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  • AFK

    by Jamie Zerndt

    Rating: 9.75

    Plot/Idea: Two young friends learn to cope with the pain that comes with growing up, all while working together to save a pair of sea otters in this expressive middle grade fiction. The plot turns smoothly, and readers will find the perfect number of twists to keep them engaged, but the highlight is Zerndt’s insight into building intricate, believable characters.

    Prose: Zerndt writes smoothly, with nearly flawless prose that rolls across the pages, mimicking the main characters’ tones while delivering powerful scenes through crisp, effective writing. 

    Originality: AFK breathes originality in its unique ability to interlace several very distinct stories into one cohesive, heartwarming narrative of love, loss, and the power of friendship to heal pain.

    Character/Execution: Zerndt’s characters are deliciously complex, as relatable as they are intriguing. Each is struggling with their own internal battles, and as the story progresses, those conflicts come to light organically—and form the basis for the plot’s forward movement.




  • I Hunt for Stars Alone

    by Ricardo Quintana-Vallejo

    Rating: 9.75

    Plot/Idea: 9/11 serves as the backdrop for I Hunt For Stars Alone, a gripping tale of immigration, identity, sexuality, and above all else, family, as the young protagonist adjusts to his new life in Indiana. Small moments, like receiving a bike as a gift and sneaking a burger with his mother, have big impact and keep the reader emotionally engaged.

    Prose: From the first page to the last, Quintana-­Vallejo’s lyrical verse gives voices to the inner world of the young protagonist, while carefully placed sonnets told from a retrospective adult perspective add gravity to the most serious themes, such as sexual assault and dementia.

    Originality: Readers might recognize themes like sexuality and identity, as well as certain plot beats, from many other YA novels but Quintana-­Vallejo’s inimitable, breathtaking free verse sets I Hunt Stars Alone apart. Specific cultural touchstones from 2001-2002 also build out the novel’s world and provide authenticity to the young protagonist’s experience.

    Character/Execution: The young protagonist learns to transform his fears about his sexuality into desire, and his pain at leaving his country into hope. Quintana-­Vallejo has also crafted his cast of supporting characters with such tender nuance that readers will empathize even in difficult moments.

  • Heir to the Ice Flame

    by Rose Harvey

    Rating: 9.00

    Plot/Idea: The story of a princess on the run and the ragtag strangers who help her is expertly woven and delivered in this well-crafted fantasy that appears poised to launch a series.

    Prose: Harvey’s dialogue is natural, reading like silk as the worldbuilding engrosses readers in the tale. Romantic descriptions are genre appropriate and on point.

    Originality: Heir to the Ice Flame borrows from classic fairy tale lore, adding a touch of the familiar to a fresh adventure.

    Character/Execution: Harvey’s characters spring from the page. Readers will root for Princess Nina and her band of misfit heroes.

  • Shady Rulers

    by Ira Styrkur

    Rating: 8.75

    Plot/Idea: Shady Rulers is a brilliantly realized story of magic, adventure, and discovery that benefits from a perfectly imagined storyline. Its dramatic action scenes and brisk plot combine to provide readers with a bold and multifaceted tale that does not disappoint.

    Prose: Styrkur's text is daring and enjoyable, carving a thoughtfully developed fantasy landscape with strong characters to boot. The book's often poetic, lyrical, and stirring language is immersive, engaging, and sure to appeal to young lovers of fantasy fiction.

    Originality: Shady Rulers is an accessible, memorable, and confidently written fantasy novel for young adults. The text is nicely bolstered by maps, illustrations, and a charming character index, which all help enhance Styrkur's burgeoning fantasy landscape.

    Character/Execution: The characters in Styrkur's novel are all well crafted, particularly Terrack, an exiled elf desperate for revenge against his father, King Jarsophos. Shady Rulers launches a tantalizing series of fantasy adventure stories for young readers.

    Blurb: A captivating fantasy adventure thriller.


  • Strawberry Fields

    by Patrick D. Joyce

    Rating: 8.50

    Plot/Idea: Joyce’s plot takes off from the start, centered on a pair of foreign journalists who are caught up in a brutal revolution in Prague. The action is suspenseful and dramatic, but well-balanced by character development.

    Prose: Joyce crafts a nuanced, multilayered setting that brings history to life and vibrates with authenticity. The prose calls forth the freedom dreams of the late 1960s, when political machinations and pop culture often collided in a cacophony of mistrust and passion for change. 

    Originality: Joyce heightens the action in this thriller through the novel’s vivid setting, richly drawn characters, and a forceful historical context.

    Character/Execution: Nineteen-year-old Josie, a Canadian citizen living in Prague and desperate to make it as a journalist, is a solid, intriguing lead, and French journalist Laurent holds his own, as the two work together to break a story that has increasingly dangerous repercussions for both of them—and the country as a whole.

  • Ann, Not Annie

    by Sage Steadman

    Rating: 8.25

    Plot/Idea: Ann, Not Annie grapples with heavy themes, from alcoholism and grief to anxiety and sexual assault, all through the narrative conventions of teenage romance. Through short, engaging chapters, Ann’s struggle with her father's death, mother's alcoholism, older brother's absence, and her discovery of self, are weaved together smoothly.

    Prose: Ann, Not Annie features an authentic young adult voice that is strongest when leaning into Ann’s bizarre, often off-the-wall humor. However, this humor and prose style feels at odds with the narration–one that offers a distant, adult retrospective point of view.

    Originality: While Ann, Not Annie contains many of the elements of a typical YA problem novel, its main character’s bold sense of humor and rough edges set her apart, while the outside narrator presents a unique perspective, even if that perspective can be confusing. Ann’s dark and comical eccentricity shines the most through her comics, which are incorporated at the end of most chapters, and provide additional insight into her character.

    Character/Execution: Ann Grey is a complicated, aggressive, and edgy but lovable heroine who readers root for despite (or maybe even because of!) her flaws. She experiences significant growth as she learns to stand up for herself and open her heart to love. Side characters can come across as stereotypical throughout most of the book, while some of Ann's relationships outside her family and main love interest, Danny Feller, are thinly drawn.

  • Plot/Idea: In Plain Jane Tagalong and the Magic Diary Claire creates an intriguing parallel between a young teenager's feelings of insecurity and an impending union strike that threatens to rock her small town.

    Prose: Exposition can sometimes be heavy handed; Claire’s storytelling would only be strengthened by weaving more information into the dialogue.

    Originality: By mirroring Jane’s internal apprehensions and the broader circumstances unfolding within her community, Claire creates a fresh take on coming-of-age stories.

    Character/Execution: Middle grade readers will relate to Jane’s feeling’s of insecurity. Creating sharper delineations between the supporting characters would help readers likewise connect more deeply to them.

  • Secrets & Scorpions

    by Lorelei Gray

    Rating: 7.50

    Plot/Idea: Liliana's story is filled with twists and turns as she discovers her own identity and the magical world around her. Connected to folklore and ghost history, this is a great read for those with interest in the paranormal.

    Prose: Gray competently weaves an interesting tale through realistic dialogue and intriguing descriptions. The novel flows very naturally throughout creating a stable canvas on which to paint a beautiful story.

    Originality: Although relying on folklore, Secrets and Scorpions takes a unique approach to how it utilizes these stories and brings them into the modern world. With a clear set up for a sequel and larger magical world, there is immense potential for an intriguing universe of stories.

    Character/Execution: Liliana's character is strong and expressive as she unlocks her family's past and her present situation. At times the pacing of the plot is uneven, and Liliana's lack of information about her situation leaves the reader more confused than excited.