2021 in Review: Lillian McCurry, Staff Reviewer’s Top 5 books

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Staff-Picks.jpg

2021 in Review
 
The Team at YAbookscentral.com have worked hard all year reading wonderful books and creating insightful reviews to help readers find their next great read. 
 
The staff has reflected on their top 5 favorite books of 2021.  We hope you are inspired to check out these great books too! Feel free to share your Top 5 books in the comments as well!
 
 
 
Today we are featuring Lillian McCurry. She is Co-Manager of our Indie Department and a Staff Reviewer at YABC. 
Here are her Top 5 books of 2021 (In no particular order):
 
 
Forestborn by Elayne Audrey Becker

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About This Book:

 A young, orphaned shapeshifter in a world that fears magic must risk everything if she hopes to save her only friend in Elayne Audrey Becker’s Forestborn, first in a new fantasy series with a timeless feel. TO BE BORN OF THE FOREST IS A GIFT AND A CURSE. Rora is a shifter, as magical as all those born in the wilderness―and as feared. She uses her abilities to spy for the king, traveling under different guises and listening for signs of trouble. When a magical illness surfaces across the kingdom, Rora uncovers a devastating truth: Finley, the young prince and her best friend, has caught it, too. His only hope is stardust, the rarest of magical elements, found deep in the wilderness where Rora grew up―and to which she swore never to return. But for her only friend, Rora will face her past and brave the dark, magical wood, journeying with her brother and the obstinate, older prince who insists on coming. Together, they must survive sentient forests and creatures unknown, battling an ever-changing landscape while escaping human pursuers who want them dead. With illness gripping the kingdom and war on the horizon, Finley’s is not the only life that hangs in the balance.

 

Lillian’s Review:

A New Fantasy Classic
 
Forestborn by debut author Elayne Audrey Becker is a fantastical tale that will sweep readers into a land where magic is reawakening and war looms. Rora is a shifter, born in the wilds of the Vale, an orphan who has made a home working as a spy for the king in Telyan, the middle kingdom of Alemara. When the youngest prince is afflicted with the Fallow Throes, an unknown magical disease that is infecting those with no magic, Rora is tasked with returning to the Vale to find stardust, the only hope of saving her friend. Traveling with her and her brother is the prince’s stern older brother. Old alliances will be tested and new ones forged as the quest tests the limits of their minds and bodies.

I simply adored this book! There is so much to unpack here. Rora is a fantastic narrator for our story. Told entirely from her perspective, the reader gets a glimpse at not only her current experiences, but the past that shapes her view of them. As a shifter, Rora has faced discrimination simply for being born with magic. She’s been called a monster and worse by those that fear the Prediction (more on that in a moment), yet she’s always faced it head on with her brother. Helos lends her strength and courage when she has none. I found Rora fascinating and loved her character’s arc throughout the story. So much happens to her, and she grows from it.

Helos is a tough one. Seen through Rora’s eyes, I wanted to love him. But to the reader looking in, it is clear that Rora sees him through rose colored glasses. He is broken, and he isn’t as selfless as she thinks he is. He is perfectly flawed, and Rora’s realization of that is heartbreaking and a turning point for her.

Then there is Weslyn, the elder prince. Rora describes him as an oak, steady and always there. I found this to be true. Weslyn is steadfast and a quiet observer. He studies his surroundings and the people he encounters and is not quick to pass judgment. Despite his and Rora’s differences, the two are quite alike.

The youngest prince’s illness becomes the catalyst for the plot. Building slowly, introducing the key characters and building the world around them, I was completely immersed. The beautiful and stunning imagery of the landscape and animals they encounter on their journey come to life on the pages, not to mention the action and danger that threatens at every turn. I cannot wait to return to this world in the sequel.

Final Thought: With an intricately built world, fully fleshed out characters, and magical prose to match, Forestborn by Elayne Audrey Becker is an instant classic and deserving of space on every fantasy-lover’s shelf.

 
 

*Find More Info & Buy This Book HERE!*

 
 
 
 
 
House of Eclipses by Casey L. Bond

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About This Book:

Capture his heart.
Steal his crown.

Noor is the unwanted, unloved third born of the Aten, chosen vessel of the sun goddess, Sol. While she has no chance at inheriting her father’s title, what she truly longs for is peace from his unrelenting hatred. Hope builds that she may finally be able to claim that reprieve when a missive arrives from the House of the Moon.

The new Lumin, chosen of the moon god, Lumos, seeks to broker peace with the Kingdom of Helios for the first time in ages. He envisions open trade routes and an end to archaic rivalries. His dedication to this cause extends to visions of a union between the two families by marrying one of Aten’s daughters, if one of the matches is a fit. 

Driven by his own twisted agenda, Noor’s father is willing to sacrifice his daughters as pawns to steal the crown for him to further his despotic reign, pitting sister against sister in a brutal battle for power. But Noor must come out the victor, either by capturing the Lumin’s heart or stealing his crown. For whomever wears the crown of moonlight, holds the power of the moon itself. With such strength at her command, she could finally defeat her tyrannical father.

Yet this endeavor cannot be accomplished without great sacrifice. As Noor learns more about Lumin Caelum, guilt over her betrayal consumes her, burning hot as the sun itself. If only he wasn’t kind, and selfless, and exactly what she wanted. If only she had greater dominion over her heart…

Can Noor carry out her plan and end her father’s vile reign? Or will unlikely alliances allow a new day to dawn?

 

Lillian’s Review:

Betrayal and Romance Abound
House of Eclipses is the first book in a brand new duology from author Casey L. Bond. As the third daughter of the Aten of Helios, Noor is not expected to inherit her father’s throne. So when the ruler of Lumina reaches out to the Aten to strike a deal to join their houses, the Aten hatches a plan of his own. What if he brings his second and third-born daughters to present to the Lumin and plants them to steal his mythical crown?

I like Noor. She is a complex creature, but one that I rooted for from the start. Her father is a cruel, abusive man who only wants more power and will stop at nothing to get it. When Noor learns that she is to potentially wed the Lumin and that her father wants the crown, she knows she has to find the crown before her sister and use it for herself and Helios. Noor is fierce, brave, cunning, but also empathetic and kind. I loved how the author depicts Noor with her every interaction with her sisters, father, priests, even the servants. Each different interaction shapes Noor, and I loved her by the end!

Caelum is a breath of fresh air. I adored him, and it was easy to see why Noor can’t resist him and questions her own plans. He’s kind and caring, steadfast and loyal. His people love him, which strikes a chord with Noor when all she has to compare to is the hatred she feels for her father.

Perhaps my favorite thing about Bond’s books is the world-building. It’s immersive and vivid. I love this world, though I’m not sure I’d want to live there. The mythology surrounding it ties greatly into the plot and what is driving Noor. There are two kingdoms, Helios and Lumina. Helios is the land of the Sun-goddess, and Lumina is the land of the Moon-god. To be honest, I could read an entire book on their kingdoms and gods. Lumos and Sol’s story is heartbreaking in and of itself, but the consequences of their love is even more so and that is the time period in which Noor lives.

Overall I loved House of Eclipses. Noor’s journey from the land of the sun to the moon kingdom is both inspiring and heartbreaking as she discovers herself and what fate has in store for her. If you enjoy fantasy, magic, and romance, you are in for a treat with this one.

Final Thought: Beautifully written, House of Eclipses sends readers on Noor’s journey, packed full of first love, intrigue, and the heartbreak of betrayal.

 
*Find More Info & Buy This Book HERE!*
 
 
 
Six Crimson Cranes by Elizabeth Lim
 
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About This Book:

A princess in exile, a shapeshifting dragon, six enchanted cranes, and an unspeakable curse… Drawing from fairy tales and East Asian folklore, this original fantasy from the author of Spin the Dawn is perfect for fans of Shadow and Bone. Shiori’anma, the only princess of Kiata, has a secret. Forbidden magic runs through her veins. Normally she conceals it well, but on the morning of her betrothal ceremony, Shiori loses control. At first, her mistake seems like a stroke of luck, forestalling the wedding she never wanted. But it also catches the attention of Raikama, her stepmother. A sorceress in her own right, Raikama banishes the young princess, turning her brothers into cranes. She warns Shiori that she must speak of it to no one: for with every word that escapes her lips, one of her brothers will die. Penniless, voiceless, and alone, Shiori searches for her brothers, and uncovers a dark conspiracy to seize the throne. Only Shiori can set the kingdom to rights, but to do so she must place her trust in a paper bird, a mercurial dragon, and the very boy she fought so hard not to marry. And she must embrace the magic she’s been taught all her life to forswear–no matter what the cost. Weaving together elements of The Wild Swans, Cinderella, the legend of Chang E, and the Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, Elizabeth Lim has crafted a fantasy like no other, and one that will stay with readers long after they’ve turned the last page.

 
Lillian’s Review:
 
Beautifully Written Fairytale, 2021’s Must Read
 
Six Crimson Cranes by Elizabeth Lim is a beautifully written fairy tale that whisks the reader away from reality to a world of adventure, magic, and romance. I devoured this story in just a few days, not wanting to set it down. Shiori and her brothers, Kiki and Seryu, and Takkan are just a few of the characters I fell in love with. While this book is a retelling (The Wild Swans I believe), it is also steeped in Asian mythology and folklore and even set in the same world as Lim’s The Blood of Stars duet. Six Crimson Cranes didn’t just set the bar, it shattered the ceiling of my expectations becoming my favorite book so far this year.

As the only princess of Kiata, it is Shiori’s duty to marry. On the eve of her betrothal, she drowns trying to save her paper bird and friend Kiki. Kiki shouldn’t exist, yet somehow she does. Shiori brought her to life with her natural magic, magic that is forbidden in Kiata. I love Kiki. She is high-spirited and feisty, bringing levity to the story. But I digress, Shiori is saved from drowning by a young dragon Seryu, the grandson of the Dragon King. Seryu is another interesting character. He pushes Shiori out of her comfort zone, teaching her to wield her magic to make her less dangerous.

When an accident leads Shiori to discover her stepmother’s hidden magic, she seeks her six older brothers’ help. Instead what happens is that Raikama is able to curse them all. Shiori is cursed to wear a bowl on her head and told that for every sound that escapes her mouth, one of her brothers will die. Her brothers are also cursed to live as swans during the day and men at night. A glamour is placed over them so that none will recognize the emperor’s children, and they are scattered.

This is where Shiori’s story truly begins. I love Shiori. She’s strong, courageous, and at times brash. She’s bold in her convictions, loyal to her family, and loves with her whole heart. Despite all these things, she’s immature and speaks before thinking, hurting people without ever realizing it. Shiori’s curse changes so much about her. The somewhat spoiled princess doesn’t have a dime to her name, and with her glamour, no one will even offer to help. I love how Shiori works through each of her problems, overcoming them and becoming stronger because of her circumstances instead of letting them break her.

Then there is Takkan. He is Shiori’s betrothed, shunned by her when she ran from their ceremony. Despite that, he risks his life to search for the royal children who have gone missing. His loyalty is just one of the many reasons I fell in love with him. He is kind above all else. He shows favor to those less fortunate than him, and he does it all with a smile. His goodness is shown through all the little interactions he has with Shiori, even when he doesn’t know her identity.

Overall I loved Six Crimson Cranes. The complexity of the plot and the gorgeously flawed characters kept me engaged with the story long after it ended. I cannot wait to read the next installment and find out more about Shiori, Takkan, and her brothers. If you are a fan of fairy tales, this one should be high on your list of books to read.

 
 *Find More Info & Buy This Book HERE!*
 

 

 
What Once Was Mine by Liz Braswell
 

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About This Book:

The 12th installment in the New York Times best-selling series asks: What if Rapunzel’s mother drank a potion from the wrong flower? Desperate to save the life of their queen and her unborn child, the good people of Corona search for the all-healing Sundrop flower to cure her—but mistakenly acquire the shimmering Moondrop flower instead. Nonetheless it heals the queen, and she delivers a healthy baby girl with hair as silver and gray as the moon. With it comes dangerous magical powers: the power to hurt, not heal. For her safety and the safety of the kingdom, Rapunzel is locked in a tower and put under the care of powerful goodwife, Mother Gothel. For eighteen years Rapunzel stays locked away, knowing she must protect others from her magical hair. But when she leaves the only home she’s ever known, wanting only to see the floating lights that appear on her birthday, she gets caught up in an adventure across the kingdom with two thieves—a young woman named Gina, and Flynn Rider, a rogue on the run. Before she can reach her happy ending, Rapunzel learns that there may be more to her story, and her magical tresses, than she ever knew.

 

 

Lillian’s Review:

As Engaging, Entertaining, and Heartfelt as the Cartoon It’s Based On
 
 
What Once Was Mine by Liz Braswell is the twelfth installment of the series A Twisted Tale that takes a single action in a fairy tale and asks “What if”. This time the question is “What if Rapunzel’s mother drank a potion from the wrong flower?” I quite honestly loved this book. From start to finish, it is engaging, entertaining, and heartfelt, much like the cartoon version it is based on. Braswell does something that I haven’t seen her do before here: she writes a story within a story.

In the same vein as The Princess Bride, the story begins with Brendan at a hospital with his younger sister who has cancer and is receiving treatment. To cheer her up and not read the same story he has read more times than he can count, he decides to tell her his own Rapunzel story. I love Brendan’s version of the story. I also love how Daniella continuously interrupts the story to interject her own thoughts about what should happen next. It brings levity to the story while also bringing awareness to childhood cancer, which is a cause near and dear to my own heart.

In Brendan’s story, Rapunzel’s mother drinks a potion from the Moondrop flower, and so her healing powers are much different. Rapunzel’s hair is now silver instead of gold, and her power is tied to the moon. Instead of healing, her hair can kill. With broken hearts, her parents send her away to learn how to control her magic and hopefully one day return, but Mother Gothel has other plans.

Rapunzel is not quite as naive as she is in the origin cartoon. She is still unused to the world at large, but she is more scared of killing others than of them hurting her. In fact, I’d say she’s quite fearless in that she quickly trusts those around her, knowing that if it comes down to it, she can protect herself. I loved reading how her character grows and learns through her adventure to see the floating lights.

Flynn is not my favorite character though as he is in the source material. While I like him, Gina is my favorite. Gina is a new character created by Brendan for the story. She is like a female Flynn. She’s daring and courageous and wants nothing more than to be a ruffian as Rapunzel calls them. When she crosses paths with Rapunzel, she promises to help her find Flynn Rider in exchange for a bit of gold and notoriety.

Overall, I really enjoyed What Once Was Mine. Rapunzel’s journey is more here than in the cartoon, and it is even more accurate to history at the time the story is set during. I loved the characters and bits of history Braswell adds to the story. Again I loved the story within a story as well. Brendan and Daniella are fun, even if their presence isn’t always seen. If you are a fan of this series or a fan of fairy tales, I highly recommend this one!

*This review first appeared on Mom with a Reading Problem. You can find it here: https://momwithareadingproblem.com/2021/09/review-what-once-was-mine-by-liz-braswell

 
 

*Find More Info & Buy This Book HERE!*

 

 

  

Small Favors by Erin A. Craig

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About This Book:

THE INSTANT NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • From the critically-acclaimed author of House of Salt and Sorrows comes a mesmerizing and chilling fairy-talesque novel about Ellerie Downing, a young woman in a small town with monsters lurking in the trees and dark desires hidden in the shadows—in Amity Falls, nothing is more dangerous than a wish come true.
 
“Unique, enchanting, and haunting.”—Brigid Kemmerer, New York Times bestselling author of the Cursebreaker series

“Full of beasts, bargains, and blood, Small Favors is a folk horror tale that feels like a classic but is utterly fresh. Sweet, dark, and complex as wildflower honey.”—Hannah Whitten, New York Times bestselling author of For the Wolf

“A deliciously dark fairy tale filled with bone-chilling horror and breathtaking romance that will keep you turning the pages long into the night.”—Kara Thomas, author of The Cheerleaders and That Weekend

“As dark and romantic as it haunting, Small Favors is an eerie fairytale that I couldn’t put down.”—Alexis Henderson, author of The Year of the Witching

Ellerie Downing is waiting for something to happen. Life in isolated Amity Falls, surrounded by an impenetrable forest, has a predictable sameness. Her days are filled with tending to her family’s beehives, chasing after her sisters, and dreaming of bigger things while her twin, Samuel, is free to roam as he wishes.

Early town settlers fought off monstrous creatures in the woods, and whispers that the creatures still exist keep the Downings and their neighbors from venturing too far. When some townsfolk go missing on a trip to fetch supplies, a heavy unease settles over the Falls.

Strange activities begin to plague the town, and as the seasons change, it’s clear that something is terribly wrong. The creatures are real, and they’re offering to fulfill the residents’ deepest desires, however grand, for just a small favor. These seemingly trifling demands, however, hide sinister intentions. Soon Ellerie finds herself in a race against time to stop Amity Falls, her family, and the boy she loves from going up in flames.

 

Lillian’s Review:

As Haunting As It is Captivating
 
 
SMALL FAVORS by Erin A. Craig is a haunting YA fantasy that will keep readers guessing to the bitter end. The story follows Ellerie and the Downing family as their town faces a supply shortage that may not see them through winter. Ellerie is a young woman on the cusp of adulthood who feels inadequate when measured against her twin brother. She works hard at everything she does, taking on extra tasks and basking in her father’s attention as they care for the bees she loves so much. After some strange occurrences including malformed animals and strange weather patterns coupled with desperation as supplies begin to run low, neighbor turns on neighbor and the little town of Amity Falls may crumble with it.

I enjoyed this one from start to finish. Ellerie makes for a wonderful narrator as the story plays out through her perspective. I learned a lot about her family’s apiary, the family dynamics, and the people of Amity Falls. After a fire leaves her mother injured, Ellerie’s parents must head to the city to find help at the hospital. Because winter is approaching, the pass will be closed, and they will not be able to return until after the thaw. That leaves the youngest sisters in the care of Ellerie and her twin. But Sam is shirking his duties, disappearing for days at a time and still taking their much needed supplies for himself. Ellerie really steps up here, taking on both her mother’s and father’s responsibilities at their farm all while making a list of all their food and how to make it stretch for the long winter.

Ellerie and her sisters are interesting characters. I enjoyed following their story and seeing how they reacted to the chaos surrounding them. Ellerie is a realistic character who has normal teenage wants and needs–she wants to find love, make her own home, and have a family to call her own, especially as it seems her twin is already doing those things. With her parents gone, she gets a taste of what that may be like for her in the future. When she meets a newcomer to the town who will overwinter there, she is enamored. I liked the character. He grounds Ellerie in the present when her life is overwhelming.

I listened to this one and highly recommend it for audiophiles. Rachel Music breathes life into the world of Amity Falls through her diction and tone. I easily kept track of which character was speaking and what was going on in the story. If anything, she adds mystery to an already creepy tale.

Final Thought: Haunting and captivating, SMALL FAVORS is sure to be a hit for fans of YA fantasy, keeping readers invested in the fate of the Downing family.

*Find More Info & Buy This Book HERE!*
 
 
We would like to take a moment to thank all the wonderful authors, publishers, and publicists out there that have so graciously sent these books to our review staff. We would also like to thank all of our YABC community members who visit our site each day.