Monday, 28 June 2010

Halfway Through 2010: The Best Books

It's that time of year, I hear. Near enough the halfway point: the perfect opportunity to take stock of what 2010 has given us so far. What we should be grateful for, what travesties we wish we'd had the foresight to avoid. I'm going to run down my personal top five books, video games and movies - in that order - published or otherwise released between January 1st and June 30th. There'll also be a space for honourable mentions - as in, things I've loved that either came out before the period of eligibility began or else haven't yet hit shelves or home consoles or multiplexes - as well as worst disappointments, and any glaring oversights for each medium of entertainment.

Let's begin with... books.

Five Favourites

5. Horns
by Joe Hill

I loved Heart-Shaped Box. I know it had its detractors, but what with the hot goth girls, the eBay shenanigans and a healthy serving of good, old-school horror, it felt like Joe Hill's debut spoke directly to me - which probably says a lot more about me than I'd ever volunteer. Accordingly, I was expecting great things from his second novel, and Horns did not disappoint. A more comic narrative by half, wherein an infamous local celebrity inexplicably wakes up one morning with horns that make everyone he speaks to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, Horns nevertheless had a surprisingly emotional denouement. If my belief that Hill is a better writer than his father by a generous margin needed reaffirming, this would have done the trick.

4. Stories
edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio

This incredible collection came out of nowhere for me. Just about the first thing I heard of it was the sound of an early manuscript slapping the laminate beneath my letterbox. After a quick look at the list of contributors, however, it was only through sheer force of will that I managed to resist a bad habit of mine: saving great books to savour at a later date. But then, one night, I read the wonderfully wicked 'Blood' by Roddy Doyle to the other half as she was falling asleep, and I was hooked. A few days later, after powerhouses from Neil Gaiman, Gene Wolfe, Joe Hill, Jonathan Carroll, I finally came up for air. Truly an anthology for the ages. 

3. Kraken
by China Mieville

The last thing I'd expected from this year's new China Mieville was a comedy. But then, since he rounded off the Bas-Lag trilogy with Iron Council, Mieville's been all about defying expectations, and books like Kraken - demented, betentacled hijinx in and around the aspect of London we mere mortals can't see - make me glad he hasn't just returned to New Crubozon over and over ad infinitum. Between an early manuscript of this courtesy of Macmillan and a postcard from the man himself to say how chuffed he was with my review, my experiences with Kraken, all told, are among the best I've had since launching The Speculative Scotsman. Which isn't to say it's not a damn fine book; it is, though I suspect its tone might mean the high and mighty judges will overlook it come awards season next year. 

2. Mr Shivers
by Robert Jackson Bennett

Mr Shivers caught me entirely by surprise. I'd never heard of Robert Jackson Bennett, and though the buzz on his debut was good, in general, it didn't seem to be making huge waves. Truly, it should have: this is a stonker of a novel. Bleak and hopeless in the mode of The Road, painterly and mythic, spare and powerful. From cover to cover, this was an experience the likes of which reminds me why I fell for genre literature in the first place. If you haven't read it - and I fear a very few of you have - and you're only prepared to let me recommend one book to you, this is it. Go on, now. Buy. Devour. And come on back when you're done, let me have the pleasure of telling you I told you so. 

1. The Passage
by Justin Cronin

It seems like a bit of a cheat to pick The Passage as my favourite book of 2010 given that I haven't reviewed it yet, but never fear: there's a review in the works, and a whole week of themed celebrations in the pipeline to go along with it. I don't want to step on my forthcoming review's toes by giving too much away, but this, shall we say, is that rarest of things: a book that not only meets but exceeds the hype. And The Passage is the single most hyped book of the year. It's that good.

Runners Up

Any other year, I suspect both of these fantastic fantasies would have placed in the top five. In Spellwright, a stellar debut from Blake Charlton: Harry Potter with charm, smarts, originality and a magic system worth ten of most others (review). In City of Ruin, a sequel to Nights of Villjamur that improves on its excellent predecessor in nearly every imaginable sense (review). Alas, there are only five spots to be had, so. Sorry lads!

Honourable Mentions

Two books from last year, here, but both likely candidates for the best of 2009 honours here on The Speculative Scotsman - had The Speculative Scotsman existed, that is, in 2009. In Great Waters is a tale of mermaid politics that far exceeds its odd lede line thanks to its tragic characters (review), while Far North... well, you'll be hearing all about Far North shortly.

Worst Disappointments

I won't waste another word iterating how awful this overhyped abomination truly is (review).

Glaring Oversights

Poor Voyager. Two of their biggest releases this calendar year and I've hardly covered either. Not for want of trying, nor, indeed, for any lack of anticipation - both are books I've lusted after for ages - but now that they're upon us, one thing or another has come up every time I've tried to sit down with Under Heaven or The Desert Spear, and so they've languished on the tottering stack of books To Be Read. They shall be, though; read, I mean, and before the year's out. In the meantime, I'm sure we can all agree: I am made of fail.

Final Thoughts

It's been a hell of year so far, hasn't it? Honestly, it's been a bit of a struggle to find five movies and five games for the Halfway Through 2010 posts scheduled for tomorrow and the next that I honestly feel are worthy of such championing - perhaps because of the historical drought affecting those mediums until Summer and the holidays respectively - but in terms of literature, a shortage of quality genre fiction is the least of my worries.

I wonder, though, if I'm overstating the case somewhat. Perhaps most years are like this, and I'm only now noticing the breadth and depth of speculative fiction as a whole because the blog has meant I've had to pay close attention to it. So do tell, readers dear: am I miles off base here, or has it been half a year to remember? What have your favourite books of the year been?


  1. Niall, I have only read one of the books you've mentioned in your list - but it's one you haven't: Under Heaven. So while I cannot debate your choices of Top 5 I can tell you that you MUST read this one ASAP. If you had I feel it surely would have made your top 5.... it's that good. A beautiful novel.

    My other favourite novels that I've read this year are mostly non-2010 publications:
    Black Man - Richard Morgan
    Best Served Cold - Joe Abercrombie
    Brasyl - Ian McDonald
    The Gap Sequence - Stephen Donaldson

    Keep up the great work with the blog!

  2. Thanks, Marduk - will do. :)

    I know, Under Heaven is a huge oversight. I have this weird habit of saving books that I know I'll love for a rainy day. God knows, though, when that rainy day will be. Sadly I can't see a quiet period in the near future - the next month's worth of reading at least is all laid out - but definitely before the year's out.