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  • Crime Busters, Inc.: The Alligator Alibi

    by Kimberly Houser

    Rating: 8.25

    Plot: Houser delivers a fun, rousing, action-filled story with abundant appeal to reluctant readers and animal lovers alike.

    Prose: Houser's prose is clean and clear, with abundant humor and fetching dialogue.

    Originality: The story of animal detectives investigating a case of kidnapped pets is inventive and immensely appealing to the target audience.

    Character/Execution: The feline protagonists are amiable, tough, and quirky detectives, while the cast of usual suspects, are anything but usual. Houser's own affection for animals--from furry to scaled--comes through the gentle, endearing writing and spot-on characterizations.

  • Chasing the Sun

    by Melanie Hooyenga

    Rating: 8.25

    Plot: Hooyenga's cathartic teen romance centers around two outsiders who readers will embrace individually while eagerly awaiting their coming together during a solar eclipse.

    Prose: Effective dialogue and honest introspection drive this quiet story of a burgeoning relationship.

    Originality: Hooyenga's grasp of teen voices is decidedly authentic and the novel uniquely focuses on the small moments of attraction.

    Character/Execution: Hooyenga effectively builds romantic tension between the protagonists, while their individual struggles are sensitively conveyed. Side characters are particularly endearing and layered, and allow for the central relationship to gain sharper focus and significance.

  • One Boy's War

    by Nancy McDonald

    Rating: 8.25

    Plot: In a sequel to Boy from Berlin, McDonald delivers a fun, action-filled middle grade story with enough historical verisimilitude to meaningfully drive the narrative.

    Prose: McDonald displays a strong sense for her target audience, effectively balancing dialogue, exposition, and action. Her central character, while faced with often nonstop conflict, is also afforded moments of introspection.

    Originality: An adventure story with truly high stakes, this second in a series will capture readers while inviting further interest in historical circumstances.

    Character/Execution: Young readers are unlikely to have encountered a hero like Käfer Avigdor. McDonald soundly develops the protagonist's historical setting, while providing him with a sense of agency and vulnerability.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Believe

    by Julie Mathison

    Rating: 8.00

    Plot: This accomplished, often insightful novel examines, with tenderness and empathy, the life of an unpopular middle school girl in the early 1980s. Facing bullies, loneliness, and the (somewhat mysterious) absence of her mother, Melanie finds herself suddenly close friends with a new girl, Sabrina, who encourages Melanie to stand up for herself and to audition for the school play. The scenes of Melanie flowering or facing grief over her mother's (apparent) decision to leave are rendered with skill and power, and the kids' playground rudeness and eventual softening is persuasive. Readers likely will have worked out the twists well before the novel reveals them, but Mathison seems more invested in their emotional underpinning than in creating surprise. Revelations are handled with sensitivity and heart, but the narrative’s sleight of hand also reduces the process of healing from grief to something of a magic trick.

    Prose/Style: Mathison writes clear, crisp, compelling prose that deftly guides readers to what matters in a scene and omits what doesn't. The dialogue is memorable and convincing, and Melanie's interior monologue is touching. The narrative twists, though, demand that the novel skim over details that readers otherwise would expect to be given, such as why Melanie's mother is gone, or how Sabrina fits in at school. These omissions stand out, drawing attention to the twists to come.

    Originality: YA stories of young people handling grief and becoming confident are familiar, as are novels and films in which a character turns out to be someone or something unexpected. Still, the story imbues these elements with fresh heart, humor, and vigor. The scenes of Melanie finding her way to befriend more popular girls are especially strong, filled with wisdom. The title, "Believe," suggests a much more generic novel than what Mathison has crafted.

    Character Development: The character of Melanie stands out as an inspired, convincing creation, a young person learning to become comfortable in her own skin. The trick of the plot demands that Sabrina not be as interesting, and also that Melanie never notice this fact. Melanie's parents also feel thin on the page, mostly to protect the integrity of the truth. Melanie's peers, though, are well drawn - even the bullies.

  • A Young Person's Field Guide to Finding Lost Shipwrecks

    by Laurie Anne Zaleski

    Rating: 8.00

    Idea: Zaleski, a marine geologist, offers a riveting, photo-filled account of her time aboard an archaeological research vessel in search of an ancient shipwreck.

    Prose: Zaleski’s narrative blends science, history, technology, and archaeology, with candid, day-to-day descriptions of life aboard a research vessel. Middle grade readers will delight in both the mundane aspects of the journey and the moments of excitement and anticipation.

    Originality: The journey Zaleski chronicles aboard the Hercules is wholly unique, and sure to engage young readers. In terms of content, tone, and presentation, this work is perfect for fans of the Scientists in the Field series of children’s nonfiction titles.

    Character/Execution: The author is keenly aware of her readership and capably holds their interest through detailed descriptions of life at sea on a research vessel.

  • Degrade

    by Mark Lingane

    Rating: 8.00

    Plot: In Degrade, the reader is caught up in a politically complex, bleak futuristic world where danger seems to lurk around every corner. Understanding the nuances of this world may initially challenge younger readers, but the ride becomes much smoother and more intriguing as the narrative progresses and characters are made more tangible. 

    Prose/Style: The prose in Lingane’s often claustrophobic novel is tightly woven, highly descriptive, and evocative. 

    Originality: The storytelling in Degrade evokes a number of familiar tropes—a scorched dystopian world, an orphaned young protagonist, warring factions forced to compete for limited resources—but the author excels at crafting a vivid sense of atmosphere with characters (both human and creaturely), esoteric enough to linger in the minds of readers.

    Character Development: Arid is a scrappy, yet vulnerable young hero, who relies on his hard-earned instincts to survive. Lingane offers a generally distinctive cast of main and secondary characters, forged by their environments and respective roles. 

  • In Sight of the Mountain

    by Jamie McGillen

    Rating: 8.00

    Plot: This inviting, American West-set historical novel follows the divergent path taken by 19-year-old Anna Gallagher. Though the work is at times lacking in tension, McGillen writes with knowledge and authority of the late 19th-century era, allowing readers to become immersed in the narrative about liberation, romance, and adventure.

    Prose: McGillen’s writing is polished, unfussy, and engaging. The author's affection for and familiarity with the Pacific Northwest and its striking landscapes is apparent throughout the vivid descriptions.

    Originality: The historical setting provides an original backdrop for Anna's coming-of-age. Nineteenth-century society and its prejudices are well conceived and provide refreshing verisimilitude.

    Character/Execution: Though a degree of moral complexity, Anna is a kind, resourceful, and formidable heroine. The novel is populated by a broad array of side characters that serve to enrich the historical moment, while Anna's love interest is a clear catch.

  • Better Than A Bully: Carrot Top's Surprise

    by Tina Levine

    Rating: 8.00

    Plot: Levine's plot is charming, entertaining, and quickly paced. It will likely grab the attention of many young readers as they follow the students of Wilson Day through their week. The various relationship dynamics that develop feel real and grounded.

    Prose/Style: Levine's well-wrought prose is delightful and appropriate for the young age of the protagonists, but never skews too juvenile or unbelievably naive. While the first-person narration is a strong choice, it is somewhat disappointing that the story is filtered through the eyes of Tara, rather than Annie herself.

    Originality: Levine's dazzling prose and compelling characters make for a charming middle-grade novel.

    Character Development: Tara is a grounded protagonist and her journey as she navigates her guilt over bullying is admirable and likely relatable to many young readers. Annie is a sympathetic character whose optimism in the face of tragedy is sweet and moving.

  • Between Wild and Ruin

    by Jennifer G. Edelson

    Rating: 8.00

    Plot: This first installment in Jennifer G. Edelson's Wild and Ruin series offers brisk, crisp, entertaining scenes of romance, and builds to a surprising, satisfying twist. The story moves slowly, though, and covers less ground than readers would expect in a novel that spans 400 pages. The finale, here, establishes an exciting premise for the series involving Pecos myth, the land of the dead, Watchers and True of Hearts, and an exciting cross-cultural romance. The journey to that exciting premise, though, is often slack and discursive, with the novel's suspense and supernatural elements overshadowed by the protagonist's being pursued by three viable romantic possibilities.

    Prose/Style: Line to line, Between Wild and Ruin is crisp, brisk, and appealing. Edelson pairs superb descriptions of nature and her characters with sharp, memorable dialogue. The exchanges between protagonist Ruby and her aunt Lydia have a pleasurable warmth and verve; Ruby's many scenes of flirtation with her three romantic candidates, meanwhile, are tense and tender, though they might stand out more individually if there were fewer of them.

    Originality: The story of a beautiful young woman courted by multiple young men with cosupernatural connections to ancient folklore is not new, of course. At times, especially before its last 100 pages, Between Wild and Ruin feels overly indebted to other supernatural romances, especially as characters like Leo and Angel make little impression beyond their looks and interest in Ruby. The Native American folklore that the story draws from, though, is fascinating, and the narrative becomes much fresher in the book's last quarter, when the (legitimately shocking!) truth of Leo's identity is revealed and Ruby dives fully into the story's fantastical elements.

    Character Development: The protagonist, Ruby, is "Attractive… Smart… Mouthy", as one of her paramours puts it. She's also not especially compelling over the course of the novel, as the plot finds her not driven by any particular motivation or desire. Instead, she juggles three men who pursue her for her beauty, while her friends complain that she acts "like being gorgeous is a curse." Ruby makes some interesting choices as the narrative goes on, once she discovers the truth about Leo, but readers will not know her heart until after spending hundreds of pages with her.

  • How the Deer Moon Hungers

    by Susan Wingate

    Rating: 8.00

    Plot: Susan Wingate's How the Deer Moon Hungers examines, with admirable complexity and humanity, the process of grief, healing, and forgiveness following a tragic accident – and the tragedies that follow it. Teen MacKenzie finds herself institutionalized after her sister is killed by a drunk driver, and MacKenzie is caught with a friend's marijuana. Wingate cleverly structures this harrowing story to reflect the seven stages of grief, and the process of forgiveness, and her urgent, ambitious prose lays bare for readers MacKenzie's heart. That humanity and ambition, though, works against the narrative momentum when Wingate switches perspectives to MacKenzie's parents, to the drunk driver who killed MacKenzie's sister, or to the corrections officer who preys on young women. The book's first half, centered on the accident, also circles away from MacKenzie to show readers scenes of deputies questioning townspeople about the crash, examining in great detail the circumstances of a tragedy when readers will mostly be interested in its impact. One of the book's themes is the mind's difficulty in piecing together precisely what has happened in traumatic events, so these scenes have thematic justification, but they offer little suspense or insight, as they venture far from the heart of the story.

    Prose/Style: Wingate writes crackling dialogue and is adept at immersing readers in her protagonists' flow of thought. Scenes of MacKenzie's pain, rage, and confusion pulse with power. The prose, though, too often bucks from the author's control, especially in moments of poetic description. There's no doubt that the author is a talented wordsmith, but readers will too often find themselves laboring to make sense of typos and imprecise prose.

    Originality: Wingate's scenario and treatment of it both stand as unique. Her dedication to the emotional lives of all her characters imbues the material with a rare humanity.

    Character Development: MacKenzie proves a rich, fascinating protagonist, especially as she fights to hold on to her core of self as she's brutalized or locked in solitary confinement. Her willingness to forgive and to recover the full truth of the day of the tragedy are both moving, engaging traits. The occasional chapters from other characters' perspectives also reveal fresh depths and surprises, even as the story of MacKenzie proves more compelling than those asides.

  • Reckoner

    by Douglas Rappaport

    Rating: 8.00

    Plot: Rappaport crafts a tapestry of voices in this often moving, if at times wandering YA/New Adult novel about a protagonist struggling to find wholeness.

    Prose: The voices of the various narrators--many of whom are in recovery or battling addiction--are solidly rendered and distinct. Small details and pivotal moments alike serve to create a slice-of-life story that also deals with fundamental issues of identity and redemption.

    Originality: Rappaport's mosaic approach is unique, while the novel also offers an unusual blending of psychological rumination and plot-driven circumstances.

    Character/Execution: Miles Rockefeller is a sympathetic, troubled character who evolves from challenged and splintered, to broken, to hopeful. Rappaport is ultimately successful in connecting the individual characters.

  • Boy Between Worlds: The Cabinet of Curiosities

    by Cynthia C. Huijgens

    Rating: 8.00

    Plot: This endearing adventure dazzles young readers with family intrigue, coveted ancient artifacts, stirring action, and a far-flung destination.

    Prose: Huijgens authentically captures the voice of a 12-year-old outsider learning of his unusual family legacy. The storytelling is engaging and smooth, with a successful balance between exposition, dialogue, and character introspection.

    Originality: While the author relies on certain conventions of middle grade adventure stories—notably, that of long concealed family secrets come to light—the story has crackling energy and brushes of originality, particularly in the machinations lying behind the story’s central mysteries.

    Character/Execution: Max is an immediately relatable character whose fantastical circumstances are offset by conventional pre-teen concerns. Eccentric adult characters are nicely played and provide additional depth and intrigue to the adventure.

  • The Markings

    by Catherine Downen

    Rating: 7.75

    Plot: The first novel in a projected series, Downen's The Markings establishes, by its end, many intriguing and exciting mysteries and relationships. The story concerns a "gifted" prisoner, Adaline, escaping a king's prison with her newly discovered "Force Lifter" powers. Along the way, Downen reveals startling secrets about false memories, secret lineages, and portents of the future glimpsed by Adaline's mother and set down in a journal. Adaline's discovery that many of her memories have been manipulated might prove more effective if the novel's opening chapters immersed readers in those memories. The novel eventually offers many inventive, exciting ideas, but the first third, which concerns just a few characters and a familiar escape plot, doesn't signal to readers the book's charm and ambitions.

    Prose/Style: For the most part, Downen's prose is admirably clear, meaning readers can visualize and understand exactly what is happening from moment to moment. It can also sometimes be flat and repetitious. Downen is adept at laying bare the hearts of her characters, and passages revealing the inner thoughts, fears, and hopes of protagonist Adaline are the novel's strongest.

    Originality: A dystopian adventure epic set in a ruined America is a familiar idea, and The Markings doesn't reveal its most unique and inspired twists for quite a few pages. But once readers are brought up to speed on the history, present, and promise of Downen's world, they're likely to be engaged. Touches like letting the characters explore an underground bunker filled with junk from the real world's present are inspired, as is the plot device of a locked journal filled with Adaline's mother's visions of the future.

    Character Development: Downen's cast distinguish themselves, as the novel goes on, as engaging, imperfect people capable of great courage and surprises. Especially touching is Adaline's grief and her disgust at herself for killing enemies. A twist involving Adaline's memories of her childhood with Cooper having been replaced with memories of Alexander is thought-provoking, and Downen expertly navigates the emotional fallout. The novel opens with lots of action and backstory, however, and moves too quickly at the start to give these characters a chance to reveal themselves.

  • I Know When You're Going To Die

    by Michael J. Bowler

    Rating: 7.75

    Plot: Bowler's premise finds good-hearted, super-rich teenage Leonardo gifted or cursed by a dying homeless man with the power to see when someone is going to die just by looking into their eyes. When Leonardo learns that his best friend, J.C., will be murdered, Leonardo and friends entertainingly attempt to solve the murder preemptively, running afoul of bullies and a principal in the process and discovering some surprising truths about who they all are. The set-up is strong, though I Know When You're Going To Die works in surprisingly few variations on its supernatural hook, settling in as a murder mystery rather than a horror novel about what it's like to be burdened with terrible knowledge.

    Prose/Style: Bowler's prose is crisp, inviting, breezy, and propulsive, always moving his story forward and only occasionally getting bogged down in unnecessary detail, as in a scene set in a high school boiler room that offers more information about boilers than readers are likely to want. The dialogue among the trio of friends who power the narrative is likable and often amusing, if occasionally dated. Their frequent confrontations with a school bully named Chet, however, have a strained and repetitive quality, as the scenes play out those in teen stories for decades. In this case, the bully eventually is revealed to be performing his role to cover up his true self, but that doesn't make the earlier scenes more compelling the first time readers encounter them.

    Originality: The wealthy L.A. setting and sunny noir tone of I Know You're Going to Die suggests the TV series Veronica Mars, and the characterizations, especially of the bullies, echo many other teen entertainment narratives. The friendships feel fresh and vital, though, and this story's particular twists are its own.

    Character Development: Despite the horrific promise of its premise, the novel quickly settles into a teen mystery story, devoting few pages or scenes to the experience of walking through life with the ability to glimpse the truth of people's mortality. Leonardo is presented as so deep-down decent that he's never tempted to misuse this power out of spite, which makes him a somewhat flat protagonist. Meanwhile, Leonardo's pitiless thoughts about his mother's work as a Hollywood executive, her plastic surgery, and his belief that she only enrolled him in gymnastics to "have something to brag about" feel surprisingly sour in a book that's otherwise committed to empathy.