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  • Arrows Tipped with Honey

    by Jean Gill

    Rating: 9.25

    Plot: Arrows Tipped in Honey, the second novel in Jean Gill's inventive Natural Forces YA fantasy series, continues the story of the first book and sets up intriguing possibilities for future volumes. It offers suspense and surprises of its own, particularly in scenes in which young Kermon ventures outside the realm of the living and encounters the ghost of Rinduran, a villain defeated in the first book, and in Mielitta's efforts to understand bee life and the secret history of the somewhat dystopian society called Perfection. The scheming of the Council of the Citadel dominates the narrative, despite the apparent decimation of that body in the first book; a strong theme here is the ease with which victories can get corrupted. The novel's incidents and intrigue are individually exciting, and the mysteries surrounding Arven and Verity are satisfying, but the story reads like aftermath and set-up rather than its own coherent whole.

    Prose/Style: Gill's milieu shifts from Citadel to Forest, from council intrigue to buzzing beehive. The author’s vivid, lyric prose brings both worlds to life with thrilling attention to the senses -- and to pacing. The rich descriptions and memorable metaphors never impede the storytelling. Dialogue is crisp and persuasive, and the characters' feelings power their point of view chapters. Gill's work is deeply engaging.

    Originality: Some of the Citadel intrigue plotting (political marriages, a rite-of-passage test for young mages, a dystopia that gets rid of old people) are overly familiar from recent popular fantasy and dystopian franchises. But Gill finds fresh spins on those, and the author’s own inventions are singular. Mielitta's time with bees is beautiful yet tense, and Kermon's adventures "in the walls" prove continually surprising and exciting. Best of all, Gill's characters are convincing and unique.

    Character Development: Gil's cast are well drawn and often feel torn between worlds and courses of action. Their choices are never cleanly predictable yet feel inevitable in hindsight. That's true of the leads and the secondary characters, too -- one of the book's highlights comes when Verity, the daughter of the dead Rinduran, spurns the ghost father who has manipulated Kermon into bringing them together. The book's heart, though, is in the hearts of Kermon and Mielitta, which each power those characters' respective point-of-view chapters.

    Blurb: Jean Gill's Natural Forces series offer a rich, strange, and alluring adventure that buzzes with intrigue and nature.

  • Blind Journey

    by Donald Burge

    Rating: 9.25

    Plot: Donald Burge's Blind Journey is a crisp, exciting, thoughtful historical adventure novel that follows a blind, nameless  goatherd and his brother Zizi from their raided desert village to Damascus and then Jerusalem. The boys face desert cats, imprisonment by nomadic bands, and dehydration, situations that Burge dramatizes with suspense and a refreshing realism -- the boys are brave, but they're not action heroes. As the boys flee raiders, they discover purpose in a rumor they've heard: that a prophet in Jerusalem can restore sight to the blind. Burge offers tantalizing glimpses of people and events familiar from the Gospels, but the story's heart is always on its protagonists, who must make their own way, using their own faculties, through a world long lost to us. Burge also shrewdly avoids charges of "ableism" by demonstrating throughout his story that the protagonist's blindness is a difference rather than a wound to be healed.

    Prose/Style: Burge excels at clear, engaging action and convincing, revealing dialogue. That's crucial, because the novel's narrator is blind and cannot describe what his world looks like, so its revealed to us through the other senses. Often, Burge finds possibilities in the lack of physical description; at times, though, the prose becomes thin, with just dialogue and brusque statements of action. The prose in the opening chapter is not especially inviting, and there accounts of the protagonist's actions are often cluttered with extra clauses and phrases. The prose will grow leaner in later chapters, and the narrator will increasingly confide to the reader in compelling direct address, which greatly enriches the storytelling.

    Originality: Historical fiction set against the backdrop of the crucifixion of Jesus is not especially new. But Burge invests the material with vigor, heart, and wisdom, and the author wisely avoids letting divine intervention solve his characters' problems. The novel's suspense, in many ways, centers on whether the boys will meet the prophet -- and whether this is the kind of book in which miracles occur. That's unique and fascinating.

    Character Development: The narrator is a strong, stirring creation, a young man who has developed courage and skill despite having essentially been outcast in his village. The boys triumph over their trials but only at great cost. The book's climax is no battle or glimpse of divinity; it's the protagonist discovering how his years as a goatherd have given him a skill that can secure him his place in the world -- and do some good.

    Blurb: This thoughtful and exciting historical novel seamlessly weaves the daring desert-crossing journey of a blind goatherd and his brother with readers' knowledge of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The adventure is crisply written, always exciting, and richly evocative of desert life and ancient ways of thinking. The suspense lies in the fascinating question of whether this brutally realistic novel will or will not build to an encounter with the "Hebrew prophet" the boys have heard can restore sight to the blind.

  • Simone LaFray and the Chocolatiers' Ball

    by Steve O'Farrell

    Rating: 9.00

    Plot: O’Farrell's novel boasts a clever mystery plot with satisfying twists and surprises and inspired sleuthing from its heroine, twelve-year-old Simone, in a variety of appealing Parisian settings. This middle grade mystery is buoyant and inviting, but its pacing is inconsistent, and quite a few chapters pass before the plot really kicks in and Simone is tasked with outwitting Le Volpe Russo, a thief of counterfeits. The novel's structure and plotting resembles that of a later book in a series rather than the first, as Simone here already is a respected agent of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, along with her mother. With that status quo already established, the novel's first third offers little suspense or narrative momentum as it introduces Simone's double life, where she already knows everyone, excels at her duties, and faces little conflict.

    Prose/Style: Much like the pastries and the Paris he describes, O'Farrell's prose is rich, striking, and memorable -- if occasionally a little indulgent. Simone's world is rendered with wit and vigor, and O'Farrell understands that young readers shouldn't be talked down to. He presents a clever girl's clever thoughts and lets them barrel on. Sometimes, the description becomes a little thick, as in the multi-page introduction to Simone's father's patisserie, and O'Farrell's tendency to overload dialogue tags with description slows some scene's momentum.

    Originality: The setting, the characters, the witty mystery, the surprising clues -- simply put, Simone LaFray and the Chocolatiers' Ball stands alone as a young readers' novel of vigorous comic invention.

    Character Development: Confident, brilliant Simone is a standout creation, a young girl so certain of her extraordinary nature that she takes pains at all times not to stand out. O'Farrell mines warm humor from the contrast between patient, observant Simone and her pastry chef father, and the story gains power and excitement when Simone's father seems to become a target of Le Volpe Russo. That's essential, because Simone starts the novel as an established spy, respected by the government, and never really has much to prove to herself or to readers. The revelation, late in the book, that she's also one of the most bewitching singers in Paris, might be one extraordinary trait too many for a relatable protagonist.

  • Plot: A young heroine uncovers the truth about her family legacy while attending a mysterious boarding school in Scotland in Samuels's familiar, but beautifully constructed YA supernatural mystery.

    Prose: Samuels displays a striking instinct for crafting authentic young adult voices. Phoebe's narration is expressive, layered, thoughtful, and intimate. Descriptions are immediate and evocative, while dialogue is artfully crafted and real.

    Originality: The concept of a remote boarding school for individuals gifted (or cursed) with exceptional abilities, is a common trope. Despite the unoriginal conceit, Samuels delivers a YA novel that expertly weaves themes of troubled friendships, identity, and family changes with an evocative paranormal mystery.

    Character/Execution: Phoebe's social struggles, changing sense of self, and relationship with her grandmother are poignantly conveyed. Samuels tells an engaging story that, while it adheres to genre conventions in terms of concept, ultimately stands apart. Readers will find themselves immediately engaged with the narrative, as Phoebe is not just telling her story--but speaking truly and directly to the reader.

  • The Lake Never Tells

    by Alex Tully

    Rating: 9.00

    Plot: Tully’s story centers on a slow-burning mystery that takes many pages to really get going and ultimately involves more lengthy monologues about adult disappointment, infidelity, and local history than readers might expect from a YA novel. But the book’s heart is in the tangled relationship between its three point-of-view characters, Zoe, Parker, and Ethan, which proves so arresting from the start that, by the time the dead body turns up, readers might have forgotten the book is a mystery at all. Tully is adept at playing her POVs against each other, structuring the chapters in interesting ways. The mystery plot is engaging, but most of its significant action occurs in the past – Tully’s leads get told what happened. Instead, what’s most compelling here are those leads’ hearts and secrets, which we discover along with them, as they observe (sometimes spy on!) and get to know each other.

    Prose/Style: Tully tells her story with clarity and confidence. The descriptions are quick and precise; her dialogue is memorable; and her characters’ observations about class and their milieu feel both insightful but also true to their youthful ages. Zoe’s perspective starts as the novel’s most interesting, especially as she rages against her mother, faces small humiliations at a new job, and seems to have no idea how much attention she’s paid by the men and boys around her.

    Originality: Tully’s milieu, characters, and twists are singular. The motives behind the mystery are less fresh, as is a late-book twist right out of Dickens’ work, but overall The Lake Never Tells stands out in the field of YA novels. The pleasure in Tully's story comes from meeting her tender, damaged, funny trio of young heroes as they solve a summer mystery and discover each other's hearts.

    Character Development: Tully’s three point-of-view characters are each unique, convincing, compelling creations, and they’re more fascinating, in the end, than the mystery in which they get embroiled. Each is a logical product of their upbringing, and each is capable of surprising themselves – and readers. If the adults around them seem less well rounded, well, isn’t that what the world feels like for young people?

  • Plot: Phillip, the new kid in school in Harwood's coming-of-age novel, faces realistic and relatable student and teen problems. The only thing that's going well for him is his English class, where he reads Ender's Game and discovers an outlet for his frustrations in the teacher's daily "jam sessions," free writing exercises that jump off from a creative prompt. Harwood's novel makes the everyday dramatic and urgent. Here, Phillip's fear of disappointing his mother, or his worry about what will happen when a suspended bully returns to school, prove gripping.

    Prose/Style: Harwood's prose is clear and unadorned, offering little in the way of description. Instead, it's highly sensitive to Phillip's feelings as he bumbles through his school days and slowly discovers who his friends are. The kids' dialogue is sometimes flat, lacking the inventive weirdness of actual child-chatter, but the adults' speech is ideal: authority figures who soothingly help point Phillip (and possibly young readers) toward strategies for handling anxiety. Some passages of action falter, and more rigorous proofreading would standardize distractingly inconsistent product names. For most of the book, though, the prose persuasively connects Phillip's feelings to the scenes around him.

    Originality: Harwood invests familiar character types with fresh power: spitball-blowing bullies; a fantasy-obsessed band of social outsiders; and a sensitive and observant English teacher. The embarrassments and minor disasters that Philip experiences in Jam Sessions aren't new, but through his eyes they feel fresh. Classroom scenes of Phillip and other students writing and sharing their own creative works based on a teacher's prompt are especially strong, as each kid's writing is unique and revealing of their personas. (That's true, also, of the instructor's sensitive responses.)

    Character Development: Phillip, his friends, his teachers, his mother, and even his bullies all feel alive on the page. These seem like real kids, in a convincing world, facing real problems that readers might learn from – but that aspect of the book never interferes with the narrative's momentum or excitement.

  • Mulrox and the Malcognitos

    by Kerelyn Smith

    Rating: 8.75

    Plot: Kerelyn Smith's wise, inventive, playful fantasy sets poetry-loving ogre Mulrox on a mission with the malcognitos, bizarre creatures who are the manifestation of his bad ideas. Their quest: to pass through a portal and stop the Vaccus from destroying all ideas, good and bad alike. Spirited misadventure abounds, featuring a lavish menagerie of memorable creatures and characters. Molrox's journey is more chatty and amusing than suspenseful, and the novel sags in its extended middle section. The climax, though, is clever and stirring, as Mulrox triumphs not by violence, or by being the best at any particular thing, but by being undeterred by a crowd heckling his creative work.

    Prose/Style: Smith's vibrant comic prose distinguishes Mulrox and the Malcognitos. Her sentences and dialogue bounce along, telling the story with sharp clarity and seemingly boundless imagination. The author is adept at fantastical coinages and excels crafting character names that are a pleasure to linger over. Also strong are Smith's descriptions of her ogre village and its rituals; the flora and fauna of the Mercurial Woods; and her tender explications of the hearts of Mulrox and the occasional other point-of-view characters; and most especially her moving evocations of the power of the creative impulse. It's hard not to wish that this superior prose was telling a tighter story.

    Character Development: Sensitive, creative ogres Mulrox and Yahgurkin stand out as singular creations, and Smith shrewdly crafts her story so that the two discover each other and eventually find the courage to embrace being out of step. The other ogre characters make amusing comic foils, and Smith's raucous cast of toads, malcognitos and squirrelmonks keep each page lively, even when the story itself gets lost in the woods for a lengthy stretch.

  • Nathaniel's Got the Blues

    by David L Heaney

    Rating: 8.75

    Plot: In Nathaniel’s Got the Blues, Heaney has crafted an engaging and surprising narrative with a streamlined plot, solid pacing, and endearing characters.

    Prose/Style: Heaney's clearly-composed, witty, and sophisticated writing allows the unique story to shine. 

    Originality: Though Heaney's novel calls to mind classic works of children’s literature, the story of a rat facing ennui and grappling with existential questions is refreshing, fun, and wholly original. 

    Character Development: Nathaniel is a charming, relatable protagonist, and the work introduces a number of other distinctive animal characters who, while not as finely developed, nevertheless strongly benefit the narrative.

  • Plot: Bush crafts an immersive, often dark, and highly detailed story of warring animal kingdoms that unfolds in a distinct fantasy realm. With hints of parable, the work offers numerous layers of depth and complexity in addition to reading as pure fantasy.

    Prose: The novel’s prose is clear, satisfying, and written in a bold storytelling voice reminiscent of classic works of children’s literature. The writing can at times rely too heavily on exposition, threatening to lose younger readers, but action, dialogue, and conflict effectively enliven the storytelling. The fine graphics also provide welcome visual texture.

    Originality: Bush’s worldbuilding is unique, thorough, and dynamic, with precise exploration of the history, rules, and structure governing the society at-hand.

    Character/Execution: The animal characters are well conceived, though anthropomorphic traits often overshadow more bestial characteristics. Jack, seemingly wise beyond his years, serves more as a guru from another realm than a fully sympathetic character.

  • Moon & Shadow

    by J. Steven Lamperti

    Rating: 8.50

    Plot: This inventive, allegorical fairy tale centers on a villager who pulls down the moon. Magical realism and gentle romance allow the brief, whimsical narrative to shine.

    Prose: Lamperti writes in a graceful, matter-of-fact matter and with moments of piercing lyrical beauty.

    Originality: Lamperti's fanciful novel is tonally reminiscent of classic fairy tales, but in a modern context, the narrative is decidedly unusual in style and execution.

    Character/Execution: The characters in Moon & Shadow are more archetypal in nature than emotionally or psychologically nuanced. The manner of character development is appropriate for the fableistic quality of the story.


  • Dragon Brothers

    by Lara Lillibridge

    Rating: 8.50

    Plot: L.B. Lillibridge's Dragon Brothers stands as an uncommonly wise and empathetic fantasy, an adventure story whose royal heroes prevail not through heroic violence but by listening, questioning, and daring to upend the inequitable caste system that rewards them but punishes others. That heartening narrative, though, doesn't surge along the way the best fantasy adventures might, and the story develops little narrative momentum or continuity from chapter to chapter. The continual capturing and rescuing of hostages between the novel's two castes, the Shaynen and the Klor, feels repetitive rather than like suspenseful escalations.

    Prose/Style: Lillibridge excels at dialogue scenes, at the stirrings of conscience inside her characters, and at the invention and depiction of magic. Sometimes her paragraphs run long and lose some focus, detailing action after action without fully emphasizing any particular one. She knows her characters' hearts and gets them onto the page, but Dragon Brothers doesn't always tap into those characters' desires and fears for storytelling momentum.

    Originality: "Dragon born" fantasy characters aren't new, of course, and stories of royal succession and rebellion in fantasy kingdoms have been familiar for centuries. But Lillibridge invests her fantasy with fresh, appealing characters, engaging moral dilemmas, and an inventive blend of science and magic. Especially welcome is the book's humanistic bent in an age of darker and darker fantasy books for younger readers. Flying, here, feels truly magical.

    Character Development: Lillibridge’s dragon brothers are humble, big-hearted, and immediately appealing, as are the dragon toddler Haia, the apprentice Laney, and the sympathetic outlaw Rory. The adults are somewhat less vividly drawn, but, encouragingly, prove capable of change when the young people argue against longstanding injustice.

  • The Seven Strings.

    by Sarah Morin

    Rating: 8.50

    Plot: Morin's smartly plotted novel has much to love. Eva's journey moves at a thrilling pace that pulls readers in and holds them there. The story is intense and dramatic but never overwrought.

    Prose/Style: Morin's prose immediately captivates readers. The author’s word choice is dynamic and the tone of the novel remains unique and strong throughout. Readers will be immediately pulled in by Morin's voice and will be eager to stay on for the ride.

    Originality: The dark plot builds on the strengths of the genre and protagonist Eva has a freshness of character that readers will enjoy.

    Character Development: Eva's motivations are clearly established and is a strong, grounding force throughout the story. Lord Marcus is a thoroughly developed villain who readers will love to hate. The Fallen's Kiss, though an object not a person, is a character element whose hold on both the novel's plot and Eva's character arc makes for some compelling storytelling.

  • Plot: Reynoso's story is an immediately compelling and fiercely plotted novel that will pull readers in and hold them there. A whip-smart novel that entertains as much as it entices.

    Prose: Reynoso's prose is strong, clear, and compulsively readable. Faith's voice is both distinct and engaging, and readers will trust in her as a storyteller and protagonist.

    Originality: Reynoso's refreshing and dynamic novel intriguingly integrates elements of thriller and fantasy. There's much to love in the alluring machinations at the heart of the author's worldbuilding.

    Character/Execution: Faith is a memorable character whose personal growth as she navigates the push and pull of the powers of Enlitra, is as enriching as the novel's fantasy elements.


    by Justin Barker

    Rating: 8.25

    Idea: This gripping true story, of a young animal activist on a quest to free captive bears, will appeal to environmentalists, animal lovers, and casual readers alike.

    Prose: The story is clear, direct, and easy to follow, without feeling simple or boring. There is a well-maintained level of suspense throughout.

    Originality: Barker ignored the societal limits of his youth, fighting for animal rights from the time he was in seventh grade. The story’s originality stems from its inspiring unlikelihood and its message to children everywhere: that they can make a difference.

    Character/Execution: Barker’s personal journey sometimes feels separate from his work with the bears, but his relationship with his parents, and their fluctuating approval of his activism, is one of the most intriguing parts of the memoir.

  • Gobbledy

    by Lis Anna-Langston

    Rating: 8.25

    Plot: There are some surprises in the particulars of Gobbledy’s alien-in-the-attic plot, especially some inspired business involving mushrooms and eggs, even though the overarching story breaks little new ground in its genre. Still, that story is told with verve, wit and charm.

    Prose/Style: Lis Anna-Langston tells her somewhat familiar tale with crisp, polished, appealing prose. Dialogue among the young protagonists is age-appropriate but gently comic, and descriptions of the apparent alien creature, Gobbledy, and other strange phenomena are shrewdly balanced between the enchanting, the scary, and the goofy. Anna-Langston always infuses the narrative voice and observations with the protagonist's emotions, with special attention paid to the coming holidays and the loss of his mother. This makes even the occasional scenes that are not centered on Gobbledy quite arresting.

    Originality: For all its winning qualities, Gobbledy often suggests, in broad outline and in many particulars, the most popular story in its subgenre, "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial", as well as the many novels and films that followed it. Anna-Langston invests fresh energy and invention into the template -- the choice to swap the government agents hunting the alien with a couple wannabe UFOlogists is inspired -- but the template remains obvious, right down to the missing parent, the emphasis on school science projects, and a setpiece involving a major holiday beloved by children.

    Character Development: Anna-Langston's character work is strong enough that readers might overlook the story's derivative nature. The protagonist's sense of loss is palpable, the relationships are sketched with persuasive power, and even offhand details and remarks prove resonant with the kids' feelings.

    Blurb: This charming alien-in-the-attic story boasts engaging characters, witty storytelling, and a furry little beast that will eat anything, all wrapped up in a warm holiday package.

  • Guinevere: The Legend, book 3

    by Cheryl Carpinello

    Rating: 8.25

    Plot: Carpinello's fantasy-adventure story, the third in a series designed for reluctant readers, offers readers an exciting, accessible introduction to Arthurian legend.

    Prose: Carpinello's writing is smooth, vivid, and pitch-perfect for the target audience of reluctant readers. The author offers a seamless blending of exposition, dialogue, and action, resulting in dynamic and engaging storytelling.

    Originality: While the material Carpinello draws from is vastly familiar, the tailoring of the content to striving readers, the casting of child characters, and the integration of striking illustrations, makes this offering a stand out.

    Character/Execution: The author excels at crafting immediately enticing characters who, despite the historical fantasy realm they occupy, are relatable to young readers. Themes of friendship, trust, and loyalty permeate this winning conclusion to a unique series.