by Janet White
Plot: This spellbinding journey of Beethoven's Opus 74 through time, place, and performance is filled with extraordinary musicians, and startling twists will capture and hold readers' attention. The excellent pacing is also sustained by expressive prose.
Prose/Style: Lyrical, refined prose brings the music to life and enhances characters and locations. Voice transitions through various characters are effortlessly appropriate for the different eras.
Originality: Starting with the initial creation of Opus 74, and following its subsequent impact on musicians over more than 200 years, is satisfyingly unique.
Character Development: The construction of numerous characters through appearance, personality, and circumstance is masterfully achieved. Fully-formed musicians stand out as distinct individuals.
Blurb: The lyrical prose that carries this story of Beethoven's 1809 creation of the “Harp,” and its elegant performances in different eras, is as dynamic as the music itself.
by Ralph Cissne
Plot: This collection of fourteen fast-paced stories defies literary boundaries and surpasses expectations in a fascinating presentation of playful romps, brooding character sketches, and moving revelations. Oblique references may leave certain pieces with an uncertain end, yet this quite intentional device only enhances the book’s overall appeal.
Prose/Style: An outstanding command of language sets this work apart from its mediocre competition in short fiction, a feat accomplished only by writers who have mastered the art of complex phraseology and the finer nuances of parlance. Unforgettable descriptions and high-impact situations trigger an exploration of the human psyche in the deepest, and sometimes, most disturbing detail.
Originality: Familiar on the surface, yet refreshing beneath a strategically placed veil of words, no character steps onto an aisle reserved for those who need to repeat what has been done ad infinitum. Every obscure vignette and every emotional vortex lingers long after the linguistic music has faded out.
Character Development: Like a fine wine, these incredible portraits of memorable protagonists are steeped in years of creative experience, each honed to perfection. Every portrayal exposes a recognizable element of humanity and reasserts life itself.
Blurb: An astounding collection of stories to provoke, ponder, peruse, and ultimately… to feel.
by Jeff Stookey
Plot: Although this is Book Two of a trilogy, it stands alone well; a page-turning portrayal of 1923 musicians, and the gay and cross-dressing men of the era who must hide (sometimes in plain sight). Engrossing scenes range from tense to sexy to musical interludes.
Prose/Style: Lucid descriptions finely express a passion for music, and also work well in accurately depicting the era and its people. Sensuality and sexual scenes are adeptly handled.
Originality: The story of a 1920s young White jazz musician who identifies as gay and has no racist attitudes or biases is unique, but this inside look at the interracial LGBTQ+ community 100 years ago increases the originality of the plot.
Character Development: Characters can be visualized as living, thinking, feeling, breathing people here. Jimmy's innocence and guilelessness are endearing, and Chicago's 1923 gangsters are captivating. The personalities of the LGBTQ+ characters are enchanting and memorable.
Blurb: Even sensational jazz and blues music cannot transcend racism in this extraordinary, erotic story of Chicago's 1920s LGBTQ+ community.
by Panayotis Cacoyannis
Plot: This novel is well plotted, with many surprising twists and a strongly established sense of place and time. The ending is a bit frustrating in that while the main character appears to know what happened to her aunt's sculpture and who sold the scandalous story to the tabloids, the reader remains in the dark.
Prose/Style: The prose is smooth and captivating, drawing readers into a realistic story world.
Originality: The characters, setting, time period, and story are highly original and engaging. The enchanting "magic" store and magician backstory, along with the moon landing (propaganda, according to Dr. Schmidt), and Mia-Mia's "disguise," disappearance and reappearance, help to develop a theme of lies and deceptions, real and not real.
Character Development: Characters are well developed and believable, with intriguing mysteries emerging in their backstories and resolving as the novel moves forward.
by Demarest Campbell
Plot: The overall plot was simple, but the stories within the story truly showcased the complexities of life, family, friendship, and love throughout the ages.
Prose/Style: Fans of old-school classics like “Jane Eyre” and “Wuthering Heights” will fall in love with the dream-like prose here. But the sections where characters exclusively spoke French, Russian, Bengali, Hindustani, or other languages needed a few extra translations and context clues to grip readers.
Originality: The life cycle of this singular family felt entirely organic and deeply human. A uniquely delightful tale!
Character Development: The main characters were well developed and felt like full, complete beings, but there were too many minor characters. Having staggered exits for these minor characters was an excellent choice, but it muddied the waters a bit when it came to who had died, who had moved away, and who was still interacting with the main characters.
by Victoria Landis
Plot: Each page in this book leaps to the next, constantly driving more curiosity about Jordan, the woman with amnesia who, as it turns out, is from mysterious wealthy origins. Local wildlife, especially birds, are drawn to Jordan, and her awe-inspiring ability to heal the sick and injured adds to the speedy pace of this story.
Prose/Style: Although the POV is third-person, the writing is personable, much like someone describing a strange experience in their life. The matter-of-fact voice adds to the believability of the plot, and adept descriptions enable visualization of the settings.
Originality: Stories of amnesia have been told before, and tales of magical healing powers are not uncommon, but the blend of the two and the personalities involved lend a distinctiveness to this modern-day tale with the impacts of technologies and social media.
Character Development: The personalities of Jordan, Petra, and the others in their circle are sharply contrasted with the unpleasant individuals who wish to take advantage of Jordan's situation, or attack her as an “antichrist.” Petra's role as Jordan's helper feels like an “everyperson's” place, with realistic reactions to the phenomenon.
Blurb: This is irresistible reading, hard to put down without knowing what will happen next in the strange situation of Jordan's amnesia, and how she has become capable of miraculous feats.
by Jeremy Spillman
Plot: Spillman’s striking literary western, set in the rough mid-1800s, begins when Preacher Azariah DeVine, a missionary to the Apache Indians, brings his two sons Audie and Shane to the Arizona Territory. Often brutally violent, the book reflects the lawlessness of its vivid historical setting.
Prose/Style: Prose is crisp yet weighty. Captivating visual imagery and haunting dialogue further set this excellent work apart.
Originality: Spillman’s powerful narrative defies easy categorization. Raw and richly unexpected, with a fully realized sense of time and place, the novel provides an entirely immersive reading experience.
Character Development: Relying on the music they learned from their father and the skills they learned from their Apache father, the brothers travel across the country, finding love, reuniting with family, brutally avenging their father’s murderer and the man who “called for it”, until the book’s mysterious conclusion. None of the characters are rendered simplistically in this arresting work.
by Susan Welch
Plot: The plot proceeds slowly at first, but quickens with a certain delicate flow as the story moves on. The plot is interesting and emotional.
Prose/Style: The prose possesses a sophistication with a certain air of wistfulness for a time long past. The dialogue doesn’t suffer from any pretensions, and nothing feels too dated.
Originality: The story hits a high note for originality, and the conflict between close families and the war between truth and lies ripping at the inner structure of family is very moving.
Character Development: The characters are relatable, not all likable, but their foibles and strengths embolden the readers’ reaction to them and identifying with the book’s cast. The characters make the story eminently more readable.
by Jeremy Bradley-Silverio Donato
Plot: Infused with a powerful message, this love story about two men from differing cultural backgrounds touches the heart and the mind in an exploration of trust and betrayal, rarely succumbing to trite idealism. Infected with HIV after the course of an intense liaison, one man discovers that passion is not a predictor of the future, while the other learns that guilt is a psychological destroyer.
Prose: Hard-hitting prose enhances this potent narrative in a seemingly effortless depiction of real life. Every direct word builds on the novel’s precarious foundation, a slow progression into an awakening for both protagonists when their relationship crumbles.
Originality: Stories that shine a spotlight on HIV have been written already, yet it is the careful rendering of this delicate plot that makes the book so high impact. Underlying the obvious warning about having unprotected sex with a new partner is an even more frightening prospect—unrequited love.
Character Development: Entangled in a quest for maternal acceptance, the portrayal of these mesmerizing main characters is alternately fortified and weakened by a familiar, often humorous, tendency to reach into childhood memories. The personalities emerge as troubled and insecure, maintaining a defensive distance from family.
by Connor Coyne
Plot: The book features a well-constructed plot with a bit of mystery, drama, death, and teen romance. The author manages to keep all of the balls in the air and consider all of the problems that come with a city on the decline and trying to grow up there.
Prose/Style: The dialogue is natural to the setting and age of the characters. There is a good balance between description and action among the characters. The images created by the words will stick with the reader.
Originality: With maturing teens and a declining city, the author has created parallel opposites which will not disappoint. There is no doubt that this town exists which is part of the appeal. Making this a multivolume story works well leaving the reader wanting more.
Character Development: Strong and well-developed characters who come across as genuine. The trials of being thirteen are truly captured. These characters are growing up fast and not perfect by any means. The author has also made the city a character as it slowly degrades due to a failing auto industry.
by Vahid Imani
Plot: This book is a richly written historical and political study of Iran in 1924. The book presents a remarkable struggle for justice in the midst of political maneuvering by countries competing to control oil rights.
Prose/Style: This is a well written book and the author keeps a lot of action and characters organized. The language is succinct and the dialogue exceptionally authentic and strong.
Originality: The book explores vicious culture clashes with a light touch, deftly avoiding any tendency to preach.
Character Development: The characters are authentic and explored in great detail. They are also surprisingly complex; the author avoids painting characters with a broad brush, bringing great humanity to them all.
by Linda Metcalf
Plot: Metcalf tells an epic story of aristocracy, race relations, and societal change in the 19th-century American South. Julia's narrative unfolds in a manner that is especially intimate; readers are privy to the character's full range of thoughts and emotions. Through Julia's distinctive, genuine voice, and with great verisimilitude, Metcalf offers a quiet window into history.
Prose: Metcalf's prose is descriptive, lyrical, and lush. The intimacy of the journal format provides readers with a sense of peeking into the pages of a real diary. The strength of Metcalf's writing, however, is also somewhat hindered by the format, which does not always adhere to the cardinal rule of "show, don't tell." Although the voice is highly engaging, readers may struggle to follow major plot points and relationships that might be more clearly conveyed in-scene and through dialogue.
Character Development: In protagonist Julia, readers will find a believable and highly sympathetic character who evolves substantially throughout her lifetime. Side characters are never as rich as Julia, but through the heroine's perceptions, they come across as substantive and serve the story well.
Originality: The story unfolds in a storied historical setting, but through Metcalf's protagonist, circumstances are rendered fresh. The unique journal format particularly allows readers to witness Julia's incremental growth from an innocent, naive young woman to one who has suffered, struggled, and persevered.
by GINA MIANI
Plot: This is a sequel, but the transition is quite smooth; reading the first book is not necessary to understand the lives of Mariah and Trey, who are driven to help people living on the Caribbean island of Antillia. Many children have gone missing—it's suspected that they're being sold into the sex slave trade—and the emotion and action here keep the pages turning.
Prose/Style: Mariah's narration is a distinct, memorable voice. Descriptions of the Caribbean island are enchanting, the emotional prose is moving, and the wit is crisp.
Originality: This is a very original story of a semi-retired couple, the ex-military husband who has special forces training and his reluctant wife, attempting to stop a child-sex-slavery ring in Antillia.
Character Development: At first the marriage between Mariah and Trey seems almost too perfect, but their troubles give the relationship texture. Both have well-rounded personalities, and the additional characters are unique individuals.
Blurb: Baby-boomers will love this semi-retired couple, willing to risk everything to help the missing children of the Caribbean island of Antillia -- a place of soothing beauty, but also of distressingly dark secrets.
by Meredith Battle
Plot: Narrator Bee gets herself in plenty of sticky situations over the course of this story, but there are quite a few heartwarming and comedic moments as well. There is never a dull moment in the Hollow.
Prose/Style: Battle’s writing is funny and sharp, with a Southern twang. The voice carried throughout the text is superb; readers will be enthralled by the members of this small mountain town.
Originality: Battle blends historical fiction, comedy, romance, and coming-of-age into a totally unique storyline. Spunky narrator Bee and her escapades will not be easily forgotten.
Character Development: Readers will rally behind Anabelle “Bee” Livingston; the story’s first-person narration allows for an up-close-and-personal look at her life. Every supporting character in the story has a distinct personality.
Blurb: Go Down the Mountain is the perfect storm of humor, hope, and heartache for characters living in the Virginia Hollow.
by Christian Van Allen
Plot: Raising Mary Jane, the story of a character who stumbles into the business of growing marijuana, unfolds at an even pace, balancing the introduction of new characters and new tragedies with the protagonist's steady personal development.
Prose/Style: Van Allen's vivid prose expertly balances pragmatic storytelling with more introspective lyricism. The author establishes a striking sense of place, both through descriptive passages and historical references.
Originality: Though Van Allen's narrative follows a somewhat familiar trajectory, the author ultimately offers an energetic underdog story with poetic flare and charisma.
Character Development: Wesley isn’t a terribly deep character, but he is eager to learn, and as the story progresses, he trades his naivety for maturity, his hesitancy for sureness. Before the reader's eyes, he grows and transforms into a memorable and impactful protagonist.
by William Harms
Plot: Set in an evocative historical setting, this novel casts a spell on readers. Harms effectively builds and sustains tension, allowing the story to unfurl in a manner that feels both organic and finessed. A rather hasty conclusion detracts somewhat from the otherwise gracefully paced narrative.
Prose/Style: The author's polished prose revives what might otherwise be a standard tale of brutality and revenge; Harms writes with a rolling staccato and a minimalism that is sharply resonant.
Originality: Harms delivers an atmospheric narrative enriched by incisive descriptions and a vivid sense of place. The novel is reminiscent of classic westerns in terms of structure, tone, and plot elements, but its literary undercurrents allow it to stand apart. Readers may draw comparisons to Patrick deWitt's The Sisters Brothers.
Character Development: Character development is implemented well here, but is secondary to the novel's rich sense of place and its deeply visceral descriptions. Individuals seem almost to be extensions of the landscape of the American South rather than wholly formed individuals--an attribute of the novel that is not necessarily a detriment.