The Scorpio Races by fandom favourite Maggie Stiefvater is a good, chunky read by YA genre standards (almost 500 pages in paperback). Set on a windswept, Gaelic island where bloodthirsty horse-creatures come out from the sea and must be tamed and raced, it was also a great read for the dark, windy days of early January.
A complete change of pace for my other January pick – a “chick-lit”, although not quite as brainless as other works that use that moniker. Pear Shaped by Stella Newman. It’s received quite a few one- and two-star reviews on Goodreads, which has lead to a relatively low average rating, but the fact is I smiled all the way through it. It was an easy, unchallenging read: girl eats a lot of puddings, obsesses about her weight and chases after Mr. Wrong. But it was sweet and charming and funny and I haven’t hesitated in recommending it.
The shortest month of the year, but a bumper month for good reads! I read Unwind, the first in the Unwind series by Neal Shusterman. Set in a world where birth control and abortion has been made illegal to appease pro-life lobbyists, conversely, it is now legal to ‘unwind’ an unwanted child once he or she reaches puberty. Being unwound involves having every single part of your body harvested and used in medical transplants. Our three protagonists (Connor’s parents want to be rid of him because he’s a troublemaker. Risa has no parents and is being unwound to cut orphanage costs. Lev’s unwinding has been planned since his birth, as part of his family’s strict religion) have to survive until they are 18, when they can no longer be legally unwound. An exciting, harrowing tale concealing important social and political messages. The second installment is featuring high on my 2013 TBR.
Whilst I am a staunch believer that Barbara Erskine is the Queen of historical timeslip novels, I really enjoyed my first Susanna Kearsley book, Sophia’s Secret (aka The Winter Sea). Set in the stark and beautiful Scottish landscape, amidst the ruins of the ancient castle of Slains, Carrie – a novelist – settles down in a holiday cottage to focus on writing a novel based on the life of her ancestor, Sophia. The timelines blur and Carrie finds herself reliving a story of love and political intrigue from 1708. Beautiful and haunting.
You Against Me by Jenny Downham explores a very interesting dichotomy. Mikey’s sister claims to have been raped. Ellie’s brother is the alleged attacker. A painful but moving story told by the alternative point-of-views of the two very different protagonists, it’s a story about loyalty and truth. The tension over what really happened – which side is telling the truth, Mikey’s sister or Ellie’s brother – is gripping. Jenny Downham’s first book – the brilliant Before I Die – was made into a film starring Dakota Fanning (Now Is Good) this year.
My final February favourite is The Sky Is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson. I read it straight after You Against Me; it is similar in the way that it is a contemporary, hard-hitting YA novel that deals with painful issues, but I simply couldn’t choose between them in the end. The Sky Is Everywhere follows the story of seventeen year old Lennie, whose sister – Bailey – has dropped unexpectedly dead, devastating the lives of her family. On the face of it, The Sky Is Everywhere is a love triangle (Lennie becomes entangled with Toby, her sister’s boyfriend, the only person who can come close to mirroring her grief as well as with Joe, the new boy in town, who never knew Bailey and can never compare Lennie to her). The novel is interspersed with beautiful illustrated pages, showing how Lennie works through her grief by writing letters and verse to her dead sister. A celebration of love and a portrait of loss. Everyone who I have lent the book to over the course of the year approached it with low expectations and ended up loving it. Highly recommended.
Much like Delirium from my 2011 Favourite Reads post, my first favourite dystopian novel of 2012 was a bit of a marmite book. Under The Never Sky by Veronica Rossi tells of a world where the atmosphere has become dangerous and humanity has split into those who live underground and in domes and have retained their science and technology, and those who have remained on the surface, devolving to a more tribal way of life, affected by the radioactive ‘ether’ in the atmosphere to the extent that various senses become mutated: hearing, sight, smell. Our protagonist, Aria, is exiled from her safe, enclosed city and sent out into the wilds, where she is encountered by Perry, the younger brother to a tribal Blood Lord. Needless to say, there are shocking revelations and star-crossed romances (satisfyingly slow-burning) a-plenty. The sequel, Through The Ever Night comes out in January and I am literally going to jump on it the moment it transfers onto my Kindle.
Another dystopian for my second pick of March, albeit one with heavy shades of both sci-fi and fantasy: Incarceron by Catherine Fisher. The eponymous Incarceron is a quasi-sentient, sealed, futuristic prison, where the descendants of the original prisoners live in a dark, savage world. Outside Incarceron, Claudia – the daughter of the Warden – is trapped in a very different kind of prison. Those outside use technology and holograms to make society appear as if it is the Renaissance all over again – and like the noblewomen of that time Claudia is being forced into a political marriage. Claudia finds a strange crystal key which allows her to communicate with one of the prisoners – Finn – who has unfathomable memories of a life outside Incarceron, and cannot believe he was born there… An incredibly original plot. The story is told through alternating sections narrated by Claudia and Finn. With its breathtaking world and character building,I was instantly impressed with Incarceron. The sequel, Sapphique, is on my TBR.
A popular pick: The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness, the first of the Chaos Walking trilogy. Set on a planet that humans have colonised, something has resulted in all of the men being able to hear one another’s thoughts, in a relentless stream of noise that they quite fittingly refer to as ‘Noise’. The Knife of Never Letting Go is one of those clever, layered books that to speak further on the plot would spoil a new reader’s enjoyment. At first, the writing style is galling, as Ness writes as the protagonist – a young man named Todd – would speak and think – for example, writing “direkshun” for “direction”. This slips by and becomes natural before too long. Although ostensibly a YA novel, the plot is brutal, the telling of it graphic in some places. A rollercoaster of a read, extremely powerful.
In April I finally submitted and read Game of Thrones, the first in the behemoth that is George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice & Fire series; I spaced out the following three books throughout the rest of the year. Now I am sitting on the most recent to be released – A Dance of Dragons (I can’t quite bring myself to the point where I don’t have one waiting to read) – and – like probably a million other people – am hoping profusely that GRRM doesn’t shuffle off this mortal coil before he completes the final two books.
More dragons; in May, I read what was the nicest surprise of my reading year. I was given Seraphina by Rachel Hartman by NetGalley and went into it with absolutely no expectations. In the Kingdom of Goredd, humans and dragons are in an uneasy peace. The dragons – rational, mathematical beings – can ‘fold’ themselves into human shape as required. The novel is one about self-acceptance; Seraphina is a half-breed of the two races, with reason to fear both sides. Keeping her lineage a secret, she joins the Goredd court as a musician, before getting drawn into the intrigue when a member of the royal family is killed in a suspiciously draconian fashion, and it becomes apparent that someone wants to destroy the already fragile peace between the races. A brilliant, engrossing story; I can’t believe I have to wait until next summer for the sequel, Drachomachia.
An abrupt change of pace from what has turned into a flood of dystopian/fantasy novels. The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller was a book I approached rather gingerly. With the half of my degree that is Classical Studies, I normally can’t enjoy novels set in Ancient Greece or Rome, or retellings of the famous myths – there is just too much potential for niggling. The Song of Achilles is the love story of Achilles and Patroclus – his lover, who gets slighted in most retellings by being transformed into a cousin or an armour-bearer, with whom Achilles has a strictly platonic, albeit passionate – friendship. Through Patroclus’ eyes we are given the story of Achilles from birth to death, encompassing the whole Trojan War. A light-touch mixing of hard ‘Bronze Age’ reality and the presence of ancient gods, with lyrical but sparse prose – it’s a beautiful love story.
Another surprise from NetGalley, Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. A British Spy plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France; both the pilot and the passenger are best friends. “Verity”, the spy, is captured and through the course of the book is systematically tortured into revealing everything she knows about the Allied war effort. She is given paper and told to write down everything she knows. Verity writes herself a series of stream-of-consciousness letters, telling the story of herself and her best friend Maddie, the plane’s pilot tragically killed in the crash. I can say no more. Code Name Verity is one of those incredibly clever books that is never quite the animal you think it is; I wanted to re-read it straight after finishing it. A funny, sad, wonderful book – totally engrossing. Highly recommended – but read with tissues handy – and whatever you do, don’t spoil it for yourself.
Back to the slightly off-beat fantasy now. In June I read the novella Keturah and Lord Death by Martine Leavitt. Keturah follows a legendary hart deep into the forest, where she becomes hopelessly lost. Her strength diminishes until, finally, she realizes that death is near – and learns then that death is a young lord, melancholy and stern. Renowned for her storytelling, Keturah is able to charm Lord Death with a story and gain a reprieve – but he grants her only one more day, but if she finds her true love during this day, Lord Death will not claim her, and allow her to live out her natural days. A lyrically written, quirky fairy-tale – almost poetic at times (“It is life that hurts you, not death,” Lord Death tells Keturah) and short and engrossing enough to be read in one sitting.
Another strong starter to a new series, Shadow and Bone, first of the Grisha trilogy by Leigh Bardugo. The once-great nation of Ravka has been torn in two by the Shadow Fold, a swath of near impenetrable darkness crawling with monsters who feast on human flesh. Its fate rests on the orphan Alina, heir to a dormant power. Wrenched from everything she knows, Alina is whisked away to the royal court to be trained as a member of the Grisha, the magical elite led by the mysterious Darkling. A gripping fantasy set in a psuedo-Russian land, a sympathetic lead and a doozie of a cliffhanger, I devoured Shadow and Bone and an waiting impatiently for Siege and Storm, to be released next June.
July was the month I discovered John Green. I’d heard of him, but had been put off by people saying that his books were all about death and were doom and gloom. In a doomy, gloomy mood one day, I picked up The Fault In Our Stars, drawn to it by the Shakespearean title. At first glance, death and doom and gloom is right; The Fault In Our Stars is about two teenagers falling in love, whilst dying of cancer. It’s impossible to say quite how it is managed, but it was one of the most hopeful, inspiring books I have ever read, honest and funny and truthful and sad, so sad. I slowed down as I approached the last pages (unlike me, normally I get excited and speed up!) and after I’d finished, all I could think about was the stupid quote from Anchorman – “I’m in a glass case of emotion!!” Spectacular. I’ve since treated myself to his Looking For Alaska, which left me in a similar state. I’m parceling out the rest of his back-catalogue across 2013 – I can’t take all the feels. I’ve also just bought tickets to go and see John Green do a talk and reading in London in February – can’t wait!
August was another exceptionally good month; I got all smiley and excited reading back what I read during those 31 days. A top contender for book of the whole year was Sarah J. Maas’ Throne of Glass. I have a huge life-crush on Sarah J. Maas – she’s the same age as me and when we were both teenagers, we both uploaded fan- and original- fiction to the same sites online. The difference is, 12 years later, she’s turned her scribblings into an absolutely epic fantasy novel – five star ratings across the board with all the friends I’ve loaned/recommended it to. Throne of Glass follows Celaena Sardothien – raised from childhood to be a deadly assassin. She has been caught and sentenced to hard labour in a salt mine for the rest of her life. She is offered a chance at freedom by the Crown Prince; she must act as his champion in a ‘Hunger Games’ style contest established by his father, the tyrant she spent her time as an assassin defying. This is a series with TONS of potential. I immediately went back and read the four ‘novellas’ that run prior to the novel’s timeline, when Celaena is still working as an assassin. I wish I’d saved them as treats now, rather than devoured them in one evening, as the second book doesn’t have a publication date or even a title yet!! I’m waiting with baited breath – and recommend Throne of Glass to anyone who loves clever fantasy novels – especially ones with amazing heroines.
Back to the real world now – France, in particular; Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins. Anna is just starting to get her life together and is looking forward to her senior year, when she is transferred to a rather extravagant boarding school in Paris (oh, boo hoo!). Enter the love interest, Étienne St. Clair (who despite the name is British!). A cute “will they, won’t they” read, the pages just whipped by.
2012 was definitely a year of new series for me. As I type, I am savouring the final book of the Iron Fey quartet, but back in August, I read the first – The Iron King, by Julie Kagawa, which I had been inexcusably putting off, because I tend to get bored with ‘fae’ stories. Meghan Chase’s little brother is replaced by a changeling; she journeys into the Nevernever to rescue him to discover she’s a half-fae child of Oberon, King of the Summer Court. Cue love triangle with the childhood friend (“Puck” of A Midsummer Night’s Dream fame, who was stationed to guard her in the mortal realm) and Ash, third son of the Winter Queen, her brooding, taciturn enemy. So far, so stereotypical. What makes the series is Kagawa’s absolutely fantastic writing and world-building, as well as the twist in the tale – the eponymous Iron Fey, created by mortal’s technological advances. Their very existence is poisonous to the Nevernever and the courts of the sidhe and Meghan, Puck and Ash must fight against its growing influence. I don’t quite want it to end… so it’s good that there’s a new spin-off series featuring Meghan’s brother when he’s grown – yay!
An impulse buy – things for 99p feel as though they are free sometimes! – On The Island by Tracey Garvis-Graves. I was so impressed by this book I’ve already featured it in a blog post, so will direct you there rather than wax lyrical all over again.
Another contender for book of the year, the absolutely sickeningly talented Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone. I can’t even begin to summarise the exciting and original plotline. The official blurb begins: “Around the world, black handprints are appearing on doorways, scorched there by winged strangers who have crept through a slit in the sky. In a dark and dusty shop, a devil’s supply of human teeth grown dangerously low. And in the tangled lanes of Prague, a young art student is about to be caught up in a brutal otherwordly war.” With amazing characters and prose so delicious you could eat it, this book and it’s sequel Days of Blood and Starlight were highlights of my year, and come highly, highly recommended.
A rather abrupt change in tempo. In October I savoured Laurie Frankel’s beautiful and surprising Goodbye For Now. When computer programmer Sam’s girlfriend Meredith loses her grandmother, to whom she was very close, she falls into depression and grief. Wanting to ease her loneliness, Sam creates a program and feeds it a library of email and Skype correspondence so that Meredith can ‘speak to’ an approximation of her dearly departed gran and say her goodbyes. The idea, not surprisingly, has wings, and Sam, Meredith and her cousin Dash develop a company that offers the algorithm as a service. A novel that deals firmly with love and loss, and reinforces the importance of human connections in a world of social media and electronic communication, I snivelled and smiled my way through.
The first historical novel to really ‘wow’ me in 2012 was H. M. Castor’s VIII. It is the story of Hal, as opposed to Henry VIII, as we see him from boyhood through to death, just the man, not filtered through the lens of the stories of one of his wives or advisers. The story is an old one, and much rehashed, but aside from the excellent writing, there is an original, thrilling, supernatural approach to this tale; Hal is haunted through life by the ghost of his uncle, one of the Princes slain in the Tower of London, long before his birth. A brilliant retelling with an understandable (if not always sympathetic) Henry.
Technically I started reading this book on Hallowe’en, but I’m going to lump it in as November, as that’s when I finished it! Anna Dressed In Blood by Kendare Blake. Our protagonist is not Anna, but one Cas, who kills the dead, like his father before him. Anna is a vengeful, murderous, unsettled spirit, haunting the house where she lived and she died. She still wears the dress she wore on the day of her brutal murder in 1958: once white, but now stained red and dripping blood. It is, to say the least, a rather unusual love story, and one wrapped up in a satisfactorily thrilling and gory coating. Like everything these days, it’s the first of a series; I’ll be reading Girl of Nightmares even though I suspect Anna would have worked better as a standalone.
Another 99p bargain done good, I devoured Mhairi MacFarlane’s You Had Me At Hello, a charming story exploring what happens when the one that got away comes back into your life. I already reviewed this one in full on this site, so I will just point you in that post’s direction and say no more here.
In December I wound down by dipping in and out of a bit of non-fiction. The fascinating and compulsive 1,227 QI Facts to Blow Your Socks Off” was an absolutely bargainous 20p for Kindle!! I also embraced the icy weather by reading the magical and haunting The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. Set in a remote Alaskan homestead in the 1920s, the book follows the heartbroken and childless couple Jack and Mabel, who built a girl out of snow and then find themselves visited by a mysterious little girl. Just the thing to settle down with during the dark, long December nights.