Friday, 9 December 2011

Top of the Scots 2011 | The Best Books

You know, I love me my video games. And my movies too... if a little less this year than I have in the past, as I was saying on Wednesday.

But I'm first and foremost a reader. I read every night, and most days, too, if I can nab 10 minutes here or a half-hour there; in fact - fancy that! - for the first time in my entire life, I broke the 100 books barrier this year, and that isn't even counting comics.

Now I haven't reviewed every last one of the books I've read, but I've gone on record with my thoughts on more of them than not. So that's something to be proud of.

In any event, if I have a reputation around the blogosphere - and I like to think I've a wee one - it's as a book reviewer. And at this stage, before Hurricane Bawbag comes around for another pass, I've probably kept you in suspense as to my favourite reads of the read quite long enough.

Without any further ado, then, I give you... 

The Best of the Best

5. Little Star
by John Ajvide Lindqvist

I was as surprised as anyone when it was pointed out that horror novels rather ruled the roost in my selection of The Best Books of 2010, so I had it in my head to decide on a more diverse representation of the year's foremost fictions in this second edition of Top of the Scots.

Turns out I needn't have worried. I read at least as much horror in 2011 as I did in 2010, if not substantially more, and though there were many highlights, only Little Star, I think, by John Ajvide Lindqvist, can stand shoulder to shoulder with the rest of the year's best.

It's incredibly powerful stuff.

And you know, it's pretty hard going. Harrowing and horrifying in the purest sense of the word. I wouldn't recommend Little Star to everyone, not even to all those folks who've read Lindqvist before - probably by way of his incredible debut Let the Right One In - but if you're willing to be disturbed, this tale of two sisters of sorts who finally find themselves in one another is utterly unforgettable, and ultimately as beautiful as it is twisted.

No other horror novel released in 2011 can hold a damn candle to it.
For more on Little Star, read the full review here.

4. Embassytown
by China Mieville

Did you think I'd pick this as my favourite book of 2011?

Well for a minute there, I did too.

Never mind that the man's hard to read on a good day - in a good way, needless to say - Embassytown is surely the most demanding tale award-gobbler China Mieville has told to date. But once you get into the swing of it, it's simply magnificent: a rumination on the power of language by one of our generations most persuasive wordsmiths, via the stuff of hard sf.

Here's some of what someone wrote in some review somewhere:

"For a book about the Word, whatever the word is, or was, or will be, it is ineffably apposite that Embassytown leaves one quite without the words to describe it, far less do this stupendous thing justice. Certainly, lovers of lovely language will love the languid language of Mieville's loveliest text to date, and though in the beginning the narrative is difficult to grasp, far less to parse, there is such light at the end of Embassytown's darkness: pools of pure illumination, brilliant and utterly unfettered."

Couldn't have put it better myself! :P

Anyway, that's why Embassytown is my favourite science-fiction book of the year.

But it's only my fourth favourite novel of 2011 overall. What could have possibly dethroned it?

Well, for one thing...

3. Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti 
by Genevieve Valentine

Here I was beginning to think - after The Bookman and Camera Obscura by Lavie Tidhar, Cherie Priest's Clockwork Century novels, and a handful of others I can't even remember - that for all its apparent outward appeal, steampunk simply wasn't for me.

Then along came Mechanique, a book about a traveling troupe of steam-powered people - by an author I'd never read before, no less - to show me just how wrong I was.

Excerpted from the full review:

"Whether Mechanique is a collection of loosely connected episodes in the life and times of a traveling circus and its oddment of performers, or a single story with a fistful of distinct threads enmeshed together, I would argue it matters little. And there can be no disputing that the ringside seats Valentine arranges for us around this unforgettable parade of 'clockwork coquettes' and strongman machines are a marvel. We are so close to the action as to scent the mingled stink of sweat and sawdust and sweet treats in the air; to hear 'the sound of feathers singing' as every bone in the wings sewn to the spine of Alec the flying man arrives at an impossible harmony; to gape up at and around and through every last incredible act, as if we were ourselves a part of them.

"Truly, madly, deeply, readers: this first full-length Tale of the Circus Tresaulti moved me immeasurably. Here's to many more where it came from -- which is to say, from the mind of one of the most promising new voices in all genre fiction. I haven't been so excited about a second novel since discovering Catherynne M. Valente; that for her first Genevieve Valentine has conjured such a masterpiece of measure and imagination as this - the performance of a lifetime! - speaks volumes as to why I may finally have fallen for steampunk."

Saying that, I haven't loved any steampunk since I read Mechanique, almost half a year ago, so perhaps I only fell for Genevieve Valentine. Hmm.

Whatever the case: read this, readers.

2. The Tiger's Wife
by Tea Obreht

I very nearly missed out on The Tiger's Wife entirely.

I remember hearing some lovely, lovely things about it around its release window in the spring, but for one reason or another - I was probably just swamped at the time - I didn't seek it out, and then I basically forgot it existed. More fool me.

Then last month, when I began the great catch-up, I asked you all for recommendations, and a couple of commenters mentioned The Tiger's Wife.

To those folks - you know who you are! - I say, sincerely: thank you.

I haven't reviewed The Tiger's Wife yet, so let me ad-lib a little here: not since Life of Pi have I been so in awe of a new purveyor of literary fiction as I am by Tea Obreht. Incredibly, she's only in her mid-20s... and perhaps that's one of the reasons why The Tiger's Wife is so stunning. But it's very far from the only reason.

If, like I, you overlooked The Tiger's Wife at the time of its publication, don't feel too terrible. But do take my advice, and give it a chance. This is that rarest of things: a book that not only meets but exceeds the hype.

Stay tuned to The Speculative Scotsman over the holidays for a proper review of Tea Obreht's award-winning debut in the fullness of time.

But first, behold: my book of the year...

1. The Hammer 
by K. J. Parker

Have I said before how criminal it is that K. J. Parker isn't more widely appreciated?

I tend to think I have... time and again at that. But maybe I haven't quite gotten across just how much I appreciate - no, adore - his or her work. 

This is how much.

No other novel has held me, thrilled me, kissed me or killed me in quite the way The Hammer did, way back when I read it at the beginning of 2011.

The review I wrote at the time says it better than I could now, nearly a year out:

"I expected The Hammer to be a pleasant diversion: smart and fun and unfussy... you know the like. And it is all those things, indeed it is - par for the K. J. Parker course - but what the secretive author has proffered up here is so much more satisfying, so much more profound, than that and that alone. From least to most, then, this stunning standalone fantasy is a chronicle of the re-invention of industry - the particulars of which are fascination themselves; it's a many-faceted rumination on the point and the price of justice (a subject presumably so close to Parker's literary heart because of her and her partner's profession in the pursuit of said); and it is a provocative portrait, last and not least, of a character so complex and conflicted, so dark and somehow endearing, few are likely to rival Gignomai Met'Oc until Parker tops him herself, whenever the next of her novels rolls around."

That is to say Sharps, due in July. The wait for it has already been horrendous, and I aim to remedy that over the holidays by digging into Parker's back-catalogue a bit.

In the interim, if you haven't already read The Hammer, well... you have your marching orders. It is, in my humble opinion, the single best book of the year.

On the other hand, one of my favourite book reviewers just slated it. K. J. Parker is an acquired taste, make no mistake, and perhaps the more of his or her work you read, the less surprising it is; there's absolutely something to that argument.

But this is neither the time nor the place to start second-guessing myself, and if you ask me, there's no better place to start reading K. J. Parker than here. Period.


I was lucky enough to lay hands on an ARC of The Heroes a good few months before it came out in January, so I actually read Joe Abercrombie's latest in 2010 rather than this year. It's a testament to its greatness, then, that more than a year later I remember it as well - and as fondly - as if I'd been reading it yesterday. This guy gets better with every book. Roll on A Red Country!

Also narrowly missing out on a place amongst the final five discussed above, my first - but assuredly not my last - Daryl Gregory novel: Raising Stony Mayhall, a terrific and touching coming-of-age comedy set in the wake of a stymied zombie apocalypse. Probably the most pure, unadulterated fun I've had with any narrative in 2011.

I also adored The Diviner's Tale by Bradford Morrow, but that got a shout-out in Top of the Scots 2010, and it feels a little cheeky to feature it again, so I've opted not to, other than this. But it's brilliant.

For more on The Heroes, read the full review here. Meanwhile, here's what I wrote about Raising Stony Mayhall.

Honourable Mentions

Have you ever accidentally read a whole book before?

As I recall it was late one night. Dark and quiet; well after midnight, knowing me. I'd just finished the book I'd been reading for the last little while... but I wasn't quite ready for lights out just yet. So there I was, browsing quite exitedly through all the ebooks I have on my tablet, thinking What am I going to read next? when all of a sudden, I was reading Room.

Five or six hours later, the sun was coming up, and I was getting dressed to go get milk for the coffee that had been keeping me going!

Room is not a perfect novel - the second half is a bit preachy, and many leagues less powerful then the first - but still. What a concept. And what execution! Tremendous. If it had only come out in 2011!

Meanwhile The Weird. I'm hoping to put some sort of review of The Weird together over Christmas. Which isn't to say I'm finished with it. Far from it, truth be told, but there comes a time when one can safely say yes, this monolithic thing is magnificent - with enough weird within to last you a lifetime - and it is, and it has. Every genre fiction fan should have a copy of this compendium.

For more on Room, read the full review here. And keep your peepers pointed at The Speculative Scotsman over the holidays for a... a something about The Weird.

Biggest Disappointment

If there's one book from the last year that's emerged as something of an awards favourite, it's got to be Blackout. Or rather, Blackout and All Clear, Connie Willis' celebrated speculative account of the Second World War. But I've only read the first vast volume so far... and - I'm sorry - but no.

In its own right, Blackout is not a good book. Never mind that it doesn't end - it doesn't, though in certain sense that's to be expected - my issue with Blackout is that it's simply a lot of faffing. Of Blackout's 600 pages, maybe 400 are devoted to setting the scene in minute, excruciating detail, even. Then there's the meaningless dialogue, the characters who aren't very interesting to begin with...

I could go on, as Connie Willis seems determined to. But for all that Blackout is an almighty disappointment, it's worth remembering that it's only the first half of a much larger narrative, and presumably the good stuff is coming in All Clear. Or else what were all those awards committees thinking?

As is my curse, I've started this story, so now I'll have to finish it - thus, you can expect reviews of Blackout and All Clear in early 2012 - but I'm in no huge hurry to do so. Nor, I dare say, is the author.

Glaring Oversights

For all that I have read in 2011, the mind boggles at the thought of everything I haven't.

These two books are just the tip of the iceberg, of course. I don't feel so awful about The Wise Man's Fear, but Swamplandia! sounded simply terrific, and I wish I had had the time to get to it before putting this list together.

But such is life! And I suppose books don't suddenly cease to exist if you miss them the year they come out... though if you follow the blogosphere, you'd be forgiven, I think, for thinking that's the case.

Final Thoughts

And with that bit of seasonal snark, Top of the Scots is over! For another year! Almost!

It's been a pretty good year, all told. I mean, in books, absolutely - and in video games too... though good movies have been few and far between, that I've seen. Maybe they're all coming out after Christmas, the better to be timely when the Oscars roll around?

Well whatever. Otherwise, 2011 has been pretty swell - and in life, as in literature. With my making regular contributions to, Strange Horizons and Starburst Magazine, and actually earning a little for my efforts, I've never been busier, or happier to be doing what I do.

But what about you guys and gals? What have some of your favourite - and your least favourite - books of 2011 been?

And besides the books, how has the year treated you?


  1. I'm a huge Parker fan and also really enjoyed the Hammer. It makes a great 'first Parker' as well, as you suggest. I hope lots of folks take your advice!

    Great year, and hard to disagree with any of your picks. I haven't read Mechanique yet, but look forward to doing so.

  2. Mechanique may make it my list as well, but it keeps competing in my head with The Night Circus, which I'm surprised you haven't reviewed. I had some problems with Embasseytown so I can't see it being in the top for me. The first half was brilliant, but I felt it lost its direction and the characters just became even colder than they already were.

  3. I hate to admit it, but... I haven't read any of the books on your list. I have some serious catching up to do.

    As for K.J. Parker, I'm fairly certain I have The Company sitting in my to-be-read pile, but as that one's reviews are more mixed than The Hammer's, I might have to go out and read that one first.

    Some books that I thought were great reads that you didn't get to this year:

    Mistborn: The Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson. It's not a heavyweight read, just a good ol' adventure novel. And all his Mistborn books are crackling good reads, actually.

    I know it's a love it/hate it sort of book, but I really got a kick out of The Wise Man's Fear. In terms of capturing a character's voice, I'd be hard-pressed to find many better authors than Rothfuss, and the characters are what draw me to a story.

    Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. Perhaps my favorite read this year, Cline's debut novel is bursting at the seams with creativity, and it perfectly balances nostalgia and sci-fi.

    Of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't say I discovered Daniel Abraham this year, beginning what I'm sure will be a lengthy literary love affair.

  4. I have been pushing The Tiger's Wife like a dealer, but not many people go on to pick it up. Glad that someone did.


    Swamplandia! was one of the books I did not get around to reviewing this year and one that I am not going to review unless I read it again. That is unlikely to happen. It is a... difficult book to read. What little happiness there is to be found in Swamplandia! is flooded by a sense of loss--life, home, innocence, childhood--that seeps in, pervading the majority of the narrative. It could be described as the antithesis of the typical child's adventure story. It is a good book, mind you, but... difficult.


    "Or else what were all those awards committees thinking?"

    So who gets the award this year?
    Connie has a new book out this year.
    Hmm, you're right and there's no Stross out.
    Connie it is, then.

  5. Surprised you didn't mention Stephen King at all. Thought you loved that book as much as I did.

  6. Great selection by the way, K J Parker has just been ordered!

  7. Good to know that you're enjoying The Weird, as I've been curious to know your reaction.

  8. @Larry - ODD? also. And The Honey Month. I've been loving what Jeff and Ann and their rogue's gallery have been up to recently, just loving the lot of it. And there's been a lot!

  9. @Rob - I really did enjoy 11/22/63, and it was a close-run thing for a minute there, whether it'd get a spot in the best of the best. In the end, well... obviously it didn't. Stephen King, even really good Stephen King, is kind of a known quantity, don't you think? And I value surprise very highly; also discovery.

    Hence the love for The Hammer. Chuffed to bits you got a copy! Maybe one day I can look forward to hearing your thoughts on it? :)

  10. I totally agree with you about The Hammer. I loved The Folding Knife so much that I had to read it, expecting it to be just as awesomely good, but I think The Hammer is even better.

  11. I'm working on my best of list, and Embassytown is near the top of it. As is a handful of Catherynne Valente, who you should add to your list if you've never read any of her stuff.

  12. Good to know there are people reading ODD? (and The Honey Month, but I'm biased toward a book that contains a translation of mine :P). Hopefully, there'll be more in the works in the near future.

  13. Nice list sir, I've only read The Hammer from your top 5, but I've managed to get to both of your runners up, and you biggest disappointment.

    I've never head of The Tiger's Wife, but I'm intrigued, I'm excited to see your review for it.

  14. Embassytown was my favourite book from 2011. It is nothing less than "magnificent". I was disappointed with The Tiger's Wife though - I still haven't finished it.

  15. I find it really interesting that, of the five books, I'd only read two, and (as you noted) wasn't too thrilled with one of them (though I agree with you that Embassytown was superb and will be one of my books of the year as well). I added the rest to my amazon wishlist, though I wish I'd thought to do so BEFORE spending all my holiday money/book requests.

    About the Hammer, for me it really just came down to its similarity to The Engineer Trilogy and the fact that I definitely preferred that work, which, if you're doing her backlog, you should really read; it's superb. On its own merits, the Hammer was admittedly quite good, even if I did have serious problems with it.

    Looking forward to another year of Speculative Scotsman...