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General Fiction

  • What Happened to Annabell?

    by A Monday Night Anthology

    Rating: 7.00

    Plot/Idea: A series of thematically connected speculative stories based around a single persona.  A shorter, more curated collection might have been beneficial here, but the main hook is alluring and will keep readers invested.

    Prose: The prose styles vary greatly across the stories, as do the stylistic approaches to storytelling and the genre conventions, but the works form a cohesive and gratifying whole via the conceptual framework. 

    Originality: What Happened to Annabell? offers a truly unique conceit. While the stories vary in terms of their content and tone, the collection is infused with enjoyably dark humor. 

    Character/Execution: The individual pieces of the collection are inventively devoted to a single character. The primary strength of What Happened to Annabell? lies in the manner in which each author takes up a given prompt. The result is great fun.

  • My Year At The Good Bean Cafe

    by EA Luetkemeyer

    Rating: 7.00

    Plot/Idea: Luetkemeyer's plot is intriguing, with loosely intertwined stories that favor day-to-day happenings over the unexpected. Humor plays a central role in many of the stories, and Luetkemeyer's writing highlights the inexplicable events of everyday lives. 

    Prose: The prose is easy to follow, and each story offers a distinctive narrative voice that echoes the story's sentiment and mood.  

    Originality: Luetkemeyer examines common themes through a unique lens, and the stories come across as a blend of individual narratives as opposed to a collaborative whole. 

    Character/Execution: Luetkemeyer offers readers a host of characters, some of whom appear across stories. One of the more colorful characters is Bennie, a " nobody" who is transformed with a new identity.

     

  • Plot/Idea: Aspen offers an unconventional fantasy story in The Dreamtidings of a Disgruntled Starbeing, which focuses on 13-year-old Klara Tippins who grapples with her troubled family life by channeling the lessons given to her by her celestial kin.

    Prose: Aspen's prose is clear and propulsive, with sections devoted to Klara's interactions with her fellow star beings clearly differentiated in structure and tone.

    Originality: From planetary beings to dysfunctional family dynamics, Aspen's novel stands out for its unique concept. The integration of metaphysical, spiritual, and philosophical ideas leads to an often enlightening and deeply intriguing reading experience. 

    Character/Execution: Aspen's novel is rich in ideas and allegorical in its approach. As such, however, the work is somewhat lacking in worldbuilding and characters are painted with rather broad strokes. Ultimately, despite the work's charms, readers may struggle to fully gain a footing in the storytelling. 

  • Plot/Idea: This revenge-fueled melee interlaces a cheating husband, corrupt valuables, and an unsteady female friendship forged on the roads of Route 66, resulting in the first of a series that, though lively, falls into clichés at times.

    Prose: The straightforward prose remarkably brings to life Route 66 landmarks, and the banter between Tish and Kat rolls as smoothly across the pages as their 1957 Roadmaster rumbles across the asphalt.

    Originality: Though the story's premise harkens back to Thelma and Louise, as referenced by the author, the characters are engaging in their own right. 

    Character/Execution: Characterization is left slightly undone by the story's ending, and readers will be eager to see Tish and Kat more fully developed in future installments.

  • Decadence Kills

    by Michael P. Charlton

    Rating: 6.75

    Plot/Idea: Decadence Kills is a dizzying fever dream of a novel set in a nightmare landscape of warring parties, violence, sex, addiction, and dissolution of order.

    Prose: Charlton's disjointed and visceral prose style is in the novel's greatest strength. Once readers become acclimated to the absurdity of the circumstances, the work offers moments of stark poetry amidst the ugliness of the established universe. 

    Originality: Decadence Kills follows in the tradition of William S. Burroughs, with its influx of dreamlike passages, descriptions of animalistic human behaviors, and unsettling, near-apocalyptic imagery.

    Character/Execution: The characters in Decadence Kills are more figurative than fully formed, with the protagonist emerging as an individual tasked with protecting his wife–Mrs. Sykes–and their child, Baby Owl, from sinister characters with uncertain motives like Mr. Pyjamas. Decadence Kills largely eschews conventional storytelling. Readers invested in the narrative will be captivated by the work's absurdity and black humor, even as these elements threaten to fully overwhelm the novel.

  • The Emperor

    by Matthew Jordan Storm

    Rating: 6.75

    Plot/Idea: The Emperor is a sprawling historical epic that follows Heraclius as he rises to prominence and leads his army into battle against the Avar horde. The author gracefully portrays the emperor with all of his strengths, internal struggles, and pitfalls fully on display.

    Prose: Storm's text is bookended with a prologue, an epilogue, timelines, and maps to help place story in its historical context. The Imperial settings are beautifully rendered, while the thirst for blood in the battles and sieges is brutal and shocking.

    Originality: Though The Emperor is not a startlingly original concept, its dense and evocatively described passages bring ancient Rome to life, beautifully echoing the sights, sounds, and aromas of the time.

    Character/Execution: The author successfully breathes life into historical figures by portraying their flaws and idiosyncrasies with nuance and detail. The central character of Heraclius is hugely impressive, and the awe that he inspires literally seeps through the pages.

    Blurb: A breathtaking journey into the heart of ancient Rome.

  • Eddie the Legend

    by Brian Scala

    Rating: 6.75

    Plot/Idea: The novel follows Eddie's post-baseball career, the circle of friends he has made, and his new love. In doing so, his marriage, young adulthood, and childhood are touched on via sidebars into past events. The appeal of Eddie is meant to be his ordinariness, but the execution fizzles out.

    Prose: Scala's style is unusual and colorful, and the prose takes the approach of reporting rather than storytelling. The group chats embedded throughout become repetitive and extraneous. 

    Originality: Readers are afforded a glimpse of who Eddie expected to become versus reality, a theme that will resonate with many.

    Character/Execution: Given Scala's choice to build the story by weaving through the past and present, central protagonist Eddie is explored in great detail, while supporting characters, including his father, take a backseat. Dani’s backstory, while harrowing, is treated with grace and sets up Eddie’s later heroics.

  • Son of a Madman

    by Daniel B. Martin

    Rating: 6.50

    Plot/Idea: While facing his father's disintegration, middle-aged Ivan grapples with anxiety and frustration surrounding his care. After his father's sudden death, Ivan's focus shifts to his own circumstances as he embarks on a search for meaning, along with the pursuit of a new love interest. There is something of a disconnect in the plot before and after Dillon's death, as if some of the focus and momentum is lost. 

    Prose: Martin is a capable and introspective writer. However, the prose is wordy and convoluted in places, and Martin's style of providing intense exposition and background narration has a tendency to slow the storyline. There are, though, many bright spots in the writing that bring the characters and their relationships to life.

    Originality: Although the plot becomes somewhat predictable following Dillon's death, Son of a Madman is a novel that is rich in ideas; Martin also writes movingly of the challenges of caring for an elderly parent and the implications for adult children as they face their own futures. 

    Character/Execution: Martin tends to over-narrate the thoughts and feelings of his main players, which has the effect of distancing readers from the characters. Nevertheless, Ivan has depth and promise and his sister Lilly is relatable in her reluctance to accept her father's circumstances. Amber, Ivan's love interest, can come across as overly sagacious rather than fully realistic.

    Blurb: A middle-aged man struggles to find happiness and meaning amidst his father's abuse, mental deterioration, and demise. 

  • The Miracle at Assisi Hill

    by Pat Camalliere

    Rating: 6.50

    Plot/Idea:  The author has created an intriguing historical mystery surrounding the mysterious death of a nun in 1886, a mystery that becomes central to the narrator's present moment. While readers will find the research into Sister Catherine's death interesting, the plot is weighted down by the logistics behind it—and the numerous subplots, while engaging, add to that weight.

    Prose: The prose is clear and engaging, and the insertion of journal entries and archival interviews adds welcome breaks to Cora's narration, creating an overall smoothly crafted story.   

    Originality: The novel has a definitive niche, but the mystery—and the way it moves between past and present—is spellbinding. The author combines an eclectic array of elements—religious mysticism, the paranormal, and more—that overlap to produce this unique story.

    Character/Execution: Most of the narrative pivots around Cora, an empathetic, well-rounded character whose experiences in this novel are intense. Indigenous Americans and Mexicans are portrayed as rather primitive, overly superstitious, uneducated, and criminal in comparison to the European settlers, giving the novel a decidedly Euro-centric, and inaccurate, view of settler history. 

    Blurb: Cora Tozzi gets more than she bargained for when she uncovers a mystery that might have connections to a real-life miracle. 

  • Late Winter

    by Michael P. Charlton

    Rating: 6.50

    Plot/Idea: Late Winter, a deeply visceral fever dream of a novel, is challenging to track at times, as Charlton manipulates the novel through satiric observations that keep the main players at a distance from the reader. As the story progresses, so do the outlandish events happening to the narrator and his girlfriend, Lass.

    Prose: Charlton’s prose is shockingly raw, delivered throughout in choppy bites. The novel has a decidedly tongue-in-cheek feel and the prose is designed to reflect the depravity, listlessness, and self-loathing of the characters. 

    Originality: Charlton, a capable author, has crafted a novel that smacks of originality, though the very elements that make this book unique will also be the most challenging for readers.

    Character/Execution: The narrator’s angst oozes off the pages, though he is a difficult character for readers to connect with. Supporting characters are equally appalling, vicious, and miserable. Just, it would seem, as the author intended.

  • The Irish Within Us

    by C.A. Logan

    Rating: 6.50

    Plot/Idea: When Kara arrives in Ballybeg, Ireland—her grandfather's ancestral village—she soon finds herself embroiled in a dispute with distant relations, over land that's rumored to be enchanted. The plot is evenly paced, with dustings of magic that add charm.

    Prose: Logan uses the story's three main perspectives to add tension, and the simple, well-executed prose keeps this appealing mystery-turned-cozy-action novel afloat. The setting is skillfully rendered, evoking images of idyllic landscapes surrounded by shimmering waters.

    Originality: Though good triumphing over evil is a common theme, Kara's perseverance, and the support of her trusty friends, as well as the townspeople of Ballybeg, against greedy foreign developers is skillfully wrought in this satisfying novel.

    Character/Execution: Kara's journey affords her the opportunity to rediscover her passion for the magic of history and Ballybeg's extraordinary surroundings, and her character arc is both relatable and appealing. Logan's accomplished storytelling will keep readers invested from the start.

  • Mothers Vol. 1

    by Ben Burgess Jr

    Rating: 6.50

    Plot/Idea: Telling the stories of several young boys—and the mothers who care for them—trying to survive the against the odds of their home and community, Mothers, Vol. 1 attempts to coalesce the tale of a neighborhood into one novel. This ambition sets it apart; however, in this first installment, many narrative threads are tied up too hastily.

    Prose: Burgess Jr.’s narration flowed smoothly between dialogue and exposition but frequently leans toward explanation of emotion and motive rather than its inclusion in any dialogue or action. Narration does, though, shift dynamically to match the narrator of each chapter, assuming simpler structures for younger characters and more complex, emotional tones for adults.

    Originality: While some portrayals come across as archetypal, Mothers Vol. offers a uniquely in-depth take on several boys’ lives in the streets of New York City. 

    Character/Execution: Characters throughout the novel are easy to become invested in and to truly root for. However, it is difficult to fully appreciate the characters for more than their abilities to triumph through struggle and oppression due to the lack of secondary characteristics present.

  • A Shepherd to Fools

    by Michael Drew Mendelson

    Rating: 6.25

    Plot/Idea: A Shepherd to Fools unfolds in breakneck speed, making it challenging for readers to keep up with the multilayered plot—but that pace is well-matched for a war novel, and Mendelson keeps readers on their toes.

    Prose: The novel is bolstered by skilled prose that immerses readers in the setting. Though descriptors are a definite strength, some main characters lack a clear voice.

    Originality: A Shepherd to Fools is an accelerating war drama with characters and scenes expected of the genre.

    Character/Execution: Mendelson's main characters are a perfect fit for the story's premise; even so, there is little exploration of their lives outside of battle, leaving the cast one-dimensional and a bit stereotypical. 

  • Existential Masques

    by Steven Furr

    Rating: 6.25

    Plot/Idea: A group of college friends comes together to investigate one of their own's past, in order to answer questions about his mental health and get to the bottom of the horrible nightmares he's experiencing. Along the way, they hook up, party, and make up and break up, 1970s style.

    Prose: Furr's prose leans toward the pedantic, and the dialogue is stilted in places. Characters experience dramatic interactions with each other, and transform their relationships in the process, but this also becomes distracting to the plot at times.  

    Originality: Furr combines coming-of-age, trauma, and young love into a multilayered, if meandering, story of self-discovery and quest for answers. 

    Character/Execution: The young adult characters in this novel stick to familiar roles, making the story relatable in many ways, as they experiment in social situations—and overcompensate for their past regrets and lack of self-confidence.

  • Plot/Idea: This is an engaging, multi-generational story of prominent families in 18th century Salem as they navigate both their own private dramas and those of an increasingly tumultuous world. Meticulously researched and told with an impressive attention to detail, this work of historical fiction is an entertaining and appealing read. The plot wavers somewhat at the end and lacks a smooth transition between generations, as newly introduced characters become the narrative's focus.

    Prose: Wagner-Wright's prose is both engaging and descriptive, and her attention to detail and passion for the families' history shines through with every word. The delightful blend of skilled storytelling and historical accuracy charms with both its characters and its straightforward, yet beautifully written, prose.

    Originality: Although the idea itself may not overwhelm with its originality, the narrative flow, evocative prose, and thoughtful attention to detail make it stand out as a fine example of colonial historical fiction.

    Character/Execution: The characters are undeniably the story's backbone, and they are stunningly portrayed—most notably Mary, who the novel follows from young womanhood through late adulthood. Readers will grieve with her, celebrate with her, and observe with her as her life becomes more uncertain, and this is undoubtedly one of the most important reasons why this tale is such an enjoyable read.

  • Fault Lines

    by Colin Heston

    Rating: 6.00

    Plot/Idea: Heston's stories are loosely tied together, illuminating dark themes of wrongdoing and punishment. Readers will find the writing thought-provoking and unsettling in many places.

    Prose: The prose is cleverly formed and hints at humor concealed within the collection's somber themes. Some minor structural issues distract from the otherwise intriguing style.

    Originality: Fault Lines is decidedly original, crafted with deeper undertones that will generate introspection and thoughtful reflection in readers.

    Character/Execution: Heston draws his cast from several well-known characters throughout the collection, ascribing them with grim but often humorous traits and interactions, and he highlights a moral lesson for the main characters in each story.

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