Most Envy-Inducing Plot (or, the plot you wish you'd thought of yourself)
Stormdancer, by Jay Kristoff. The premise hooked me: Japanese-flavored steampunk with wicked chainsaw katanas and furious mythical creatures. The plot is so layered in with the world-building, and yet so simply brilliant, that I can see why there's so much buzz about this book.
Is it YA? The main character is sixteen years old, so I *think* it's YA. But it has view points from much older adults, too. Also, it's much denser than most YA's (but I don't mean that in a negative way. Maybe "richer" would be a better word than denser?)
Most Formidable World (or, the setting you definitely would NOT want to visit)
The Unsea in Shadow and Bone, by Leigh Bardugo. This world is based on tsarist Russia, which had such a deep rift between the nobility and peasantry it eventually caused a bloodthirsty revolution. But Shadow and Bone adds even more angsty divisions among people (the Grisha vs. the non-gifted). And then it adds this horrific place called the Unsea. Is that a cool name or what? Within its dark borders, there be terrible, terrible monsters, the volcra, who feed on humans. But there's something about the Unsea even worse than that, too.
Most Wanderlust-Inducing (or the setting you'd happily run off to)
Scarlet, by A.G. Guaghn. Because who wouldn't want to hang out with Robin Hood and his merry men for a few days? Sure, the hygiene leaves a little to be desired in medieval England, and the local sheriff is a real downer. But aside from that (and as long as I had access to chain mail for safety)... I'd go back in time to meet Robin's gang in a heartbeat.
Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman. A YA author who is not afraid to use big scholastic-aptitude-test-worthy words and long sentences. And she puts them together beautifully along with her grand new vision of dragons who can turn themselves into humans.
Bonus: this book not only has a lovely way with words, but it also has quite a few laugh-out-loud moments. It has the funniest cast-of-charaters descriptions in its appendix. And speaking of the cast of characters, they are all freakishly and adorably memorable like the cast from Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings.
Most Jaw-Dropping Ending
The Darkling in Shadow and Bone. Oh my trembling knees, the Darkling! The ultimate love/hate character. But I already mentioned Shadow and Bone so I'll also give you a close runner-up: Matthew from the Lost Girl, by Sangu Mandanna. He was an intensely powerful and scary antagonist. I couldn't believe how much I hated him and how scared I was for Eva because of him. The last 1/3 of this book was so intense I think I was twitching from nervous tics while reading it.
Best Use of Theme
Never Gone, by Laurel Garver. This book runs several themes as it tackles sensitive subjects such as grief, addiction, presumptions and misunderstandings, and religion. It's all woven together beautifully and without making any big dramatic statements. This book, toward its end, could also qualify for the "loveliest prose" category.
So there you have it, 8 wonderful 2012 books by debut authors I highly recommend, and one bonus for 2013.
And as a parting shot, I can't believe I haven't mentioned the Hobbit on my blog yet, and the movie has been out almost a whole week already! The movie wasn't perfect but there were many, many things I loved about it. Here in a few weeks (when I don't have to worry so much about spoilers) I'm going to post my top ten favorite things about the Hobbit movie! (And then I'll have to do a top ten on the Lord of the Rings movies, too). I could never do just a top ten for the books - that would be more like my top 100, ha ha.
One last thought. The recent school shootings are still heavily on my mind. Keeping the families of the victims in prayer, especially during the holiday season which will be anything but a holiday for them. I was driving when I heard the news on the radio of the shootings, and I had to pull over because I was sobbing so hard. I still vividly remember where I was when I saw the World Trade towers fall, and I'm afraid I'll always remember where I was with these Sandy Hook elementary school shootings, too. Where you when you heard what happened?