Saturday 25 September 2010

Review: Stumptown by Greg Rucka and Matthew Southworth (Oni Press Comic Book Miniseries)

It's a much-remarked upon peculiarity of the American comic book market that genres which enjoy massive popularity in the wider world – crime fiction, fantasy, etc. – are consigned to the margins of the form in favour of superhero comics. Now, you could make an argument that superhero comics actually embrace genres like crime, including them in their genetic make-up... except I'm pretty positive that if you removed any hint of crime fiction from superhero comics, comics fans would still continue to buy them. What I'm getting at is, sure, superhero comics incorporate elements of crime fiction, suspense, science fiction, fantasy... but hardcore fans continue to buy them in spite of those elements, not because of them. It's really very simple: they just like superheroes.

The unfortunate side effect of this is that interesting attempts at genres other than superhero comics (and superhero comics are a genre, whatever some apologists claim) are sidelined. They're reviewed online, for sure, but that coverage is blotted out by the overwhelming noise generated by superhero fandom. This is understandable when what that fandom mostly wants is more superhero comics (although these days in noticeably smaller quantities), but the knock-on effect is that comics that dabble in other genres sell in pathetic numbers, which in turn discourages publishers and even creators from attempting them in the first place.

It's also why reviews or critiques (like this one) feel compelled to bang on about superhero comics before even getting to address a work which has nothing to do with them. Take writer Greg Rucka and artist Matthew Southworth's Stumptown, which finished its initial four-issue run the other week. Now, admittedly Stumptown is published by an indie publisher, Oni Press, who can't really compete with the market-dominating Marvel and DC. Even so, it's the kind of thing you'd think would interest fans of, say, Dennis Lehane or George Pelecanos – a crime/suspense story with wide appeal, in other words. Set in and around Portland, Oregon, it follows the travails of P.I. Dex (short for Dexedrine, natch) Parios, who's hired to find the granddaughter of a casino owner and finds herself mixed up with MS-13, the real-life US gang composed of Central Americans.

Dex is probably the best thing about the series, a gambling addict and fuck-up who balances a crumbling private investigation business with being a carer for her disabled brother. And Rucka has form with strong female characters: witness damaged but brilliant spy Tara Chace in Queen & Country; devoted but strong-willed aide to Batman Sasha Bordeux in Detective Comics, the conflicted Detective Montoya in Gotham Central; and Rucka's take on the ultimate strong female during his first rate run on Wonder Woman. The story is straightforward and decidedly low key – perhaps too low key for an opening effort. But Southworth's evocative efforts at depicting a realistic Northwestern setting (there are text pieces at the end of each comic revealing his research) help lend the tale weight, and the characterization throughout is deft and sure, right down to nice moments with minor characters like the thugs Dex keeps getting creamed by.

Stumptown's very existence in a field dominated by superheros makes it feel more extraordinary than it probably is, but to be frank, even a solid effort like this deserves to be actively encouraged. There are so few crime comics around – Criminal, Scalped... er, that's kind of it – that any addition to the ranks should be celebrated (see also SF... mysteries... you name it...). Which brings me back to my original point: the first issue of Stumptown apparently went into a second printing, but even in a fairly major and broadly stocked comic shop like the one in Brighton I frequent, the series vanished from the shelves after that first issue. I had to get my copies of the subsequent issues off eBay. Basically, in the UK, once you get outside the London comic shops, Stumptown ceased to exist. I imagine it's a similar story in the States.

And that, if you'll pardon the pun, is a crime, particularly seeing as Stumptown is a better-looking comic book than almost anything else on the shelves. Generally speaking, comic book covers are a cavalcade of ugly, but take a look at the four Stumptown covers, drawn by Southworth and I think designed by Keith Wood:

That's a nice, contemporary piece of design; the only other recent comic book covers that compare are, oddly enough, those adorning Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' Criminal. Funny that. Rucka and Southworth have stated they'll be continuing Stumptown, so I urge you to pick up the graphic novel of volume one whenever it appears. And hey, if enough people do, you never know – maybe I won't have to head to eBay to get hold of volume two. Here's hoping anyway.

Friday 24 September 2010

When is a First Edition Not a First Edition? 2: The Honourable Schoolboy by John le Carré

NB: This post was written before I became aware of "export editions", which the copy of The Honourable Schoolboy discussed below may well be.

Yesterday, in my doubtless doomed quest to make errant booksellers see the error of their ways, I showed you two seemingly identical editions of Gavin Lyall's 1982 thriller The Conduct of Major Maxim. One of those was a genuine first edition; the other was a book club edition. The only indication of that was the absence of a price on the front dustjacket flap of the book club edition (i.e., no price was printed there, as opposed to it being price-clipped, with is a whole 'nother – if related – issue). As I stated yesterday (at length, tediously), book clubs (at least UK book clubs) don't print prices on their books because they sell books to their members at a reduced rate. It's that simple.

Sometimes – and hardbacks published by Hodder and Stoughton and Hutchinson in the 1970s and '80s seem to be the biggest offenders here – that's the only difference between a genuine first edition and a book club edition. And if the only books mistakenly listed as first editions on the likes of AbeBooks and Amazon were those where the sole variation from the genuine first edition was a missing price, I might (might) be inclined to feel more charitable towards the relevant booksellers. Unfortunately, that's emphatically not the case.

I've bought books online where if the dealer had bothered to check – looking under the jacket at the case spine, for example – it would've been apparent they were book club editions, with the letters "BCA" clearly readable. But of course said sellers either didn't check, or did check and didn't understand what they were looking at, or did check and knew the books were book club editions and decided to stiff some poor unsuspecting sod – i.e. me – anyway. So it's not as if merely a minor difference is being confused or overlooked; in a lot of cases – as we'll see shortly – there are blindingly obvious indicators.

Something I didn't address in yesterday's post, but which Book Glutton raised in the comments, was the question of what to do with the book club editions I end up with. Do I request a refund? Go to the hassle of sending them back? Or just dump them on a charity shop, buy a replacement copy and write a series of irritable blog posts on the subject instead? I find myself in something of a moral quandary here. Anyone who collects books knows that second hand bookshops have been experiencing tough times for a while, and when I paid so little for these books in the first place, it strikes me as a bit mean to be asking for my money back. There's also the fact that, appearances on this blog to the contrary, I'm not really by nature a vindictive or argumentative person. The idea of phoning or emailing someone and being irate with them is completely anathema to me. On the other hand, as I wrote yesterday, these imbeciles (what was that about not being irate?) evidently have no business selling books in the first place, and the world would perhaps be better off if they didn't.

Basically, I still haven't worked out what to do for the best, and the offending books are currently sitting in a plastic bag waiting to be dealt with in some fashion. (One could reasonably make an analogy here with my life in general.) But in the meantime, I can at least continue my crusade to head recidivistic dealers off at the pass, so to speak. Which brings me to the second of my show-and-tells:

Here we have two copies of John le Carré's The Honourable Schoolboy, published in hardback by Hodder and Stoughton in 1977. This is the second in le Carré's 'Karla trilogy', following 1974's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and preceding 1979's Smiley's People. As with yesterday's Lyalls, at this stage you wouldn't be able to tell them apart. And if we turn them over and look at the backs:

Again, no difference. If we open them up and take a look inside at the indicia:

Once again, as with the two copies of The Conduct of Major Maxim, the copyright info in the two books is exactly the same. Now, I'm being slightly disingenuous here, because unlike those two Lyall books, with these two copies of The Honourable Schoolboy the alarm bells would be ringing before ever getting to the indicia (that's assuming you had to copies to compare, which, to be briefly fair once again to our wayward bookselling chums, a lot of them probably haven't – hence, of course, this and the previous post). Because as soon as you open the two books up, you notice a glaring difference:

One of the books – the true first edition – has attractive, relevant-to-the-story printed endpapers, and the other book – the book club edition – doesn't. Now, it's worth mentioning here that when I received that blank endpaper copy in the post, I didn't at that point have the other copy to compare it to (I bought the true first later as a replacement... and in truth also, saddo that I am, so I could write these posts). Therefore I had no idea that a true first edition should have those map endpapers. But as with the Lyall book, there was another indicator. Look at the bottom corner of each dustjacket flap and you'll see that once again, the book club edition has no price printed. Even without another copy with which to compare it to, that lack of price is always – always – rock solid proof that a book is a book club edition, not a first edition*.

It really is as straightforward as that. Perhaps, if there are any second hand booksellers reading this, we can all rehearse it together, junior school fashion: no flap price? No first edition. No flap price? No first edition. There we go. That's not so hard to understand, is it? And at risk of repeating myself more than I usually do, once more, with feeling: when is a first edition not a first edition? When it's a bleedin', bloody book club edition, OK?

So there we have it. I'm absolutely positive that as a direct result of this and the previous post all those mis-listed and mis-priced books online and in bookshops will be immediately corrected, and that henceforth no bookseller shall ever again pass off a book club edition as a first edition. Lo, it is written.

Now then. Who wants to buy book club editions of The Conduct of Major Maxim and The Honourable Schoolboy?

*Or possibly an export edition. Ahem.

Thursday 23 September 2010

When is a First Edition Not a First Edition? 1: The Conduct of Major Maxim by Gavin Lyall

For a collector, buying books online can be a frustrating experience. AbeBooks, Amazon and eBay have vastly increased the readily available number of books, but concurrently and consequently have vastly increased the number of hopeless, amateur booksellers. These days, any idiot with an internet connection and half a dozen tatty tomes on their shelf can turn themselves into a bookseller, and indeed judging by what sometimes seems like the overwhelming majority of dealers on Amazon etc., any and every idiot has done just that. Compounding this situation is the fact that most of the books listed on Amazon and AbeBooks don't have accompanying pictures, so all you have to go on is the seller's often incomplete description.

It's all too easy to come a cropper, particularly with twentieth century modern firsts, and more particularly with book club editions of modern firsts. I had a bit of a rant about these last month, but they say it's always better to show than tell, and I'm now in a position to do just that. My vain hope here is that any offending second hand booksellers might stumble across this post and promptly mend their ways. After all, as Captain Sensible once crooned, you've got to have a dream...

I'm planning two posts on this subject, although both highlight essentially the same problem: how some dealers seem to be completely incapable of telling a first edition of a book from book club edition. To be fleetingly fair to these individuals, as we'll see in this first example, at first glance it's perhaps not as straightforward as one might think... the key words there being 'at first glance'. So, here are two books:

These are both hardback-with-jacket editions of The Conduct of Major Maxim by Gavin Lyall, published by Hodder and Stoughton. Now, aside from the fact that the book on the left is in a protective sleeve, they look identical. And if we have a look at the back covers:

they still look the same. I can also tell you that they feel the same when you hold them – they have the same weight. Open the books up and take a gander at the back flap of the dustjacket:

and again, they're identical. And if we take a look at the indicia at the front of the books:

Once again, there is no difference. Now, at this point, you might reasonably conclude that they are both first editions. They both state "First printed 1982", with nothing to indicate either book is a reprint, or indeed a book club edition. But take a look at the front flaps of the books, and you'll soon see there is one indisputable difference:

If you look at the bottom corner of each jacket flap, you'll see the book in the mylar jacket has a price printed, and the other book doesn't. What does this mean? It means the book without a price on the flap is a book club edition. It's that straightforward. Book clubs editions of books don't have prices on them because of course book clubs sell books at a discount. Therefore a book without a price on the jacket flap isn't a first edition.

Is that really so hard to understand? Apparently it is. I've ended up with book club editions so many times when buying books online that I'd begun to question whether this price/no price rule was really so cut and dried; whether publishers like Hodder did indeed occasionally issue books without prices on the flap. (Answers: it is; and they didn't.) Even second hand bookshops aren't immune from mixing book club editions up with first editions: just the other day I noticed the Lewes Book Centre down the road had done precisely that with a Len Deighton hardback. Now, it strikes me there are two ways of looking at this, one slightly more charitable than the other:

a) The offending second hand booksellers simply don't understand the difference between first editions and book club editions, in which case as far as I'm concerned they haven't any business selling second hand books in the first place, or

b) The offending second hand booksellers do understand the difference and are selling these books under false pretences, in which case as far as I'm concerned they haven't any business selling second hand books in the first place.

I'm not sure which of these conclusions is the worse. Either way, I still end up with the wrong sodding book. And you may very well be sitting there smugly thinking to yourself, 'Oh for Christ's sake, what's the big problem? Those two copies of that Lyall book are almost exactly the same anyway. What does it matter one has a price and one doesn't?' To which I would reply, it matters to me, chum. I collect first editions. I don't (as a rule) collect book club editions. If I purchase a first edition of a book online, what I expect to receive in the post is a first edition of a book – not a reprint or a book club edition. It's the principle of the thing as much as anything. I mean, are honesty or a certain level of competence really too much to ask for? (Mmyeahhh: don't answer that one.)

(Of course, when the difference between a first edition and a book club edition can come down to the existence or otherwise of a price on the front flap, what does that mean for second hand books that have been price-clipped...?)

So, as posed in the title to this post, when is a first edition not a first edition? When it's a bloody book club edition, that's when. Dumbass dealers take note. And that concludes the first of my two show-and-tells. The second one will be along soon. You have been warned.

From the Mid-Sussex Book Fair: The Honorary Consul by Graham Greene

The other weekend we made a return trip to the Mid-Sussex Book Fair, which takes place once in a blue moon in the little town of Hassocks, just over the border into West Sussex. Unfortunately this time out the Scientologists weren't in attendance, but there was still a good selection of dealers, and both Rachel and I came away with a book. I was slightly kicking myself afterwards as I saw another book there that was on sale for a lot less than it was worth, but on reflection I don't think it was in quite as good condition as I thought it was, and anyway it was thirty quid. Unlike the book I did buy, which was less than a tenner:

A UK hardback first edition of Graham Greene's The Honorary Consul, published by the Bodley Head in 1973. Copies of this aren't exactly thin on the ground, but this was a nice example, and I've been wanting to try Greene for a while (I'm ashamed to admit I've never read any of his novels). I was either going to try this or The Quiet American (the 2002 film of which I love); apparently The Honorary Consul was one of Greene's own favourite books. Good a place as any to dip in, then.

Wednesday 22 September 2010

Review: Blacklands by Belinda Bauer

A twelve-year-old boy embarks on a correspondence with an imprisoned paedophile/serial killer. Doesn't sound like the most appealing premise for a novel, does it? Or at least it didn't to me when I first chanced across a short review of Blacklands, Belinda Bauer's debut novel, early this year. But there was more to the premise, and those further details did intrigue me, to the extent that I mentally filed away the review and then finally bought a copy of the novel and read it. And once I got stuck into it, it was very hard to put down.

The twelve-year-old boy is Steven Lamb; the serial killer is Arnold Avery. Nineteen years ago Avery abducted and murdered Steven's uncle Billy (who was eleven at the time) and buried his body somewhere on Exmoor, along with those of the other children Avery killed. But unlike many of those other bodies Billy has never been found, and as a consequence Steven lives in a home shattered by grief. His nan – Billy's mum – keeps a silent vigil at the window and hasn't a good word to say to or about anyone, including Steven; his single mum lets her anger and frustration sour her relationship with her son, instead favouring Steven's younger brother.

But Steven has a plan that he thinks will mend his fractured family: if he can just find uncle Billy's body, he reasons, then there can be a sense of closure. So he spends most of his spare time – when he isn't being ignored at school or chased by the fictional village of Shipcott's resident hoodies – digging on Exmoor, sometimes with his best friend Lewis, sometimes alone. Of course, having no idea where Billy is buried, he finds little other than the odd sheep skeleton. Which leaves Steven with one option: to ask Avery.

The correspondence between Steven and Avery provides the impetus for the book, as Steven tries to extract information from Avery and Avery in turn revels in the power he holds over his new penpal. Bauer never overstates Steven's capabilities: he's not a particularly extraordinary boy, and it takes him an age to draft each missive, as he negotiates the tricky path between providing Avery with information and not revealing too much about himself. What Steven actually is is that kid you knew at school who always smelt a bit mildewy and never had many friends: in other words not the ideal person to go up against a cunning and manipulative child-killer. Both Steven and Avery are well drawn by Bauer, and if some of the other characters suffer by comparison – notably Steven's mum and nan – that's entirely forgivable when the two leads are so distinctive.

There is, however, a third presence in the novel, one that's as well realised as Steven and Avery: Exmoor itself. Since the notorious 1960s moors murders, Britain's various moorlands have had a unmistakable connection with death, even though Brady and Hindley's activities were confined to Saddleworth Moor. As anyone who's been on Exmoor or Dartmoor can attest they're spooky places at the best of times: beautiful but barren, and prone to instantly changeable and dangerous weather. Bauer taps into this morbid mystique, artfully describing in her uncluttered but vivid prose the way disorienting fog can fall on the unsuspecting visitor, and ascribing to Exmoor a disturbing erotic fascination for the unrepentant Avery.

As the novel sprints towards its conclusion Bauer ups the ante with a thrilling prison break and a final, nerve-wracking confrontation on the moor. But it's the two main characters – three if you count Exmoor – that stay with you: the awful, monstrous but perversely compelling serial killer and the damaged, determined but ultimately very average boy who dares to tangle with him.

Tuesday 21 September 2010

Bought at Brighton Marina: The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis

The afternoon that I was discharged from hospital the second time – I'd returned to the Royal Sussex for a day of tests to check on my wellbeing, following the events of That Night and its consequent, longer hospital stay – we stopped at Brighton Marina on the way home to grab something to eat (I'd been on 'nil by mouth' since the preceding evening). We were walking past the RNLI hut when I noticed a box of books for sale – or rather for the price of a donation – outside it. Of course I had to have a quick rummage, and I came up with this:

A 1986 UK Hutchinson first edition hardback of Kingsley Amis's The Old Devils. This is one of those books you tend to see everywhere, although almost invariably what you'll see are book club editions or reprints of the hardback. Which is what I figured this copy was, until I check the front flap – price present and correct – and examined the indicia, where there was no trace of the dreaded words "reprinted twice". So it's a true first edition/impression, and therefore a small result. A glance on AbeBooks confirms there are a fair few firsts available online, but you'd have to negotiate the inexpert knowledge of many so-called booksellers in order to get hold of a true first – i.e. not a reprint – and who can be fagged with that? Well, I can sometimes – and I'll be blogging about a couple of cases soon – but not in this instance. There are just too many copies out there, and evidently it's just too much to ask of some booksellers to, y'know, check if there's a price on the front flap or if it says "reprinted" in the indicia.

As for the reason there are so many reprints of the hardback of The Old Devils, famously it won the 1986 Booker Prize for Amis. At the time it was kind of assumed he was awarded the prize not so much because The Old Devils was particularly great but because it was widely accepted Amis was well past his best and if he didn't win the Booker soon he'd be dead anyway. But as this Guardian Book Blog post reasons, it's more likely The Old Devils won that year because it was a better book than any other on the shortlist – a list which included Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and Kazuo Ishiguro's An Artist of the Floating World.

In fact, as anyone who's read further into Amis's body of work than Lucky Jim can attest, contemporaneously Amis was a better writer than almost anyone you care to name, his mid- to later novels included, so it's nice that opinion is finally catching up with fact. I for one am certainly looking forward to reading this one. The illustration on the front cover, by the way, is by Alastair Taylor, who I think is this Alastair Taylor.