Thursday, 16 December 2010

Top of the Scots 2010: The Best Books

So I made you wait all week for what I'm sure most of you, having come to TSS to read about the books (and stayed, I hope, for all my burbling about films and video games), would have wanted first and foremost from of a best of 2010 thing along the lines of Top of the Scots.

That's just the kind of guy I am! :P

Well, I won't keep you any longer. The bush has been well and truly beaten. Thus, dear readers, at long last, I give you...

The Best of the Best

5. Horns
by Joe Hill

You might recall Horns featuring in Halfway Through 2010, my mid-year Best Of blog posts, and to be truthful I didn't at all expect it would still be around come the end of the year proper. And yet... I adored this story; I did, and ultimately these top whatever run-downs are perfectly subjective things. So. Much as I enjoyed Kraken, for instance, or a handful of the other books in competition for fifth position - the hardest of the lot to choose, and make no mistake - in the end Horns stood fast. For that I make no apologies.

My recollection of Joe Hill's second novel is crystal clear: an infamous local celebrity wakes up one morning with an inexplicable pair of horns that make everyone he speaks to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Horns is a markedly less self-serious narrative than all the other Top of the Scots winners, and perhaps that's why I presumed myself so ready to overlook it. Thinking back, though, Horns' true throughline is an unspeakably bittersweet love story which serves to ground all the fun and games emotionally speaking, and it's that I hark back to; that, over and above all the unlikely situations and inappropriate revelations.

As I wrote six or so months ago, "If my belief that Hill is a better writer than his father by a generous margin needed reaffirming, this would have done the trick." A statement I'll gladly stand by - even after the thrills and spills of Stephen King's recent return-to-form, Full Dark, No Stars. Roll on whatever Joe Hill has up his other sleeve, I say!

4. The Reapers Are The Angels
by Alden Bell

Ah, Temple...

Temple knows, you know. She knows that "God is a slick god [...] She knows because of all the crackerjack miracles still to be seen on this ruined globe. Like those fish all disco lit in the shallows. That was something, a marvel with no compare that she's been witness to. It was deep night when she saw it, but the moon was so bright it cast hard shadows everywhere on the island. So bright it was almost brighter than daytime because she could see things clearer, as if the sun were criminal to the truth, as if her eyes were eyes of night." (p.3)

With those very words, so began a book I called "the best thing with zombies in it in, oh... years," and I couldn't very well have said it better myself! :)

Downbeat but uplifting, poignant, resonant and ballsy as can be, The Reapers Are The Angels was one of this year's biggest surprises in literature. I'd thought the undead well and truly worn-out; more like I'd had an overdose of the rotting buggers forced down my throat, and not just by too many books with too little to say: in film and in video games and in comics, the lot, wherever you looked, there they were, and what use are they anyway?

Well, I take it back. This is what use they are. If there's a one of you lot still hasn't read this, get with the program already. It really doesn't get much better than The Reapers Are The Angels.

3. The Passage
by Justin Cronin

This is that rarest of things: a book that not only meets but exceeds the hype. And The Passage has to be the single most hyped book of the year. It's that good.
Predictably, there's been a substantial backlash against Justin Cronin's monstrously long tome; the first of three, incidentally, and I for one am hoping the others are of an equal if not greater length - the backlash be damned. Yes, it's the vampire apocalypse again, and yes, there's a bit of flab right there in the middle of The Passage we could all have done without.
But you know, I'd read it again. The spare narrative tire, the fortnight-long time investment it took me to get through the first time out and all, because nothing this year has managed to match the sheer tension and excitement I felt as a ragtag band of survivors went up against an army of hulking jumps to begin clawing back a world with no place for them.
Better than The Stand, I said, way back when. And I'd say it again. Haters gonna hate, you know? Well the hell with 'em. The Passage is stonking good stuff.

2. Mr Shivers
by Robert Jackson Bennett

I've gone on about Mr Shivers at length on TSS already, so you can count your lucky stars: I won't be subjecting you to another explosion of literary adoration today. But suffice it to say, Robert Jackson Bennett's stellar debut marked for me the sort of wondrous discovery that reminds me why I fell so hard and so fast for genre literature in the first place. "Bleak and hopeless in the mode of The Road," I wrote, "painterly and mythic, spare and powerful", Mr Shivers is all that - and more besides. The best first novel of the year, or I'll eat my keyboard.

And yours if you don't read this criminally underappreciated gem already. Don't think I won't do it!

1. The Habitation of the Blessed
by Catherynne M. Valente

Speaking of discoveries...

As Guy Gavriel Kay was to me last Winter, this season I find myself swooning all over another author, new to me: Catherynne M. Valente. I seem always to be falling for the ones with middle initials, don't I? ;)

I'll be putting up my full, forever-in-the-making review of The Habitation of the Blessed next week - alongside pieces on the other winners of Top of the Scots - and since I don't want to tread on its toes any I'll just say... astounding. The sort of astounding that had me on Amazon less than halfway through the thing, buying up everything I could find of the author's back catalogue - the ol' finances be damned.

Short, sweet and utterly sumptuous, The Habitation of the Blessed - volume one of A Dirge For Prester John - is my find of the year, without a doubt, and The Speculative Scotsman's favourite novel, genre or otherwise, of 2010 entire.

Suck on that, why don't you. :D


I said a little while ago, from first to fourth position, my selections as to the best books of 2010 came to me easily enough: the only decision that really posed a problem was what to slap in fifth. Thus, a throw-down happened in my head, between Kraken (review), Horns, and How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. Horns emerged triumphant in the end, as you'll well know if you've read this far - thanks, I would think, to its perfect blend of head and heart. But it was a close-run thing, there, and though these babies lost out, I wouldn't question for a second their place in any other blogger's Best of 2010.

Each in their own way, this pair represent the very finest of hilarious, irreverent and powerfully intelligent genre fiction. They might have just missed out on placing in The Best of the Best, but they're both must-reads all the same.

Honourable Mentions

So. That's this year taken care of. But what of all the books I've read this year that've come out before 2010... or those due out next year that I've been lucky enough to score early copies of? Well, I confess there haven't been a great deal of either - the pressure to be timely has had me making my way through the TBR stack with that guiding influence in mind at all times - but I've got one of each for you, in any event.

The Hunger Games, first of all, surprised the hell out of me. I only really gave these books a shot because Mockingjay was due out and the internet had almost imploded in anticipation of the trilogy's concluding chapter. What I found in the great tale of Katniss Everdeen was a darker, smarter and more affecting thing than I'd thought possible within the confines of all-ages fantasy. Hardly able to stop myself, I read and reviewed all three books within a week (here, here and here, in that order) and though Collins' novels proved something of a case of diminishing returns, even in its weakest moments The Hunger Games is up there with the cream of the cream of the crop.

No doubt it's a little early to be declaring the best book of 2011, but I've already got a favourite in the shape of The Diviner's Tale, another stonking Corvid due out in January hereabouts, from the founder and editor of Conjunctions magazine, Bradford Morrow. I'll have a full review of this stunning magical realist narrative for you to pore over in the new year. For the moment, we'll say if only it had come out a little sooner, I wouldn't have had to make that nightmare of a choice between Kraken, Horns and How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe.


Biggest Disappointments

I'm not saying The Left Hand of God (review) is the de facto "worst" book I've read this year, but it's certainly the one that fell the furthest from my expectations. And mild disapproval on you for that, internet. Mild disapproval on you for getting me all riled up over such utter tripe!

Anyway, as before, I don't plan to piss away another word reiterating how awful this overhyped abomination truly is, so.

Glaring Oversights


I still feel like an ass about this. You must all know the origin story of TSS by now - short version: if you've taken any pleasure from the blog at all this year, you've basically got Guy Gavriel Kay to thank for inspiring me to such an extent I simply had to have somewhere to say pretty things about Tigana - and so when my proof of Under Heaven arrived with me, I was, shall we say, psyched. So psyched I decided to save it for a rainy day.

I've been saving Under Heaven for myself, and indeed from myself, ever since. More fool me. I expect it be incredible. I expect, if I'd read it, it'd have placed somewhere close to The Habitation of the Blessed. But I've gone and missed my chance.

Or... wait just a cotton-pickin' minute. Have I? Is it true, that you can only read a book either before it comes out or during its week of release, or is it hooey? How's about - damn the blogger's bargain - I read it over Christmas, like I did Tigana to begin with?

God, that sounds so perfect it's almost like I planned it. :D

Final Thoughts

Right then, that's my marching orders sorted. And I couldn't be happier. Here's hoping you've enjoyed Top of the Scots some - I know I have. Maybe even added a couple new books onto your Amazon wishlists and the like. Nothing would make me gladder than to think there are a couple of folks out there reading and adoring something because I helped recommend it to you. More than all the free books, the dubious internet celebrity, the pull quotes spreading word of TSS far and wide, even the letters and emails from authors and editors and fellow bloggers - more than any other thing, and much more: here's to that.

But wait. Are you getting the feeling Top of the Scots is over? Well, no. Not so much. Sure, the lists are behind us, but the end of the year celebrations have a whole other week left in 'em. I'm taking this thing all the way through to Christmas!

And come the new year, I've a whole other gaggle of goodies for you all - that is presuming I can find the time to write up everything I hope to between the tinsel of festivities strung between now and then.

To that, then. Speak soon! :)


  1. It is interesting to see how Horror focused your list ended up. I wonder what that says about you?

    At least one of your top five will make it to my list as well. I've tried to read The Habitation of the Blessed twice now and haven't been able to get more than 50 pages in. The pacing is just to off for me at the moment. I'm sure I'll give it one more go sometime next year.

  2. I've just got The Habitation of the Blessed and will be taking it to Ireland with me to read over the holidays. Catherynne M. Valente is such a good writer... have you read Palimpsest (Hugo Nominee 2010), or The Orphan's tales (2 volumes of linked short stories)? I have just reviewed another of her books Oracles: A Pilgrimage, [ ]which is beautiful, lyrical poetry.

  3. Solid list. I actually haven't read any of these books (though I own 3 of them) but I must commend you for not sticking to the cookie cutter list and reading a diverse selection of books.

  4. Good sounding list Niall. Out of the top 5 I've only read The Passage and agree it needs to be on there somewhere - it's a cracking read and I loved it. And as to "Under Heaven" - you teaser! You will thoroughly enjoy it, no doubt. It is definitely in my top 5 of the year.

    One more question - have you read "The Dervish House"? One of my other favourites of 2010, for sure. Ian McDonald is brilliant.

  5. 'Under Heaven' makes my list of best books of the year - hope you enjoy it.

    Thanks for making me add a couple of books to my 'must read' list!

  6. Interesting list. I've read only two of your top picks, but the others are all on the horizon. Of the ones I have read, I liked but didn't love The Passage. Habitations of the Blessed, on the other hand, was excellent, original, and incredibly vivid. I'm not sure if it makes my Best Of list, but it was definitely a very, very good read.