Saturday, 31 July 2010

Badgers Books Bargain: Carol by Patricia Highsmith (Uncorrected Proof)

On to the second bookshop I visited during the past week's bookshop bonanza, Badgers Books in Worthing, West Sussex. This is a great shop, four or five rooms stuffed to the rafters with old books, on shelves and in piles, but not to the extent that the shop felt chaotic. They had a couple of sizable fiction sections, with lots to look at, but being an online dealer also (via AbeBooks, of course), I imagine the best stuff is snapped up via the internet (and in fact I have a feeling I've bought from them online myself...). However, still a really good shop, well worth a look if you're in the area, and I did manage to find something to take away with me:

An uncorrected book proof of Patricia Highsmith's Carol, published in the UK in 1990 by Bloomsbury. Essentially it's a trade paperback advance copy of the hardback, for press and the like, with info missing (page 5, for example, bears the legend "BLURB: Copy to follow"). You can see the cover sports a picture of Highsmith herself, which isn't the cover of the actual book, while the back cover carries info on pub date, price, extent etc. So it's not so much a first edition as an advance edition. Makes a change, eh? And only three quid.

Carol was actually Highsmith's second novel, published under the original title The Price of Salt in 1952, and under the nom de plume Claire Morgan. But it took till 1990 for a UK hardback edition to appear, by which time it'd been retitled. It's the most autobiographical of Highsmith's books, dealing with a lesbian affair between a shop worker and a suburban housewife, although in reality the housewife, though based on a real person, was someone Highsmith was smitten with but never actually had a relationship with (I think...). Should be an interesting read though. Of all the Highsmiths I've read (excluding the Ripley novels, which are in a class of their own), the ones that have struck me most are the least typical – The Cry of the Owl, The Tremor of Forgery – and Carol certainly sounds atypical, at least for Highsmith.

Friday, 30 July 2010

Shoreham Score #3: Experience by Martin Amis

And the third book I bought in Bookworms of Shoreham (other two spotlighted below) was this:

A first American edition of Martin Amis' Experience, published in hardback in 2000 by Hyperion. Experience, for those who don't know, is Amis Jr.'s memoir about his father, Kingsley, so obviously it's of interest to me. I'd been planning on picking up a copy at some point, so this US first was irresistible at a fiver. Not much more to say on it for the moment, except that, like a few of the American firsts I own, it has deckle edges. What the buggeration are they when they're at home, you might reasonably ask? It's the curious practice among certain American publishers of printing their books with the page edges ruffled and uneven instead of straight, so they appear handmade. No idea why they do this, but they do, in some instances, and this book is an example of such.

Faber Thrillers Class of 1996: The Achilles Heel by Reg Gadney / Walking Back the Cat by Robert Littell

Right then. Better get started blogging about all these books I've acquired recently. And we'll kick off with the ones bought in Bookworms of Shoreham, which is a strange old shop on Shoreham seafront on the south coast of England. We'd driven past it once or twice previously, on our way to or from somewhere else, so naturally I was interested in checking it out. Turns out it's not great for fiction (it seemed more history and military inclined) – or rather, for first editions; there are plenty of paperbacks in there, but not really anything collectible. But while I wouldn't recommend going out of your way to visit the place, I still managed to bag three fairly cheap books there – two of them thrillers published by Faber in 1996, nestling next to each other on a shelf with a scant few other hardbacks. First up:

That's a UK first edition of British writer Reg Gadney's The Achilles Heel, published by Faber in 1996. I'd never heard of either of the authors of the two Faber thrillers I bought (I don't think I was doing an awful lot of reading in 1996...), but I've now discovered The Achilles Heel is the second of Gadney's series starring Alan Rosslyn, an officer in HM Customs & Excise. Usually I steer away from the countless fiction series featuring police officers or detectives – I'd rather follow quirkier series about criminals (stand up, Parker) or reporters (take a bow, Fletch) – but Customs & Excise is an unusual environment to set a thriller in, and this book pits Rosslyn against child pornographers, which again is a bit different.

Gadney has written either eleven or thirteen novels – depending on who you believe on the web – plus a few non-fiction titles. Interestingly, he doesn't have a Wikipedia entry. I know Wikipedia's an unreliable source of info at the best of times, but it's usually a good start and can lead to more reliable sources. Not in Mr. Gadney's case though. Hmm.

And the other Faber thriller was this:

A first UK edition of Walking Back the Cat by Robert Littell, published by Faber in 1996. Again, I'd never come across Littell before, but he's a US writer with sixteen novels to his name, plus one non-fiction title and one somewhere-in-between title (called If Israel Lost the War, which posits an alternative outcome of the Six Day War, a conflict I coincidentally know at least a little about, having read Jeremy Bowen's excellent Six Days). Many of his novels are espionage-themed, and Walking Back the Cat seems to lean in that direction too, focusing, as it does, on the battle of wills and wits between a deep cover KGB agent and a Gulf War I veteran on a Native American reservation.

Oh, and the jacket design on both of these is by Pentagram. I'm assuming that's not the heavy metal band. As for the third book I bought in Bookworms... see the next post.

The Michael Vyse Addendum

Just a quick update on the previous musings on science fiction author Michael Vyse. As determined by Book Glutton and followed up on here, we'd pretty much established that Mr. Vyse was alive and well and living in France. But I've just noticed a new comment on that last post, from one Owen Vyse – Michael's son, who Vyse Sr. dedicted his collection of short stories, The Outer Reaches, to. Owen says his dad's not online, but Owen will send him a print-out of the relevant posts about his dad, and reckons Michael will be 'tickled pink'. So there you go. Amazing the connections the internet can make possible, and also some small vindication of what I kinda hoped Existential Ennui might turn out to be: an occasionally useful resource for those seeking info on particular obscure pursuits (just Google 'Patricia Highsmith First Editions', for example). Huzzah.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Wot I Did On My Summer Holidays, By Louis XIV, Age 372

Well, it's been a particularly fine few days for book collecting, so much so that I now have a towering (well, ish), tottering (well, kinda) pile of first editions sitting on the coffee table waiting patiently for me to blog about them (and, of course, read them too... at some point). To give you a sense of what I've been up to, I've been here:

Bookworms in Shoreham, West Sussex (note Random Lady in foreground helpfully exclaiming the name of the shop; as you'll see as this post progresses, I didn't take any photos of my own on me travels, and Google Maps is a bit glitchy when you're trying to take screengrabs), as well as here:

Badgers Books in Worthing, also East Sussex (that weird map overlay of the road is also courtesy of Google Maps), not to mention here:

Sotheran's in Sackville Street, Picadilly, London (which is a real shop, despite this picture of it, the one that adorns their website, in fact, being a weird Photoshop line art jobbie), and also here:

Henry Pordes Books on Charing Cross Road, London (complete, once again, with Random Lady, or rather Ladies), and finally here:

The famous Cecil Court, just off Charing Cross Road. Phew. Bookworms and Badgers in West Sussex were the source of the acquisitions I mentioned yesterday, while the London bookshops were where I was at today (as well as at the Royal Academy for the Summer Exhibition – where there was an amazing, mountainous Anselm Kiefer painting, the highlight of the show for me – plus the Photographers Gallery and the Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery – the usual selection of the bad, the worse and the truly bloody awful there). Central London bookshops tend to be somewhat overpriced, so although I like to have a good old mooch around them, I rarely buy anything in 'em. This time, however, I did rather well, unexpectedly plugging a glaring hole in my Richard Stark collection and picking up a few other things besides, both on and off the Westlake tip, and all at surprisingly reasonable prices. And then when I got home I had another Stark Score waiting for me courtesy of eBay and the postie.

Now all I need to do is find the time to blog about them all, instead of merely posting daft pictures of the bookshops I got them in. Oh I'm such a tease...

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Must Be Thursday 29/7/10

I may be back from Guernsey but I'm still on me summer hols at the moment, which means I'm not online so much right now, which in turn means I can't post here as often as I'd like (but which is probably still more often than many people would wish). In any case, I've got a bunch of new acquisitions to blog about, a couple of reviews to knock out (the aforementioned Rogue Male and Black Ice Score), some thoughts on William Boyd's Ordinary Thunderstorms and J. G. Ballard's Concrete Island to get out (purely by chance I happened to start reading them at the same time and there's a definite shared plot element between the two), and likely other stuff besides. But instead of all that, some of which might be quite interesting, I've decided instead in the brief moments I've managed to snatch at the computer to bang out a severely truncated guide to the comics I'll be getting this week. Sorry about that.

Action Comics #891
Batman The Return Of Bruce Wayne #4 (Of 6)
Wonder Woman #601
Secret Avengers #3
Rasl #8 (delayed from last week)

And not even any accompanying pictures either. Sheesh. What a gyp.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

The Island Without Any Bookshops

Actually that's not quite true: Guernsey does have some bookshops. It's just they're of the WHSmiths variety: new books only, and a limited selection at that.

Yes, I'm back from a week's break in the Channel Island known as Guernsey, where you'd think, with a population of 65,000, there might be a second hand bookshop or two. But no. You'd be wrong. They do have the occasional book fair there – I missed the most recent one by a matter of days – but no second hand bookshops, as a befuddled man in a stamp and postcard collectors' shop explained to me. Still, they do have a lovely coastline:

so it's not all bad. And of course I did manage to ferret out a few books here and there in charity shops and the like, including at one point a little stall by the side of the road (Guernsey is dotted with little boxes on garden walls containing what's known as 'hedge veg': local produce for sale to anyone passing):

That's me having a rummage. I didn't find anything there, but I did pick these up elsewhere:

A 1971 UK first edition of Hammond Innes' Lekvas Man, published in hardback by Collins, and a 1984 UK first edition of Frederick Forsyth's The Fourth Protocol, published in hardback by Hutchinson. Not exactly scarce either of 'em, but at 50p apiece I can't really complain, and with so few books on offer on the island, well, beggars can't be choosers. Not sure if the Innes will be my cup of tea, but I liked the jacket, which was designed by Richard Dalkins. As for the Forsyth, I read The Day of the Jackal years and years ago, and The Fourth Protocol is supposed to be a solid read. The jacket was designed by Raymond Hawkey, who I've mentioned before, and which I was surprised about: it's not particularly creative. I mean, it's striking enough, but not up there with, say, The Book of Bond.

I did manage to polish off a couple of books in the past week: Richard Stark's The Black Ice Score and Geoffrey Household's Rogue Male, but I'll blog about those separately. So yes. I'm back. Hang out the fecking bunting.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Must Be Thursday 22/7/10

Ooh, you lucky, lucky people, you. It's my weekly round-up of the new comics I'll be purchasing this week – or at least thinking about purchasing – a whole two days early! Shit the bed! The reason for this being, Existential Ennui will be on its summer hols from tomorrow, probably for about a week, maybe longer depending how much I miss blogging (so almost certainly longer then), and I couldn't leave you without my incisive and witty thoughts on the week's slate of new comics. The only problem being I'm working from the unconfirmed list of comics, so things might change by the time Diamond Comic Distributors release their proper official list on Tuesday. But, y'know. Live fucking dangerously for a change, why don'cha?

So, to the comics! And it's a potentially interesting week for the indie publishers, a half-decent week for Marvel, and a rubbish week for DC Comics. Let's look at those indie titles foist:

Up top there is a new series from the one and only Alan Moore, Neonomicon (Avatar, regular and wraparound cover), which sounds like a convention for crusty dayglo ravers and probably isn't as big news as it maybe should be. It's a sequel to The Courtyard, also published by Avatar, which was a comics adaptation of a Moore prose story, and which I didn't read, chiefly because the comics weren't actually written by Moore himself. So that puts me at a slight disadvantage with Neonomicon. I did, however, read the preview, and that was about a couple of FBI agents who visit a madman who speaks in tongues. I think it's all something to do with Lovecraft, but we shall find out. So helpful, aren't I?

Also on an indie tip, there Jeff 'Bone' Smith's interdimensional action thriller Rasl (Cartoon Books), which has got a bit bogged down in a history lesson about Nikola Tesla of late but, judging by the cover, looks like it might be picking up again; and an anniversary issue for The Walking Dead (Image), #75 to be precise. Happy seventy-fifth birthday, Walking Dead! You don't look a day over, uh... no, can't think of a payoff for that one.

Moving on, here's the only comic being published by DC this week that I'm remotely interested in:

DC Universe Legacies
#3 by Len Wein, Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez and Dave Gibbons. It kinda speaks volumes about DC's current output (the recently raved-about Action Comics and Grant Morrison's Bat-books aside) that the only DC comic I'm buying was put together by such an old skool collection of creators. And it's not like DC/Vertigo/WildStorm don't have any comics out this week; they do, around twenty-five of the buggers, plus sundry variant editions and graphic novels. It's just all so sodding pedestrian. I mean, who, exactly, is buying Azrael, or Supergirl, or even Justice Society of America these days? Er, says the man intending to buy DC Universe Legacies...

Things are slightly better over at Marvel this week, but only slightly:

That's Avengers #3 and New Avengers #2, both written by Brian Michael Bendis, with art from John Romita Jr. on the former and Stuart Immonen on the latter. Swings and roundabouts on these Avengers relaunch titles thus far; I like the fact that Hulk-of-the-future the Maestro is involved in Avengers (that's him behind Kang on the cover), but conversely I can't for the life of me recall what happened in New Avengers #1 right now, so a little from column A, a little from column B there. Other than those, it's shit like New Mutants and Lady Deadpool over at Marvel this week, but there is, also, this:

Amazing Spider-Man
#638, wherein Marvel Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada attempts to put right all the stuff he fucked up with that bloody awful 'One More Day' story from a few years ago and the subsequent misguided snoozefest the Spider-Man comics have been ever since. At least, that's what I'm hoping wll happen here, 'cos at this point it'll take a fucking miracle to get me reading Spidey comics again...

And that's yer lot for a wee while. As I say, I'll be back online in about a week, hopefully having read a few books, so maybe I'll waffle on about those 'pon my return. In the meantime, if you're really bored, you might find an old post you haven't read before if you click on the archived posts to the right there. I wouldn't recommend it myself, but takes all sorts. Cheerio.

Westlake Score: Anarchaos by Curt Clark

Here's a Donald E. Westlake curio to rank alongside that paperback biography of Elizabeth Taylor Adam got me for me birthday:

This is the US first edition of Anarchaos, a science fiction novel by Westlake, published under the pseudonym Curt Clark in paperback by Ace in 1967. It's been described elsewhere as 'Parker in space': a tough guy on a mission to the eponymous lawless planet to find the man who killed his brother. OK, not quite like a Parker novel then, and also it's written in the first-person, but there is at least a crime element to it. There are loads of copies of this online, probably because many of the listings don't mention Westlake at all, not having made the connection, but this copy's really nice; the page edges are orange and there's some rubbing on the spine, but other than that it looks unread, with no spine creases at all.

Anarchaos was actually collected along with some of Westlake's short SF stories in Tomorrow's Crimes, so I might try and pick that up too at some point. I like the cover illo on this paperback though; when you get up close to it you can see it's almost abstract – those 'cars' whizzing along the highways and the people at the base of the tower merely dabs of paint, while the spacecraft that's just landed looks like a paper plane. It's credited to "Lynch", about whom, as ever, I know nowt. Classy cover though.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Why Lex Luthor Brings Out the Best in Paul Cornell (and Pete Woods)

Finally got through the pile of comics that's been growing over the past few weeks (I've been swallowed up by Justin Cronin's The Passage, which I've now finished; it's bloody great – read it), and it was a decidedly mixed bunch. Grant Morrison's Batman and Robin was, as ever, top notch, with some lovely artwork from Frazer Irving; Morrison's Batman #701 was also very good, bringing more to the 'untold' tale of what happened to Bruce between the end of Batman RIP and the events of Final Crisis than I figured, and with some surprisingly strong art from Tony Daniel; Garth Ennis' Wormwood was pretty amusing, if a bit slow; Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev's Scarlet was interesting, but not as radical as Bendis seems to believe; everything else was run of the mill.

But there was one comic book that went above and beyond what I was expecting – and it was the one comic book I decided in the end not to buy that week when I went to the comic shop: Action Comics #890, which marks the debut of writer Paul Cornell and artist Pete Woods. Luckily I managed to score a copy of the variant edition on eBay (that's the cover, by David Finch, on the left there), and I'm damn glad I did. Because it's the best-written superhero comic I've read in some time.

The set-up is this: with Superman off traipsing across America in J. Michael Straczyknski's Superman #701 (and disappointingly weepy that was too), he's no longer featuring in Action Comics. Instead, the spotlight falls on Lex Luthor, and his scheme to find and tap into the power of the Black Lantern rings from Blackest Night. That's the plot, but it's really the least interesting thing about this comic. What really makes the issue sing is Cornell's characterization of Luthor, and the sizzling dialogue we get as a result.

There's something about Lex Luthor that brings out the best in certain comics writers. Actually it's broader than that: I think it's villains in general that a lot of comics writers respond to; witness the way Norman Osborn's slow meltdown was often the high point of Marvel's Dark Reign event, or how Mike Carey found his voice with Lucifer. But Lex is a prime example: Brian Azzarrello turned in his best superhero comics work with the Lex Luthor: Man of Steel miniseries; Jeph Loeb, Joe Kelly and others did good things with Luthor during their President Lex storyline in the Superman family of comics; and the likes of Geoff Johns and Gail Simone used Lex effectively in Villains United and during the run up to Infinite Crisis. (And now I come to think of it, DC's President Lex and Villains United really prefigured what Marvel did with Dark Reign to a large extent.)

So there are certainly plenty of precedents for writers responding to villains in general and Lex in particular. And in Action Comics #890 Paul Cornell has upped his game considerably. For those who don't know, Cornell is best known in the UK for his work on Doctor Who, first in Who fandom, then as a writer of tie-in novels, and eventually on telly. The comics he's written prior to this have all been for Marvel, and haven't quite clicked: his Wisdom miniseries was marred by a subpar-Morrisonesque confusion, and his Captain Britain series was decent but unremarkable. On Action Comics, though, he's come into his own.

There's a lot to love about Action Comics #890. It helps that artist Pete Woods, a heretofore talented but undistinguished DC Comics journeyman, invests Cornell's script – which does after all feature extended sequences of people standing around jawing – with an expressive, elegant flow. But there's also the at times sublime dialogue ("Go on, have an adventure outside your skill set"; "So he's genuinely gone on this journey of his. Doubtless to seek more power. In the flyover states, oddly"; "It hasn't even been tested on animals – let alone homeless people"), Lex's arrogance, malevolence and batty quest for power, and a robot Lois Lane.

Above all, though, it's how Cornell writes Lex. There's a great sequence, much of which you can see here, where Lex fires an employee, who promptly attacks Lex, furious that his job's gone just like that when he has mouths to feed. Lex then spends the rest of the day and the evening ruminating on this attack, before contacting a hitman and telling him to kill his former employee. But the real kicker is, the hitman has been positioned on a rooftop across from the ex-employee's apartment the whole time.

It's that kind of insight into how Lex's mind works that provides choice moment after choice moment. Cornell, like Mike Carey, Brian Azzarrello and countless others before him, has finally, whilst writing a villain, discovered his comics mojo, and in the process benefited from a wider truth, one that applies to all fiction: sometimes it take a bad guy to bring out the best in a writer.

I forget

I used to have another blog. In fact, I think I've had four blogs altogether, including this one. There was another Existential Ennui, which was the first blog I kept back in 2006. That was, essentially, a blog about nothing. Or rather, it was a blog about blogging, with a tiresome obsession with stats and views. It was occasionally amusing, but for the most part I think it's safe to say it was probably highly tedious and testing. I deleted it when I started another blog in 2007, called Off Message, again mostly about nothing. And somewhere in there I also started another, very short-lived blog called Move to the Country, which I think consisted of about three entries.

I mention all this because occasionally I get reminded that Off Message is still out there when I receive emails telling me someone has posted a comment on it. Invariably those comments are spam, like this nonsense:

Author : Garrick Curtis (IP: ,
E-mail :
Whois :
Indeed interesting blog u got here. I¡¯d like to read something more concerning that matter. Thanx for giving this material.

But they serve as unwanted but in a way useful reminders of a former blogging life. Unwanted, because I've moved on and I don't, generally, do much in the way of looking back; useful because it never hurts to be reminded that you – as in I – can be a right div sometimes. And interestingly – to me, anyway – when I visited Off Message again just now, I realised that I didn't, in fact, entirely delete the original Existential Ennui. I copied it all and pasted it into Off Message. So if you go to what is purportedly the first page of Off Message, then scroll down and click on 'Older Entries', it takes you to all those old Existential Ennui posts, right back to my very first blog posts in February 2006. It's all a bit embarrassing really, but as I say, also useful.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Running out of shelf space?

Buying more books than you have room for on your shelves? I feel your pain. Well here's the solution: turn your entire living room into one big bookcase!

Hmm. Only problem is, where to put the telly...?

(Go here for Lucy Mangan's guide to the ultimate bookcase.)

New Arrival: The Third Man: Life at the Heart of New Labour by Peter Mandelson

Something slightly different today:

This is the UK first hardback edition of former Labour spin doctor/minister/now Lord Mandelson's memoirs of his time at the heart of the New Labour operation, The Third Man, published by Harper yesterday. Not the sort of thing I usually showcase here, but actually not as incongruous as it might seem.

For a good many years in the late 1990s and for a large part of the 2000s, I wasn't really reading much fiction (comics aside). Instead, I was reading political biographies, diaries, polemics and so on. I devoured everything from Alan Clark's three-volume Diaries (absolutely brilliant; I have a first edition of the original Diaries) to Andrew Rawnsley's Servants of the People (the definitive account of New Labour's path to power in 1997), biographies of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson, Peter Oborne's biography/hack job on Labour spinmeister Alastair Campbell, Nick Cohen's polemical Pretty Straight Guys... anything I could get my hands on really.

This was all the result of a late-flowering interest in politics, fired by Labour forming a government in 1997. I'd always cared about politics, but it was the party I supported getting into power that really made me excited. I'm not gonna get into the rights and wrongs of the Labour government (and particularly not the Iraq War), except to say I believe they did a lot more for the less-well-off in this county than they're often given credit. But of all the New Labour figures, it was Peter Mandelson I found the most fascinating.

The grandson of Herbert Morrison, the noted Labour cabinet minister, Mandelson went to work for Labour in the mid-'80s, running the 1987 general election campaign. He was instrumental in Neil Kinnock's battles with the far left of the party – the Militant Tendency idiots – but it was his friendship with Gordon Brown and then Tony Blair that would form the basis of his political career. He was selected as the candidate for Hartlepool in 1990 and elected to the House of Commons in 1992, from where he helped construct the New Labour project, plotting Labour's 1997 election landslide. Brown famously fell out with Mandelson after Tony Blair's rise to leader of Labour in 1994, but bridges were mended in the last few years when Brown – now PM – brought Mandleson into his government as a Lord. Mandelson himself was twice ejected from cabinet, the first time rather more justifiably than the second, but even in his periods in the wilderness, he never stopped advising Tony Blair and, latterly, when he was EU commissioner, Gordon Brown.

Tony Blair's autobiography is due out soon, and Alastair Campbell's already published his diaries, but this is the book I was most looking forward to. Mandy is a clever, articulate, arch, amusing man; his strategic thinking, understanding of how the media works (he was a producer at London Weekend Television before going into politics) and passion for a fairer, more cosmopilitan, more tolerant Britain helped make Labour electable again. The fact that he's widely loathed by large sections of the British public only makes him more appealing to me; large sections of the British public can be pretty dense at times. And if nothing else, Mandelson can certainly turn an elegant phrase...

Some Books Are Bigger Than Others...

Always good to paraphrase Morrissey in a blog post title, I find.

Something any book collector can't fail to notice is how your books look on the shelf. Whichever way you shelve your books – alphabetically by author, alphabetically by title (which, y'know, would just be weird and wrong, but anyway), grouped by author, grouped by author/date of publication (my preferred shelving system), randomly (geddouttahere) – chances are the formats of your books will vary noticeably, even if, like me, you're mostly collecting hardback first editions.

Basically, what I'm getting at here is, some books stand taller on the shelf than others.

With modern first editions, and in particular over the second half of the twentieth century, there's been a gradual growth in the size of novels (as in format/height, not extent: obviously a novel will be fatter or thinner depending on how long it is). I'm not quite sure why this is – many, many years ago size was determined by the folding of the sheets of paper, but that's less the case with modern printing methods – but you can almost chart the change decade by decade. Here's a snap of one of my shelves by way of example:

Now, this is probably a little confusing, as there are some American first editions mixed in with the British first editions, and sizes between the two counties vary. But generally speaking, the novels from the 1960s – those Kingsley Amis firsts on the left there – are usually quite small, around 71/2" (in fact the smallest hardbacks I own), while those from the 1970s – the various Fletches, Richard Price's The Wanderers – are more like 8" tall. The Hodder editions of Westlake's novels are taller again, more like 81/2", and those are also from the '70s, but that size seems to have become more widely accepted in the 1980s.

Here's a better example, showing how books continued to grow from the 1980s on:

Note the way those Robert Ludlum Bourne first editions grow throughout the series, even though they're all published by under same imprint, Grafton. The Bourne Identity dates from 1980 and is about 81/2" inches tall, same as Le Carre's Smiley's People next to it (published in the same year). The Bourne Supremacy was published in 1986, and that's another half-inch or so taller again. And then we get to The Bourne Ultimatum, published in 1990, which is about 93/4" tall. That's the height that seems to have become widely accepted from about 1990; most of the other books on that shelf I haven't yet mentioned date after that, excepting Banks' Canal Dreams, which was published in 1989, and so is smaller. (Ballard's Running Wild, published in 1988, bucks the trend by being the taller 1990s size. There's always one...)

Here's another pic showing book evolution:

The Highsmiths on the far left are from the early 1970s, all about 8", all published by Heinemann. There's a shift upwards from the mid-1970s through to the 1980s, with Ripley's Game through Found in the Street, all around 83/4", still published by Heinemann. And then there's the great leap upwards with 1991's Ripley Under Water and 1995's Small g: A Summer Idyll, both from Bloomsbury, both at the 93/4" size still in service today. You'll see that all of the Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos books next to those are at the same size, and they're all from the 2000s (although as ever, there's an exception: that 2000 edition of A Drink Before the War is more akin to the 1980s size. Once again, there's always one...)

There are accepted terms for the size of books, but you'll notice I haven't been using them. That's because, essentially, they're no bloody help at all. Most first editions from the mid-20th century onwards fall within the category known as Octavo, or 8vo, which is any book from 73/4" up to 93/4". That's a whole two inches difference just within that one size. Some of the books I've mentioned here, like those '60s Amis novels, would, strictly speaking, fall within the next category down, Duodecimo, or 12mo, which is any book from 63/4" to 73/4" (the Amis ones are about 71/2"). But if you look on AbeBooks or other online listings, even a lot of booksellers on there have those Amis novels down as being Octavo, when they clearly don't belong in that category. Seems Octavo has become a catch-all term for pretty much any hardback book.

So there you have it. The many sizes of books, with little of interest imparted and no conclusions reached. Gripping stuff, I'm sure you'll agree. The hours just fly by round at mine...

Finally, apropos of nothing, here's yet another picture of my Richard Starks, just 'cos I happened to be taking pictures of me books. Never let it be said that I waste an opportunity to show off:

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Westlake Score: Jimmy the Kid / Child Heist (Hodder and Stoughton Edition) by Donald E. Westlake / Richard Stark

That's a real mouthful of a title for this post. Sorry about that: got carried away there. Anyway, I teased this one yesterday, and here it is:

This, my friends, is the UK hardback first edition of Donald E. Westlake's Jimmy the Kid, published by Hodder and Stoughton in 1975, one year after the US edition. Regular readers might recall I showcased that American edition last week, with its Don Bender jacket illustration. Well, no sooner had I ordered that book from an American dealer than this UK edition popped up on eBay, and the cover was so fantastic I had to have it. Luckily it seems there weren't many Richard Stark/Parker fans lurking on eBay that week, or at least ones who knew the significance of this book (which I'll come back to in a moment), and I won it easily. The jacket is by one Tony Page, and I love the simplicity of it: a black and white photo, block-coloured in a pop art style, with the the same figure seen from behind on the back cover.

This UK edition is actually incredibly scarce. When I started collecting first editions of the Dortmunder novels (of which this is the third), I had planned to get the UK editions, which for The Hot Rock and Bank Shot wasn't a massive problem (although I ended up buying the latter of those from Australia). But Jimmy the Kid is another matter entirely: there are, at present, zero copies of this for sale on Amazon or AbeBooks. I can see why: if you're a hardcore Parker fan, it's a must-have.

As I mentioned in that other post, in this book John Dortmunder and his crew plan a kidnapping based on a book by Richard Stark called Child Heist, featuring a career criminal called Parker. And of course Donald Westlake wrote a series of books under the pen name Richard Stark about a career criminal called Parker. But Child Heist isn't one of them. It only exists as part of Jimmy the Kid. And having now looked through Jimmy the Kid, I didn't realise how much of the mythical Child Heist there is in there. For a start, early on we get this excerpt:

When the guard came to open the cell door, Parker said to the big man named Krauss, "Come see me next week when you get out. I think I'll have something on."

Which is exactly how a lot of the Parker books open. And also, intriguingly, could be read as suggesting that Parker is in prison at this point (Westlake stopped writing Parker novels in 1974, only starting again some twenty-three years later). Then, later in the book we get two whole chapters from Child Heist. I won't quote them entirely, but here are the opening sentences of each:

When Parker got to the intersection he made a U-turn and stopped, facing back the way he had come...

At exactly four P.M. Ruth, in a pay phone at a Shell station in Patchogue, Long Island, made the second call...

Pretty cool, huh? Ah, but there's even more. Right at the end of the book there's a letter from 'Richard Stark' to his lawyer, about an unauthorized movie version of Child Heist. Bear in mind I haven't read Jimmy the Kid yet, so I don't know if this spoils a plot payoff or something, but here's the first paragraph of the letter anyway; read at your peril:

September 29
Mr. John Donald Riley
27 West 45th St.
New York, N. Y. 10036

Dear John:
I know I promised you I'd never get involved in a lawsuit again, but I think this just might be the exception to the rule. My friend Hal out on the coast tells me he's seen a rough cut of a movie called Kid Stuff that is a direct steal from my book Child Heist, except it's played for laughs. Now, it's bad enough to steal from me, but to make fun of me at the same time is even worse...

So there you go. A few examples of why Jimmy the Kid is pretty much essential for the Parker completist in your life.

Anyone wanna buy a US first edition...? 

Click here for a review of Jimmy the Kid.

Review: Darwyn Cooke's The Man with the Getaway Face

Back from Brighton clutching this in my sweaty paws:

Darwyn Cooke's oversized comics adaptation of Richard Stark's second Parker novel, The Man with the Getaway Face, which I mentioned on Tuesday was out this week. And a fine object it is too: taller and wider than yer average American comic book, printed on a nice thick matt stock. I tore through it on the train home and it stacks up well against the novel. It's only 24 pages long, so obviously Cooke has had to eject parts of the novel, notably Stubbs' story, which is a shame, and also as a result of that Stark/Westlake's killer twist of the knife at the end of the book. But the essentials are all here, kicking off with Parker's plastic surgery, which Cooke deals with in elegant fashion across the title page and the following page:

What Cooke's really good at – aside from drawing, storytelling and all the rest – is visualizing Stark/Westlake's world of highway diners, mangy motel rooms and forgotten urban sprawl. His take on Parker's environment feels as authentic as in the novels. It helps that he's chosen to do period adaptations of the books, but it's more than that: he gets what makes the Parker books tick.

As with Cooke's The Hunter, parts of the comic are 'silent', in particular the heist on the payroll truck:

Translating the mechanics of the robbery from words to pictures alone is some feat. So yeah, it's excellent stuff, and all for $2. Bargain.

One final thing, and look away here if you don't want the ending spoiled (although in truth it's not actually the ending; this is, after all, merely a prelude to the main graphic novel, The Outfit, which is out in October): Skim, the guy who pulls Parker into the job, is doublecrossed by his girlfriend and knifed after the heist. So far, so like the novel. But here he survives, and is last seen being carted off in an ambulance. I can't remember for sure right now, but did he survive in the novel? I don't think he did, and now I come to think of it, Trent's review on Violent World of Parker did mention a new plot twist. I guess this is it. And it makes me wonder if, as Trent also suggests, Skim's survival will play into The Outfit. I reckon he could be the stand-in for the missing Stubbs' cohorts blowing Parker's cover at the end of The Man with the Getaway Face...

The Michael Vyse Mystery: Solved

Thanks to the awesome Google skills of Book Glutton in response to this post about science fiction author Michael Vyse (you can read about BG's research in the comments on that post), I think we can safely determine what actually happened to Vyse. Book Glutton found this link detailing a couple called Michael and Margaret Vyse, now living in Normandy, where Michael paints and does wood carvings in relief. Could be an entirely different couple, you might think, but Vyse did design the jacket for Overworld, his only novel (he also published a collection of short stories, The Outer Reaches), so it's not unreasonable to suppose he might have turned to art instead of writing. But here, I think, is the clincher: last night I checked my copy of Overworld, and lo and behold, there was this dedication (click on the picture to enlarge):

So there you have it: Michael Vyse, alive and well and happily painting in France.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Westlake Score: Brothers Keepers (UK Hodder Edition) by Donald E. Westlake

This latest new arrival is one of Donald Westlake's odder books, Brothers Keepers:

This particular copy is the UK hardback first edition, published by Hodder and Stoughton in 1977, two years after the US edition. The book is about a monk called Brother Benedict and how he handles the twin threats of real estate developers attempting to tear the monastery he lives in down, and falling in love with the landlord's daughter. So not exactly a typical Westlake crime caper then. Apparently Westlake did set out to write a crime novel called The Felonius Monks, where the monks commit a robbery to save the monastery, but "I liked the characters too much to lead them into a life of crime. So, to begin with, there went the title. 'Okay,' I said, 'let's see what a caper novel looks like without the caper.' Turned out to be a love story; who knew." (Quote borrowed from this excellent round-up of Westlake's books.)

The jacket design on this Hodder edition is by Bill Dare, and I have to say, it's not my favourite cover design ever. The jacket on the Evans US first edition is slightly better

but the UK edition is scarcer, with no copies listed on Amazon at all and only two on AbeBooks (and one of those is sans jacket). Then again, I guess not that many people are hunting for it; I got this one on eBay, where I was the only bidder, even though the price wasn't extortionate. Anyway, according to those who know, it's a cracker in Westlake's canon, and I'm glad to have it.

And tomorrow, all being well, I'll have an even scarcer Westlake Score to show you. Can you guess what it is yet?

New Arrival: Ending Up by Kingsley Amis

And from high-octane international espionage to, er, a tumbledown cottage near Newmarket:

A UK first edition hardback of Kingsley Amis' Ending Up, published by Jonathan Cape in 1974. I got this, dead cheap, on eBay, from the same seller as The Bourne Ultimatum. I hadn't really been planning to buy any more Amis novels – I've still got a fair few to read as it is – but it was, as I say, very inexpensive, and I liked the sound of it, concerning, as it does, a septuagenarian commune in the run-up to Christmas. Flicking through it I came across this choice Amis line at the start of Chapter 30:

Christmas dinner was something of a success; it passed off, at any rate, without bloodshed.

Which I'm sure could apply to many people's experience of Christmas; I think I'll save this one for the festive period... The jacket is by Raymond Hawkey, who's probably best known books-wise for his jackets for Len Deighton's novels (including The Ipcress File) and covers for the 1960s Pan paperback editions of the Bond books, but he also turned his hand to a number of Amis' books:

His designs are always fascinating; I love the accoutrements of old age on the cover of Ending Up, and the military detritus on The Anti-Death League. Smashing stuff.