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  • Sol Invictus

    by Ben Gartner

    Rating: 8.50

    Plot: In Sol Invictus, Gartner constructs a cyclical narrative, where the present absorbs the past. At first, the book appears to capture an adventure in time, yet it results in a journey from adolescence. The motif of time reappears throughout the novel as a period of measurement, age, and growth. Amidst the venatores, gladiators, and Romans lingers a coming-of-age story about an ordinary girl.

    Prose/Style: Written through the voices of young narrators, Gartner manages to convey a childlike essence without losing any artistic maturity. Cliches are coupled with elegant metaphors, creating a dichotomy between innocence and adulthood. With limited vocabulary and simple sentences, Gartner’s narrative voice complements the book’s brisk pacing and heightens its unending action.

    Originality: John and Sarah’s adventures resemble the conventional narrative arc of any action novel—a tasked mission that determines the players’ outcomes. The book echoes the same adventure-driven narrative of Percy Jackson and the Olympians but with its own Roman twist. However, Gartner skillfully embellishes a narrow glimpse of history that is typically studied for its grander narrative.

    Character Development/Execution: Despite the book’s focus on action, the narrative primarily centers on introspection. Using the omniscient third person, the narration shifts between the two siblings with witty observations about the family dynamic. Readers are privy to the gradual change in their way of thinking, as Sarah and John’s thoughts address the ordinary discomforts of childhood.

  • Secrets Of The Toad ~ Reflection

    by Trisha Page

    Rating: 8.50

    Plot: Trisha Page’s novel tackles all of the discomforts of adolescence—bullying, cliques, and insecurities. Secrets of the Toad’s word count, dialogue, and themes favor middle grade fiction. The author’s tale offers a playful approach to crucial values for early development.

    Prose/Style: For a middle-grade audience, the vocabulary perfectly caters to young minds. Page’s book appeals to young readers because the character’s thoughts are revealed through an inner voice and not written into the story. A third-person intimate perspective allows elementary thoughts to be filtered through a mature narrator, yet Page allows Emma to express her emotions with innocent intensity.

    Originality: With a new approach to Jiminy Cricket—amphibian turned mentor—Tobias the Toad provides wise proverbs, which are both fanciful and useful. Teaching lessons through haikus, Page demonstrates how three lines of guidance can impact a child’s life.

    Character Development/Execution: Readers can sympathize with the self-effacing Emma. She is placed in a world where she is expected to navigate with little control. Page plunges into the mind of a child, where small feats feel monstrous and friendship determines self-esteem.


    by ILANA G Holloway

    Rating: 8.25

    Plot: Architect Lani Bellamie, Jim Queenan’s new girlfriend, and her dog Ingo move in with him and his son Patrick. Ingo gets sick after eating a neighbor child’s rejected lunch, which apparently contained poison. With a catastrophic turn of events, so begins the mystery involving intrigue and espionage that the super intelligent Ingo will help solve.

    Prose/Style: The grammar would benefit from professional assistance, with run-on sentences and misplaced modifiers quite common. The sentence structure is sometimes a little awkward and the vocabulary is at the high school level. This story is a simple mystery that pretty much solves itself, but the writing would make it challenging for most middle schoolers.

    Originality:  This YA novel exhibits a completely adult sensibility and many of the points the author chooses to focus on would not be of particular interest to kids, such as recipes and adults’ clothing. Too much of the action is intended to showcase dog psychology, biology and training, which interrupts the narrative in sometimes uncomfortable ways.

    Character Development/Execution: The main human characters here are Lani, Jim, and Pat, but the most important characters are the animals, particularly Ingo. As the novel progresses, readers  will be more and more amazed by Ingo’s understanding and abilities.

  • The Renegade Spy Project

    by Terri Selting David

    Rating: 8.25

    Plot: Wren and her friends are misfits in a school currently overrun with election-season drama. Their internal and external conflicts teach them and readers how to overcome differences, accept differences in others, and support friends regardless of how their individual interests may change. The book is engaging and a fun representation of middle-grade life.

    Prose/Style: The prose is consistent, easy to read, and very appropriate for a middle-grade audience. The writer includes terms and explanations that are more complex than children’s literature, yet more simplistic and easy to digest than those in YA books, making it the perfect reading level for middle grade. The text is presented formally and in an imaginative way.

    Originality: A middle grade mystery featuring a small group of misfits is, of course, far from original in itself. However, the realism this piece takes on is unique to the genre. The reader can follow every scene and picture themselves next to the characters or in their school. Additionally, the detailed illustrations and directions for the characters’ inventions and methods are cute and interactive, setting this book apart from many others on the market.

    Character Development/Execution: The characters were likable, realistic, and fair representations of their age group. Some characters, like Ivy and Benjamin, do not undergo much, if any, character development in this piece. However, the characters given more focus, such as Kammie, Amber, Axel, and Wren, undergo relatable and much-needed character development by the end of the book. The lessons these characters learn can be applied to the life of any young reader—and may even serve as a good reminder for adults, too.

  • Seeds of New LIfe

    by Nona Babcock

    Rating: 8.25

    Plot: In this story of the mid-nineteenth century immigrant experience, Inga Johannson emigrates from Norway to Minnesota with her parents and siblings Sophia and Karl. Inga has had to leave behind her fiancé Erik Norskaag, by whom she is pregnant. Several surprises in the plot lead to an unexpected conclusion that is much more frenetic than is justified by the very slow pace of the earlier part of the saga. An epilogue tells the reader the fates of most of the characters, as their stories are not resolved when the novel ends.

    Prose/Style: The dialogue feels formal and stilted, while in the descriptions of the setting and action the author tries to mimic nineteenth-century language.

    Originality: Nona Burroughs Babcock has thoroughly researched both sea crossing and the situation and customs of Norwegian immigrants to Minnesota under the terms of the Homestead Act of 1862, which granted 160 acres of land to those who would work it and from that perspective the story will be of interest to readers of historical fiction.

    Character Development/Execution: Inga is the main character here, but the most interesting characters are George and Tomaas. It is their relationship that develops as the story moves forward, while Inga and most of the other characters simply react to events.

  • Irritating Adventures on Albatross Lane

    by Bryan (B.L.) Smith

    Rating: 8.25

    Plot: Eleven-year-old Sam Hastings moves from Toronto to small-town Perceval and quickly finds her next-door-neighbor Bert Mintenko is a social liability, the weirdest kid in town, sartorially hopeless – and also the one person you'd want to hang out with if you crave a life of adventure and mystery-solving. Teaming up with Kennedy, their cool and beautiful computer code cracker classmate, the three friends solve a series of baffling mysteries that have the police stymied, as they simultaneously navigate the still more dangerous rapids of middle school social life.

    Prose/Style: Smith writes with considerable humor and great warmth. Bert Mintenko, with his old-fashioned courtliness, his unfaltering kindness and upright nature, his imperviousness to ridicule once there's a mystery to be solved, and his professorial air and his vocabulary that would do a habitual solver of the NYT Sunday crossword proud, is one of the most delightful characters to appear in YA literature in some time.

    Originality: Three kids teaming up to do some amateur sleuthing is a tried-and-true formula. But what sets Irritating Adventures on Albatross Lane apart is that its author has created such a bizarrely lovable character in Bert Mintenko that it's all but impossible to stop reading – you just have to know what he's going do and say next.

    Character Development/Execution: Sam is an engaging narrator, and her inner struggles between reluctant loyalty to the middle school misfits with whom she has her true affinity and her dogged determination to find acceptance with the cool kids, no matter how boring and vacuous she may think them, in order to escape being teased and tormented herself, will resonate with many readers. But it is Bert Mintenko – the rotund, bespectacled, sweater-vested, eccentric cross between Sherlock Holmes and Luna Lovegood – to whom the story belongs. His sweetness and serene acceptance of the price one pays to be brilliant and to swim unapologetically against the mainstream put the book over the top. Bert, once you've met him, is not easily forgotten.

  • Phyllo Cane and the Circus of Wonder

    by Sharn Hutton

    Rating: 8.25

    Plot: Hutton’s novel is precisely plotted and dizzyingly bewitching. The fantasy tropes hit the mark, and the storyline flows smoothly.

    Prose/Style: Hutton’s prose is articulate and intoxicating. The lovable central character is perceptive and sincere, with a voice that bears witness to the extraordinary challenges he faces.

    Originality: Phyllo Cane and the Circus of Wonder explodes with novelty, bursting at the seams with both classical fantasy elements as well as inspiring worldbuilding.

    Character Development/Execution: Hutton’s characters blend into the fantasy world effortlessly. Phyllo Cane leads the pack with his creativity and effervescence, while the rest of his family follow closely behind with fanciful but unwavering dependability. Supporting characters are equal parts sensational and accessible.

    Blurb: A fantastical journey of magic, daring, and devotion.

  • Vandella

    by M. Ch. Landa

    Rating: 8.00

    Plot: Vandella takes its readers on a dark journey through the realm that lies beyond the gates of Death. Seventeen-year-old Maia dares the Hereafter to save her grandmother's soul on a thrilling journey, only to find the value of her own.

    Prose/Style: In the lush, baroque tradition of such classics of the macabre as Interview with the Vampire, the novel spins along at a dizzying pace. Vandella is an imaginative and vivid tale of both love and horror.

    Originality: Setting the bulk of the novel in the world beyond is a daring choice, but M. Ch. landa effectively pulls this move off. The afterworld portrayed in this novel might give Dante himself nightmares.

    Character Development/Execution: The star-crossed lovers Maia and Sidney – her enigmatic guide through the afterworld – are appealingly portrayed. The plot twists are many, and the action is fast, much to readers' satisfaction.

  • The Pack: The Dare & The Draugar

    by T.J. Hendrix

    Rating: 7.75

    Plot: The Pack blends modern culture with fantastical concepts of magic and the supernatural, transforming a common plot into a unique and engaging story. Harmony and her friends are relatable and entertaining, encouraging readers to experience the journey alongside them.

    Prose/Style: The prose is straightforward and easy to follow, making the story accessible to a wide audience while accurately convey the characters’ unique perspectives and personalities and familiarizing readers with the structure of this strange—yet familiar—new world.

    Originality: The plot itself relies heavily on conventions of the fantasy genre. However, the combination of realism and supernatural elements allows for a degree of novelty and surprise. 

    Character Development/Execution: The characters are distinguishable and entertaining. Every character influences Harmony’s journey and personal development, especially her friends Tosh, Olivia, Zac, and Renny, who are all realistic characters despite the supernatural premise of the story. However, these characters leave the reader wanting for more development and coming-of-age challenges, such as those that may change their preconceptions. Still, the cast members work together to join a realistic setting with a fantastical one, therefore fostering an engaging and fun read for middle grade audiences.

  • The Visionary

    by J.C. Gemmell

    Rating: 7.75

    Plot: This story offers a creative imagining of a future where global warming has not been alleviated. The story follows the protagonist over several decades and shows how the world changes and illustrates her part in the changes and growth.

    Prose/Style: The author writes in a minimalistic manner which is easy to follow, but the book would benefit from more description, detail, and explanations.

    Originality: This story is an original spin on a futuristic society. It does include elements and tropes that have been seen in other sci-fi texts but presents them in a novel and intriguing manner.

    Character Development/Execution: Due to the brief descriptions and little dialogue, it is difficult to see growth in the protagonist aside from her aging. The conclusion presents a small idea that she has grown from eager to succeed and be the best, to paving her own unique path.

  • The World Beyond the Walls

    by Jean Gill

    Rating: 7.75

    Plot: This well-plotted third book in the Natural Forces trilogy is a rich fantasy tale, combining magic, political intrigue, and an impressive knowledge of the natural world. But for those who desire a deeper understanding of Gill’s story — and its characters — it may be best to read previous installments; some of the twists and turns are less impactful without context.

    Prose/Style: Gill uses clean, concise prose — easy to understand without being simplistic. Her descriptions of bees, their hives, and their mindset are spot-on, elevating the natural elements to another level.

    Originality: The book has shades of The Giver, involving a world where “Perfection” has turned into a dystopian nightmare, but the magical component – and the focus on bees, bears, and other creatures – separates the book from similar offerings.

    Character Development/Execution: Some of the development is lost in previous installments — it’s difficult to play catch-up when characters have complex, well-plotted backstories. Kermon, Janette, Arven, and Mielitta are all intriguing, even without a complete picture, but understanding what they’re fighting against could be clarified.

  • House of Matchsticks

    by Elisa Downing

    Rating: 7.75

    Plot: Downing’s plot is both fantastical and grounded in its own reality, with an understandable and convincing magic system. The storyline weaves characters and settings together effortlessly without awkward transitions or losing its pace.

    Prose/Style: Downing uses otherworldly prose to drive home the plot, combining dramatic descriptions and stunning magic. Readers will be swept away by the writing’s allure.

    Originality: Reaching above and beyond ordinary fantasy tropes, Downing is able to mix in attention-grabbing elements that transform this novel into a literary rarity.

    Character Development/Execution: Downing’s characters struggle to come to life, despite engaging backstories. Isaline becomes monotonous and passive, while Johannes Faraday, though satisfyingly evil, falls short of a hallmark villain.

  • The Good Witch of the South

    by T. C. Bartlett

    Rating: 7.50

    Plot: The Good Witch of the South is an engaging continuation of L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz storyline. With details from both the film and books, this plot imagines a second generation of heroes as they band together to battle a new wicked witch. The plot is at once imaginative and classic, and the mature themes such as war, loss of innocence, and death are presented in an accessible manner for a middle grade audience.

    Prose/Style: Every sentence is written as eloquently as poetry; the prose overflows with vivid descriptions of the characters and the world of Oz, bringing the story to life and expanding the preexisting world. However, the story is so abundant with description that it can tire the reader at times. The novel is more prose-driven then dialogue-driven, which can be effective, but it may benefit from more easy-to-read dialogue to move the story along.

    Originality: The Good Witch of the South clearly outlines the hero’s journey arc, including a call to action, refusal of the call, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. Though many plot points may be predictable, this basic structure seems to be very effective for this classic story and the original themes of The Wizard of Oz. Despite its preexisting elements, this novel creates new characters, creatures, and heightened danger to the world of Oz that make the reader feel as if they are reading a different book entirely.

    Character Development/Execution: Like the original Wizard of Oz, The Good Witch of the South begins with the heroine, Sam, who then gathers a diverse set of allies along her journey. These allies, Jo, Akasha, Thorn, and her sister, Elle, help Sam discover who she is apart from being Glinda’s daughter. Though each character has a personality unique from the others and the characters do form a strong partnership with one another, the reader doesn’t quite form a connection with any one of these companions, who might be given their own backstory apart from their role in the world of Oz. The characters we do learn a lot about and who have a historical connection to Elle and Sam are described at the beginning of the story yet don’t appear again until the end, leaving the reader with questions. Despite these missing connections, the novel is still an imaginative and engaging story with meaningful messages of loss, coming of age adventures, and fighting for those we love.

  • Girl on the Run

    by Nancy McDonald

    Rating: 7.50

    Plot: This story leans successfully on classic storytelling beats – a secret heritage from a dead mother, an evil stepmother, and beloved adults and helpful strangers along the journey. The reader learns along with the protagonist about the danger her Jewish heritage puts her in, making everything feel organic even for readers previously unfamiliar with the history.

    Prose/Style: The prose is at the correct reading level for the intended audience, and the smattering of a few French and German words adds character. The dialogue feels natural and bright, and the difference in tone between children talking together and children talking to adults works well in building the relationships.

    Originality: The author uses the classic tropes of a European adventure of discovery to gently introduce her readers to the history of persecution of Jews in the early days of Hitler’s Germany, exploring real fears but leaving the solution, at least for the individual, achievable in the realm of personal challenge.

    Character Development/Execution: The preteen protagonist is smart, headstrong, artistic, careful of her little sister, and motivated to learn for herself and solve her own problems, making her an excellent and appealing role model. Appearances by real-life figures artist Jeanne Mammen and author Gertrude Stein add a bit of extra delight for adult readers.

    Blurb: This YA novel set in the early days of Hitler’s Germany delivers a satisfying coming-of-age adventure for its clever young protagonist within a gently curated context of historical realism.

  • Earth's Last Ships: The Minotaur

    by Ryan Rodriguez

    Rating: 7.50

    Plot: The third in Ryan Rodriguez’s Earth’s Last Ships trilogy, The Minotaur has a ragtag crew of refugees from the blue planet arriving on Lincrest where, to the current inhabitants, they are alien invaders. The plan is to colonize the planet and destroy the indigenous population, whatever or whoever they might be. But they turn out to be almost human… factions of squabbling dwarf-like beings to whom Ott makes protestations of friendship and toward whom he feels a sense of moral superiority.

    Prose: The prose is highly descriptive and engaging, though there are moments when the action slows due to unnecessarily complex and wordy passages.

    Originality: The trope of technologically superior beings attacking less technologically sophisticated cultures and exploiting their natural resources, is well-known in fiction. Regardless, Rodriguez is skilled at worldbuilding, with vivid descriptions of various kinds of technology, including a plethora of weaponry, that might exist in a futuristic interplanetary realm. The illustrations by Everette Brown, Gabriel De Leon, and Joshua Morley-Smith are expertly executed and an unusual and helpful feature in a book for this audience. 

    Character/Execution: The novel focuses heavily on describing an alien world; the characters in that world have few distinctions other than those that embody the nature of their species. However, several fantastic beasts such as madocs, zobas, monstrous wolves, and beings that the original population call Gods, add interest.

  • Arty and The Forest of the Forsaken

    by Nicholas Jauregui

    Rating: 7.25

    Plot: As readers dive into the main story, they will see concepts that relate to young, likely middle-grade audiences. Arty embarks on a life-changing journey and encounters mystical and dangerous events, while still staying true to the relatable experiences of adolescent life, such as dealing with change, coming of age, and fostering memorable and life-changing friendships.

    Prose/Style: With a clear and engaging voice, the entire story is very professionally executed. However, the pacing could be evened out and the transitions between scenes are not always clear. Many descriptions are relatively brief in favor of moving the plot along, but vivacious nonetheless.

    Originality: A mixture of humor, haunting images, magic, and dynamic friendships, the manuscript takes classic tropes and plot points and adapts them to a nostalgic setting often seen in older works. Though the plot and tropes have been seen before, this can still be a fun read for middle-grade audiences.

    Character Development/Execution: The story exhibits a diverse cast of characters, and each is given a different personality so it’s easy to tell them apart and to remember their names. The dialogue representing these characters is realistic and complements the prose nicely. However, apart from Arty, it can be hard for some readers to feel attached to the other characters, including his friends. These characters could be replaced by others and the overall plot would likely remain the same, making this story more plot-driven than character-driven.