Tuesday, 3 March 2015

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

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...?

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

The 10 Best Books I Read in 2014

Christmas, a cold, a cough, a buggered back, sinusitis, a chest infection and finally a prolonged internet outage at home (necessitating hours of phone calls – with attendant interminable tests – to my provider): many and varied are the obstacles and ailments which have prevented me from posting this top ten of the best books I read in 2014 – selected from the big long list of the books I read over the past twelve months – before now, to the point where I'm almost past caring whether I do so or not. But a lingering sense of unfinished business plus a desire to record for personal posterity what my favourite books from last year were compels me to persevere, and so here, for what it's worth, is my top ten.

1. Ashenden, or, The British Agent by W. Somerset Maugham (Heinemann, 1928/1934)
2. Firecrest by Victor Canning (Heinemann, 1971)
3. Split Images by Elmore Leonard (W. H. Allen, 1983; originally 1981)
4. The Black House by Patricia Highsmith (Heinemann, 1981)
5. The Whisper in the Glen by P. M. Hubbard (Atheneum, 1972)
6. A Suspension of Mercy by Patricia Highsmith (Heinemann, 1965)
7. Killshot by Elmore Leonard (Viking, 1989)
8. Ant Colony by Michael DeForge (Drawn & Quarterly, 2014)
9. High-Rise by J. G. Ballard (Jonathan Cape, 1975)
10. The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald (Gerald Duckworth, 1978)

As in past years I've excluded any rereads from the top ten – which in 2014 included Patricia Highsmith's Ripley's Game and Richard Stark's The Man with the Getaway Face, both of which would've otherwise featured highly here – but I haven't restricted the number of appearances per author, hence why Highsmith and Elmore Leonard both appear twice. Links to whatever I've previously written about each book are provided, the exception being Michael DeForge's terrific graphic novel Ant Colony, which I haven't yet blogged about; anyone interested should go read J. Caleb Mozzocco's Las Vegas Weekly review. And while I'm on the subject of comics, honourable mention must go to Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta's East of West, which if I were reading it in graphic novel form rather than serialised comics form, would certainly have featured in my top ten.

As for the number one title, I suspected back in March that I wouldn't read a better book in 2014 than Ashenden, and so it has proved. It's a brilliant novel-cum-short story collection, one which I can unreservedly recommend to all.

Friday, 19 December 2014

A Big Long List of the Books I Read in 2014: Novels, Graphic Novels and Short Story Collections

NB: Linked in Patti Nase Abbott's Friday's Forgotten Books roundup, 19/12/14. Thanks Patti!

Well that threw a spanner in the works. I had every intention of posting one last book review – of Victor Canning's third "Birdcage" novel, The Mask of Memory (1974) – before embarking on my traditional, widely reviled, even more widely ignored, still more widely unregistered, end-of-year review of the year; but then the illustrated books publisher I work for, Ilex, got bought by a bigger publishing company, Octopus, and my life was thrown into disarray (short version: in the space of less than two weeks I went from living and working in Lewes, with a walk to work of fifteen minutes, to living in Lewes and working in London, with a journey to work of at least two hours) and blogging had to take a back seat while I wrestled – continue to wrestle – with a long commute and new offices and new work colleagues and new systems and so forth. The upshot of all of which is that not only will the book review have to wait, so will the widely reviled/ignored/unregistered review of the year – possibly until this time next year; as things stand it's unlikely I'll have either the time or energy to properly unpack the year's events chez Louis XIV before 2014 draws to a close.

Instead, because it's a comparatively less taxing task, I thought I'd assemble my similarly traditional big long list of the books I read, with its equally traditional links to whatever I've written about each book (if anything) and ensuing attendant half-hearted, half-arsed analysis. And this year's list, arranged in roughly the order in which I read the books, looks like this:

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King (Hodder, 2013)
Richard Stark's Parker: Slayground by Darwyn Cooke (IDW, 2013)
Nemo: Heart of Ice by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill (Knockabout, 2013)
Nobody's Perfect by Donald Westlake (Hodder, 1978)
Firebreak by Richard Stark (Robert Hale, 2002; originally 2001)
Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens by Michael Gilbert (Hodder, 1982)
To Catch a Spy, selected by Eric Ambler (The Bodley Head, 1964)
The Unwritten: Tommy Taylor and the Ship That Sank Twice by Mike Carey, Peter Gross et al (DC/Vertigo, 2013)
Batman: Detective No. 27 by Michael Uslan, Peter Snejberg et al (DC, 2003)
High-Rise by J. G. Ballard (Jonathan Cape, 1975)
Ashenden, or, The British Agent by W. Somerset Maugham (Heinemann, 1928/1934)
Point Blank by Richard Stark (Allison & Busby, 1984; originally 1962) (reread)
The Man with the Getaway Face by Richard Stark (Allison & Busby, 1984; originally 1963) (reread)
The Outfit by Richard Stark (Allison & Busby, 1984; originally 1963) (reread)
Russian Roulette by James Mitchell (Hamish Hamilton, 1973)
The Moonshine War by Elmore Leonard (Dell, 1970; originally 1969)
The Whisper in the Glen by P. M. Hubbard (Atheneum, 1972)
The Tin Men by Michael Frayn (Collins, 1965)
High Tide by P. M. Hubbard (Macmillan, 1971)
A Kiss Before Dying by Ira Levin (Michael Joseph, 1954)
Little Tales of Misogyny by Patricia Highsmith (Heinemann, 1977)
Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophes by Patricia Highsmith (Bloomsbury, 1987)
The Black House by Patricia Highsmith (Heinemann, 1981)
A Suspension of Mercy by Patricia Highsmith (Heinemann, 1965)
Those Who Walk Away by Patricia Highsmith (Heinemann, 1967)
Ripley's Game by Patricia Highsmith (Heinemann, 1974) (reread)
Unsung Road by Simon Harvester (Jarrolds, 1960)
Firecrest by Victor Canning (Heinemann, 1971)
The Rainbird Pattern by Victor Canning (Heinemann, 1972)
Breakout by Richard Stark (Robert Hale, 2003; originally 2002)
Her by Harriet Lane (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2014)
Danger in the Dark by Patricia Carlon (Ward Lock, 1962)
City Primeval by Elmore Leonard (W. H. Allen, 1981; originally 1980)
2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke (Hutchinson, 1968) (reread)
The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald (Gerald Duckworth, 1978)
Split Images by Elmore Leonard (W. H. Allen, 1983; originally 1981)
Cat Chaser by Elmore Leonard (Viking, 1986; originally 1982)
The Hospital Suite by John Porcellino (Drawn & Quarterly, 2014)
Killshot by Elmore Leonard (Viking, 1989)
The Finger of Saturn by Victor Canning (Heinemann, 1973)
The Mask of Memory by Victor Canning (Heinemann, 1974)
Ant Colony by Michael DeForge (Drawn & Quarterly, 2014)
Safari Honeymoon by Jesse Jacobs (Koyama Press, 2014)
Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith (Collins, 1981)
The Mammoth Book of Cult Comics, edited by Ilya (Robinson, 2014)

Including Gorky Park and The Mammoth Book of Cult Comics, both of which I'm still reading but both of which I'm reasonably confident I'll finish before the end of the year (there's something to be said for commuting by train at least: I get to read more now), I make that forty-five books, which is five more than I managed to get through in 2013 – something of a surprise, I must admit: what with work and Edie and everything I had thought I was going to be down on last year's total. And of those forty-five books: all were fiction; thirty-one were novels; five were short story collections; one – Ashenden, or, The British Agent – was both a novel and a short story collection; seven were graphic novels; and one was a graphic novel short story collection.

Nine of the books were recently published, i.e. in the last year or two; three were first published in the 2000s; eight were first published in the 1980s; twelve were first published in the 1970s; eleven were first published in the 1960s; one was first published in the 1950s; and one was first published in the 1920s. The vast majority were new to me, however; there were just five that I'd read before – and one of those, Patricia Highsmith's Ripley's Game, I'd read at least a couple of times before. (I was inspired to do so again this year as a result of acquring a scarce 1989 Heinemann reissue of the novel and watching Wim Wenders's film adaptation of the novel, The American Friend – and rewatching Liliana Cavani's later adaptation Ripley's Game.)

Speaking of Highsmith, she ties with Donald E. Westlake for most-read – and reread – author this year: six books in each case (that's if you exclude Darwyn Cooke's graphic novel adaptation of Westlake/Richard Stark's Slayground, which I do). Elmore Leonard was their closest rival with five books, then Victor Canning – this year's major discovery for me – with four, and P. M. Hubbard with two. Everyone else was one book apiece. Twenty-three of the books were what one might class as crime fiction; ten were spy fiction; and the rest were a mixture of science fiction, horror, fantasy and literary works. All of which, glancing back at my lists for 2013 and 2012, suggests that the makeup and breadth of my reading was not dissimilar to that of previous years.

And as in previous years, for my next post I'll be picking my ten favourites from the books I read over the past twelve months – although whether that post will appear before 2014 breathes its last is anyone's guess.