Sunday 20 December 2009

End of year review + top 5 reads of 2009

Once again, it's that time of year when we look back over the last twelve months and speculate on what sort of year it's been for the genre and what books we did/didn't enjoy (I can scarcely believe it's come around again so quickly). Before I talk about my favourite books (and other things) of the year, a few words about the blog. 2009 has been a great year for Speculative Horizons, and this is reflected in the stats for the last twelve months. All are at time of writing, with last year's in brackets. 

Total cumulative hits: 120, 603 (26, 714)
Total cumulative page views: 170, 945 (39, 244)
Most visits in a single day: 1124 (278)
Average visits per day: 305 (122)
Average page views per day: 400 (160)
Books reviewed: 25 (30)
Interviews conducted: 1 (4)

These figures relating to hits and so on are not totally representative and do tend to fluctuate on a daily basis, but they do offer a basic picture of the blog, and that picture is one of rude health. Daily visits, on average, have trebled, while monthly hits passed 10k for the first time. Total cumulative hits broke the 100k barrier some time ago. Page views have more than doubled. In other words, the blog has witnessed some serious growth this year, building on 
a solid debut year in 2008. I'm more concerned with providing quality content, but it is still great to see the blog's readership growing, as it's proof that I'm doing something worthwhile that people enjoy reading. I'd like to take this opportunity to thank you all for taking the time to read the blog, and for your comments and banter over the last 12 months - it's been great fun! 

Looking at the amount of books reviewed, I know it's not as many as some other blogs. If I had my way, I'd read and review more. But I don't have my way. I read whenever I can, and write reviews when I can. I think a book review every couple of weeks is pretty decent going, considering my limited reading time. As for the interviews, I've become aware in the last couple of months that I've only done one interview this year - it's something I intend to remedy next year. I've also got some other stuff planned...

While it was a great year for the blog, it wasn't such a great year for me personally - and I mean in relation to the genre. Truth to tell, I didn't read anything that truly blew me away. Last year I read some total crackers; Altered Carbon, The Scar, and The Terror to name but a few. This year was disappointing in comparison. I read some decent books, sure. Three or four really good ones, one or two excellent ones. But nothing truly mind-blowingly brilliant, which was disappointing. Not even the three truly big ones that I read this year - The Name of the Wind, The Painted Man and Best Served Cold - really did it for me. On top of that, of the ten novels that I was anticipating this year, three were never released and three fell short of my expectations. I'm hoping 2010 will be a better year (given that I think we'll finally see the new GRRM and Lynch books, I reckon it will be).

Before I reveal my top five reads of the year, 2009's highlights included: 
  • My pro-GRRM rant, which attracted a fair few comments, including some amusing ones from GRRM's detractors (to use the polite term for them). 
  • My 'I'm a coward rant', which helped to fuel quite an intense debate about the merits of scoring systems in genre book reviewing. 
  • My appreciation of David Gemmell's classic Drenai novel Legend, which was very well received.
  • The Gollancz Autumn Party, which was a blast. 
  • As always though, the highlight was meeting and interacting with such a great bunch of folks - no other genre has the passion and enthusiasm that fantasy fans bring to ours. Long may it continue. 
Alright, time for the main event: here's my top 5 reads of the year, in no particular order.

Dragonfly Falling by Adrian Tchaikovsky

(Tor, 6 February 2009)

What I said:

"With Dragonfly Falling, Adrian Tchaikovsky has basically taken everything that made Empire in Black and Gold so enjoyable, added some new characters and story lines to the mix, and then turned it all up to eleven. The result is a gripping novel that is easily one of the best epic fantasies I've read in some time, and I'm now feverishly anticipating the third instalment, Blood of the Mantis. Highly recommended."

The best epic fantasy I read this year, no contest. This book takes everything that makes epic fantasy epic - battles, political intrigue and adventure - and just delivers it in such a masterful fashion that you just want to applaud. A big improvement on what was a decent debut, although the latest instalment didn't deliver. Still, I'm confidant that book four will hit the spot. With Tchaikovsky getting a US deal, and with two books coming out next year, I think we'll be hearing a lot more about him in 2010.

Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding

(Gollancz, 18 June 2009)

What I said:

"Retribution Falls is a superb, ripping yarn. Great characters, tight plot, relentless pace, and a fascinating world full of promise for future instalments. Prepare to be entertained."

Fun, fun, fun. Sometimes all you want from a book is to be entertained, so if that's the kind of mood you're in then you really can't go wrong with this one. Yet don't mistake Retribution Falls for a pulpy, shallow novel - there's some truly excellent characterisation and world-building at work here. I still think the way the demons are controlled is a superb idea and really inventive. Seriously looking forward to the next instalment in 2010, titled The Black Lung Captain. 

Twelve by Jasper Kent

(Bantam Press, 1 January 2009)

What I said:
"Flaws aside, Twelve is a solid, engaging novel and a promising start to the quintet that Kent has promised. There's plenty of good action, solid character development and a decent plot that manages to surprise on more than one occasion. I'm already looking forward to the next novel, Thirteen Years Later, both to see how the story progresses and to see if Kent can improve on the areas that I think could be done better."

A book with vampires in that is actually worth reading. Forget the brooding bubblegum vampires of Twilight and its ilk, Kent's vampires are terrifying monsters that are influenced by traditional folklore rather than the overplayed stroppy-immortal-with-frilly-cuffs nonsense. Sure, the novel has its flaws, but for some reason even though I read this book in January it's stuck with me - I can still recall certain scenes with vivid clarity. Looking forward very much to Thirteen Years Later.

Nights of Villjamur by Mark Charan Newton

(Tor, 5 June 2009)

What I said:

"All things considered, Nights of Villjamur is a very strong debut epic fantasy novel. Liquid prose with noir stylings evoke a brooding city in all its glory and despair, filled with believable characters and dozens of small innovations that make the world that bit more intriguing. This is a grown-up fantasy that touches on real-life concerns, and this is where fantasy is at its most potent and relevant. Newton is certainly a new talent to watch, and I look forward to the next in the Legends of the Red Sun series..."

This was easily one of the most hyped books of the year, which as we all know is not always a good thing - whether or not that is the case depends on whether the book can meet readers' heightened expectations. For me, Nights of Villjamur does. It's not a perfect book by any means - certain relationships needed more development, the murder-mystery plot didn't really go anywhere, and certain events seemed a little contrived - but overall it's a very strong debut. The prose is slick and stylish, which is great to see (far too many fantasy authors write in a dull, pedestrian manner), and it evoked a wonderfully dark, brooding atmosphere. Newton's world is intriguing too, with hints of Mieville and Wolfe. All in all, a very satisfying debut. The good news? I think the second book, City of Ruin, will be even better.

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

(Viking, 11 August 2009)

What I said:

"Flaws aside, The Magicians is a very entertaining book. Grossman has delivered a creative, thought-provoking fantasy that is all the more powerful for its links to our own reality and the issues it raises (as I've said before on this blog, this is when the fantasy genre is at its most potent). Despite the obvious debt it owes to various genre classics, it still somehow manages to feel fresh. The Magicians is by turns exciting, shocking, amusing and heart-wrenching. Easily one of my favourite books I've read this year - highly recommended."

Another flawed novel that nonetheless made enough of an impression on me to still linger in my thoughts some months after I finished it. It's a curious combination of Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia, and yet somehow Grossman not only makes it work, but he makes it relevant too. This is a novel that takes all the fluffy aspects from the likes of Harry Potter, then turns them on their head and says, "Right, ok...but what do you do when this happens?" The resulting story is a gripping read that explores a number of themes (wish-fulfilment, escapism, responsibility, and so on). A sequel is in the works, and I'll certainly be checking it out.

So, those were my top five reads of the year. No prizes for guessing which book goes down as my worst read of the year. 

Jasmyn by Alex Bell

(Gollancz, 18 June 2009)

What I said:

"I hoped for good things from Jasmyn, but was sorely disappointed and sadly this is easily the worst book I've read this year. Somewhere in this unconvincing mishmash is a decent story - I don't doubt that Bell has got some interesting ideas. But there was just far too much wrong with this novel for me to enjoy it - weak and unconvincing characters, a plot that is simply unbelievable (for the wrong reasons) and constant dull monologues. Put simply, it's a few hours of my life I won't get back."

I think I've slated this book enough, so further comment isn't really necessary - the above paragraph amply describes by thoughts.  

Right, here's some various other best and worst miscellenia.

Best film I saw in 2009:

District 9

I didn't see that many films this year, and saw even fewer that left any lasting impression on me. District 9 is therefore my choice for best film I watched this year. For some reason I forgot to give my thoughts on it on this blog. In essence, I thought it was a really good film that took a tired formula and did something totally different with it. 

The effects and all that jazz were excellent, but it was the gritty realism and thought-provoking storyline that really made the film work. There was a certain sense of "Whoah, this is what it would be like if this actually happened" about it all, and that just added a real veneer of realism to the whole thing. 

Worst film I saw in 2009:

Alien Vs Predator: Requiem

What I said:

"There aren't even any decent 'geek' moments for us geeks to enjoy. The main attraction was the fact that the 'boss' alien had predator characteristics (having burst forth from a predator) but this admittedly cool aspect was sadly lost in the darkness. The disappointing confrontation between the pred-alien and the predator (I think there was a fight, though I could be wrong) was a bit like watching two people have rampant sex in the dark. In fancy dress."

I saw some awful films this year (I am Legend, Pirates of the Caribbean 3) but there's no contest here. This isn't just the worst film I saw this year, it's possibly the worst film I ever seen in my life. The acting is awful, the script is abysmal, the plot is hopelessly weak and linear, while the resulting mess is filmed almost entirely in the dark, meaning that most of the time you can't tell what's happening. It's an absolute shambles and an utter waste of 90-odd minutes of my life that I won't get back. If you gave me the choice between watching this joke of a film again, or spending an hour and a half watching paint dry, I'd take the latter option and thank you kindly for it. Taking a sheet of sandpaper to your balls would be be preferable to watching this nonsensical garbage. Consider yourself warned.

Best music record I bought this year:

Daydream Anonymous by InMe

I wasn't a fan of InMe when they burst onto the alternative music scene back in 2003, mainly because I thought vocalist Dave McPherson's vocals were terrible. Their second album, White Butterfly, changed my mind - while I certainly wasn't a complete convert, I did quite like a handful of songs off that album. 

Their third album, Daydream Anonymous (2007) would have probably passed me by, though fortunately my brother checked it out and raved about how good it was. I didn't think much of the snippets I heard, but I decided to check it out anyway. I'm very glad I did, because it is quite simply a superb album. 

A lot happened to InMe between 2005 and 2007, and none of it good: their bass player left, the band were dropped by their record label, and singer/songwriter Dave McPherson developed alopecia. Many bands would have folded under the weight of such troubles, but InMe showed real character and came out fighting. The result was Daydream Anonymous, an absolute belter of an album. 

Musically, InMe have evolved from a post-grunge outfit to a far more innovative style, which includes elements of progressive rock, metal, and electronica. Huge riffs are offset by tender acoustic ballads, to form a deeply satisfying musical tapestry. But what really makes this album so good is the sheer emotion and energy that InMe put into it. Dave McPherson clearly had a tough time in the two years before this album was released, and he pours his anger and sorrow into every track. The result is hugely powerful and evocative; I've never heard a vocalist put so much passion and emotion into their songs. It's just so inspiring. DayDream Anonymous is one of those rare albums that you can listen to from start to finish, there's not a bad track on it. It really is a brilliant record, and while InMe have since released their fourth album Herald Moth (also very good) Daydream Anonymous remains their defining work, and rightfully so. 

Right, I think that's about it...all that's left to say is that I hope you all have a fantastic festive season and a prosperous 2010! 

Oh, and feel more than welcome to list your own top 5 reads if you feel so inclined!


Adele said...

i've had such a happy first real year of blogging and reading that I don't really think I could narrow it down to 5 books.
One of my real highlights this year though has been reading along as Steve Savile writes London Macabre. Every few days I get a couple more thousand words. :) The interviews have also been a real buzz and getting to know other bloggers has been awesome.

Jebus said...

Good to hear that you're being noticed, you're the second on my morning reads.

I've so far read 31 books this year and seen 208 films (nowhere near the 365 I had intended).

(In no order also not necessarily new but I enjoyed them this year)

BEST BOOKS: Dust of Dreams - Steven Erikson, Let The Right One In - John Lindqvist, Dragonfly Falling - Adrian Tchaikovsky, Black Man - Richard Morgan.

BEST FILMS: Still Walking, Moon, The Loved Ones, Up In The Air, Avatar, Blessed, Balibo, The Brothers Bloom, (500) Days of Summer, Where The Wild Things Are, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time.

BEST ALBUMS: Nine Inch Nails - The Slip, Oceansize - Everyone Into Position, Hammock - Raising Your Voice... Trying to Stop an Echo, Kelly Clarkson - All I Ever Wanted, Mono - One Step More and You Die, Mogwai - Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait.

It's been a pretty good year for sitting on my arse and enjoying the arts.

Chris said...

Thanks for all your reviews this year and grats on the growing stats! :)

Good choice of films there Jebus. I quite enjoyed Balibo.

Sadly, not many books read this year (excluding textbooks and political/business/military journals and publications). Read Gemmell's Legend, Dragonfly Falling, Hamilton's Reality Dysfunction, Reynold's Revelation Space and Best Served Cold.

Fav films: Public Enemies, Balibo, Avatar, Moon, District 9

So many films to see next year too darn it! :S

ebleyes said...

I discovered your blog by chance very recently, and I enjoyed reading your book reviews and find them very insightful. Keep up the good work and my only request is that you make it a little bit easier to navigate your archive.

Iain said...

Hello James,

Merry Christmas to you and yours!


The Scar by China Mieville,
The Last Argument of Kings by Joe Abercrombie,
Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding,
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (my book of the year) and;
Elantris by Brandon Sanderson.

I will give honourable mention to a book called Twelve by Stuart Neville, which is a horror/crime thriller set in Belfast. I can't ecommend it highly enough. It ain't exactly sci-fantasy but it is a great piece of cross genre fiction.

It's a shame that Messrs Rothfuss and Brett didn't have a huge impact on you, but by the time you got to them we all had hyped them so much it's no much of a surprise that you found them to be slighlty disappointing.

I tried Tom Lloyd's novel and gave up a few chapters in. However, I will return to it and have another go.

Movies of the year - District 9 (for the aliens, guns and social commentary, but especially the exo-suit). I saw Avatar last night and was happily blown away by it. The heroes are ok, the bad guy is terrific and the technology on display is mind-boggling. I can even take the spirituality of the Na'vi with a smile if it means I feel that I am walking on an alien world and in this 3-D extavaganza of a movie you do. The last 45 minutes are quite simply stunning. I cannot wait for James Cameron to return to sci-fi again. If you haven't seen it I can't emphasize how strongly you need to see it in a cinema and in 3-D.

Anyhoo, enough rambling. Keep up the sterling work, James.

Aidan Moher said...

Congrats on all the success, James! May you provide even more great content next year.

James said...

Hagelrat - glad you enjoyed your maiden year of blogging! Keep it up!

Jebus - that's cool, glad you're enjoying the blog that much. Thanks for listing your favourite books and so on, some interesting choices there.

Chris - thanks and you're welcome!

Ebleyes - glad you like the blog and thanks for the comment about the archives. Could you be more specific about what you find difficult, so I can see what I can do?

Iain - and the same back at you! Cheers very much for the recs. And I will try and see Avatar in 3D.

James said...

Oh, and Aidan - thanks very much, will do my best!