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General Fiction

  • The Serpent and the Rose

    by Catherine Butterfield

    Rating: 9.50

    Plot/Idea: Butterfield’s sweeping plot follows Marguerite de Valois, initially a naïve princess of France who enters a tumultuous marriage with Henri, the Prince of Navarre, and comes into her own through hard-fought battles, profound love affairs, and a deep awakening to the dangerous, conniving world around her. The story grows with Marguerite, as she transforms into a powerful—and infamous—queen, while somehow managing to keep vestiges of her youthful self at the same time.

    Prose: Butterfield writes with charming, witty pose, perfectly intoning the speech patterns of her characters and the era of the novel.

    Originality: This novel sets itself apart through Butterfield’s spotless prose and deeply thoughtful character studies; Marguerite is a powerhouse from the start, stunning in her intensity and relatability, and Butterfield perfectly balances her vulnerability with her growing skill and capacity to rule.

    Character/Execution: Marguerite is alive with poise, vulnerability, and a sincerity that makes her breathtakingly real. Butterfield animates the novel’s historical setting, fashioning character interactions that breed familiarity and arresting charisma; Catherine de Medici is a powerful contradiction of volatility and strength, a worthy opponent to the renowned Marguerite, who slowly comes to realize her own resoluteness through the mistreatment she experiences at the hands of others. 

  • GirlChild

    by Morenike'

    Rating: 9.00

    Plot/Idea: This striking plot centers on the complex Singleton family, as they face internal turmoil and an external world continually forcing change into their lives. Conflict is introduced gradually, adding to the story’s unhurried, leisurely pace, but the character-driven moments stand out.

    Prose: Morenike' crafts a world full of rich heritage, as the characters work to keep their Gullah background alive in the face of the mainstream culture they’re continually thrust into. From snippets of the Gullah language to boo hags tormenting the family to watchful ancestors, the story brims with ancient mystery alongside contemporary uncertainties.

    Originality: This gentle portrayal of a beautiful culture against a clashing mainstream is well done through the eyes of the Singleton family. Morenike’ allows the family the depth necessary to showcase their customs, while seamlessly weaving their legacy into the wider world. 

    Character/Execution: GirlChild is a lavish homage to family and culture that unfolds through the story’s skillfully drawn characters. Sparrow is a spotlight throughout, with the dissonance of her home culture and her desire to forge a life of her own making playing out in her everyday life, and her return to her roots is intensely done—while still paying respect to her longing for change. 

  • Marriage and Hanging

    by Genevieve Morrissey

    Rating: 9.00

    Plot/Idea: Marriage and Hanging is about Rachel Woodley, a dissatisfied, grieving wife and mother whose husband, Josiah, is accused of murder. When the townsfolk and his colleagues seem entirely prepared to let him hang, she must investigate on her own and, in the process of helping clear his name, her love and regard for him are rekindled.

    Prose: Morrissey's prose is vivid, detailed, and often lovely, even when describing a crime scene. ("He tried gently to lift her chin with one finger, to get a better look at the rope around her neck, but as all three of the men reported after, the girl’s whole body moved as he did so, being quite stiff.") At a stroke, she sets up sympathy for the victim as well as the men investigating her death, and brings the reader directly into the book/time period.

    Originality: There are many murder mysteries about aggrieved wives and unjustly accused husbands, but none with a heroine like Rachel. And the plot takes several delightful, unexpected turns. The author's subversion of this trope was inspired.

    Character/Execution: The characters are vivid and, for the most part, likable, especially Josiah, who is under tremendous pressure throughout but never loses his compassion for others, nor his deep love and appreciation for his wife. Rachel is clever and determined; without her help, Josiah likely would have hanged and to his credit, he knows it. Her dissatisfaction with her marriage and her place in society is understandable, though at times she comes off as bitter.

  • A Tissue of Lies

    by Mike Nemeth

    Rating: 9.00

    Plot/Idea: There is plenty of tension and conflict in this well-developed family drama. All the threads of the characters’ different motivations are deftly woven together into a seamless unfolding of events to a compelling conclusion.

    Prose: The prose is engaging and well-paced, simple and perfectly suited to the POV of a 15-year-old boy.

    Originality: The handling of Danny’s sexuality is a refreshing twist, and told in a way that perfectly reflects the era while at the same time treats it with a contemporary sensitivity. The conclusion—with Eddie essentially replacing Danny as “cannon fodder” in the Vietnam war—avoids any too-sweet conclusion.

    Character/Execution: All of the characters are rendered with depth, detail, and complexity relative to their different circumstances and motivations. Eddie is suitably curious and conflicted; Marcy is courageous and careless in equal parts. Frank and Kat are shown as both desperate and resigned, while Danny shows sudden grace in finally accepting Eddie’s help and resetting his hopes. Gram’s life (and death) are full of humor and sadness.

    Blurb: With echoes of John Fante, A Tissue of Lies grips the reader in the slow unraveling of an unhappy family’s conflicted loves and squandered hopes. Fifteen-year-old Eddie Kovacs is an endearing and unlikely anti-hero, flailing against an angry father’s contempt while fighting for his own and his brother’s futures. A captivating coming-of-age tale equal parts harrowing and fearless.

  • Helen Bonaparte

    by Sarah D'Stair

    Rating: 9.00

    Plot/Idea: In Helen Bonaparte, D'Stair tells the story of the titular heroine, a listless academic, who experiences a profound midlife awakening while on tour of Italy. Every page is imbued with longing and lust; every turn of Marieke's head; every hand gesture; every refolding of her green scarf consumes Helen. Across the backdrops of Venice, Florence, Assisi,  Pompeii, and  Rome, each stop journey becomes more enticing and tempting.

    Prose: The prose is highly detailed, often fragmented, almost painterly. Intriguingly, the narrative takes on an objective quality, as though the protagonist is viewing herself externally. 

    Originality: Tales of sexual and psychological renewal are a mainstay of literature. D'Stair takes an often mesmerizing approach that will leave a deep impression on readers. 

    Character/Execution: The character of Helen, in particular, is finely drawn. Readers will feel her coming to life via her powerful and overtaking attraction to Marieke as well as her encounters with the art of Italy. Marieke, meanwhile, emerges through subtle descriptions, movements, and gestures.

     

  • Dancing with Dragons

    by Jenni Ogden

    Rating: 9.00

    Plot/Idea: Dancing with Dragons follows protagonist Gaia's journey in the aftermath of a devastating event that results in the loss of her parents. Ogden crafts an inventive and vivid narrative that is beautifully told.

    Prose: Ogden has a lightly poetic writing style that particularly comes alive when describing Gaia's dancing and the wildlife of Western Australia.

    Originality: Ogden effectively weaves together two primary plots: Gaia's return to life after tragedy, and her quest to save her family's land from developers. Both aspects are finely executed and equally intriguing without feeling disparate.

    Character/Execution: Gaia is an immensely appealing protagonist who begins her story as a skittish loner and displays clear development throughout the novel. Side characters and the natural world are similarly well conveyed.

  • Elly Robin goes to War

    by PD Quaver

    Rating: 8.75

    Plot/Idea: In book eight of Quaver's The Ordeals of Elly Robin sees the titular character, a talented pianist, travel to France to find her love, Edwin Friend, who is flying for the American Escadrille. As exciting and fun as Elly's roundabout challenges are, there is a bit of a disconnect between each new event that makes for a less fluid progression throughout the narrative. Still, the storytelling remains engrossing.

    Prose: Quaver's writing style is personable and engaging, inviting readers to connect with the characters right from the start.

    Originality: Quaver is a formidable author who crafts a fresh and inspired narrative that will keep readers consistently absorbed. The historical era is beautifully conveyed with a level of detail that brings a level of striking maturity to the story.

    Character/Execution: Elly is a vibrant and capable character whose evolution from girl in love to spy extraordinaire is riveting. Readers will easily fall in love with her and seek out the other titles in the series. 

  • A House of Cranes

    by James Walter Lee

    Rating: 8.75

    Plot/Idea: A House of Cranes is an effortlessly intricate, character-focused drama that is both touching and involving. An exploration of boyhood fascination and wonder, Walter Lee's well-written story is an effectively paced tale of sexual awakening.

    Prose: James Walter Lee's text is elegantly written, full of beautifully written observations. His dense passages of description and deft use of language heighten the dramatic atmosphere and infuse the storyline with intimacy.

    Originality: A House of Cranes creates an excellently crafted web of passion, desire, and powerful eroticism. The sensual scenes are handled in a discreet and alluring manner,  while the work strikingly conveys Lucius's growth and renewal via his creative endeavors. 

    Character/Execution: Walter Lee demonstrates a deep understanding of human relationships and complex family dynamics in a truly memorable work.

    Blurb: A brilliantly realized drama.

  • Silenced Whispers

    by Afarin Ordubadi Bellisario

    Rating: 8.75

    Plot/Idea: Silenced Whispers is an enthralling cross-cultural love story set against the backdrop of social upheaval in pre-WWI Tehran. Gohar is caught up amongst the sociopolitical turmoil in a tense and thought provoking story which has a profound impact on the reader.

    Prose: Bellisario's novel benefits from an excellent level of description and historical accuracy which propels it to the next level. The prose is sharp, the characters are well rounded and the storyline is consistently compelling.

    Originality: Silenced Whispers is a provocative drama with a heart-wrenching and emotional storyline that is gripping and affecting. Bellisario's excellently crafted tale also provides an lluminating insight into the harsh and oppressive social landscape of early 20th century Iran.

    Character/Execution: Silenced Whispers is a character-led story with tense, naturalistic and affecting dialogue. The central character of Gohar, an adopted orphan forced to marry a politician 40 years her senior, is particularly well crafted and the reader forms an immediate connection with her plight.

    Blurb: A tense and absorbing Iranian drama.

  • Radio Free Olympia

    by Jeffrey Dunn

    Rating: 8.75

    Plot/Idea: Radio Free Olympia is an enigmatic, place-driven novel that integrates lyrical vignettes with poetry and mythology. 

    Prose: The writing style and tone of this novel is varied, alternately whimsical, brash, and sometimes even abrupt. Dunn alternates between these styles in a kaleidoscopic fashion that can border on chaotic. Readers of poetry who savor writing on a sentence-by-sentence level, will relish in the unique storytelling.

    Originality: Radio Free Olympia possesses a unique versatility that is grounded more in a sense of place than in a steady progression of plot points.

    Character/Execution: The many characters, human and otherwise, serve as near archetypes within the narrative. Dunn beautifully captures the spirit of the Pacific Northwest, both in terms of its rugged history, indigenous cultures, and dense wilderness. Though Dunn does not necessarily delve too deeply into any one character's psyche or show a significant amount of personal or collective development, readers will be left with an understanding of where they've come from and where they stand by the conclusion of the novel.

  • The Tender Silver Stars

    by Pamela Stockwell

    Rating: 8.50

    Plot/Idea: The Tender Silver Stars is an impactful historical novel that focuses on integrated friendships and women's rights in the South, starting in the '50s and stretching into the '70s.

    Prose: Stockwell's prose is sturdy and immediately engaging. From the first descriptions of young Triss, the author capably holds the reader's attention. 

    Originality: The Tender Silver Stars features an unusual and well-plotted storyline, while the examination of burgeoning women's rights in the American south, particularly in regards to career pursuits, is fascinating.

    Character/Execution: Readers will find a strong lead in determined, driven Triss. The unique friendship formed between Triss and Everlove is sensitively explored; their individual and shared struggles are movingly conveyed. Readers will ultimately root for both characters as Triss seeks to bring justice to the story's central villain.

  • REIMAGINING BEN

    by Panayotis Cacoyannis

    Rating: 8.50

    Plot/Idea: Insecure and unassuming 30-something Jay embarks on an existential trip of epic proportions as he embarks on an all too real journey of discovery. Set against a backdrop of a hot London summer that's as warped as his own fractured identity and with a small cast of characters that are as symbolic as they are satirical, Jay's experiences–almost all set in real-time–unfold in a painfully tender way that's both faraway and relatable.

    Prose: Cacoyannis's prose is beautiful and funny; tragic and heartfelt–it contains magnitudes. A thoroughly clever and entertaining read that's as much a social commentary as an exploration of one man's demons, Reimagining Ben is a joy to read from start to finish.

    Originality: What makes Reimagining Ben so delightfully original isn't its plot or even its characters–what sets it apart is its ability to elevate the seemingly mundane to a tragic farce that, despite its forays into absurdity, manages to stay genuine and oddly beautiful.

    Character/Execution: Jay is the heart of Reimagining Ben and Cacoyannis captures his struggles beautifully–his insecurity, his ambiguous sexuality, his curiosity–all are revealed through thoughtful interactions with both himself and others. Ben, Andy, Gino, Rita, and even George (at times) are all shifting archetypes of Jay himself and their presence is necessary to reveal hidden (and not so hidden) truths. 

  • Brooklyn Valentine

    by Rachel A Levine

    Rating: 8.50

    Plot/Idea: Brooklyn Valentine is a quirky and endearing romantic novel that centers on two characters who cross paths against the lively backdrop of Brooklyn. Levine capably captures the experience of finding unexpected romance, while the environs of Coney Island, Brighton Beach, the Brooklyn Bridge, and other locales, are rendered beautifully. 

    Prose: Levine pulls readers into the story, immediately creating a cozy atmosphere. Dialogue allows the characters to come to life, while Sal's loving descriptions of Brooklyn are immersive. 

    Originality: This charming New York story eschews Manhattan sight seeing in favor of the many authentic flavors of Brooklyn. Levine offers her protagonists a second chance at love and underscores the importance of community. 

    Character/Execution: Levine has a knack for character development. Sal and Terry are relatable characters whose personal struggles are convincingly portrayed. Individually intriguing, the pair have a subtle chemistry, and readers will enjoy witnessing them overcome their marked differences. The broader cast of characters, including Sal's family members and unusual, unerringly loyal friends, are fully formed. 

  • The War Photographers

    by SL Beaumont

    Rating: 8.50

    Plot/Idea: The War Photographers, a work of historical fiction with a mystery element, centers on two women living in different time periods, whose lives intriguingly intersect: Mae Webster, a codebreaker in 1943, and her granddaughter Rachel, who is a photographer and activist during the Cold War.

    Prose: Beaumont tightly weaves together the two narratives. The prose is clear and generally seamless, allowing readers to become fully immersed in the storytelling.

    Originality: Beaumont's level of research and knowledge of the history she recreates is apparent throughout the novel. The War Photographers provides a unique blend of history, mystery, and romance.  

    Character/Execution: Mae and Rachel are memorable characters who are nicely distinct from one another. Through the two protagonists, readers gain a fresh perspective and understanding of both WWII and the fall of the Berlin Wall, while the mystery surrounding the death of Jack Knight provides a level of intimacy and intrigue to the broader circumstances. 

  • Vincent's Women

    by Donna Russo

    Rating: 8.50

    Plot/Idea: Vincent's Women is a thought-provoking, intriguing novel built on a fascinating premise: the life of van Gogh through the eyes of the women in his life. Using archival sources such as the artist's letters, the author has woven an intricate plot that will keep readers turning the pages.

    Prose: The prose is clear and effective in moving the plot forward. It employs some sophisticated stylistic features, including the layering of multiple narrators, threaded through with the voice of van Gogh's sister-in-law as the narrator. The novel features a lot of shot chapters and frequent page breaks that, at times, detract from the narrative's flow.

    Originality: The novel's premise is really compelling, offering a unique take on portraying the famous artist's life. There seems to be an effort to reframe how readers think of van Gogh by focusing on the voices of the women who were often left in the wake of his turbulence. While this is an excellent goal, there are still many ways in which his perspective still comes across as the dominant narrative. The title alone, for instance, positions the women van Gogh interacted with as his possessions, not as equals.

    Character/Execution: The novel brings historical characters to life, blending storytelling, historical fact, and intrigue. The reader will especially enjoy the narrative between van Gogh and Gaugain, whose volatile – sometimes violent – relationship shaped the latter's legacy in ways most don't know about.

    Blurb: Russo's Vincent's Women presents the life story of Vincent van Gogh through the eyes of the women in his life: muses, adversaries, lovers, and even a concerned nun. 

  • CAMELLIA SEASON A Novel

    by Natasha Peterson

    Rating: 8.50

    Plot/Idea: Set in 1960s New Orleans, Camellia Season is a lively, character-driven coming-of-age novel that centers around Cherie, who grapples with a troubled home life and seeks to find herself during an era of rapid cultural change. 

    Prose: Peterson's prose flows lovingly, clearly, and, at times, poignantly. Descriptions of the protagonist's wordless journal add intriguing texture to the storytelling.

    Originality: While exploring familiar coming-of-age themes, Camellia Season is uplifted through its vibrant setting and focus on a core set of characters as they change and grow.

    Character/Execution: Readers will easily empathize with Cherie as she longs to escape her circumstances and achieve independence. The broader cast of characters are effectively rendered, while the New Orleans setting sparkles. 

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