's.

    Prose: The novel shifts between the perspectives of different characters at each chapter break, and the book's structure affords readers intimate glimpses of the main events as opposed to a lingering study.

    Originality: The novel uses a fictionalized account of James Dean’s life as a focal point to explore what America was like for a Black man during the '40s—a unique storytelling method that makes the book stand out.

    Character/Execution: Although Jimmy Dean is a character with historical import, the novel focuses primarily on the specificity of race relations through Haim, who is a strongly-developed, powerful protagonist. Aside from his role in the book, the writing style and chapter structure inhibit deep character exploration.

  • No Entry Zone

    by Romuald Roman

    Rating: 8.00

    Plot/Idea: The plot here is reminiscent of a more raunchy, raucous Gentleman in Moscow. While the pacing flies quickly at the start and flags a bit through the middle as the narrative moves forward and backward, the overall effect is a tantalizing balance of seriousness and humor amidst political upheaval.

    Prose: The flow between the author-narrator voice and Henryk’s notebook of tales is incredibly smooth at nearly all times. Dialogue is rendered in such a way that Polish characters’ speech is slightly estranged for an English-speaking audience without becoming difficult to understand or distracting. Quotations are perhaps used at a higher rate than would naturally occur in a journal.

    Originality: The combination of military story, journaled personal narrative, and a recounting of sexual exploits taking course over many years, adds up to a unique reading experience. 

    Character/Execution: This narrative introduces a large cast of characters into its orbit, and while many do not have the opportunity to develop in any meaningful way, they are all certainly realistic and individual. The execution of interruptions by the narrator’s voice is assisted by his strong introduction at the beginning of the novel.

  • The Barabbas Legacy

    by M.D. House

    Rating: 8.00

    Plot/Idea: The plot follows Barabbas as significant events occur both in his own life and against the historical backdrop of the novel's setting. Those familiar with the figure of Barabbas will be intrigued, though as the third in a series, the novel is most impactful for readers already acquainted with the first two books.

    Prose: The style mirrors English translations of biblical accounts, a choice that matches the novel's premise but also creates some distance between readers and the book's characters.

    Originality: The story, anchored in biblical history, successfully delivers an absorbing fictionalized account of Barabbas’s later life.

    Character/Execution: Readers will want to be grounded in the first two books of the series to truly understand the background of the novel's characters, but Barabbas and his family are well-crafted, relatable, and charismatic.

  • All That is Sacred

    by Donna Norman-Carbone

    Rating: 7.75

    Plot/Idea: The narrative ebbs and flows with purpose across the main storyline and interspersed flashbacks. While much of the true action is kept to the first few chapters, pieces of backstory are meticulously revealed at a steady tempo that pushes the plot forward.

    Prose: The narration situates the story firmly in Lynn’s perspective, building a consistent and deeply personal tone. While at times bending so descriptive as to detract from the narrative rather than build it, All That Is Sacred is full of exactly the sort of emotional and place-based description that pushes it beyond the expected limitations of a ghostly narrator.

    Originality: Lynn’s band of friends clearly round out a tight-knit cast, but the story otherwise does not seem to hinge on these exact characters in this exact situation. Altogether, a car crash  resulting in a process of mourning that brings friends and families closer has not pushed this plot in an extremely original direction.

    Character/Execution: The plot hinges on the tightness of its small cast, effectively building real investment into the central friends’ lives—past and present. This web of interdependence is where All That Is Sacred most shines and is what gives such satisfaction to the inclusion of its epilogue.

  • Tessa‚Äôs Heart: A Texas Story

    by Jackie Lewis

    Rating: 7.75

    Plot/Idea: Tessa's Heart: A Texas Story is a charming and often unpredictable southern gothic set in small town Texas in the early 1950s. Lewis successfully weaves together supernatural elements with a narrative about growing up and navigating complex family dynamics. 

    Prose: The prose is rich, readable, and often lyrical. 

    Originality: Lewis strikes a unique tone throughout the novel, offering humor, candor, and a story of a young girl finding her way through the muck of life. 

    Character/Execution: Lewis capably brings the setting to life and fills the story with memorable characters leading messy lives. Readers will deeply empathize with the titular heroine as she struggles to find her place, understand adult relationships, and fight to be heard.

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