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  • Pickman's Descendants

    by Jeannie Rivera

    Rating: 7.75

    Plot: Rivera hatches a clever and fun concept: H.P. Lovecraft wasn't a writer of fiction, but was instead a supernatural historian who based his work on the experiences of the Pickman family. Andrea and Jackson are tasked with carrying on their family's tradition of monster hunting in this lively middle grade romp.

    Prose: Rivera's prose is age-appropriate, energetic, and clear. The voices of the young protagonists are endearing and relatable.

    Originality: Though stories of monster-hunting families are somewhat familiar within the realm of middle grade and YA fiction, ‚Äčthe Lovecraft angle provides a degree of originality, and the idea of ghouls that escape from works of art, is decidedly fresh. 

    Character/Execution: Andrea is the star of the story. The history of her eccentric family is made more impactful through her genuine, eye-rolling account. The decision to cast Andrea's chapters in first-person and Jackson's in third, is a curious one. While not a true detriment to the novel, readers may feel somewhat distanced from Jackson, while deeply engaged with Andrea.

     

  • 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.

  • Bobby Ether and the Jade Academy

    by R. Scott Boyer

    Rating: 7.75

    Plot: Bobby Ether and the Jade Academy is a fast-paced adventure with many twists that will keep readers intrigued and hooked. While there are a number of subplots, the author offers a consistent and authentic message about the importance of community and fighting for the greater good of all.

    Prose/Style: The prose is pulsing with positive, high levels of energy and moves seamlessly throughout the narrative.

    Originality: At the heart of this novel is the perennial battle between good and evil. What sets it apart is a deeper spiritual message about removing oneself from distractions in order to cultivate the tools to be aligned to one’s higher purpose.

    Character Development: Overall, the characters are memorably engaging. They tend to fall within the paradigm of either “good” or “bad," with Cassandra being the most complex. Jinx is the most engaging figure of all, and it is beautiful to witness how he blossoms in his friendship with Bobby.

  • Plot: Portals that transport people over geographical distances and tapestries that enable time-travel are just some of the delights that await readers in this sumptuous fantasy novel. At its heart is a story about a young girl who is the long-awaited Dawnstar that will save the world from the dark forces of Dragath. Aurora's personal quest is to step into and believe in her capabilities, and the reader navigates that thrilling journey with her.

    Prose/Style: The Return of the Dragon Queen is well-written and flows seamlessly from chapter to chapter. Oomerbhoy skillfully creates the suspense needed to keep readers engaged throughout an eventful and lengthy narrative.

    Originality: This novel contains a diverse cast of imaginary creatures such as hamadryads, fae, witches, and Drakaar. Numerous elements of the book seem to be drawn from classic fantasy novels by Tolkien and Rowling, but here they are combined into a uniquely charming story.

    Character Development: While the chief protagonist Aurora is an engaging and sincere young queen who carves out her own path, she can be a frustrating to follow because of her constant guilt. Conversely, her love interest Rafe stands out as one of the most memorable characters, a compassionate prince who cares about the wellbeing of people in general, not just those in his kingdom. He is the archetypal hero whose unquenchable love and loyalty to Aurora proves endearing. Along with Rafe, Abraxas the dragon is particularly alluring. 

  • Phoebe Unfired

    by Amalie Jahn

    Rating: 7.75

    Plot: In Phoebe Unfired, Amalie Jahn presents a teen protagonist struggling with a debilitating phobia that circumscribes her life and all of her relationships. Set some few years in the post-COVID future, the story imagines a young woman in whom the almost paranoiac germaphobia that became endemic in the first months of lockdown lingers, and refuses to allow her to get in sync with a world in which most have returned to their pre-COVID lifestyles.

    Prose/Style: The tension and anxiety suffered by Phoebe are well-conveyed in vivid, urgent prose. While the descriptions of Phoebe's paralyzing bouts with anxiety can sometimes verge upon the repetitious, the fact that they do so is nevertheless the very nature of the malady.

    Originality: To take a germophobic heroine and drop her into the depths of the NYC subway system is a surefire recipe for creating dramatic tension. It is refreshing to see a YA novel address the debilitating limitations an anxiety disorder imposes on the one who suffers from it.

    Character Development/Execution: Phoebe is a smart, appealing heroine with impressive self-awareness. The book is a first-person narrative; at times, the self-awareness becomes self-centeredness, but this can be said to be largely due to the heroine's anxiety disorder blocking her ability to form connections to others. This unfortunately also means the other characters are not as well-rounded as they have the potential to be.

  • The Wolf's Tooth

    by J. Steven Lamperti

    Rating: 7.50

    Plot: The Wolf’s Tooth is initially slow to develop, but is redeemed by the ever-changing fortunes of Twee, which make it a gripping read that is hard to put down. Nevertheless, unanswered questions remain.

    Prose/Style: The prose is delightfully lyrical in places, particularly at the opening of the novel, but is undermined by episodes of incongruous character dialogue.

    Originality: While the theme of being raised by wild animals is not a new one, it is followed by three distinct—and largely fantastical—periods in Twee’s life, which lend the book a decidedly unique spin.

    Character Development: The Wolf's Tooth introduces a range of quirky characters that will delight the reader—particularly the wonderful, compassionate, non-conforming female wolves.

  • I Am Unworthy: (Josh and Izzy, #1)

    by Angela Mack

    Rating: 7.50

    Plot: While the plot of Mack's novel is simple, it is well executed, with balanced pacing, intriguing development, and vivid scene-building.

    Prose/Style: The prose within Mack's novel is powerful and even, while the voices of the individual  characters shine and are easily differentiated.

    Originality: The storyline is predictable at moments, but Mack's work pulls on the heartstrings of the reader, allowing forgiveness for any lack of originality.

    Character/Execution: Both Josh and Isabel jump to life from the pages of Mack's novel. Development of their relationship throughout the course of the novel is exquisite, as they are characters the reader passionately roots for.

    Blurb: A brutal depiction of the impact of abuse on a boy, his family, and all the lives he's touched. Written with raw emotion and spectacular ease, Mack's debut is wrought with emotional power - and is destined to break readers’ hearts.

  • Alpha and Omega

    by Carol T. Luna

    Rating: 7.50

    Plot: The post-apocalyptic rescue trope is well-developed and, in places, has an almost Ocean’s 11 feel to it. Where it trips slightly is with the plethora of loose ends left lying about that only vaguely seem to connect to the main storyline. There is definitely a great sense of adventure and even wonder to the narrative – it’s easy to get lost in the storytelling, but then lose pieces of the plot as things progress.

    Prose/Style: Well-written and vividly detailed, the prose flows beautifully, pulling readers into a sensory experience. The action sequences are particularly well done.

    Originality: With reflections of some of the great post-apocalyptic YA stories to come out in the past decade, the novel stands on its own thanks to tight writing and the foundations of exceptional worldbuilding.

    Character Development: While Ao, the main character, is fairly clearly drawn, and one or two of the secondary characters, like Daru, seem fleshed out, character motivation aside from the rescue of Doc is relatively murky. The novel begins in media res and never fully explains the backstory needed to truly connect with the characters.

  • Plot: The pacing in Whyte's ambitious time travel novel—book 3 in The Stelladaur series—offers a lively, if somewhat predictable concept. More balanced pacing and point-plotting would surely elevate this brisk, well-written portal story.

    Prose/Style: Atmospherically spectacular and evocative, Whyte's writing soars above and lifts up a premise that, while it offers some novel elements, ultimately relies on expected tropes.

    Originality: Whyte's novel features familiar genre elements, but effective worldbuilding and rich detail allows the novel to stand apart.

    Character Development: The characters in Fraction in Time serve the story, but don’t always enrich it. The writing style can at times feel at odds with the personalities that inhabit the world at-hand.

  • The Quad Squad

    by Don Freeborn

    Rating: 7.25

    Plot: Four friends prepare to say goodbye to elementary school while grappling with family troubles and competing in their first baseball championship. A tender, relatable middle grade story with particular appeal for reluctant readers,

    Prose: Freeborn writes clearly, evenly, and effectively captures the youthful voices of the protagonists as they navigate small conflicts, confront self-doubt, and face fears about their families and the future.

    Originality: While Freeborn's quiet story doesn't offer a great deal of originality, this novel will strongly appeal to sensitive boy readers who love baseball and value their close friendships.

    Character/Execution: Though the voices of the protagonists are not always starkly differentiated, readers will have no trouble following each character's individual concerns and trials.

  • Gidjie and the Wolves

    by Tashia Hart

    Rating: 7.25

    Plot: Hart offers a fresh and compelling storyline that offers lively imagery. While the individual stories within each chapter shine, the collective narrative may benefit from a greater sense of wholeness and harmony.

    Prose/Style: The prose is capably written and immersive, although passages are at times overly detailed and clunky. Hart is often inconsistent in style, resulting in a reading experience that is not always smooth or organic.

    Originality: Through the incorporation of alluring illustrations, the reader is brought into a world filled with magical creatures. The worldbuilding, while compelling and imaginative, doesn't always directly benefit the storyline. By drawing on Anishinaabe culture, the author provides a novel layer to the work, and one that may invite readers to research further.

    Character Development: Hart integrates characters from Anishinaabe culture with ease and care. Gidjie is lovable, curious, and offers vivid insight into the world around her. While other characters sometimes blend together, and certain elements are underexplained - Gidjie is absolutely special and wholly memorable.

  • Perfection and Other Illusive Things

    by J Mercer

    Rating: 7.00

    Plot: This charming, gently philosophical coming-of-age novel provides a genuine look at perception, acceptance, and growing into oneself.

    Prose: Like the book’s messaging, Mercer’s prose is occasionally on-the-nose. But the author ultimately delivers a warm, enjoyable, and character-driven novel for teen readers.

    Originality: While not entirely original in theme or execution, Mercer’s novel carries refreshing notes of candor and kindness.

    Character/Execution: Eden is a deeply relatable protagonist who wishes to be everything she isn’t, but eventually learns she’s exactly right. Eden’s peers—even those would-be antagonists—are nicely realized and well-rounded.

  • Wheel of Katarnum

    by James Calliotte

    Rating: 6.50

    Plot: Calliotte's endearing narrative follows a somewhat predictable pattern, though the work takes somewhat too long to expand into the fantasy world of Katarnum. Once there, the worldbuilding similarly drawn out, exhibiting the occasional info-dump; the novel would benefit from revisions that focus on structure, setting and clarity.

    Prose/Style: The prose is smooth and at times beautiful, if not ultimately memorable. Dialogue is generally lively and organic and effectively drives story momentum.

    Originality: Calliotte's narrative features moments of originality, while still borrowing significantly from well-worn classic fantasy stories.

    Character Development: The central characters are individually appealing with distinct traits. There is a degree of over reliance on highlighting racial stereotypes which, while well-intended, does not always serve the story well. Bobbel, the charming and outspoken donkey, is a particularly fun and alluring character.

  • Soulstealer: Nythan (Book 1)

    by Shane Boulware

    Rating: 5.25

    Plot: The plot in Boulware's novel becomes somewhat muddled as the book attempts to tackle too many topics at once. Religious arguments flood the narrative, bogging down the pacing of the plot, and would better serve the storyline if they were revised for focus and clarity.

    Prose/Style: Boulware's prose is filled with embellished metaphors, engaging plot, and a smooth style, but occasionally feels overwritten and suffers from an overutilization of dialogue between Nythan and Bane.

    Originality: Boulware takes demonic possession and manages to make the device slightly more original than most novels, but still leans too much into common tropes.

    Character Development: Nythan is described in excessive detail and loses individual characterization, instead becoming inseparable from the demon possessing him, Bane. Their relationship, while well-developed, overwhelms the narrative.

  • The Jellies and the Crunchers

    by Matt Bell

    Rating: 0.00

    Entry disqualified because word count under 30,000.

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