Friday, 20 March 2015

Lauren R. Weinstein's Girl Stories (Henry Holt, 2006) and Lynda Barry's One Hundred Demons (Sasquatch Books, 2002)

NB: linked in this Friday's Forgotten Books roundup.

Over the past few months I've been unearthing graphic novels – more accurately unboxing, I suppose; for the most part they've been sitting in cardboard boxes in the loft – that I've owned for years but for whatever reason haven't got round to reading until now(ish). I have a vague plan, hatched in this post last month on three graphic novels from 2014 and destined, no doubt, like other vague plans before it, to be abandoned before it amounts to much of anything, to group some of them together in configurations which strike me as likely to prompt a few thoughts, arbitrary and asinine though those configurations – and thoughts – may be. This configuration being a case in point:

Girl Stories by Lauren R. Weinstein, published in paperback by Henry Holt in 2006, and One Hundred Demons by Lynda Barry, published in hardback by Sasquatch Books in 2002. Aha! I hear you cry. He's grouped these two graphic novels together because they're both by women. Oho! I rejoin. That is only part of the reason. In fact my major rationale for grouping the two books together is even more prosaic than that: when I retrieved them from the loft it struck me that they're both in a landscape format, and almost exactly the same TPS – about 150mm by 240mm.

Slightly more interestingly, both books are episodically autobiographical in nature and deal with similarly formative periods in their authors' lives, so despite my facile comparisons they do share more in common than just gender and size.

Of the two, I liked Girl Stories the best. Why it took me nearly ten years to finally read the damn thing I've no idea; I've long loved Weinstein's idiosyncratic, unpredictable Inside Vineyland (Alternative Comics, 2003), and though Girl Stories isn't quite as demented as that debut, it has the same zip and energy, just directed to keenly felt, scratchily rendered vignettes of school life and suburban home life (instead of stories about lovelorn robots and depressed dogs), with meditations on the perils of social climbing, the trouble with boyfriends and the problem of body fascism.

It's taken me even longer to get round to One Hundred Demons – over a dozen years, which is ridiculous really. I mean, what's the point in even owning a book if it's just going sit there unread for a dozen years? He types, looking round guiltily at the hundreds of books sitting on his shelves unread for half a dozen years. But anyway: Barry's comics are as honest and raw as Weinstein's – rawer even: there are allusions in One Hundred Demons to a very dark and painful episode in Barry's childhood. As a cartoonist, though, Barry prefers to tell rather than show, to the extent that the words in her panels frequently overwhelm and crowd out the pictures. That said, she may lack Weinstein's light touch, but there's a reflective strength, and consequently an affecting depth, to a story like "Cicadas".

Friday, 13 March 2015

War Game by Anthony Price (Gollancz, 1976; David Audley Series #7): Book Review

NB: One of this Friday's Forgotten Books.

'Formulaic' is a word oft applied to genre fiction, and in many cases rightly so: think of contemporary crime fiction, with its interminable parade of interchangeable detective-inspectors and mutilated female corpses. But though formulaic may be a derogatory term, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with developing or adhering to a formula. Some of the best and most influential crime and spy series ever published – Richard Stark's Parker novels and Ian Fleming's Bond ones spring to (my) mind – were written to formulas, and yet individual books within those series still stand as distinctive works of fiction in their own right. The key is to mix things up a bit – to, as Mike Love of the Beach Boys memorably put it, "fuck with the formula" (Love was actually advising Brian Wilson against doing that, but Wilson ignored him, with spectacular results) – and this is what Anthony Price does with his David Audley series of spy novels.

Since I first encountered the series in 2011 I've read seven of Price's nineteen Audley thrillers – most recently War Game, published by Victor Gollancz in 1976 – and though the elements – the formula – that comprise the novels have become familiar – a preoccupation with the past and, often, archaeology, one which feeds into a (then) present day mystery concerning state security; a reliance on dialogue rather than description as a means of unravelling that mystery – Price always finds a way to fuck with that formula.

His chief method of doing so is by changing the principal viewpoint character, beginning with the clever and prickly Audley himself in The Labyrinth Makers (1970), then moving through a variety of other operatives of the Research and Development Section of British Intelligence – plus the odd stray Italian and American – as the novels progress, and arriving, Magic Faraway Tree-style, back at Audley as of War Game. This is an older and more seasoned Audley, however – in Price's stories time marches on at roughly the same pace as the books were originally published, so a good six or seven years have elapsed since the events of The Labyrinth Makers – one who gazes upon subordinates Paul Mitchell and Frances Fitzgibbon and, despite being respectively irritated and beguiled by them, sees a pair of stars destined to rise further in the Intelligence firmament than he ever has or will.

But it's still Audley who for the most part makes the intellectual running here, doing his damndest to work out how leftie firebrand Charlie Ratcliffe has managed to unearth £2 million in 17th century gold – with which he intends to fund his radical workers' newspaper – and have his brother bumped off during a Civil War reenactment into the bargain, thus securing the fortune for himself. As before in the series, there's more – or perhaps less – going on than meets the eye, and so even though Price's own politics show through on occasion – the moral matter of whether a government minister should really be turning an apparatus of state to the undoing of a left-wing irritant is never fully addressed – there is a genuine threat to national security at play, one which must be countered. The identity of that threat may not come as a huge surprise, but the rug-pulling reveal of its method demonstrates there's plenty of fun to be had with Price's formula yet.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Patricia Highsmith's The Man Who Wrote Books in His Head: Signed Inscribed Edition (Eurographica, 1986)

NB: Included in Friday's Forgotten Books, 6/3/15.

Much as I love a beautiful dust jacket (especially a British one dating from, say, the 1950s or the 1960s), sometimes the most extraordinary of books come in the plainest of wrappers. Like this one:

The Man Who Wrote Books in His Head and Other Stories by Patricia Highsmith, published by Eurographica of Helsinki, Finland (or Helsinki, Sweden, as newsreader Harvey Johnson has it in Die Hard), in 1986 as part of their Mystery and Spy Authors in Signed Limited Editions series (number four in that series, to be precise). Printed, as noted in the back of the book, "by Tipografia Nobili, established in Pesaro in 1823, on special Michelangelo paper made at the Magnani Paper Mills in Pescia, Italy" – and suitably and pleasingly thick and rough and deckled that paper is too – it was limited to 350 numbered copies signed by Highsmith, with "20 additional copies printed for the personal use of the author". This is one of those 20 additional copies:

Which Highsmith inscribed to a Catherine Schelbert – who may well be the translator Catherine Schelbert – in March 1990. A handful of copies of the signed and numbered run of The Man Who Wrote Books in His Head can be found on AbeBooks (for upwards of £100) – as can a similar number of Where the Action Is and Other Stories, a second limited edition of Highsmith tales published by Eurographica in 1989 – but I can't see any other copies of the "personal use" run, so this one is quite a rare item, and as such nice addition to my steadily growing collection of signed and inscribed Highsmith books (see here, here, here and here).

The four stories in The Man Who Wrote Books in His Head are taken from the 1979 collection Slowly, Slowly in the Wind, although three, "Something You Have to Live With", "Slowly, Slowly in the Wind" itself and "A Curious Suicide", were first published earlier than that, in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine ("A Curious Suicide" as "Who Lives, Who Dies?"). The best by far is the title story, in which Highsmith drily demonstrates, using the case of one E. Taylor Cheever, that one needn't go to the bother of actually writing any novels in order to become a celebrated novelist – a finding which, for myself, having attempted on more than one occasion to write a novel only to discover that my talents – if indeed any exist – almost certainly lie elsewhere, is music to the ears.

The other three stories are all very good too, though – the macabre and mildly gruesome "Slowly, Slowly in the Wind", with its wonderfully original method of disposing of a body, in an obvious sort of way, "Something You Have to Live With" and "A Curious Suicide" working a more subtle magic, both dealing with the lingering aftereffects of killing; "A Curious Suicide" in particular comes off like a condensed Highsmith novel, complete with a murderer who gets away with it almost in spite of himself. All of which leads me to suspect that the rest of Slowly, Slowly in the Wind will be well worth reading too – so it's a good job I have a first edition of that collection, which I'll doubtless be blogging about down the line, and adding to the Existential Ennui Patricia Highsmith First Edition Book Cover Gallery, where I've deposited The Man Who Wrote Books in His Head (under "Patriciaphernalia"). And I'll be blogging about another signed and inscribed Highsmith book before too long as well – a very special association copy of a Tom Ripley novel, no less.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Best Graphic Novels of 2014? Ant Colony by Michael DeForge, Megahex by Simon Hanselmann and It Never Happened Again by Sam Alden

For some reason – possibly to do with the life and work upheavals of the past few months; a retreat to the familiar, perhaps? – I've been on something of a graphic novels kick of late: catching up on books which were published last year but which I missed; rediscovering ones I've owned for, in some cases, a decade or more but which have been sitting in the loft, unread. My vague plan is to group some of them together in various configurations for blog posts over the coming weeks and – most likely – months in – even more likely, I imagine – intermittent fashion, beginning with three graphic novels that have little in common other than they were all published in 2014 and they're the three best graphic novels published in 2014 that I've read:

Ant Colony by Michael DeForge (Drawn & Quarterly, 2014), Megahex by Simon Hanselmann (Fantagraphics, 2014), and It Never Happened Again by Sam Alden (Uncivilized Books, 2014). Ant Colony I've already mentioned on Existential Ennui; it took the number eight spot in my year-end top ten of the best books I read in 2014, the only graphic novel to make it into that top ten, although if I'd read Hanselmann's or Alden's books before the end of last year it's entirely possible one or the other of those would have made it in too. But anyway: Ant Colony is extraordinary, a mad and trippy meditation on the nature of society, the role of the individual within that society, and how that society might explode and eventually reintegrate in new forms in the wake of an apocalyptic event, all enacted by ants (and spiders, and centipedes, and sundry cameoing insects).

Just as philosophical in their own ways are Megahex and It Never Happened Again. The former is initially deceptive in that it starts out like a (very) low key Furry Freak Brothers, detailing the everyday lives of a pair of stoners – Megg and her kind-of lover Mogg (respectively a witch and a cat; Hanselmann took inspiration from the Meg and Mog children's books) – and their housemate Owl; but as the short stories within this collection progress (like Ant Colony, large parts of Megahex originally appeared in serial form online), Hanselmann invests his characters with a surprising depth, suggesting that their slacker antics are merely a facade and that underneath they're as lost and at sea as, well, some of the insect stars of DeForge's book.

Actually, on reflection, maybe these three graphic novels have more in common than I figured, because the two stories in It Never Happened Again also deal with loss, alienation and estrangement (and at least one of them originally appeared online too) – the first, "Hawaii 1997", in the form of a joyful encounter on a beach between a young boy and girl which ends with a devastating parting shot, the second, "Anime", by examining a wannabe Otaku's futile search for meaning and belonging in places and things rather than in real life. Alden's loose pencil approach helps to lend the enterprise its naturalistic feel, but the flow of the storytelling is just as important; there's a serious talent at work here, as a glance at Alden's Tumblr and website will confirm, one that in the scope of the artist's extant comics and the potential of those still to come brings to my mind at least the great David Mazzucchelli.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

The Mask of Memory by Victor Canning (Heinemann, 1974): Birdcage Book #3; Review

NB: Included in Friday's Forgotten Books, 20/2/15 (thanks, Sergio).

When is a series not a series? Or rather, where is the line between a series, and a not-series? If, three books into what one has been reliably informed is a series centring on a nefarious Whitehall department, there have been no recurring characters, no nods to the events of the two prior novels, and the activities of that nefarious Whitehall department – which is variously referred to as "the department" and "the Department" (even in the course of a single book), leading one to doubt whether it's the same department (or Department) after all – range from penny-pinching to blackmail to genuine defence of the realm, does the purported series still qualify as a series?

Answer: possibly. Or rather: yes and no. Thus far I've only read the first three of Victor Canning's Birdcage spy novels – Firecrest (1971), The Rainbird Pattern (1972) and, most recently, The Mask of Memory, which was published by Heinemann in 1974 under a dust jacket bearing a Bill Richmond photo (which, naturally, I've added to the Existential Ennui British Thriller Book Cover Design of the 1970s and 1980s page) – so I'm not about to quibble with Canning and Birdcage aficionado John Higgins when he asserts that Birdcage is a series; but I do wonder whether Victor Canning himself was aware he was writing a series by the time he got to The Mask of Memory. Because it seems to me it's just as likely, whatever evidence later (unread, by me, as yet) Birdcage books may present to the contrary, that he was simply using the notion of a nefarious Whitehall department as a peg on which to hang explorations of those perennial espionage fiction themes, love and betrayal.

In the case of The Mask of Memory, it's actually a love and betrayal triangle, between Department second-in-command Bernard Tucker; his neglected, depressed, shoplifting wife Margaret, Bernard's marriage to whom – indeed her entire existence – Bernard has kept a secret from the Department for years; and Maxie Dougall, a third-rate artist who ekes a living flogging rubbish paintings to tourists, and who sets his sights on Margaret as a potential sugar momma. But there's an additional form of betrayal too, in the shape of the papers that Bernard has been tasked by his Department boss, Percy Warboys (at the direction of the Prime Minister), with retrieving and assessing – papers that, if they turn out to be genuine, would deal a fatal blow to the credibility of the left wing trade union movement ahead of the looming general election.

It's worth dwelling a moment on that political espionage plot, because at a remove of over forty years it's easy to overlook what a timely, if not prescient, novel The Mask of Memory must have been. 1974 was a tumultuous year for Britain, with the introduction of the Three-Day Week followed by two general elections, so Canning's references to newspaper strikes and trade union unrest, and his scenario of a (presumably) Conservative PM seeking to undermine the unions, have more than a whiff of the then-zeitgeist about them. Where his own sympathies lay I wouldn't care to conjecture, but writing, I would guess, in 1973 he was clearly vexed by events unfolding around him, as evidenced by a monologue from Warboys late in the novel:

"The position is absolutely clear. It is as near a certainty as makes no difference that there will be an election early in the New Year. And this time – and not before time – the lines of battle will be drawn up so that there will only be one choice before the electorate. Is a democratic government going to control this country or is the future of the county going to be in the hands of the trades unions and their ability to impose their will by industrial power? Forget all the nonsense of who controls the trades unions. It is the power of the State against the power of organised labour. Either government by law, or the rule of force by workers' organisations led by militants whose real purpose is plain anarchy – no matter what fancy political name they choose to give it."

Fascinating as all this is, though, what really drives the novel, as with Firecrest and The Rainbird Pattern (and The Finger of Saturn for that matter), are affairs of the heart – or, more accurately, the heartless in the cases of Bernard and Maxie, at least for the majority of the story; there are revelations about the true feelings of both men late in the day (revelations which furnish the novel with a relatively upbeat ending). Perhaps more than that linking Whitehall department – or Department – and certainly more so than Canning's curious preoccupation with the workings of the mind – blackouts and memory loss here, hypnotism and clairvoyance in, respectively, Firecrest and The Rainbird Pattern – it's the author's singular take on those themes of love and betrayal which lends the series its particular character and appeal, and which ultimately makes The Mask of Memory as fine a piece of fiction, in my view, as either of its distinguished forebears.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Those Who Walk Away, or, The Man with the Getaway Face, or, Free Agent, or, Rogue Male

Interesting start to the year. Actually, interesting end to last year, too – and really I suppose the start of this year was simply an extension, a culmination in a way, of events from the tail end of last year. You'll recall, I'm sure – because I know the minutiae of my life is of supreme fascination to you – how towards the end of 2014 the Lewes-based book publisher I'd been working for as editorial director, Ilex, had been bought by a bigger, London-based book publisher, and myself and seven colleagues were suddenly required to commute two-plus hours daily to the capital (travel costs paid, it must be acknowledged, by the bigger, London-based book publisher) instead of, in my case – living as I do in Lewes – walking to work in fifteen minutes. And that was still the case come January... right up to the point three weeks ago when I took voluntary redundancy.

My reasons for doing so were varied. Partly it was that two-plus hours commute (or rather, four-plus hours total per day); partly it was London itself (I discovered that my feelings about the place had remained pretty much unchanged in the six-and-a-half years since I'd moved away); partly it was the job, and how it was shaking out; and partly it was home life, and how I was barely getting to see my daughter. But essentially, what it boiled down to was that after nearly seven years at Ilex, it was time to go (past time, perhaps).

And so now I'm freelance again, something I haven't been, fully, for, ooh, getting on for twenty years (I started out as a freelance music journalist in 1992). I've taken on some work already – development for a graphic novel project which may or may not come to anything, some editorial stuff – but I'm looking for more, so if you have a project and you reckon I can be of some use, drop me a line on this email address:

Not to blow my own trumpet or anything – although that is, I guess, to an extent, the purpose of this post – but when I was working on my CV the other week I was struck by just how much experience I have in so many different fields of publishing – fiction, non-fiction, illustrated non-fiction, graphic novels, comics, magazines, music journalism, licensed publishing, TV/film/pop culture tie-ins, children's books – and at so many levels: writer, editor, managing editor, editorial director. By way of illustration, you can see some of the books and graphic novels and novels I've managed or edited – and in some cases commissioned, plotted, written for and even, in one instance, part-illustrated (that fine art degree comes in handy sometimes) – over the past dozen years, both at Ilex and at Titan Books, dotted about this post – and those are just the ones I have to hand.

And then there's Existential Ennui, which I think – I hope – demonstrates I can at least string a sentence together (on occasion), and have a certain amount of knowledge in fields other than those in which I've worked, i.e. thrillers, crime fiction, spy fiction and so forth. With everything that's been going on recently I've not been able to devote much time to this 'ere blog (and none whatsoever to The Violent World of Parker blog; sorry about that, Trent), but I've no intention of abandoning it, especially not now, when the bloody thing might finally come in handy. Or not; we shall see. But even if Existential Ennui proves next to useless as a means of securing paid work, I shall persevere. I mean, otherwise, what am I going to do with all these first editions and signed editions and uncorrected proofs of books by Victor Canning and Gavin Lyall and Anthony Price and Patricia Highsmith and Donald E. Westlake and P. M. Hubbard and Kingsley Amis and Adam Hall and Donald MacKenzie and Manning O'Brine and Desmond Cory I haven't yet blogged about...?