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J Mercer
Shady Woods
J Mercer, author
At the start of high school, Grace James is forced to move back to her parents’ hometown in the middle of nowhere, Northern Wisconsin. Being that she’s dendrite, and couldn’t keep her powerful thoughts to herself, she set in motion a series of events that ran her family out of the very human city of Chicago. ​The stifling, small town of Shady Woods exists to allow the above-normals to live some semblance of a “normal” life, but at least Grace will learn how to use her dendrite powers in class, which sort of makes her feel like a superhero. As she grapples with accepting her new home and its sometimes vomit-inducing quirks, buildings start to burn. Did danger follow her to Shady, or are there even deeper secrets to discover in the paranormal Northwoods?

Quarter Finalist

Plot/Idea: 10 out of 10
Originality: 10 out of 10
Prose: 10 out of 10
Character/Execution: 10 out of 10
Overall: 10.00 out of 10


Plot: This novel grips the reader from the first page when abnormal (short for “above normal”) Grace James, a dendrite with telepathic powers, and her brother Justin start at their new school in her parents’ hometown of Shady Woods, where classmates and teachers include vampires, werewolves, sirens and miscellaneous other paranormal characters, and where her task is to learn to control and mask her special powers. Grace, who was raised in Chicago among “normals,” hates it all—the town, the people who stay here in order to keep the normals safe and oblivious, the cliquey classmates who may or may really be her new friends. One of J. Mercer’s talents is putting a typical teenager into a fantastic setting and making readers believe in it.

Prose/Style: The novel very well-written, with interesting complex sentences, suitable for an older YA or an adult audience. Much of the background and description of time and place are embedded in the dialogue, which is distinctive to each of the main characters. The story is told from Grace’s point of view, and her thoughts provide more of the context for the tale.

Originality: Much of the tension – and interest – in the first part of the book is related to Grace’s learning about and adapting to her new situation. In this regard, J. Mercer has created a rich environment full of unexpected observations. About halfway through, Grace learns that she is not here temporarily—she can never return home. When Shady Woods starts burning down, Grace has an external, pressing challenge to meet with the help of her friends.

Character Development/Execution: Grace is portrayed as a strong, self-confident and sympathetic young woman from the start; it’s hard to remember that she is not actually human. She is obstinate and not easily influenced by anyone, starting with her parents, with whom she has the normal scope of disagreements. Mercer describes how Grace gradually adapts to her new circumstances with a real understanding of the psychological challenges a teen would have to cope with in those situations. 

Date Submitted: August 21, 2021