Leo’s Top Ten Picks – 2012

It’s been a interesting year for books, I’ll say that much! There are a few I’ve disliked, but on the whole it’s been quite an excellent year with a lot of titles vying for a mention in this list. It’s been the first year that I’ve been actively aware of the YA fantasy genre (instead of just reading books that happen to be YA, but are placed on regular shelves in stores) and I’ve found it to be a rewarding and insightful genre that knows just what to give and when to give it. The books on this list are all 2012 releases, but a few honourable mentions will be slipped in at the end to give some plugging time to titles not published this year, but that I read in the last twelve months regardless. They’re too good not to have a mention.

In reverse order, because that’s the way it’s always done!

Firstly, the honourable mentions go to: Ashes of a Black Frost, by Chris Evans, Leviathan Wakes, by James S.A. Corey, and The Spirit Thief, by Rachel Aaron.

10 – Taken, Benedict Jacka

When Jacka’s Fated came out, I was impressed, but then Cursed sort of took the wind from my sails with this series: I didn’t like it much and frankly it bored me. Then Taken dropped and everything changed. By far the best book of the series, Taken was everything I wanted from the Alex Verus series. It did not copy all the mistakes (too much action, too much bang, bang, boom) of Cursed and instead, found its own way to top its predecessors by finding the middle ground and sticking to it. It was a brilliant, page-turner of a book.

9 – The False Prince, Jennifer A. Nielsen

Final_Prince_RoughI don’t care if this book is classed as “middle-grade”. Honestly, being in the UK, I’m not even sure what that means. All I know is that it is  a tightly-plotted book that keeps giving: it is exciting, surprising and fun. It is a fantastic story that is at once gripping and filled with adventure. I loved this book. You really should read it, regardless of target audience.
8 – Katya’s World, Jonathon L. Howard

As one of Strange Chemistry’s earlier launch titles, this one is definitely worth your consideration. It is a YA sci-fi that is every bit as good as it sounds. With a strong and complicated female lead, Katya’s World is a new kind of YA that focusses entirely on the complex story and setting, rather than its protagonist’s personal life. KatyasWorld-144dpi

That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy the other kind (romance and conflicts are a part of YA lit because they’re part of being a young adult) but the lack of personal story arcs made the science fiction elements all the stronger. Set on a far-flung colony whose ties with Earth have since been severed, Kayta’s World is an engaging YA science fiction that is not dystopian. And it makes me wish there were more YA titles like it.

7 – Cold Days, Jim Butcher

I haven’t reviewed this yet as I finished it only yesterday, but it definitely earns a place on this list. Cold Days could have saved everyone some time and been a handful of pages shorter, but the central story is excellent and definitely one of the best-plotted novels of the series to date. Cold Days tackles my favourite subject in the Dresden universe: faeries. I love me some fae and this book is all fae, fae, fae and puts me in mind of Summer Knight, which is one of my favourite novels in the series.
6- Blackwood, Gwenda Bond

Blackwood-144dpiloved this book. Which is ironic, since it is the one Strange Chemistry title that I did not receive an ARC of (digital or otherwise) and had frankly shown little interest in. Oh how wrong I was! I bought this on a whim after finding myself in book limbo and desperately in need of another book. Nothing took my fancy; I didn’t want to bite. Until Blackwood came under hand and bam! Love at first read. This book is amazing. It is exciting and creepy and has the best protagonists. It also has a male PoV. In YA. Yes! A real, live male who has his own narrative. I’ve not stopped yabbering on about this book to whomever will listen, because it is just so good. It’s a delicious urban fantasy mystery and it is utterly gripping. You need to read this book.
5 – Blood and Feathers, Lou Morgan

Oh, Mallory.

This book, at first, did not catch my eye. The cover was gorgeous and the blurb was sexy, but then I found that


the protagonist was female and it was filed in the urban fantasy section. You can’t blame a guy for being wary when the female protagonists are all standing, sitting or whatever-that-pose-is-meant-to-be-ing on dark and moody front covers, toting guns or knives, leatherclad and dating vamps and werewolves–or hunting them… or both. But I read the back and thought, “Hey, this sounds different!” and so I went for it.

It was awesome. Lou Morgan has written angels and fallen angels and heaven and hell in ways you have not seen before. And I assure you, she’s good. This is a sexy book with an amazing story to tell. It is snarky and witty and utterly perfect in its execution. It is hands down one of the best urban fantasies I have read in a long time. I am THIS EXCITED for Rebellion, when it drops in 2013. Read this book… no, really: read this book.
4 – Shadow’s Master, Jon Sprunk

Ah, the end of a series. And done well at that. The Shadow Saga remains one of my favourite series, entirely because of its excellent approach to an overdone topic and its constantly evolving characters. Caim and Kit face what looks to be their most difficult challenge yet, and all the while, the darker nature of the assassin we’ve followed since Shadow’s Son keeps trying to rear its shadowy head. It is an excellent book and wraps the series up so nicely you’d imagine it tied with a bow and topped with a sparkly ribbon. This is a series that you need to read and savour, because every word knits so perfectly together to create a classic adventure that will leave you wanting to take on the world.

3 – The Alchemist of Souls, Anne Lyle

TheAlchemistOfSoulsWow, do I love this book.

Annle Lyle is a poet of a writer and The Alchemist of Souls is a gorgeous, exciting adventure that will keep you reading through the night. Set in an alternative Elizabethan England, The Alchemist of Souls is a rich historical fantasy that proves Lyle to be a master of her art. Her new England is rich and vast and deep enough that it feels completely real and her characters populate that world effortlessly. Unafraid to really sink her teeth into the morality of the time and the complexities of the historical relationships (guys kiss guys; deal with it!), Lyle really masters the story she set out to tell. With the magic and mystery of the skraylings and the deep intrigue surrounding the English secret service, The Alchemist of Souls is a complete success that will leave you yearning for more.

2 – Trinity Rising, Elspeth Cooper

I’ll say now that Elspeth Cooper is propably in my top five list of favourite writers. There’s just something about how and what she writes that feels completely and utterly right. As if she’s nailing something that you didn’t even know you were looking for. trinity_rising

The sequal to Songs of the Earth, Cooper’s Trinity Rising takes the story further and throws a whole new plate of arcs into the mix. It is compelling and pacy and just as engaging as its predecessor.  Cooper is, like Lyle, a true poet with prose and her story is all the richer for it. Reading Cooper feels like going home.

1 – The Crimson Crown, Cinda Williams Chima

8069828In all technicality, book three of the Seven Realms series should be on this list, too, since the UK release date for The Grey Wolf Throne was February 2012, despite releasing in 2011 in the US. From what I’ve seen, The Crimson Crown isn’t available in the UK yet. Which is a pity… So, naturally, I bought it from the US, because there wasn’t a single way in hell I wasn’t reading this book as soon as possible. So, that’s why it’s here: because it’s too good not to be.

The Seven Realms series is probably my favourite fantasy series. It is utterly compelling and engaging and the world leaps right off the page to pull you in. I love it. This book was… oh god. I really, really hate fanboy glarble, but ALL THE FEELS. I can’t articulate just how good this series is and how fitting and perfect an end The Crimson Crown was. It was unimaginably perfect and completely right. This book is the best of the bunch and each book sets a pretty high bar.

This is one of those books that is supposed to be YA, but that the UK shelves with the regular SFF. Wherever you find it: read it. It is likely one of the deepest and most character-oriented fantasies you will read. It is a masterpiece.


Poltergeeks, by Sean Cummings

  • TITLE: Poltergeeks
  • AUTHOR: Sean Cummings
  • PUBLISHER: Strange Chemistry
  • PUBLICATION DATE: 2nd October 2012

13533669I went into Poltergeeks unsure and remained that way for the greater part of the book. I did not get on well with this title, I’ll say that now. I’ll also say that I always feel irrationally bad for giving books a bad review… I feel sorry for the books. I mean, poor books!

It wasn’t the plot as much as it was the characters and their execution, and the fact that the story just did not grip me. It felt like we were moving forwards on tracks towards a goal only the writer could see. Any twists along the way felt horribly cliché and just lowered the overall delivery of the story. There are times and places where clichéd tropes and plotlines can be tweaked and redone and made exciting again, and others where they cannot. Here we are presented with yet another young person whose power is greater than they think and a legacy awaits them, which, until now, has been kept a secret. I don’t want to give away too many spoilers but it was that vein of the story that irked me the most.

It did not feel like an original story and maybe that might have been okay if the characters had been stronger and more engaging.

Julie Richardson is a witch, her mother’s apprentice. That’s fine by her, despite the fact that her mother thinks she can’t do anything by herself and she’s always playing second fiddle. That is until Julie’s mum is pulled into something that begins as a seemingly random ghost attack and eventually turns into a fight for Julie’s mum’s soul. With only a spirit bound by agreement to her mother to help her and Marcus at her side, Julie needs to act before time runs out. She stands to lose her mother and with the danger into which she’s dragging Marcus, her best friend, too. But there’s a secret, something that Julie has not yet been told—something that could change the way she lives and uses her magic forever.

I liked Marcus best. I have a soft spot for the science geeks and nerds, because I see myself. Marcus was cool and it was fun to read a story with a female lead and a quirky boy sidekick. That went down well and kept me reading.

However, I could not warm to Julie no matter how I tried. When drafting this review, I had to look up her name as I had quite literally forgotten it. She was forgettable. I had been hoping for a strong, quirky, geeky (as indicated by the title…) protagonist and I don’t feel this was delivered. Making outdated references to Star Wars does not make Julie a geek. She did not really read like a geek because she did not really have much personality at all. It’s actually a pet-peeve with YA books, that none of the references are actually current: I’ve never even watched Star Wars or the stuff of that generation and yet authors keep making references to it as though it’s the indicator of a geek. I reference and quote stuff I grew up with, so do my friends. Julie and other teens should be likening what happens to them to the stuff they grew up with in turn. Perhaps there was only one quote or reference, but it stuck with me because you see it so much.

Then there was the goth girl. It’s pretty hard to express how much the latex and bitch heels annoyed me. As someone who has been a goth guy and hung out with goth girls I’d like authors to ditch the cliché and paint a goth girl in the school-friendly clothes she would more likely have worn. Velvet, layered skirts, Docs; rock the Medieval look for once instead of dressing a fifteen year old in clubbing gear.  Again, it was minor but it stood out, especially next to Julie’s blandness.

At first I was intrigued by the plot—poltergeists, magic, witches; fantastic!—but as it progressed I found I was only reading to find out what else Julie dragged Marcus into. There was something about Poltergeeks that just kept me at a distance: it was not engaging or gripping and seemed to drag on. Had Cummings have written a short story, Poltergeeks could have worked just as well. Perhaps it might have worked better.

Julie was neither likeable nor dislikeable protagonist, and maybe that was the problem. She was ultimately so bland and lacking in any colour or personality that she faded away onto the page. Which is a pity, since witchcraft and hauntings are definitely something to whet my appetite.

I wanted to love Poltergeeks from the cover, which is gorgeous and dynamic, and from the blurb, and yet I’m not sure I even liked it. The story just was completely and utterly lacking and having read some excellent YA fantasy this year, the bar is set pretty high now.

Overall, I grew very bored very quickly and did not warm to Julie one little bit. Maybe next time, should Julie’s story continue, I might give it another go.


The Holders, by Julianna Scott

  • TITLE: The Holders
  • AUTHOR: Julianna Scott
  • PUBLISHER: Strange Chemistry
  • PUBLICATION DATE: 7th March 2013 (UK)
  • Rating: ⋆⋆⋆.5

TheHolders-144dpiJulianna Scott’s The Holders is another of those “we have special powers; everyone else does not” kind of books. In a sense it is similar in ethos to Kim Curran’s Shift.

Except that it’s not. For once (yay!) there is an ancient feel and plot behind the powers and the organisation from which these Holders are from. It feels old and powerful instead of just another pseudo-superpower story. I liked that about The Holders. It’s not just, say, Irish X-Men.

There were things I did not like.

I found Becca awkward at times and her American-ness in Ireland seemed overdone. In places, also, it felt that Scott tried too hard to be amusing–or maybe that’s just me. None of it seemed necessary and it added nothing to the story, only an awkwardness to the narrative. It seemed only to lessen Becca’s character. At least for me, but maybe it would help others warm to her. We’re all different.

Aside from a few teeny niggles, though, I found Becca enjoyable and engaging. I would have liked to have seen a story about siblings with less of an age gap, but that’s not the story Scott set out to tell. It’s just a preference and that’s another book. The Holders tells the story of Becca and Ryland.

To Scott’s credit, Ryland is a pleasant enough character. He is well written and fits in with the character of his sister. Still, the limelight is all on Becca and that’s what matters.

Becca and Ryland have always been aware that Ryland is different: he hears voices and since she can remember, Becca has been there to stand guard against “special institutions” and “getting Ryland help”. Sometimes it feels like a one-woman battle as their mum is content to nod and smile and listen to the counsellors and shrinks before sending them packing. Becca is not and soon her method was simply to boot them out the front door.

She thinks it will be no different when a pair of men turn up offering Ryland yet another school. But there is something different about these two and thought Becca doesn’t want to listen, doesn’t want to consider that Ryland might be better off somewhere that’s not with her, she begins to understand that the school in Ireland might just be for the best.

There’s only one thing for it then: Becca is going with him. They journey to Ireland and Becca learns that the father who ran out of them when she was young is the headmaster, which makes her second-guess whether the trip is for the best. But when Ryland settles in well, Ryland who has never had any friends or has never been happy, Becca knows she’s being selfish wanting to leave.

Or is she?

Something is not right in how the teachers talk about Ryland and with the new knowledge of Ryland’s talents and the truth about his gifts, Becca is on her guard and begins to wonder who she can trust and if she can trust their father at all.  Despite Becca’s assumptions, something unexpected is about to happen and it will change her and Ryland’s life forever.

Though The Holders is a fun and exciting story, it felt very obvious in places. The plot thickens halfway through but I found it easy to predict and this somewhat lessened the shine.

Despite all that, I found Alex an engaging enough character and enjoyed his rapport with Becca. I liked how Scott portrayed their relationship. Whatever people say about romance in YA (or anything for that matter), I enjoy it. Whether it’s a female (most commonly…) lead and I get to paint myself as the guy she gets with, or vice versa with a male lead and his love interest, it’s fun to watch relationships form and evolve. Well I think so anyway. Love is awesome, guys. True fact.

The Holders has a lot to offer. From hidden powers and family secrets, to trying to make your own way through the world, there is something to engage all readers. I was excited about this book and overall I was not disappointed. It is fun and, though not as entertaining or gripping as its Strange Chemistry siblings, it made for an excellent bit of mystery and adventure. The way is paved for an exciting series and Scott has much to offer.

I’m not sure what exactly made me give this book three-and-a-half stars. It just didn’t hit the spot to rank as a full four when compared to other titles I’ve read. It felt a little flat at times and too obvious. It was a good book and I enjoyed it, but I felt ultimately underwhelmed by the end.

I’d still like to read more from Scott and the wider plot of The Holders has more than a little piqued my interest. The story still has a long way to go and I would like to see more action and adventure, or more mystery and intrigue as Becca’s story unfolds.

Overall, I did enjoy this book, but I think I was expecting a little more pizzazz.


Broken, by A E Rought

  • TITLE: Broken
  • AUTHOR: A E Rought
  • PUBLISHER: Strange Chemistry
  • PUBLICATION DATE:  3rd January 2013 (UK)

Broken-144dpiBroken is not what I was expecting.

From the cover and the comments surrounding the book, I expected something a little girlie for my tastes (being a guy and liking YA fantasy… sometimes, it is wall-to-wall girls and love triangles…). I expected romance, romance, romance. This is not what Broken is about. Broken is about so, so much more than just a love story.

Guys: if you don’t like romance to dominate your reading and have looked at the cover/blurb and thought “hmm…”, don’t disregard Broken just yet. Girls: if you’re just as sick of romance and love triangles and girls constantly torn between suitors and you’ve seen the cover and the comments and are unsure, don’t disregard Broken just yet.

Broken is a gorgeous, Gothic romance fantasy horror. And it really is all those things. It’s not scary as much as it is creepy and disturbing, but other than ghosts, that’s just my kind of horror, so I’m there. It is fantastic to see a book claim to be a horror hybrid in fantasy and actually bring it to the table.

As for the romance? Well, Broken is a book that would fall apart without it; a perfect echo of the hearts and minds of the main characters. It is a beautifully written story that doesn’t disregard the concept of love as being cheap. Moreover, it does not imply that teenagers and young adults “don’t know what love is”. Anyone who has felt their heart skip a beat or muddled their words or been inexplicably drawn towards someone knows what love is.

Emma felt that way about Daniel. Even after he died.

Since then, Emma has been a hollow shell, moving mechanically through life as she nurses her broken heart. It’s not only her heart that’s broken.

It doesn’t beat for me.”

Alex is new to the school and as mysterious as they come. Rumours abound and despite herself, Emma just can’t keep away. She’s drawn to him like a moth to flame and Alex is plenty hot: he’s engaging, enigmatic and, as Emma gets to know him, so hopelessly and utterly like Daniel. At first it’s the little things: he opens her locker and knows her nickname. But when Alex shows a different side of himself and Emma sees the silver scars that crisscross his pale skin, she begins to suspect he might also be dangerous.

Nevertheless, Emma cannot pull away. Since Alex came to school she’s felt herself emerge from the shell of grief and move forwards, even if just a step. Everyone thinks Alex is hot, or bad news. The girls at school want him and Emma bears the brunt of their jealousy. She’s a whore, heartless, a bitch; anything they can think of. Her mother hates him already. But Emma doesn’t care. She feels whole again however wrong her head tells her that is. When she begins to realise that Alex stops her missing Daniel, because he is so like him, she grows concerned.

She need not bother. All the concern in the world won’t change what’s been done.
As events spiral out of Emma’s control and she delves deeper, unable to let the questions remain unanswered, she and Alex discover a dark secret that turns Emma’s blood cold. With nobody to turn to besides her best friend Bree and with the constant harassment of Daniel’s former best friend—the only other person present that night when Daniel fell to his death—Josh, Emma needs to discover Alex’s secrets and just why, even after one meeting, his father hated her enough to hurt her.

She needs to know why Daniel died.

Broken is a gripping, beautiful read that draws on classic elements of the Gothic and transforms a classic story into an engaging fantasy horror. It is atmospheric and written in such a way that you feel everything: Emma and Alex feel real as you turn the pages.  From a YA perspective this book has everything. It understands the sudden and irrational attraction to someone you’ve never met and don’t know. It understands that parents can’t fix everything and sometimes they don’t or can’t listen. It understands that just because you love your mother or father doesn’t mean they are always right. Messages like this are important. Messages like this help you find out who you are.

Emma is an interesting protagonist who has a broken heart. Sometimes young people hurt and merely being young does not lessen that pain. Broken is multi-layered and inviting. It has a great deal to offer. Simply because of the cover I would have overlooked it. As it happens, it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year.

It was compelling and gripping and definitely one not to judge by its cover. Rought has crafted a strong and romantic story that is as much fantasy as it is horror: it’s a unique, bold novel that delivers from the first word to the last.

An utter masterpiece of cross-genre storytelling.


To ease the wait until the release of Broken, why not check out the book trailer to whet your appetite?