Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton


Goodreads: Rebel of the Sands
Series: Rebel of the Sands #1
Source: Library
Published: March 8, 2016

Official Summary

She’s more gunpowder than girl—and the fate of the desert lies in her hands.

Mortals rule the desert nation of Miraji, but mystical beasts still roam the wild and barren wastes, and rumor has it that somewhere, djinni still practice their magic. But there’s nothing mystical or magical about Dustwalk, the dead-end town that Amani can’t wait to escape from.

Destined to wind up “wed or dead,” Amani’s counting on her sharpshooting skills to get her out of Dustwalk. When she meets Jin, a mysterious and devastatingly handsome foreigner, in a shooting contest, she figures he’s the perfect escape route. But in all her years spent dreaming of leaving home, she never imagined she’d gallop away on a mythical horse, fleeing the murderous Sultan’s army, with a fugitive who’s wanted for treason. And she’d never have predicted she’d fall in love with him… or that he’d help her unlock the powerful truth of who she really is.


Rebel of the Sands blew me away from the first page.  With a unique, gritty voice and a strong heroine, the book will compel readers to love the desert as much as Amani does.  Amani’s quest to find freedom and write her own destiny takes her through danger to many cities, but it is the sand that will always be her home.

Fantasy is my favorite genre, and Rebel of the Sands deliver the epic scope and wild adventures I love, all touched with a strong dose of magic.  Though the story is grounded in Amani’s personal quest to be treated as an equal to men, respected for her courage and her skill with a gun, it eventually grows to encompass the fate of a kingdom.  More on that in the next book, I assume, and I am definitely on board to find out what happens next.

Amani herself is fierce, but flawed enough I believe she’s human.  She’s had a tough life in Dustwalk, and her number one priority is often herself.  Sometimes that’s a merit; sometimes it’s not.  I admit I was a bit disappointed by a cliche turn of events in her personal development later in the novel, but I do still really admire her and think she’s overall a heroine to root for.

The love interest is equally impressive, in his own right, but I honestly didn’t see the romance as a large part of the novel.  Amani very noticeably pines over this guy, but often the romance seemed “told” to me rather than “shown.”  I wasn’t invested in the relationship because much of it seemed to occur in Amani’s head rather than on the page.  I do wonder if things might get more interesting in the next novel, but right now I think the adventure part of the story really overshadows the romance.

Overall, however, Rebel of the Sands is s stirring, compelling fantasy about widening your worldview, fighting for what you want, and caring for your friends.  Highly recommended.

4 stars Briana

Sisters by Raina Telgemeier


Goodreads: Sisters
Series:  Smile #2
Source: Library
Published: 2014


Raina always wanted a little sister, but when Amara came, she wasn’t what Raina expected.  She typically wants to play alone and she and Raina are always having fights.  But then they take a road trip with their mother.  Can they find a way to get along and survive the trip?  A companion novel to Smile.


I admit I found this book even less engaging than Smile, even though I recognize that Telgemeier has an excellent sense of humor and that she depicts the relationship between the sisters excellently.  For reasons I find difficult to articulate to myself, I just did not find myself invested in the story.  It doesn’t help that the official summary promises more drama than the book actually contains.  I kept waiting for something major to happen, but it never did.

Sisters is a companion novel to Smile, taking place the summer before Raina enters high school.  The story of  the Telgemeiers’ road trip is interspersed with flashbacks of Raina and Amara’s relationship.  We get to see how Raina longed for a sister, only to have the grumpy and isolated Amara come along.  Worse, Amara ends up being an artist just like Raina.  And Raina feels like her sister is stealing what makes her special.

Sisterhood can be complicated and Telgemeier expertly captures the nuances of such a relationship as the girls argue, tease, storm, and support each other.  But the ending feels all too easy and takes something away from the previous story.  Perhaps it’s because Amara has seemed to be reaching out in various ways all along and it’s not clear why Raina suddenly notices.  Perhaps because it suggests that sisterhood from here on out is smooth sailing, even though readers know it is not.  Perhaps it’s because the cover blurb suggests for reasons unknown that they are banding together to save their parents’ marriage, imparting the final pages with far more significance than the pages themselves seem to suggest.  For some reason, it does not work for me.

Still, I recognize that many readers find this book special and that the depiction of sisterhood is sure to appeal to many.  Fans of Smile will certainly enjoy it.

3 starsKrysta 64

Smile by Raina Telgemeier


Goodreads: Smile
Series:  Smile #1
Source: Library
Published: 2009


In sixth grade, Raina trips while racing and suddenly her life is filled with dental appointments, braces, fake teeth, and a whole lot of embarrassment.  How can a girl feel like she belongs in high school when she feels like everyone is staring at her mouth?


It’s not difficult to see why Smile won an Eisner award and regularly flies off the library shelf.  Semi-autobiographical in nature, the book tells the story of Telgemeier’s tween and teen years, after she trips during a race and injures her two front teeth.  Faced with the possibility of having a misshapen smile for the rest of her life, or having to wear embarrassing dental equipment, Raina finds herself lacking self-confidence and struggling to fit in at high school.  It’s a coming-of-age story many will surely relate to.

Even so, I admit I did not really see myself in Raina.  I never understood why so many students hate braces because it seems like most people wear them at some point.  And it was difficult for me to understand why Raina took so long to realize that her friends were treating her badly, or why she cared that she had to wear awkward orthodontia at night in the privacy of her own home.  I suppose in many ways I was a much more self-assured and self-confident teen than Raina.  But I think her struggles at fitting in can still be relatable to readers.  Perhaps Raina is self-conscious about her mouth.  Most readers will be able to understand her self-consciousness in some way or another.

I was not totally blown away by Smile, as I expected to be based on its popularity.  However, it’s a nice story about one girl learning to find her way through high school.  And it’s engaging with its bright colors and the well-timed sense of humor.  I understand why younger readers like it so much, even if I didn’t feel particularly invested in the story myself.

4 starsKrysta 64

Ms. Marvel, Vol. 4 : Last Days by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona


Goodreads: Ms. Marvel: Last Days
Series: Ms. Marvel #4
Source: Library
Published: 2015


Kamala has had her heart broken and it feels like the end of the world.  But when realities begin to collide, she has to find a way to carry on and help the people she loves.  But what does a superhero do when she can’t save the day?


I have been a fan of Kamala Khan from the beginning.  Her story has always focused on who Kamala is as a person, how she struggles to find acceptance, to communicate with her family, to follow her heart, and to stand up for her moral convictions.  She may punch supervillains, but her story has never been about the mere thrill of action–it’s always been about the struggle to find a way to fight for those who cannot fight for themselves.

Volume 4 places emphasis on all the characteristics that make Kamala so special.  The installments in this collection show a writer who has found her voice.  The pointed references to Millenials, the speeches about Millenial concerns, the somewhat clunky dialogue showing that Kamala is a fangirl just like the rest of us are gone.  Instead, the story focuses on the heart of Kamala–her moral struggles to find a way to serve the world but not burn out.  She still has her endearing fangirl moments, but they seem natural here, not forced, and the audience isn’t being hammered with the message that Kamala is “cool” and “relatable.”  Kamala is relatable but it goes beyond her knowledge of superhero facts.  It goes to the heart of what it means to be a superhero, to be inspired by superheroes.

The storyline here focuses on the end of the world and whether or not  the characters have the courage to meet it with dignity.  Kamala is watching the world fall apart through fear and violence, but has to find the strength to meet that fear with love.  After all, the scariest thing for a superhero is to stand by knowing that the end may come and there is nothing she can do about it.   Simply being present for those around her, simply trying to provide them with a sense of community, does not seem like enough.  Her acceptance of her limitations and her decision to be strong in the face of defeat are defining moments for her character.

I cried my way through this beautiful and moving storyline.  Ms. Marvel has never been so inspirational. I  can’t wait to see where the story takes us next.

4 starsKrysta 64

Untwine by Edwidge Danticat


Goodreads: Untwine
Series: None
Source: ARC from ALA
Published: September 28, 2015

Official Summary

Sixteen-year-old Giselle Boyer and her identical twin, Isabelle, are as close as sisters can be. They are each other’s strongest source of support even as their family life seems to be unraveling and their parents are considering divorce. Then the Boyers have a tragic encounter that will shatter everyone’s world forever.

Giselle wakes up in a hospital room, injured and unable to speak or move. She doesn’t know what’s happened to her sister, to her family, to herself. Trapped in the prison of her own body, Giselle must revisit her past in order to understand how the people closest to her—her friends, her parents, and above all, Isabelle—have shaped and defined her. Will she allow her love for her family and friends to buoy her and lead her on the path to recovery? Or will she remain lost in a painful spiral of longing and regret?


Comparisons to Gayle Forman’s If I Stay are inevitable, so I’ll get mine out of the way: Both books are about a teenage girl who has been injured in a car accident and is subsequently in a state somewhere between conscious and unconscious in the hospital.  Both girls fall back into memories of their lives and ponder how they got to where they are, and where their lives will go once they choose to wake up and leave the hospital.  One of the key differences, I think, is that Mia from If I Stay focuses on her romantic relationship with her boyfriend Adam, while Giselle focuses on her family relationships. Danticat makes me buy into Giselle’s family, and I personally believe Untwine is the more engaging book.

I had my doubts, I admit. I’ve written about why I hate most literary twins, and Danticat has made some comments about twins always seeming “mystical” to her that had me heaving frustrated sighs before I ever picked up Untwine.  However, I actually found the portrayal of the twins to be quite thoughtful, after a few bumpy bits at the start.  (I mean, Giselle’s parents go out of their way to never make her and Isabelle never wear matching clothes, but still give them cutesy rhyming names? Ok…)  By the end, however, I was really on board with how Danticat portrays the relationship between Giselle and Isabelle, and I think she also hits the nail on the head with the way other characters relate to Giselle after the accident.

Untwine also seeks to differentiate itself from If I Stay by adding a bit of a mystery: the police are not entirely sure that the car accident in which Giselle’s family was injured was actually accident.  So part of the plot is about investigating this issue, tracking down the driver at fault and such.  Personally, I thought the treatment of this was a little too brief; it seemed like something tacked onto the plot rather than a real part of it.  Expanding on it might have improved the structure of the book, though I liked the the concept of the mystery as a way to move the book a bit beyond Giselle’s own head.

Untwine offers a thoughtful take on family and dealing with grief.  I think reading it back-to-back with If I Stay might be a yawn-worthy experience because they are in the same in many ways. However, if you have never read If I Stay or have put enough time/distance between reading the two books, you should enjoy this one.

3 stars Briana

Poison by Bridget Zinn


Goodreads: Poison
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 2013

Official Summary

Sixteen-year-old Kyra, a highly-skilled potions master, is the only one who knows her kingdom is on the verge of destruction—which means she’s the only one who can save it. Faced with no other choice, Kyra decides to do what she does best: poison the kingdom’s future ruler, who also happens to be her former best friend.

But, for the first time ever, her poisoned dart . . . misses.

Now a fugitive instead of a hero, Kyra is caught in a game of hide-and-seek with the king’s army and her potioner ex-boyfriend, Hal. At least she’s not alone. She’s armed with her vital potions, a too-cute pig, and Fred, the charming adventurer she can’t stop thinking about. Kyra is determined to get herself a second chance (at murder), but will she be able to find and defeat the princess before Hal and the army find her?


“The Master Trio Potioners’ flat didn’t look impregnable.”

Poison is one of those delightfully fun and imaginative books that reminds me why I fell in love with fantasy as a child.  I love hyped, high, epic fantasy as much as the next person, but I also have a soft spot in my heart for solidly enjoyable fantasy that mixes my favorite tropes with a spark of creativity.  Poison may not be on my list of Greatest Fantasy Novels Ever, but it made me smile and look at the fantasy genre through fresh eyes.

The poisoner aspect adds a unique touch to the story.  Although Kyra is skilled at a number of arts, including actual physical fighting, her talent lies in her ability to mix poisons. It’s a talent she relishes as being closer to science than to magic, but her unique proficiency shows there’s something of creativity and art needed to it, as well.  It seems there is a poison to achieve just about anything, from camouflage to sleeping, if only someone can discover the correct formula.

The story is not necessarily about poisoning, though it certainly comes into play, but rather about Kyra’s quest to kill the princess she once loved—or else watch the kingdom be destroyed. This is all quite dramatic, but I have to admit it’s ambiguous for the majority of the novel why Kyra feels she has to do this.  Readers generally have to take her word for it that it’s actually a good idea and the right thing to do.  The pacing is a bit off in this regards, and I also found the story episodic.  Despite my fondness for actual medieval literature, which is itself episodic, this is not my favorite characteristic of modern-day novels.  The seemingly unrelated episodes do come somewhat together at the end, which is nice, but the story does still feel choppy at points.

Nonetheless, the individual adventures are fun, and Zinn really gets me on board with the book by adding a cute romance and some adorable animals. Poison introduces readers to the most heartwarming pig since Wilbur, as well as a dashing dog.  The love interest will endear himself to readers through his own love of the animals, in addition to other charming characteristics.

Overall, Poison is just a delightful fantasy book.  With magic, a kingdom in danger, dark secrets, and a kickass heroine, it’s about all I could want to enjoy a good story.

4 stars Briana

Red Rising by Pierce Brown


Goodreads: Red Rising
Series: Red Rising #1
Source: Purchased
Published: 2014

Official Summary

Darrow is a Red, a member of the lowest caste in the color-coded society of the future. Like his fellow Reds, he works all day, believing that he and his people are making the surface of Mars livable for future generations.

Yet he spends his life willingly, knowing that his blood and sweat will one day result in a better world for his children.

But Darrow and his kind have been betrayed. Soon he discovers that humanity already reached the surface generations ago. Vast cities and sprawling parks spread across the planet. Darrow—and Reds like him—are nothing more than slaves to a decadent ruling class.

Inspired by a longing for justice, and driven by the memory of lost love, Darrow sacrifices everything to infiltrate the legendary Institute, a proving ground for the dominant Gold caste, where the next generation of humanity’s overlords struggle for power. He will be forced to compete for his life and the very future of civilization against the best and most brutal of Society’s ruling class. There, he will stop at nothing to bring down his enemies… even if it means he has to become one of them to do so.


“I would have lived in peace. But my enemies brought me war.”

Though the words “YA dystopian” now conjure up images of a washed-out fad, I believe that the strongest novels of the genre still have power to move and entertain even those readers who have read dozens of dystopians in the past several years.  Red Rising is one of those special books.  With compelling prose and an immersive plot that brings to mind elements of The Hunger Games, Lord of the Flies, and An Ember in the Ashes, Red Rising brings readers on Darrow’s powerful journey to discover the truth and free his people from slavery.

Part of Red Rising’s enthrallment lies in its detailed world building.  The story begins in the mines of Mars, where Reds like Darrow are forced to dig for resources that can help terraform previously uninhabitable planets.  The descriptions of the mines are rich, and Brown emphasizes the Red focus on family and community, song and dance, even when times are tough. He creates culture in addition to scenery.  The book moves on, however, to places very foreign to the mines, unimaginable to the people Darrow knows, and here, too, the descriptions are detailed and enthralling.  Brown can describe glamour as well as grit.

In his quest to break the social hierarchy that forces Reds to the bottom, Darrow moves quickly through a new world to learn how to conquer it.  The plot rarely lags, and there’s a good mix of action and reflection.  I won’t say that some parts are not predictable, particularly the catalyst that starts Darrow on his journey.  However, much of the plot is truly surprising, and it is delightful to read the new turns the story takes (even when those turns are, in fact, quite gory or appalling).

Darrow himself can be a bit of a jerk, and the fact that the novel is in first person emphasizes this.  If Brown wants to inform the reader that Darrow is handsome or talented or has done something unprecedented, Darrow himself has to be the one to say it.  Nonetheless, Darrow never walks over the edge of his arrogance to become unlikable, and, frankly, his drive and his conceit are realistic.  It does take a special type of person to overcome the status quo, someone skilled and confident enough to wield that skill.  Darrow makes sense as the protagonist of this novel in a way a gentler or more modest character might not, and the novel itself tackles this problem, asking what kind of people are dreamers or martyrs or doers.  The doers here do not kid themselves that sometimes they have to make tough choices.  Whether the decisions they make or the means they use are the right ones is left up to the reader.

Red Rising is a beautifully complex work that tackles questions about human nature and civilization, even as it takes readers on a wild ride through the many layers of the hierarchical society.  The story is action-packed, but it also has its pools of thoughtfulness and stillness.  YA readers will love this, even if they think they’ve read enough YA dystopians to last a lifetime.

4 stars Briana