Tuesday, 22 December 2015

The Ten Best Books I Read in 2015

For this, my final post of the year, I present the ten best books I read in 2015. As has been the case with every one of my year-end books top tens since I started assembling such things six years ago, barely any of the books in this year's top ten were actually published this year – in fact just one, by an author who in 2013's top ten was the sole representative of that year's new publishing too – and so this post will as usual be of absolutely no use to anyone in discerning the prevailing trends in publishing over the past twelve months. But it may be of some use in discerning the prospective trends on Existential Ennui over the coming months, in as much as I've yet to get round to reviewing just under half of the books in this top ten – nor a good number of the books in my big long list of the books I read in 2015, from whence this top ten is drawn – and so whatever prolix piffle I eventually manage to cobble together about them may well form the substance of at least some of Existential Ennui in 2016.

Unless of course I decide not to blog about any of them. Or indeed blog at all. Merry Christmas, and a happy new year!

10. Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene (Heinemann, 1958)

Informed by Graham Greene's experiences working for the Secret Service during the war, Our Man in Havana may be a fairly frothy confection (the fate of poor Dr. Hasselbacher aside) but it still effectively skewers what Greene perceived as the credulity of British Intelligence. "It seemed to me that either the Foreign Office or the Intelligence Service had amply merited a little ridicule," he wrote of the novel in Ways of Escape. Speaking of which...

9. Ways of Escape by Graham Greene (Bodley Head, 1980)

Part autobiography, part travelogue, Greene's book-by-book saunter down memory lane is not only illuminating as to the origins of many of his novels, short stories and plays (the background to, and inspiration for, The Quiet American, for example, is extensive, incorporating diary entries) but frequently arresting and eye-opening too, not least when he discusses his fondness for opium, marijuana and cocaine.

8. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (Picador, 2014)

I noted in my top ten of the best graphic novels I read in 2015 that I'm a sucker for post-apocalyptic dystopias, and Station Eleven is a fine example of the sub-genre – elegantly written, strangely uplifting and with a fascinating and compelling internal mythology (as evidenced by the one-page Dr. Eleven comic book insert in my copy of the first edition).

7. The Holm Oaks by P. M. Hubbard (Joseph, 1965)

In my review of The Holm Oaks I ventured that it "might be the quintessential Hubbard novel", and further suggested that "the novel could almost be seen as a prototypical eco thriller". True to form I neglected to say whether it's any good or not, but its appearance in this top ten should offer some guidance there.

6. Eleven by Patricia Highsmith (Heinemann, 1970)

Graham Greene – who, as is becoming clear, features heavily in this top ten (to paraphrase New Order, everything went Greene for me this year) – wrote in his foreword to Eleven that Highsmith in her short stories "is after the quick kill rather than the slow encirclement of the reader, and how admirably and with what field-craft she hunts us down". Quite so.

= 5. private i / Foreign Exchange by Jimmy Sangster (Triton, 1967 / 1968)

I think Hammer Horror-meister Jimmy Sangster's two spy/crime thrillers starring ex-British Intelligence operative turned private investigator John Smith might have been the most purely enjoyable novels I read in 2015 – "kind of early le Carré crossed with Len Deighton's unnamed working class secret agent and with a dash of Adam Hall's Quiller mixed in for good measure", as I put it in my review.

4. A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson (Doubleday, 2015)

A companion novel to Life After Life, A God in Ruins is as evocative in its own way of life during wartime as Graham Greene's The Ministry of Fear (about which more shortly); but it's also a beautiful – and beautifully written – meditation on the big stuff of existence: love, death, family, chance, choice.

3. Carol by Patricia Highsmith (Bloomsbury, 1990)

"If [Todd] Haynes's film brings [Carol] and Highsmith to a new audience, so much the better, because Carol deserves to be widely read, especially by those who might otherwise dismiss Highsmith as a crime writer," I wrote in my review, adding that "it's recognisably the work of the author of The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), This Sweet Sickness (1960) and The Cry of the Owl (1962), and as good in its own way as any of those novels". Still haven't seen the blummin' film yet though.

2. Touch by Elmore Leonard (Viking, 1988)

I was surprised by how great Touch was; it's such an overlooked novel in Leonard's backlist that I wasn't expecting it to be up there with the likes of The Big Bounce (1969), Unknown Man No. 89 (1977), Split Images (1981), Stick (1983) or LaBrava (1983). But it really is that good, boasting among its scenes "a climactic, brilliant, farcical TV interview conducted by a rictus grinning hairpiece-bedecked towering shit of a host which is about the best sequence I've read in a Leonard novel", as I put it in my review.

1. The Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene (Heinemann, 1946/1960)

When I reviewed The Ministry of Fear in July I praised the novel's "unexpected depth" and Greene's "vivid evocation of London during the Blitz, penned while the bombs were falling"; I highlighted the "undercurrent of pain and suffering which weaves through the story" and the themes of "the spirit of adventure and the loss of innocence" that inform the narrative; and I stated in closing "that The Ministry of Fear is the best of Greene's novels that I've read... and by far the best book that I've read this year". Couldn't have put it better myself.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

The Ten Best Graphic Novels and Comics I Read in 2015

Around this time of year, for the past six years, I've posted a top ten of the best books I read that calendar year. Given that the vast majority of the books I read in any given year were first published decades prior to that year – I am, after all, a collector of old books – it's a supremely pointless and arbitrary exercise, of no use to anyone in discerning which books actually published that year were any cop; but it's become something of a tradition, and so I persist with it even in the face of widespread indifference. (2015's iteration will be along shortly, as if anyone gives two hoots.) However, this year I wound up reading more graphic novels than is usually the case; and since a lot of those graphic novels were published in the last year or two, and I continue to read a reasonable number of comic book series as well, it struck me that this year I was in a position to proffer an additional top ten, one with slightly more relevance to at least one sector of contemporary publishing.

Hence this top ten of the best graphic novels and comics I read in 2015 (drawn from these big long lists of everything I read in 2015). I make no great claims for it being representative of the general thrust of comics and graphic novels in 2015; apart from anything else, half of the graphic novels I've picked were published in 2014. But it is at least in touch with prevailing trends and tastes in comics (unlike my best books top tens, which tend to be in touch with little other than my whims), and so might prove diverting for anyone with an interest in such things.

10. Ruins by Peter Kuper (SelfMadeHero, 2015)

Laced with autobiographical elements, Kuper's handsome travelogue is revealing on the subject of Mexico – its recent past and history, its culture, cuisine and, yes, invertebrates – and wise on the joys, revelations and tragedies that can either strengthen a relationship or rend it asunder.

9. Black River by Josh Simmons (Fantagraphics, 2015)

I'm a sucker for post-apocalyptic dystopias, but Jesus this was bleak, even by the standards of the sub-genre. A band of women and a lone man roam the eviscerated wastelands of North America, their destination hazy, their only certainty that violence and death awaits them. "I'm scared all the time," mutters the lone bloke at one point. Reading this, I knew exactly how he felt.

8. Megahex by Simon Hanselmann (Fantagraphics, 2014)

I wondered back in February whether Megahex was perhaps one of the best graphic novels of 2014 – but since I didn't get round to reading it until this year, it's now one of my best graphic novels of 2015.

7. Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoet (D&Q, 2014)

Another one from 2014, and another one that for many folk – including J. Caleb Mozzocco and Brian K. Vaughan – was among the very best graphic novels of last year. I liked it a lot too when I read it earlier this year. As gorgeous and unsettling as its title suggests.

6. Lazarus by Greg Rucka and Michael Lark (Image, 2015)

What was that about being a sucker for dystopias...? Rucka and Lark's vision of a world suffering under the tyrannical yoke of untrammelled capitalism remains to my mind the sharpest – and most terrifyingly plausible – vision of the future currently being published in comics form.

5. East of West by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta (Image, 2015)

Mind you, Lazarus has stiff competition in the serialised dystopia stakes in the shape of East of West. Month by month it's a toss-up as to which is my favourite of the two, but on balance Hickman and Dragotta's machiavellian, ravishing, deeply depressing take on the end times just about edges it. I think.

4. Sky in Stereo by Mardou (Revival House, 2015)

I wrote about Sky in Stereo, Mardou's quietly magnificent fictionalised memoir, in 2012 and 2014 when bits of it were published as minicomix, but its publication this year as a graphic novel – in expanded form – affords me the opportunity to include it in my ten best of 2015 too. Hurrah.

3. Avengers / New Avengers / Secret Wars by Jonathan Hickman, Stefano Caselli, Mike Deodato, Kev Walker and Esad Ribic (Marvel, 2015)

Hickman and co.'s sprawling, enthralling, befuddling Avengers/New Avengers epic culminated in nothing less than the demise of the entire Marvel multiverse, with Secret Wars acting as a by-turns brilliant and maddening extended coda. The perfect jumping off point for weary Marvel fanboys.

2. It Never Happened Again / HaunterNew Construction by Sam Alden (Uncivilized / Study Group, 2014–2015)

A bit of a cheat, I suppose, picking three books by Sam Alden instead of one; but I bought and read all three of these this year and they're all, in their own idiosyncratic ways, superb, especially the extraordinary and troubling pair of stories in Alden's latest offering, New Construction.

1. Beauty by Kerascoet and Hubert​ (NBM, 2014)

Rich, rewarding, arresting: those were the kinds of words I used to describe Beauty when I wrote about it back in April, and my opinion hasn't altered since. In fact fuck it: I might as well go the whole hog and quote myself: "The story of a peasant girl who gets more than she bargained for when she's granted exceptional beauty, and set against a backdrop of grandeur, squalor and the changing seasons, [Beauty] shows how man's basest desires cause wars to be fought and kingdoms to fall. So it goes."

Monday, 14 December 2015

The Books, Graphic Novels and Comics I Read in 2015: Big Long List(s)

With Christmas fast approaching and the end of 2015 not far behind (as is traditionally the case), I know there'll be one question on the collective lips of Existential Ennui's ever-dwindling readership: Will we have to endure another one of Nick's tedious essays detailing the dubious and likely spurious achievements of this 'ere blog over the previous twelve months? To which the answer is, thank Christ, no. The odd decent post aside (a handful of Patricia Highsmith missives; a well-received guide to the Heinemann Library Edition of Graham Greene; and, latterly, reasonably thorough posts on Jimmy Sangster, Brian CleeveDonald MacKenzie and Elmore Leonard) it's not exactly been a banner year for blogging chez Existential Ennui, even compared to 2014 – fewer posts and with markedly less substance to many of those posts – and since I didn't inflict a year-end round-up on my meagre readership last year, it seems perverse to do so this year. Plus, y'know, I really can't be arsed anyway. (Remind me: Why do I bother blogging again...?)

However, I am inclined to assemble a big long list of the books I read this year, as I've done every year since 2010 – except in a change of programming from previous years, this time I've elected to also include the various comics serials I read in 2015 (but not the children's picture books I read – and reread, and reread – with Edie this year – of which there must have been over a hundred – nor the various books and graphic novels I read for work purposes), and to break the big long list up into three not quite so big long lists – comprising books, graphic novels and those aforementioned comics – both for ease of reference and in order to better reflect the breadth, if not the depth, of my reading.

The books and graphic novels I've arranged in roughly the order in which I read them – but not the comics; since those are for the most part ongoing monthly series it would be a nonsense to try and arrange them in that manner – and there are links to whatever I've written about each book/graphic novel/comic, which, in many cases, is fuck all. Analysis – such as it is, and emphasis on the 'anal' – follows the lists.

Books: Fiction and Non-Fiction
The Striker Portfolio by Adam Hall (Heinemann, 1969)
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (Picador, 2014)
The Man Who Wrote Books in His Head and Other Stories by Patricia Highsmith (Eurographica, 1986)
War Game by Anthony Price (Gollancz, 1976)
The Conduct of Major Maxim by Gavin Lyall (Hodder, 1982)
Hong Kong Kill by Bryan Peters (Boardman, 1958)
Intrigue by Desmond Cory (Muller/Shakespeare Head, 1954)
Feramontov by Desmond Cory (Muller, 1966)
The Holm Oaks by P. M. Hubbard (Joseph, 1965)
The Tower by P. M. Hubbard (Bles, 1967)
A Time to Kill by Geoffrey Household​ (Joseph, 1952)
A Dog's Ransom by Patricia Highsmith (Heinemann, 1972)
The Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene (Heinemann, 1946/1960)
Eleven by Patricia Highsmith (Heinemann, 1970)
Carol by Patricia Highsmith (Bloomsbury, 1990)
Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene (Heinemann, 1958)
Marvel Comics: The Untold Story by Sean Howe (Harper, 2012)
Vote X for Treason by Brian Cleeve (Collins, 1964)
A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson (Doubleday, 2015)
Pity Him Afterwards by Donald Westlake (Boardman, 1965)
The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan (Hodder, 1950/Blackwood, 1915)
private i by Jimmy Sangster (Triton, 1967)
The Kyle Contract by Donald MacKenzie (Hodder, 1971)
Pilgrim at the Gate by Desmond Cory (Muller/Shakespeare Head, 1957)
Foreign Exchange by Jimmy Sangster (Triton, 1968)
Touch by Elmore Leonard (Viking, 1988)
Right as Rain by George Pelecanos (Little, Brown, 2001)
Glitz by Elmore Leonard (Viking, 1985)
Bandits by Elmore Leonard (Viking, 1987)
Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett (Panther, 1958/Cassell, 1950)
The Crocus List by Gavin Lyall (Hodder, 1985)
Ways of Escape by Graham Greene (Bodley Head, 1980)

Graphic Novels
Copra: Round One by Michel Fiffe (Bergen Street, 2014)
How to be Happy by Eleanor Davis (Fantagraphics, 2014)
Poor Sailor by Sammy Harkham (Ginko, 2005) (reread)
The Clouds Above by Jordan Crane (Fantagraphics, 2005) (reread)
Through the Woods by Emily Carroll (Faber, 2014)
Benson's Cuckoos by Anouk Ricard (D&Q, 2014)
It Never Happened Again by Sam Alden (Uncivilized, 2014)
One Hundred Demons by Lynda Barry​ (Sasquatch, 2002)
Girl Stories by Lauren R. Weinstein (Holt, 2006)
Scenes from an Impending Marriage by Adrian Tomine (D&Q, 2011)
Houdini: The Handcuff King by Jason Lutes and Nick Bertozzi (Hyperion, 2007)
Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoet (D&Q, 2014)
Garage Band by Gipi (First Second, 2007)
Notes for a War Story by Gipi (First Second, 2007)
Megahex by Simon Hanselmann (Fantagraphics, 2014)
Here by Richard McGuire (Hamilton, 2014)
Fran by Jim Woodring (Fantagraphics, 2013)
The Black Diamond Detective Agency by Eddie Campbell (First Second, 2007)
Avengers: Endless Wartime by Warren Ellis and Mike McKone (Marvel, 2013)
Judge Dredd: Origins by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra (Rebellion/Hachette Partworks, 2015)
The Chimera Brigade vols 1–​3​ by Lehman, Colin and Gess (Titan, 2015)
Silverfin: The Graphic Novel by Charlie Higson and Kev Walker (Puffin, 2008)
Beauty by Kerascoet and Hubert​ (NBM, 2014)
White Cube by Brecht Vandenbroucke (D&Q, 2014)
Grendel: Devil by the Deed by Matt Wagner (Comico, 1988) (reread)​
Big Questions by Anders Nilsen (D&Q, 2011) (part reread)
Copra: Round Two by Michel Fiffe (Bergen Street, 2015)
Black River by Josh Simmons (Fantagraphics, 2015)
Infinite Bowman by Pat Aulisio (Hic & Hoc, 2015)
Killing Time by John Smith and Chris Weston (Mandarin, 1992) (reread)
Haunter by Sam Alden (Study Group, 2014)
​Another Blue World by Jon Chandler​ (Breakdown, 2015)
​Terror Assaulter (O.M.W.O.T.) by Benjamin Marra​ (Fantagraphics, 2015)
Star Slammers by Walt Simonson (Marvel, 1983)
The Oven by Sophie Goldstein (Adhouse, 2015)
Sky in Stereo by Mardou (Revival House, 2015) (part reread)
The Spectators by Victor Hussenot (Nobrow, 2015)
Asterix and the Missing Scroll by Jean-Yves Ferri and Didier Conrad (Orion, 2015)
Ruins by Peter Kuper (SelfMadeHero, 2015)
New Construction by Sam Alden (Uncivilized, 2015)

Serial Comics
Thors by Jason Aaron and Chris Sprouse (Marvel, 2015)
Velvet by Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting (Image, 2015)
Sex by Joe Casey and Piotr Kowalski (Image, 2015)
Doctor Who: Four Doctors by Paul Cornell and Neil Edwards (Titan, 2015)
Injection by Warren Ellis and Declan Shalvey (Image, 2015)
Trees by Warren Ellis and Jason Howard (Image, 2015)
Squadron Sinister by Marc Guggenheim and Carlos Pacheco (Marvel, 2015)
Invisible Republic by Gabriel Hardman and Corinna Bechko (Image, 2015)
Avengers/New Avengers by Jonathan Hickman and various (Marvel, 2015)
The Dying and the Dead by Jonathan Hickman and Ryan Bodenheim (Image, 2015)
East of West by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta (Image, 2015)
Manhattan Projects by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra (Image, 2015)
Secret Wars by Jonathan Hickman and Esad Ribic (Marvel, 2015)
The Walking Dead by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard (Image, 2015)
Stray Bullets: Sunshine and Roses by David Lapham (Image, 2015)
Hellboy in Hell by Mike Mignola (Dark Horse, 2015)
Jupiter's Circle by Mark Millar and Wilfredo Torres (Image, 2015)
Marvel Boy by Grant Morrison and J. G. Jones (Marvel, 2000) (reread)
Nameless by Grant Morrison and Chris Burnham (Image, 2015)
Airboy by James Robinson and Greg Hinkle (Image, 2015)
Lazarus by Greg Rucka and Michael Lark (Image, 2015)
Captain America by Roger Stern and John Byrne (Marvel, 1980)
Dark Circle by Rich Tomasso (Image, 2015)
Paper Girls by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang (Image, 2015)
Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples (Image, 2015)
We Stand on Guard by Brian K. Vaughan and Steve Skroce (Image, 2015)
Mage: The Hero Discovered by Matt Wagner (Comico, 1984)

Combining the novels (twenty-eight), short story collections (two), works of non-fiction (two) and graphic novels (forty) I make that a grand total of seventy-two books, which is more books than I've managed to get through in any single year since I started keeping a record of my reading; although as I read many more graphic novels this year than in previous years, and graphic novels tend to be quicker reads than novels, that total perhaps isn't as grand as it might at first appear. As for my comic book consumption, that's probably about the same as it has been – both in volume and the kinds of titles I read (predominantly Image-published ones) – for the past few years.

Of the novels that I read, around half were classic spy fiction of one type or another, and most of the rest were classic crime fiction, with the exceptions of Carol, Station Eleven and A God in Ruins, the latter two of which were the only newish novels I read this year – as opposed to the graphic novels that I read, where well over half were published in the last year or two. (The remainder were largely ones I'd had sitting in my loft unread for some time.) There were also four books, not listed, that I started but didn't finish (for various reasons): Kingsley Amis's The Old Devils and ​Collected Poems 1944–1979, Geoffrey Rose's Nobody on the Road and Mike Ripley's Just Another Angel.

Now, what I've tended to do in previous years is to choose my ten favourites of all of the books that I read, whether it be novels or graphic novels or whatever, and put together a top-ten-of-the-year post. However, seeing as I read so many graphic novels this year, for a change I thought I'd test my by-now virtually non-existent readership even further by picking my ten favourite books and my ten favourite comics/graphic novels and doing two posts instead of one. Will there be anyone still reading Existential Ennui by the time I'm done? Let's find out.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Patricia Highsmith's Carol, The Glass Cell, Those Who Walk Away and Ripley Under Water: First Editions on eBay

There's a Highsmithic (© Book Glutton) tenor to my latest lot of eBay auctions, in celebration of the release in cinemas this week of Todd Haynes's adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's 1952 novel Carol, alias The Price of Salt, a British first edition/first impression of which – the 1990 Bloomsbury edition of Carol, the first time the novel appeared under that title and the first time it had been published – under any title – in the UK – is among my eBay offerings:

Carol eBay auction

But there's also a British first edition/first impression of Highsmith's classic crime thriller The Glass Cell (Heinemann, 1965) on offer:

The Glass Cell eBay auction

And a British first edition/first impression of Highsmith's subdued but psychologically compelling Those Who Walk Away (Heinemann, 1967):

Those Who Walk Away eBay auction

And a British first edition/first impression of the final novel in the Ripliad, Ripley Under Water (Bloomsbury, 1991):

Ripley Under Water eBay auction

All four books are relatively uncommon in British first, have fairly low starting prices, and have appeared on Existential Ennui (and, in the case of Ripley Under Water, on Wikipedia; that's this very copy pictured on the novel's Wikipedia page) previously – Carol only a matter of months ago – although the usual caveats about whether that makes a blind bit of difference as regards desirability obviously apply. Further details concerning condition etc. can be found by following each link – oh, and I've also relisted that Pan paperback first printing of Ian Fleming's Bond novel The Man with the Golden Gun at a lower starting price; there were no takers last time, so here's another chance to grab it:

The Man with the Golden Gun eBay auction

All five auctions end on Sunday from about 7.30pm onwards, and all are UK-only affairs I'm afraid. Best of British if you decide to bid.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Touch by Elmore Leonard: Signed Inscribed First Edition (Viking, 1988); Book Review

There's an introduction in the 1988 UK Viking first edition of Touch – and, I expect, in other editions of the book too, not least the 1987 US Arbor House first – wherein Elmore Leonard explains why it took ten years for the novel to be published. Falling in Leonard's backlist between Bandits (1987) and Freaky Deaky (1988), Touch was actually written in 1977 "and, within a couple of months, rejected by more than a dozen hardcover publishers", as Leonard puts it. "The rejections were cordial enough; there was no quarrel with the prose. One editor called it, 'Probably the best writing you have done to date.' Another said, 'It is simply that the subject, no matter how well written it is, seems altogether mystifying.'"

Though the novel was finally accepted for publication in 1978 as a paperback original, so difficult to categorise did the publisher find the book that it languished on their shelves for a few years thereafter while they tried to work out what the hell to do with the thing. Eventually Leonard requested that the rights be reverted "and the publisher complied, probably with a sigh of relief"; Leonard then sold the book to Arbor House.

Leonard seems to concur with his original (non-)publisher in his introduction to Touch when he states that the novel is "way off-trail compared to what I usually write", and in terms of subject matter at least he has a point: the story is about a former Franciscan monk, a young man named Juvenal, who apparently possesses the ability to heal the sick and who displays stigmata on his hands, feet and side whilst doing so – not exactly Swag or The Hunted or City Primeval, then. However, in tone, style, meandering plot and above all in terms of characters, Touch is unmistakably the work of the writer of Swag (1976), The Hunted (1977),  City Primeval (1980) and especially classics like The Big Bounce (1969), Unknown Man No. 89 (1977), Split Images (1981), Stick (1983) and LaBrava (1983). In other words, it's an Elmore Leonard novel, and one of his very best at that.

It's worth noting too that despite the ostensibly off-beam subject matter, in true Leonard fashion there is still a con and a potential payday driving the narrative, although it's not Juvenal who's doing the conning, nor Lynn Marie Faulkner, the spunky record promotor with whom he falls in love, though she does initially seek him out at the Sacred Heart Center – the Detroit detox clinic where he works – for precisely that reason. Instead it's a pair of prime Leonard grotesques who want to use Juvenal for their own ends: Bill Hill, a medallion-wearing (bearing the legend "Thank You, Jesus") former church leader – he administered the Uni-Faith Church, which boasted "The World's Tallest Illuminated Cross of Jesus, 117 feet high" (plus "the Pilgrims' Rest Cafeteria and Gift Shop, where they sold Heavenly Hash candy, ten-inch battery-operated replicas of the World's Tallest Illuminated Cross of Jesus, WTICOJ T-shirts...") – who, with one eye on the likes of Billy Graham and the other on the Frost/Nixon interviews, perceives a way of turning a profit on Juvenal; and August Murray, stiff-necked, clenched-arse copy shop owner and commander of the Gray Army of the Holy Ghost, who seeks to recruit Juvenal to his righteous cause.

Touch also touches on another abiding Leonard concern, especially around the period it was written (see also Unknown Man No. 89), that of alcohol abuse (the writer was a functioning alcoholic during much of the 1970s). But he's never judgemental about it, and nor is he, despite Bill Hill and August Murray's shortcomings, about the mystical or religious aspects of the story. "Touch is about accepting what is," he writes in the introduction, an attitude which would also inform his later novel, the Raylan Givens-starring Riding the Rap (1995), which features a psychic, Reverend Dawn (who also appears in 2009's Out of Sight sequel Road Dogs), about whom Leonard again offers no judgement. Certainly Juvenal's bizarre abilities seem genuine, best exemplified by a bravura midpoint scene in a church where Leonard (uncharacteristically) flits between five or six different character POVs in order to show Juvenal's miraculous power, and a climactic, brilliant, farcical TV interview conducted by a rictus grinning hairpiece-bedecked towering shit of a host which is about the best sequence I've read in a Leonard novel.

The copy of the Viking edition of Touch seen in this post (dust jacket design by Bet Ayer, jacket photo by James Walker), fairly recently acquired (and not to be confused with the copy I bought in Essex two years ago), is a signed one, inscribed by Elmore Leonard to a John Newland. I've no way of ascertaining whether that might be this John Newlanddirector and host of classic paranormal TV anthology series One Step Beyond, but given the subject matter of the novel, it would be rather fitting if it were (and would make my copy of the book an association one). In any case, it's a nice way to round off this current series of posts on inscribed books. I do have some more signed and inscribed books I've yet to blog about (including another Leonard one), but those will have to wait for the new year; apart from anything else, there are a couple of other Elmore Leonard books I'd like to post reviews of before I get to those.

Monday, 16 November 2015

John le Carre, Ian Fleming, Kingsley Amis, James Bond and George Smiley: Spy Fiction on eBay

No, your eyes do not deceive you: that is another 1974 Hodder first edition/first impression of John le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy far left, which I've listed for auction on eBay along with a 1965 Cape hardback first edition/first impression of Kingsley Amis's The James Bond Dossier, a 1966 Pan paperback first printing of Ian Fleming's The Man with the Golden Gun and a signed 2013 Penguin/Viking first edition/first impression of John le Carré's A Delicate Truth. I make no excuses for listing a first of Tinker, Tailor mere weeks after listing another copy; I've documented the insanity which characterises my book collecting multiple times on Existential Ennui, so my having come into possession of more than one copy of this book – and indeed more than one copy of one or two others of the books that I'm selling – even given its/their scarcity, is entirely in keeping with the madness of Sun King Louis XIV.

Three of the books I've listed have featured in some capacity on Existential Ennui previously, with the exception of the Pan paperback of The Man with the Golden Gun, although since that now appears in this post, it's accurate to state that it too now appears on Existential Ennui – if that has any bearing on relative desirability, which I sincerely doubt. However, all four books – something of a spy fiction bonanza – are highly collectable, fairly uncommon and in rather nice condition.

Their eBay listings can be found here:

Existential Ennui eBay account

Or here:

Existential Ennui eBay page

Click through from either of those links to the individual listings for more information about each book – condition, starting price and so forth – but feel free to ask questions both here (my email address can be found in the sidebar) and on eBay if you're at all interested in any of them.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Right as Rain by George Pelecanos (Little, Brown, 2001): Signed Association Copy; Derek Strange and Terry Quinn Series Book 1

I'll have news on further eBay auctions very soon, should anyone be interested, but in the meantime I've some more inscribed books I'd like to blog about. Like this one:

An American first edition/first printing of Right as Rain by George P. Pelecanos, published by Little, Brown in 2001, dust jacket design by Paul Sahre incorporating a photograph by Michael Northrup. Pelecanos's ninth novel, it's also the first in his three-book series starring Washington, DC cops-turned-private investigators Derek Strange and Terry Quinn (there are a couple more books which feature just Strange), and details how the two met: Strange is hired to look into the shooting incident which left an off-duty black cop dead and saw Quinn leave the force. I liked it a lot, at least as much if not more than the other Pelecanos novels I've read (namely The Way Home, 2009, The Cut, 2011, and What It Was, 2012); it unfolds at a deliberately measured pace and Strange in particular is a compelling creation, a generally decent man whose major fault is an unwillingness to confront his own self-destructive tendencies.

I came across this copy in the bargain basement of Any Amount of Books on Charing Cross Road, London, at the start of the year, priced at £4 – possibly at oversight on the part of the proprietors, who perhaps overlooked the presence on the title page of Pelecanos's signature and an accompanying inscription – "With admiration" – to his fellow crime novelist John Harvey:

Now, it's fair to say that signed Geoge Pelecanos books aren't exactly hard to come by: AbeBooks alone lists well over a thousand books flat signed by Pelecanos, with prices starting at a few pounds, and I imagine there are hundreds more available on eBay, Amazon Marketplace and on the websites and physical premises of any number of bookshops. (I myself own two flat-signed Pelecanos first editions: the aforementioned What It Was and a 2005 British first edition of Drama City). However, books which have been both signed and inscribed by Pelecanos – if that's the sort of thing which floats your boat (which it does mine) – are in rather shorter supply – there are more like 70 of those listed on AbeBooks at present – and signed and inscribed association copies are positively uncommon, with, as I type, just two such items listed online, one priced at over £150, the other at over £300. So I'm pretty pleased with my four quid score.

By the way, the postcard resting on the 'Also by' page, depicting William H. Johnson's Going to Church, hails from the Smithsonian American Art Institution in Washington, and was slipped inside the book, which makes me wonder whether it was enclosed by Pelecanos himself – being, as he is, a resident of DC – or perhaps by Harvey on a visit to the city; indeed, maybe that's how the book came to be inscribed.*

One of the blurbs on the back of the book is by Elmore Leonard, a writer of whom Pelecanos is an admirer – among his favourites are Valdez is Coming (1970), which actually gets a mention in Right as Rain (Terry Quinn, who's working in a used book store, tells Derek Strange it's "just about the best" western), Swag (1976) and Unknown Man No. 89 (1977; Pelecanos references that one in The Cut) – and also, arguably, his most direct descendant, both stylistically and in terms of subject matter and even characters. (Two of the bad guys in Right as Rain, Ray Boone and his "daddy", Earl, wouldn't be out of place in a Leonard story.) And it's to Leonard that I'll be turning next, with an inscribed copy of a brilliant and unjustly overlooked novel, written in the mid-1970s but not actually published until the mid-1980s.

. . . . . . . . . .

* Addendum: Shortly after I posted this I made contact with John Harvey on Twitter. John confirmed that the postcard was his – "that artist has long been a favourite" – and furthermore that George Pelecanos was also a favourite and that John hadn't intended to part with this copy of Right as Rain at all; it had got mixed up by mistake with a bunch of unwanted books – "rejects & doubles, or so I thought!" – that John sold a year or so ago. In light of which, I've offered to return Right as Rain to John, and John has kindly agreed to inscribe one of his books for me. Exactly which book, I'll reveal down the line.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Existential Ennui on eBay: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Point Blank and Pity Him Afterwards

At long last I've finally gone and done something I've been promising to do for bloody ages: I've listed some books for sale on eBay. All three books have featured on Existential Ennui at various points, and two of them have even featured on The Violent World of Parker too – not that either of those facts are especially salient or will make a blind bit of difference as regards determining whether or not the books sell or, if they do sell, how much they sell for, I'm sure – I mean, why should whether a book has made an appearance on a little-read blog collecting blog – and a better-read crime fiction website – and indeed sat on the shelves of the proprietor of the little-read book collecting blog for, ooh, a good few years, in any way impact its relative desirability? – but I just thought I'd mention it. Er, at length.

The books are as follows:

A first edition/impression of John le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy, published in hardback by Hodder & Stoughton in 1974, as seen on Existential Ennui here, here and here (among other posts), eBay auction here;

A British hardback first edition/impression of Richard Stark's Point Blank, alias The Hunter, published by Allison & Busby in 1984, as seen on Existential Ennui – and, no doubt, The Violent World of Parker – all over the bloody place (I can't be fagged to find all the posts) but certainly on the British Thriller Book Cover Design of the 1970s and 1980s page, eBay auction here;

An American first edition/impression of Donald E. Westlake's Pity Him Afterwards, published in hardback by Random House in 1964, as seen on Existential Ennui here and here and The Violent World of Parker here, eBay auction here.

I suppose they're all quite obvious books in a way: better known titles (although less so in the case of Pity Him Afterwards) by authors who are firm favourites on Existential Ennui. But they're all collectable first editions of a sort, and they all have low starting prices – £4.99 in each case – so they're a good way for me to test the waters, to see if it's going to be worth my while to persist with selling on eBay. If they do well, I have other, more obscure delights waiting to be listed (not least some more Westlake books).

All three auctions finish on Sunday 8 November around 7pm, and all three are UK only affairs, I'm afraid; I may offer international shipping on future auctions (if there are future auctions), but for these initial ones I wanted to keep it simple. There's information about the condition of each book in each respective listing, but anyone looking for more details can either ask me questions on eBay itself, or post a comment below, or drop me a line on the usual Existential Ennui email address (see the contact details in the sidebar on the right) and I'll respond as swiftly as I'm able.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Author Donald MacKenzie's Crime and Spy Thrillers, 1956–1993, Feat. the Raven Series, The Kyle Contract and a Bibliography

Donald MacKenzie (1918–1993) is one of those authors who, if you're into classic and vintage crime fiction and you frequent secondhand bookshops, chances are you'll have come across at some point, and yet about whom there is scant information online – this despite, in MacKenzie's case, having published three dozen novels and two volumes of autobiography over the course of a four-decade career. (The Canadian-born MacKenzie does have a Wikipedia page, but it's in French.) So far, so unremarkable: there are scores of crime writers who, like MacKenzie, have largely slipped from the collective consciousness.

What makes MacKenzie unusual among his crime-writing brethren is that he genuinely knew of what he wrote. Those aforementioned two volumes of autobiography, Fugitives (1955, US title Occupation: Thief) and Gentlemen at Crime (1956), published at the start of his literary career, detail his prior career: as a convicted criminal – initially a confidence trickster, then a share-pusher and finally a robber.

The back of the dust jacket of the British first edition of MacKenzie's debut novel, Nowhere to Go (Elek, 1956) – which, incidentally, was made into a film by Ealing Studios in 1958 (the novel, not the dust jacket) – offers synopses of both of MacKenzie's non-fiction titles (click on the image above left to read them), while the back of the dust jacket of the British first edition of his third novel, The Scent of Danger (Collins, 1958) – the first of two books to star burglar Macbeth Bain – features an amusing potted biography (widely quoted online, invariably unattributed):

Born in Ontario, Canada, in 1908 and educated in England, Canada and Switzerland, for twenty-five years MacKenzie lived by crime in many countries. "I went to jail," he writes, "if not with depressing regularity – too often for my liking." His last sentences were five years in the United States and three years in England – and they ran concurrently. He began writing and selling stories when in an American jail and says, "I like writing and hope to keep at it till I die. I like travel, kippers, American cars, Spanish suits, ice hockey, prize fights, walking, flowers, sun, dogs, Brahms, horseback riding, settling old scores, people who like me. I don't like meat, cocktail parties, Spanish gin, policemen, most judges, talk about things I don't understand, pompous people, good losers, or writers who 'spell it out' for you.

"I try to do exactly as I like as often as possible and I don't think I'm either psychopathic, a wayward boy, a problem of our time, a charming rogue, or ever was."

MacKenzie's canon can be divided roughly into two strands: those novels which feature as their leads criminals or former criminals, including two short series (the Macbeth Bain series and the Henry Chalice/Crying Eddie series, which comprises three books); and an extended series of crime/spy thrillers starring ex-copper turned international troubleshooter John Raven. MacKenzie's writing is characterised by a noirish sensibility, an economical style and clipped, deadpan sentences.

I guess you could call him a stylist, except that he's not (in my opinion) quite up there with the likes of, say, Richard Stark or Elmore Leonard. From the little I've read of him and the contemporaneous review excerpts I've seen – where comments range from "One of the few British crime writers who investigates the psychological make-up of his characters in a convincing way... smacks not a little of Graham Greene in its mild pessimism and pathos" (Books and Bookmen on The Scent of Danger) to "The action is splendidly developed... and the climax breathless" (the Oxford Mail – probably Anthony Price then – on Night Boat to Puerto Vedra) to "A craftsman's job" (The Sun on Dead Straight) – I'd say MacKenzie was a sharp, stylish writer, but not an easy one to warm to, his novels as likely to be penned from the perspective of an unsympathetic recidivist as from that of a policeman.

For me that makes him a more interesting writer – that and his colourful background – but I suppose it might be one reason why he's less celebrated than some other classic crime writers; certainly he merits more coverage online than has heretofore been the case – hence this post and its bibliography, the most detailed and accurate yet assembled for the web (to my knowledge). Still, MacKenzie can at least claim to be currently in print, courtesy of Orion's Murder Room imprint, although the dust jackets illustrating this post are actually taken from first editions of the novels, a stack of which I acquired from book dealer Jamie Sturgeon and some of which boast handsome jacket designs by, variously, Ionicus (alias Joshua Charles ArmitageThe Lonely Side of the River, Hodder, 1965), William Randell (The Scent of Danger, Collins, 1958) and Edward Pagram (Nowhere to Go and The Juryman, Elek, 1956/57; some more of his work can be seen here). I've added all three of those artists' MacKenzie wrappers to Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s, which marks the debut of Ionicus and Pagram on that page. (I've also added Pagram's wrapper for the 1965 Hodder edition of Patricia Carlon's Crime of Silence, which I suddenly remembered whilst writing this post that I had sitting on my shelves.)

I also took off Jamie's hands three signed and inscribed copies of MacKenzie first editions:

Two Raven novels – Raven and the Paperhangers, published by Macmillan in 1980, dust jacket photograph by Bill Richmond (whose work also appears on the covers of books by Victor Canning, Elmore Leonard and Patricia Highsmith), and Nobody Here by That Name, published by Macmillan in 1986, dust jacket illustration by Martin White – both of which may well have been inscribed to the same two people (I can't quite make out the names; suggestions in the comments please), and:

The Kyle Contract, published by Hodder in 1971, dust jacket design uncredited but which may well be by Gordon King. A solid, compelling but sober (and sobering) standalone novel, set in California, about two ex-cons, one a failing screenwriter, attempting to put the screws on a wealthy Hollywood director who framed the screenwriter for the murder of the director's wife, the inscription in this one is rather intriguing:

It reads: "I loved her but she never knew it – Donald May '71". I wonder who the recipient of that one was...? Anyway, I've added the jackets of all three of those signed books to British Thriller Book Cover Design of the 1970s and 1980s.

NB: This post linked in the 30/10/11 Friday's Forgotten Books round-up.

Donald MacKenzie Bibliography

Standalone Novels
Nowhere to Go (Elek, 1956); US title Manhunt
The Juryman (Elek, 1957)
Dangerous Silence (Collins, 1960)
Knife Edge (Collins, 1961)
The Genial Stranger (Collins, 1962)
Double Exposure (Collins, 1963); US title I, Spy
Cool Sleeps Balaban (Collins, 1964)
The Lonely Side of the River (Hodder & Stoughton, 1965)
Three Minus Two (Hodder & Stoughton, 1968); US title The Quiet Killer
Night Boat from Puerto Vedra (Hodder & Stoughton, 1969)
The Kyle Contract (Hodder & Stoughton, 1971)
Postscript to a Dead Letter (Macmillan, 1973)
The Spreewald Collection (Macmillan, 1975)
Deep, Dark and Dead (Macmillan, 1978)
The Last of the Boatriders (Macmillan, 1981)

Macbeth Bain Series
The Scent of Danger (Collins, 1958); US title Moment of Danger
Dead Straight (Hodder & Stoughton, 1968)

Henry Chalice and Crying Eddie Series
Salute from a Dead Man (Hodder & Stoughton, 1966)
Death Is a Friend (Hodder & Stoughton, 1967)
Sleep Is for the Rich (Macmillan, 1971); paperback title The Chalice Caper

John Raven Series
Zaleski's Percentage (Macmillan, 1974)
Raven in Flight (Macmillan, 1976)
Raven and the Ratcatcher (Macmillan, 1977)
Raven and the Kamikaze (Macmillan, 1977)
Raven Feathers His Nest (Macmillan, 1980); US title Raven After Dark
Raven Settles a Score (Macmillan, 1979)
Raven and the Paperhangers (Macmillan, 1980)
Raven's Revenge (Macmillan, 1982)
Raven's Longest Night (Macmillan, 1984)
Raven's Shadow (Macmillan, 1984)
Nobody Here by That Name (Macmillan, 1986)
A Savage State of Grace (Macmillan, 1988)
By Any Illegal Means (Macmillan, 1989)
Loose Cannon (Macmillan, 1991)
The Eyes of the Goat (Macmillan, 1992)
The Sixth Deadly Sin (Macmillan, 1993)

Fugitives (Elek, 1955); US title Occupation: Thief
Gentlemen at Crime (Elek, 1956)

NB: Some sources credit MacKenzie with another two novels: Harrier! (Granada, 1983) and Thunderbolt! (Panther, 1984); however, according to Steve Holland those were actually penned pseudonymously by Christopher Priest.