2021 in Review: Samantha Randolph, Staff Reviewer’s Top 5 books



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 Samantha Randolph. She is a Staff Reviewer at YABC. 
Here are her Top 5 books of 2021 (In no particular order):
Aru Shah and the City of Gold by Roshani Chokshi
About this Book:

Aru Shah and her sisters–including one who also claims to be the Sleeper’s daughter–must find their mentors Hanuman and Urvashi in Lanka, the city of gold, before war breaks out between the devas and asuras.

Aru has just made a wish on the tree of wishes, but she can’t remember what it was. She’s pretty sure she didn’t wish for a new sister, one who looks strangely familiar and claims to be the Sleeper’s daughter, like her.

Aru also isn’t sure she still wants to fight on behalf of the devas in the war against the Sleeper and his demon army. The gods have been too devious up to now. Case in point: Kubera, ruler of the city of gold, promises to give the Pandavas two powerful weapons, but only if they win his trials. If they lose, they won’t stand a chance against the Sleeper’s troops, which will soon march on Lanka to take over the Otherworld.

Aru’s biggest question, though, is why every adult she has loved and trusted so far has failed her. Will she come to peace with what they’ve done before she has to wage the battle of her life?

*Samantha’s Review*
The penultimate tale of the Pandavas
***This review contains spoilers for the prior series installment, book 3, ARU SHAH AND THE TREE OF WISHES**

With war with the Sleeper looming closer, Aru and her sisters are in need of an army, specifically one from Kubera, ruler of Lanka, city of gold. In order to get the army and save Hanuman and Urvashi, the Potatoes, along with Kara, the new arrival who claims to be the Sleeper’s daughter, must pass several trials. But all is not what it seems and Aru grows more confused (and angry) as the adults around her keep betraying them. Aru and the rest of the Potatoes will have to decide who and what they are willing to fight for in this penultimate tale of the Pandavas.

The Pandava series gets better and better with each book in this series as the stakes continue to build. I love how rich the emotion is in CITY OF GOLD. While Aru’s temper has flared before, this book is where her anger really grows as she sees just how unfair and complicated their situation is. Her beloved mentor has betrayed her, her mom is gone, and just when she was starting to feel some empathy for her father, she finds out he has a whole other daughter she’s never heard of until now, a daughter who seems way more perfect and nice than Aru. With Aru’s anger comes a big question: what will she do with it? Just as the battle with the Sleeper escalates, so does Aru’s battle with herself. She has to search for what’s underneath all the anger and understand what could happen if she lets the anger control her.

It’s quite a feat to balance heavy emotion and dramatic stakes with humor, but once again, the Pandavas series shows exactly how it’s done. From the pun-filled chapter titles to snappy one-liners to dancing mongooses, this is a series as likely to make you laugh as it is to make you cry.

With an explosive final scene that turns everything on its head, ARU SHAH AND THE CITY OF GOLD sets readers up for a finale that is likely to pack quite an emotional punch.


*Find More Info & Buy This Book HERE!*



The Last Fallen Star (Gifted Clans, 1) by Graci Kim


About this Book:
Best-selling author Rick Riordan presents Graci Kim’s thrilling debut about an adopted Korean-American girl who discovers her heritage and her magic on a perilous journey to save her witch clan family.

Riley Oh can’t wait to see her sister get initiated into the Gom clan, a powerful lineage of Korean healing witches their family has belonged to for generations. Her sister, Hattie, will earn her Gi bracelet and finally be able to cast spells without adult supervision. Although Riley is desperate to follow in her sister’s footsteps when she herself turns thirteen, she’s a saram–a person without magic. Riley was adopted, and despite having memorized every healing spell she’s ever heard, she often feels like the odd one out in her family and the gifted community.

Then Hattie gets an idea: what if the two of them could cast a spell that would allow Riley to share Hattie’s magic? Their sleuthing reveals a promising incantation in the family’s old spell book, and the sisters decide to perform it at Hattie’s initiation ceremony. If it works, no one will ever treat Riley as an outsider again. It’s a perfect plan!

Until it isn’t. When the sisters attempt to violate the laws of the Godrealm, Hattie’s life ends up hanging in the balance, and to save her Riley has to fulfill an impossible task: find the last fallen star. But what even is the star, and how can she find it?

As Riley embarks on her search, she finds herself meeting fantastic creatures and collaborating with her worst enemies. And when she uncovers secrets that challenge everything she has been taught to believe, Riley must decide what it means to be a witch, what it means to be family, and what it really means to belong.

*Samantha’s Review*
How far will one girl go to save her sister?
Riley Oh is thrilled for her sister, Hattie, to finally be formally initiated into the Gom clan on her 13th birthday. Riley longs to join her in the ranks of their family’s clan which focuses on healing magic. However, Riley, an adoptee, is a saram, a person without magic. A few days before the ceremony, Hattie devises a plan to cast a spell that would allow Riley to share her magic. But when they try the spell, everything goes wrong. They’ve broken the laws of the Godrealm, and Hattie’s life is in danger. In order to save her, Riley has to find the last fallen star…and she has no idea what or where it is. As she seeks it, she will learn what it means to sacrifice, to find the truth, and to truly belong.

Graci Kim’s THE LAST FALLEN STAR overflows with intricate mythology, heart, and characters you want to root for. The mythology and magic system center around clans with different abilities and connections to the mother of the three realms, Mago Halmi, and Mago’s six goddesses. Each clan has a specific motto that they strive to uphold with their gifts. Part of Riley’s journey is finding where she fits among the clans and within her family and what it means to truly act in honor of their mottos. Through her eyes, we get to see the magic of some of the other clans as well as encountering awesome beings from the Godrealm and Spiritrealm. I’m so happy that this is the first in a series because it’s easy to tell how rich and vast this world is.

Riley and her story have such a sincerity and heart that had me crying over more than one scene. She is fiercely devoted to her family and her friends. Even when she’s put in situations where she could take the easy way out or act out of hate, she finds her back to acting in love, protection, and sacrifice. This isn’t to say she’s perfect, but that she embodies what we often look for in heroes: the strength of character to put action to values and to right wrongs, even if you’re the one who has done wrong or been mistaken. Several of the secondary character shine just as brightly as Riley (in their own unique ways) like Emmett and Taeyo. Even Jennie, usually a bully, has a scene that broke my heart and readied me for a potential redemption arc.

THE LAST FALLEN STAR is simply and undeniably magic. Prepare to be captivated by a journey that asks what it means to belong, what it means to sacrifice, and what it means to be powerful.


*Find More Info & Buy This Book HERE!*

Go the Distance: A Twisted Tale by Jen Calonita
About this Book:

What if Meg had to become a god? After Hercules proves he’s a true hero and regains his godship, all seems right in the world. That is, until Zeus tells Meg that she can’t be with Hercules because she’s, well, mortal. Luckily, Hera has a solution, offering Meg a chance to prove herself worthy of a spot on Mt. Olympus–as a god. All Meg has to do is complete a mysterious quest. The mission? Oh, just to rescue her ex’s current wife from the Underworld. The ex-boyfriend she saved by selling her soul to Hades. The ex-boyfriend who immediately moved on to someone else while she was stuck in the Underworld. Can Meg put her past behind her and use her quick-wit to defeat monsters and gods alike, including the nefarious Hades? Will she finally figure out her place and contribution to the world? Or will her fear of commitment have her running away from an eternity of godhood with Herc? Written by the author of Mirror, Mirror and Conceal, Don’t Feel, Jen Calonita’s latest twist is sure to delight and surprise.

*Samantha’s Review*
A perfect twist on one of Disney’s best movies
Hercules proved he was a true hero and became a god like his parents, Zeus and Hera. Meg is thrilled for him and shocked when he says he wants to stay with her. The problem? Zeus won’t let Hercules go back to being a mortal, and Meg can’t join him in Olympus because she is a mortal. Hera offers Meg a quest to become a god: she must once again journey to the Underworld and then save the wife of her ex boyfriend, the one she gave up her soul to save. Meg must battle literal demons and her own inner ones if she wants to stay with the god she loves.

As soon as I saw Hercules was next up in Disney’s Twisted Tales series, and focusing on Meg at that, I was ecstatic. Hercules is one of my favorite Disney movies, and Meg is my favorite character. There was such joy in reading this book. In GO THE DISTANCE, we get so much more information about Meg. We see what her childhood was like, how her previous relationship developed, and how deep her fear of being abandoned is. For the first time, she has to stop running and face her past in order to move forward. She has to learn hard lessons on accepting help from others, opening her heart, and being vulnerable. Her emotional arc is beautifully written, and I was ready to sob in the last couple of chapters.

Not only do we learn more about Meg, but we also get to see more of the women in the movie who didn’t get much screen time: Hera, Athena, Aphrodite, and Katerina, the woman Meg’s ex moved on with who isn’t originally named in the movie but mentioned. I love how the gods in particular work together and help Meg in her journey, reluctant as she is to accept help at first. Especially in regards to Hera, sometimes someone else has to see something in you that you don’t recognize yet in order to find it yourself.

While I love the ending of Hercules the movie, I almost like the conclusion GO THE DISTANCE leaves us with better. A hero’s hardest quest is often fought on the inside, with ourselves, and the journey can change us completely.


*Find More Info & Buy This Book HERE!*

Souls of Fire and Steel (Book 3) by Jill Criswell
About this Book:

To save her lover’s life, Lira of Stone swore allegiance to a demigod known as the Dragon. She’s transformed into his weapon—the Dragon’s deathbringer, using her gifts to conquer nations and unleash demons. Yet there’s a part of Lira not even the Dragon can stifle, and the soul-reader must find a way to free herself before he declares war against the gods.

After the warrior Reyker Lagorsson attempted to overthrow the Dragon, Reyker’s soul was fractured. Now, he’s a shadow of his former self, and his battle-madness grows stronger by the day. Reyker will stop at nothing to kill the Dragon and his mysterious death-bringer before his curse consumes him.

In the final installment of the Frozen Sun Saga, Lira and Reyker face off as enemies, confront their worst nightmares, and make their last stand against the Dragon. But can a god be killed? And if so, at what cost?

*Samantha’s Review*
Stunning conclusion to the Frozen Sun series
Lira and Reyker have been separated once again. Lira is now under Draki’s control, becoming his death-bringer and conquering nations in his name. After Lira altered Reyker’s mind, his soul is fractured, and his memories are distant. He battle madness urges him to defeat Draki at all costs, even if that means making unforgivable choices. If the two of them want to break free of Draki and end the war for good, they will have to make brutal choices and may lose their humanity in the process.

SOULS OF FIRE AND STEEL is a heart-racing, brutal, and emotional conclusion to the Frozen Sun saga. While prior books have never shied away from the harshness and cruelty of the war Reyker and Lira are fighting, SOULS OF FIRE AND STEEL went way darker than expected. Morality turns completely gray, and Reyker and Lira both make hard, potentially unforgivable choices. As the war between the gods erupts, even winning the war might feel like a defeat with everything that is lost along the way.

The relationship between Reyker and Lira turned darker and messier as their individual choices threatened to ruin whatever love might be left between them. I loved how Criswell never sugar-coated how dire their situation was and how hard it would be for them to find their way back to each other. At one point, I wasn’t even sure if they should be together or if the consequences of their decisions would make a life together impossible. Their relationship modeled some of my favorite themes in this series: the pain of accepting consequences; the long, winding road of healing; the power of hope and love for greater circumstances; and finding atonement in purpose.

SOULS OF FIRE AND STEEL concludes the Frozen Sun saga with tears, pain, loss, and love. Readers can expect to reach the other side of this series feeling emotionally wrung out but satisficed with a hard won ending.


*Find More Info & Buy This Book HERE!*

The Death of Jane Lawrence by Caitlin Starling
About this Book:

Practical, unassuming Jane Shoringfield has done the calculations, and decided that the most secure path forward is this: a husband, in a marriage of convenience, who will allow her to remain independent and occupied with meaningful work. Her first choice, the dashing but reclusive doctor Augustine Lawrence, agrees to her proposal with only one condition: that she must never visit Lindridge Hall, his crumbling family manor outside of town. Yet on their wedding night, an accident strands her at his door in a pitch-black rainstorm, and she finds him changed. Gone is the bold, courageous surgeon, and in his place is a terrified, paranoid man—one who cannot tell reality from nightmare, and fears Jane is an apparition, come to haunt him. By morning, Augustine is himself again, but Jane knows something is deeply wrong at Lindridge Hall, and with the man she has so hastily bound her safety to. Set in a dark-mirror version of post-war England, Starling crafts a new kind of gothic horror from the bones of the beloved canon. This Crimson Peak-inspired story assembles, then upends, every expectation set in place by Shirley Jackson and Rebecca, and will leave readers shaken, desperate to begin again as soon as they are finished.

*Samantha’s Review*
Chilling Gothic horror romance
Jane Shoringfield has limited options for her path forward. She can either strain the finances of her relatives by continuing to stay with them or forge a particular path of independence through a marriage of convenience. With her practical nature and talent for sums, she decides to propose marriage to the local but reclusive doctor, Augustine Lawrence. He accepts on one condition: Jane may not stay at his home, Lindridge Hall. Curious but respectful of this condition, Jane agrees, and they are married. What was supposed to be a quick visit for show to Lindridge Hall after their wedding turns into an unexpected overnight stay when a storm hits. While there, Jane discovers that something dark lurks at Lindridge Hall, something that Augustine refuses to come clean about. If Jane hopes to unravel this mystery and save the man she may be coming to love, she will have to face terrors she never imagined.

THE DEATH OF JANE LAWRENCE is another stunning horror from Caitlin Starling. Since THE LUMINIOUS DEAD, Starling has been a favorite horror author of mine, and this latest chilling tale has everything you could want in a Gothic horror story. The atmosphere of Lindridge Hall is full of crumbling rooms, mysterious objects, ghosts in the night, and even two servants who refuse to stay overnight. The tone is tense, haunting, and keeps you on edge, as if a new terror lurks around every corner. Like the best horror however, the truly terrifying isn’t necessarily the creatures that haunt the night but the shadows of doubt, shame, and guilt that can plague a person unlike anything else.

With Jane’s sense, steadfast planning, kindness, and frank honesty, Jane is endearing from the start, particularly as she strives to make a good life for herself and slowly opens herself up to unexpected possibilities, such as actually loving the man she chose to marry. Much like Augustine, she also has a past of tragedy, though her method of coping turned to control while Augustine’s turned to self-loathing. Her journey discovering magic, medicine, and secrets forces her to question the reality around her and whether anyone ever truly has control.

THE DEATH OF JANE LAWRENCE is a brilliant addition to the Gothic horror genre and perfect for the spooky season. Those who loved Crimson Peak but wanted more romance will devour Caitlin Starling’s haunting work.


*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.