Friday 20 December 2013

The Existential Ennui Review of the Year: the 10 Best Books I Read in 2013

And so we reach the not-especially-grand finale not only of the Existential Ennui Review of the Year, but of Existential Ennui for the year. And on both counts, all I can say is, thank fuck for that. On reflection, five end-of-year posts (five! What on earth was I thinking?) was at least two posts too many (if not five posts too many), and as for the year in general, while it's been wonderfully life-changing in at least one respect, it's also been bloody long and in places bloody hard, and I'm kind of glad it's almost over.

But let that not deter us from finishing the year chez Louis XIV in traditional fashion with my ten best books of the year, as picked from the big long list of the books I read in 2013. As usual, and unlike with my newly-instituted-and-unlikely-to-be-repeated ten best comics (linked by The Comics Reporter, no less) and ten best albums posts, few of these books actually date from 2013 – just one, in fact, although another one was published into paperback in 2013 having been published in hardback in 2012, so it's still reasonably 'new'. The rest date from much earlier than 2013 – decades earlier, making the top ten as comically arbitrary – and thus of no use to anyone – as previous years' efforts. (Equally arbitrarily, I've once again discounted any novels I'd read before, of which there were four this year – see the aforementioned big long list.)

Since I've already reviewed all of these books – you can click through to each review via the titles – I'll be keeping additional commentary to a minimum. Let the countdown... commence!

10. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (Doubleday, 2013)

I'm still not sure if the denouement of Atkinson's device of having a character live their life over and over again in order to avoid a succession of untimely deaths quite, um, lived up to the journey there, but in any case the journey there was well worth taking.

9. Deep Water Patricia Highsmith (Heinemann, 1958)

Highsmith preferred to tell a story from the perspectives of two protagonists (usually opponents, usually men), but Ripley's Game aside, arguably her most powerful novels adhere to a singular viewpoint, Deep Water being an early example.

8. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré (Gollancz, 1963)

Widely recognised as a classic not only of the spy fiction genre but of twentieth century fiction in general. And yet... while I admired it, and it is evidently a great novel, for me it's not up there with Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy, or indeed that novel's two sequels. Perversely, perhaps, I also preferred the two less-acclaimed novels which preceded The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, namely:

7. Call for the Dead (1961) and A Murder of Quality (1962) in The le Carré Omnibus by John le Carré (Gollancz, 1964)

Obviously I'm cheating here... or am I? After all, these are the ten best books I read in 2013, not the ten best novels, and I read le Carré's first and second novels, Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality, together in The le Carré Omnibus. Ergo I'm not so much cheating as... not being completely honest. Ahem.

6. Alys, Always by Harriet Lane (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2012)

A The Talented Mr. Ripley for the 21st century? Not quite – for one thing, Frances Thorpe, the star of this novel, isn't as murderous as Tom Ripley – but Lane shares Highsmith's cool detachment, steady pace and sly psychological depth. Advance word on Lane's second novel, Her, is very good.

5. The Sandbaggers by Ian Mackintosh (Corgi, 1978)

What's this? A novelisation? Ah, but what a novelisation. Mackintosh's take on his own espionage TV show packs more in, and in a more convincing manner, than many more celebrated spy novels manage.

4. Swag (1976) and The Hunted (1977) in Elmore Leonard's Dutch Treat by Elmore Leonard (Viking, 1987)

Yes, yes, I'm sort of cheating again – see The le Carré Omnibus above – but I did genuinely read Swag and The Hunted in the Dutch Treat omnibus (later securing a scarce first hardback edition of The Hunted). And anyway, who'll begrudge me a minor con in the year that Elmore Leonard died? Incidentally, the third novel in this collection, Mr. Majestyk, is almost as good as the two I've highlighted, but I read it last year (as a paperback original).

3. LaBrava by Elmore Leonard (Viking, 1984)

In previous years I've limited myself to one appearance per author in my top tens, but under the circumstances, this year I think I'm justified (arf) in dispensing with that rule. Besides, Leonard's novels were some of the best things I read in 2013 – were this a top twenty rather than a top ten, he'd be filling most of the positions from 11 to 20 – and LaBrava was one of the best of that best.

2. A Magnum for Schneider by James Mitchell (Herbert Jenkins, 1969)

Is this, like The Sandbaggers, a novelisation? After all, Mitchell adapted it from his own own screenplay – for an Armchair Theatre production which acted as the pilot to the subsequent Callan TV series – so I suppose in that sense it is. But then really, who cares? What matters is that it's a brilliantly grubby spy story, economically and unfussily told, and all the better for it.

1. Unknown Man No. 89 by Elmore Leonard (Secker & Warburg, 1977)

It couldn't really be anyone else at number one, could it? But even if Leonard hadn't passed away in August, this novel would have still nabbed the top spot. Follow the link in the title to find out why.

And with that, my work here is done for the year. A very merry Christmas to you all, and see you in 2014.

Tuesday 17 December 2013

The Existential Ennui Review of the Year: a Big Long List of the Books I Read in 2013

Well, thus far the Existential Ennui Review of the Year has turned into a wander rather further down memory lane than I'd intended – witness the preambulatory contextual rambles at the start of my posts on the ten best comics I read and the ten best albums I heard in 2013, which ventured far beyond 2013 to detail in tiresome fashion my personal histories with both comics and music. Rest assured, however, that there'll be none of that nonsense in this post, because we're back on more recognisable terrain here in the shape of the traditional – as in, including this post, I've rolled something similar out four years running now (twice in 2010, ridiculously) – big long list of the books I read this year.

As in previous years, the list is ordered roughly in the, er, order in which I read the books, and the title of each book links to whatever I wrote about it. Analysis (oh dear God) follows underneath the list.

Comeback (1997) by Richard Stark
Backflash (1998) by Richard Stark
Flashfire (2000) by Richard Stark
Unknown Man No. 89 (1977) by Elmore Leonard
Dominion (2012) by C. J. Sansom
Alys, Always (2012) by Harriet Lane
One Fat Englishman (1963) by Kingsley Amis
Call for the Dead (1961) by John le Carré
A Murder of Quality (1962) by John le Carré
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) by John le Carré
The Boy Who Followed Ripley (1980) by Patricia Highsmith (reread)
Ripley Under Water (1991) by Patricia Highsmith (reread)
Ghostman (2013) by Roger Hobbs
My Enemy's Enemy (1962) by Kingsley Amis
Life After Life (2013) by Kate Atkinson
Dr. Who in an Exciting Adventure with the Daleks (1964) by David Whitaker
A Delicate Truth (2013) by John le Carré
Flush as May (1963) by P. M. Hubbard
From Here to Maternity (1955) by Peter Rabe
Out of Sight (1996) by Elmore Leonard
Cuba Libre (1998) by Elmore Leonard
Get Shorty (1990) by Elmore Leonard (reread)
The Hunted (1977) by Elmore Leonard
Swag (1976) by Elmore Leonard
Stick (1983) by Elmore Leonard (reread)
LaBrava (1983) by Elmore Leonard
Road Dogs (2009) by Elmore Leonard
Valdez is Coming (1970) by Elmore Leonard
Gold Coast (1980) by Elmore Leonard
Fifty-Two Pickup (1974) by Elmore Leonard
Be Shot for Sixpence (1956) by Michael Gilbert
Out on the Rim (1987) by Ross Thomas
Deep Water (1957) by Patricia Highsmith
The Switch (1978) by Elmore Leonard
Count Not the Cost (1967) by Ian Mackintosh
A Magnum for Schneider (1969) by James Mitchell
The Man Who Sold Death (1964) by James Munro
A Slaying in September (1967) by Ian Mackintosh
The Sandbaggers (1978) by Ian Mackintosh
Our Man in Camelot (1975) by Anthony Price

I make that forty books in total, which is twenty-four fewer than I managed in 2012 and twenty-nine fewer than I managed in 2010, although only eight fewer than 2011. There is, of course, a very good reason for this – one which I trust and fervently hope will continue to have an impact on my reading for many years to come – and we should also bear in mind that I read quite a lot of comics too, so all things considered, it's really not a bad total. Obviously it's not quite the end of the year yet, and I do have a further four(!) books on the go, but I'd be surprised if I finish any of them before 2013 breathes its last. And even if I do, who's to know apart from me? It'll just give me a headstart on next year's total (which I suspect I'll need).

So, what can we determine from the 2013 list? Well, almost all of the books I read were novels, and even the two that weren't – Kingsley Amis's My Enemy's Enemy and Peter Rabe's From Here to Maternity – are still essentially fiction, the former a short story collection and the latter a fictionalised illustrated account of Rabe's wife's pregnancy. Just three were published this year – Kate Atkinson's Life After Life, Roger Hobbs's Ghostman and John le Carré's A Delicate Truth – and a further two – Harriet Lane's Alys, Always and C. J. Sansom's Dominion – were published into paperback this year (having been published in hardback last year) and so could still be considered 'new'. The rest were published across the preceding six decades – two in the 2000s; six in the 1990s; five in the 1980s; eight in the 1970s; eleven in the 1960s; and three in the 1950s. Almost all, however, were 'new' to me, with the exceptions of Patricia Highsmith's The Boy Who Followed Ripley and Ripley Under Water and Elmore Leonard's Get Shorty and Stick, which I'd read before.

If we were to divide the books into categories, twenty are what you could loosely term crime fiction; eleven are to a greater or lesser degree spy fiction; five are I suppose what you'd call literary and/or historical fiction; two are westerns; one is science fiction; and one would be categorised as humour. The author I read the most in 2013, appositely given that he passed away this year, is Elmore Leonard, by a wide margin: thirteen novels in total (including the two rereads). His nearest rival isn't, in terms of raw numbers, any kind of rival at all really – John le Carré, of whose novels I read four this year – while I read three books apiece by Richard Stark (alias Donald E. Westlake, who was my most-read author in 2012 and 2010), Patricia Highsmith (again including two rereads), James Mitchell (including one written under the pen name James Munro) and Ian Mackintosh, and two by Kingsley Amis.

Fascinating stuff, I'm sure you'll agree, but as the more attentive souls among you may have noticed, it tells us little to nothing about the books themselves. For that I'd suggest following the links to read whatever piffle I posted about each of them. And if you're curious as to which books I'd pick as my ten best of the year, all will be revealed in the final post not only in the Existential Ennui Review of the Year, but of the year.

Thursday 12 December 2013

The Existential Ennui Review of the Year: the 10 Best Albums I Heard in 2013

Music may have been '70s crooner John Miles's first love, but I can't say for sure whether it was necessarily mine. Certainly music was an early love – I vividly recall as a child listening to the top forty chart show on a crackly transistor radio and taping songs on a separate cassette recorder held close to the radio's speaker – and by Christ doesn't that date me – but whether it came before other loves like comics and books, I couldn't tell you.

What is the case is that like both comics and books (but maybe not films and telly, which have been hardy perennials throughout my life), periodically I've fallen out of love with music. The first time this happened was in 2000, when my eight-year stint as a music journalist came to an end and consequently I couldn't listen to an album all the way through for three or four years. (I'd like to say I learned a valuable lesson about the dangers of turning one's passion into a career, but after leaving the music industry I did exactly the same thing again when I moved into comics, so that lesson probably took at least another three or four years to sink in through my thick fucking skull.) The second time was towards the end of the 2000s, when after a torrid fling with the Franz Ferdinand/Futureheads/Maximo Park-inspired UK artrock/math rock 7" single scene (bit of a mouthful there, and I fear I might have invented the whole thing in my head anyway, but you get my drift) I became consumed by secondhand book collecting and most of my available funds were diverted to the acquisition of the musty old tomes which have fuelled Existential Ennui ever since.

But even in those times when music and I were only at best nodding acquaintances, we never forsook each other completely. If I were to take a stroll along my shelves of CDs, I'm sure I could find a good many from those periods even when I was absorbed by other concerns, although less so, I suspect, my vinyl collection, which is largely confined to specific eras – but more on that in the next paragraph.

And what has all this to do with the Existential Review of the Year? Well, it's an inescapable fact that a top ten albums of 2013 post is an incongruous thing to appear on what's become (admittedly more by accident than design) a books and book-collecting blog; but as I've hopefully elucidated, my passion for music far predates my passion for secondhand books, and as outlined in the Existential Ennui Review of the Year introductory post, more recently that passion has once again become noticeably engorged (I'm so, so sorry) via a renewed interest in vinyl albums. Therefore, my picks of the best albums I heard in 2013 – all of which were released in 2013, unlike my ten best books list, which will follow next week – are below. I can't claim to be any kind of expert in music anymore – if I ever could claim that, which is doubtful – but if nothing else this post will at least act as a personal record (no pun intended), for posterity's sake, of what I was listening to in 2013.

=10. Folly by Kitchens of Distinction (3Loop) / Bloodsports by Suede (Warner) / MBV by My Bloody Valentine (MBV)

These weren't the only belated new albums by bands from my late-teens/early twenties (i.e. late-1980s/early-1990s) to be released in 2013, but these were the ones I liked and bought – I guess because all three sound like they could have been released not far off the peak of each band's career. Kitchens of Distinction were responsible for two of the best gigs I ever witnessed – at the Boardwalk in Manchester and the Venue in New Cross (how three men managed to concoct such a beautiful cacophony I'll never comprehend) – and by chance I was at one of Suede's earliest gigs (supporting forgotten baggy band Spin at the Camden Falcon, when Justine out of Elastica was still a member) and their final one (or what was believed to be their final one, at the Astoria in London in 2003). I am, self-evidently, a huge fan of both bands, and their latest albums are fine, fine things. My Bloody Valentine I've never seen live, and in truth I've only ever admired rather than loved them, but I still own You Made Me Realise on 12" and Isn't Anything on vinyl (with the bonus 7", natch), and to my ears MBV sounds just as good as their last album, 1991's Loveless.

One question remains, however: given that I've begun my top ten countdown with a three-way tie, why the bloody hell didn't I make it a top twelve* and have done with it?

. . . . . . . . . .

9. Field of Reeds by These New Puritans (Infectious)

I've been buying These New Puritans records since they emerged as part of the aforementioned mid-2000s artrock/math rock scene, but this album is rather a different kettle of fish to their prior post-punk-esque output: a collection of near-ambient quasi-classical compositions on, variously, piano, double bass, strings, wind and drums, with Jack Barnett's quavering vocals (and contributions from Elisa Rodrigues) weaving in and out. In a way it's closer to jazz than rock or pop – shifting time signatures, modulated repetition and a willingness and eagerness to challenge the structure of the song.

. . . . . . . . . .

8. Big TV by White Lies (Fiction)

Another escapee band from the artrock scene (there's a theme developing here), although back then they were called Fear of Flying and were somewhat jauntier than their current incarnation (I saw them live supporting The Maccabees, and still have their first two 7"s). But I'm not averse to a bit of melodramatically doomy bombast (within reason), and Big TV, the band's third album as White Lies, is arguably the strongest set of songs they've yet produced. Also, the deluxe double-CD edition comes in the form of a hardback book (the packaging designed by Big Active, from whose website I nicked the above image), which obviously appealed to me.

. . . . . . . . . .

7. Factory Floor by Factory Floor (DFA)

Would you Adam and Eve it, yet another band who have their origins in the artrock scene – the very arse end of it anyway. Factory Floor have travelled a long way since then, though. Their 2008 debut single, Bipolar – which, inevitably, I own on 7" – sounded like Joy Division locked in the back of a lorry, but their self-titled debut full-length album finds them almost completely transformed into a Detroit techno act. Kind of – there are still echoes of the neo-post-punk band that was, and the net result is not unlike one of those British techno bands from the 1990s – Bandulu or someone like that. Which is a good thing, in case you were wondering.

. . . . . . . . . .

6. Days Are Gone by Haim (Polydor)

An American band for a change, and an all-girl one (three sisters) at that. I tend not to pay much attention to online music journalism, but I did happen to see some sniping from some internet quarters along the lines of Haim – a band in their early- to mid-twenties, remember – being music for middle-aged dads. As a middle-aged dad, let me just state for the record that I've long had a penchant for the kinds of well-crafted, almost overproduced pop songs that Haim are so good at, along with other musical penchants, also dating back to my teens and twenties, for electro, hip hop, fey indie guitar bands, hardcore techno and stupidly fast acid trance. There's room in most sane people's lives for all sorts of music, even those of us on the wrong side of forty and with a seven-month-old daughter.

. . . . . . . . . .

5. Fanfare by Jonathan Wilson (Bella Union)

For some reason, every few years I fall for an American male singer songwriter (I mean fall in a musical sense... although they are usually quite good-looking). Previous recipients of my unwanted and unregistered affections have included Ryan Adams circa Heartbreaker (2000), Pete Yorn circa musicforthemorningafter (2001), Josh Rouse circa Nashville (2005) and John Grant circa Queen of Denmark (2010). To that list I think we can add Jonathan Wilson, whose second album, Fanfare, was recommended to me by Lewes-based designer and illustrator Neil Gower on Twitter. Not long before I bought Fanfare I watched a third of a BBC Four documentary (it was very long, and on late, and as I've mentioned I'm a middle-aged dad with a seven-month-old daughter) about the Eagles and found myself musing that I'd like to listen to some more '70s West Coast rock. No need now: Jonathan Wilson's 2013 variety fits the bill perfectly.

. . . . . . . . . .

4. Pale Green Ghosts by John Grant (Bella Union)

Speaking of John Grant, his second solo album landed this year, and while I haven't been quite as bowled over by Pale Green Ghosts as I was Queen of Denmark – on which his backing band was Midlake; more on them in a moment – it's still a sterling effort, introducing an electronic element to proceedings. And by and large the songs and lyrics are just as good, especially the title track – imagine Happy Mondays' WFL crooned by a depressed Bing Crosby – and It Doesn't Matter to Him, I Hate This Town ("You know I hate this fucking town, you cannot even leave your fucking house, without running into someone who no longer cares about you") and GMF ("I am the greatest motherfucker that you're ever gonna meet, from the top of my head down to the tips of the toes on my feet").

. . . . . . . . . .

3. Antiphon by Midlake (Bella Union)

John Grant's one-time backing band, now minus their original frontman (Tim Smith, who left towards the end of 2012) and consequently forging a more adventurous, even psychedelic, direction, which I for one am thoroughly impressed by. Midlake's rural meditative folk rock – made in America but with a British feel – had become pretty intense by the time of 2010's The Courage of Others, which unlike The Trials of Van Occupanther (2006) was a difficult album to love (although achievable given time). By comparison Antiphon – especially the swirling title track – has a real spring in its step – or at least as spring-stepped as an album made by a bunch of beardy blokes bowed furrow-browed over their instruments gets. I saw Midlake Mk. I at the Concorde in Brighton five or six years ago, and it's fair to say that for the most part they struggled to connect with their audience. I'd be intrigued to see what they're like live now.

. . . . . . . . . .

2. Tell Where I Lie by Fossil Collective (Dirty Hit)

An English Midlake? Well, maybe not, but I wouldn't be surprised if Fossil Collective's Dave Fendick and Jonny Mulroy had been listening to Midlake since their former band Vib Gyor split in 2010. Certainly they've cast off the more Radiohead-like stylings of their previous incarnation in favour of the sort of deep-in-the-woods introspected folk rock that I'm a sucker for. There are six tracks on this album that I'd rate as the loveliest things I've heard all year – Let it Go, Under My Arrest, Wolves, Monument, On and On and The Magpie – and if the other four don't quite live up to those, they're still eminently listenable – so much so that I reckon I've played Tell Where I Lie more times this year than every other album bar one.

And that one is...

. . . . . . . . . .

1. Arc by Everything Everything (RCA)

I'm not sure why this album has been so comprehensively overlooked in the 'albums of the year' lists that I've seen. Maybe it's because it arrived right at the start of the year and everyone figured it was released last year... or maybe the critics and independent record shops who assembled those 'albums of the year' lists genuinely thought it wasn't up to much. If that is the case, for my money, they're mistaken. Opener Cough Cough is deceptive in that it's the type of jerky math rock (Everything Everything are another band who emerged at the tail end of the mid-2000s artrock movement) that characterised their debut LP, Man Alive (2010), but the songs thereafter, once you've allowed them to sink in, are of a different stripe, possessed of a depth and raw emotion that I find really affecting. The complexity of Everything Everything's compositions was always apparent, but in slowing down the tempo they've made the richness and traditional verse-bridge-chorus structure even more evident. In other words, this is a terrific set of pop songs (with even more on the deluxe double-CD version), not least closing single Don't Try, which is my song of the year.

Next, it's back to those musty old tomes at last, with a big(ish) long(ish) list of the books I read in 2013.

*Or even a top fifteen. That way I could have got Savages' Silence Yourself, Pet Shop Boys' Electric and Franz Ferdinand's Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action in too.

Tuesday 10 December 2013

The Existential Ennui Review of the Year: the 10 Best Comics I Read in 2013

I've three top ten posts planned for this, the Existential Ennui Review of the Year (which if all goes according to plan will ultimately span a ludicrous five posts in total). Over the course of the next week or two I'll be blogging about the ten best books I read in 2013 (very few of which, true to form, were actually published in 2013) and the ten best albums I heard in 2013 (all of which were actually released in 2013). But ahead of those, I'm counting down the ten best comics I read in 2013. First, however, an unnecessarily prolix history lesson.

I've been reading comics for as long as I can remember – initially British humour weeklies like The Beano and Whizzer and Chips, then when I was a bit older things like 2000 AD and Action and especially Spider-Man Weekly. That one, I think, was the comic above all others which shaped my future comics consumption – that and the chance discovery of an actual American Amazing Spider-Man comic book in a box of comics at my junior school (said box dragged out to entertain the kids during breaks when the weather was too rank to play outside). I realised that Spider-Man Weekly simply reprinted the American colour comics in black-and-white, and soon I was hunting down US comics – Marvel and DC – in newsagents in my local area – Beckenham and Penge in south London – then further afield in the Camberwell and Lewisham branches of back issue merchant Popular Books (which had dirty magazine sections at the back of each shop), and finally the comic shops up in central London (Forbidden Planet – then based on Denmark Street – Comic Showcase and the like). Here I encountered indie and small press comics for the first time, which in turn led me to the Fast Fiction scene based around the Westminster Comic Mart.

Shortly after that I fell out of comics altogether, forsaking them for rock 'n' roll and drugs (and very little sex); it wasn't until around 1997 or '98 that I rediscovered them when, whilst in Camden one day, on a whim I popped into Mega City Comics and emerged with a bunch of Marvel titles (some Heroes Reborn: The Return number ones, I believe they were). It wasn't long before I was hooked again, alternating between Marvel and DC depending on which seemed the more interesting (i.e, which writers were working where) and plunging back into the indie and alt. comix scene too (and filling in gaps in my collection from the non-comics years at comic marts). A few years after that I started working in comics myself, first at Titan Magazines on reprint titles like Tomb Raider Magazine and short-lived collectors' magazine Memorabilia, then at Titan Books, launching the Modesty Blaise, Dan Dare and James Bond strip collections and editing Wallace & Gromit graphic novels. (Even now, working at The Ilex Press, I'm still tangentially involved in comics, having edited the likes of Alan Moore: Storyteller and The Art of Osamu Tezuka: God of Manga.)

I offer all this partly by way of a long-winded explanation as to why I'm posting my top ten comics of 2013 on what is, to all intents and purposes, a musty old books blog – and one on which there's been nary a mention of comics all year (I'll deal with why I'm even more incongruously posting my top ten albums of 2013 separately) – but also to note that my interest in comics is rather more catholic than that top ten might suggest. I do read – or rather, have read – comics and graphic novels other than those more superhero- and adventure-oriented ones published by Marvel and DC and Image and Dark Horse; it's just this year, what with the arrival of Edie, and work, and passing my driving test, and of course the secondhand books I blog about as a matter of course on Existential Ennui, I haven't had time to read more than a scant few of them. I don't doubt that there were many fine alt. comix and small press titles published in 2013; unfortunately I missed most of them, so by and large they won't feature in this top ten.

That caveat in mind, then, the ten best comics I read in 2013 were:

10. Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples (Image, 2012–2013)

Image-published comics account for half the titles in my top ten for the simple reason that, right now, Image is home to more intriguing, entertaining and adventurous mainstream adventure comics than Marvel and DC combined. Brian K. Vaughan published his two prior long-form creator-owned series, Y: The Last Man and Ex Machina, through DC (Vertigo and WildStorm, to be precise), and while Saga isn't, to my mind, the equal of those, it's still fun to witness a writer free to do whatever he darn well pleases, even if the results do sometimes feel a bit stapled (groan...) together from too disparate a selection of sources.

9. Sex by Joe Casey and Piotr Kowalski (Image, 2013)

While we're on the subject of Image, here's another Image-published title which makes the output of the 'big two' seems positively pallid by comparison. Though Sex is, loosely speaking, a superhero comic, I can't imagine Marvel or DC publishing anything as weird as this, in which a repressed former superhero returns to the city he once protected – and the business which once funded his superhero activities – and engages in an extended bout of soul-searching and libido-servicing. Kowalski's elegant artwork lends the whole enterprise a winning bande dessinée feel: kind of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns as imagined by Moebius. Also worth a look is Casey and David Messina's similarly Image-published The Bounce – in essence, Lee/Ditko Amazing Spider-Man viewed red-eyed through a haze of dope smoke.

8. Fury MAX: My War Gone By by Garth Ennis and Goran Parlov (Marvel, 2012–2013)

Then again, in Marvel's defence, they did publish Garth Ennis and Goran Parlov's brutal, foul-mouthed, blackly comic reimagining of World War II hero/secret agent Nick Fury as a combat-addicted pawn of the CIA – until the series was cancelled with issue #13 midyear, anyway. In plucking Fury from comic book continuity and depositing him in more plausible stories, Ennis was performing the same trick he did with the brilliantly bleak Punisher: MAX – so it was entirely fitting that My War Gone By featured cameos both from Frank Castle and his occasional nemesis Barracuda. And though Fury: MAX is done and dusted, there's still the entirely welcome news that Ennis is returning to the Punisher in 2014.

7. Hellboy in Hell by Mike Mignola (Dark Horse, 2012–2013)

I lost track of Hellboy (and its spin-off B.P.R.D. series) five-and-a-half years ago when I left Titan (the company, not the moon orbiting Saturn), but at the tail end of 2012 creator Mike Mignola resumed art duties as well as writing ones and sent Hellboy to Hell, thus re-piquing my curiosity. Until Mike Carey and Peter Gross' Lucifer makes a return (I can dream, can't I...?), this metaphysical exploration of the stygian underworld, with the occasional bout of fisticuffs, will do nicely.

6. New Avengers by Jonathan Hickman, Steve Epting and Mike Deodato (Marvel, 2013)

Possibly the gloomiest comic I read in 2013 – which is saying something in this company – New Avengers saw the Illuminati – the superhero think tank composed of Iron Man, Mister Fantastic, Black Panther, Doctor Strange, Namor, Black Bolt and the Beast – confronted with the stark choice of either destroying a succession of alternate Earths or seeing their own Earth destroyed. Kill or be killed, essentially. Who says superhero comics aren't fun any more? The only Marvel comics I'm still buying these days are those written by Jonathan Hickman, and this one is the best of that select bunch. Even so, it's still not as good as some of his Image titles – see below.

5. JLA by Grant Morrison and Howard Porter (DC, 1997)

I originally read Morrison and Porter's late-1990s run on JLA at the time, but on a recent trip up to the loft to have a sort out I came across the back issues in a comic box and decided to give them another go. What's remarkable is how fresh and thrilling they remain over fifteen years on (even Porter's art, which was always a slightly uncomfortable thing to behold), especially in comparison to DC's current overwrought output, with deft characterisation (Morrison's curmudgeonly, perennially preoccupied Batman is particularly fine) and a palpable sense of awe and wonder. And I haven't even got to Rock of Ages yet.

4. Optic Nerve #13 by Adrian Tomine (Drawn & Quarterly, 2013)

Three sublime stories in one beautifully designed comic: the autobiographical one-page Winter 2012, in which Adrian Tomine manfully struggles with the modern world; Go Owls, a forensic examination of a doomed affair between two addicts (with a proper kick-in-the-teeth ending); and the drifting, meditative Translated, from the Japanese. Well worth the two year wait.

3. East of West by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta (Image, 2013)

It took me a few issues to work out what the hell was going on in this series, but I reckon I've got a handle on it now: the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse are trying to shepherd a shattered world to its timely end (with certain world leaders complicit in this), but Death has fallen in love and defected. Um, I think. It's the end of the world reworked as a revisionist western, basically, with lots of backstabbing, double-crossing and gunplay, all depicted in delightful Alex Toth-meets-Katsuhiro Otomo fashion by artist Nick Dragotta. Splendid.

2. The Manhattan Projects by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra (Image, 2012–2013)

Bugger me, it's that man Hickman again. For my money, among the post-Bendis/Brubaker/Rucka crop of mainstream comics writers Jonathan Hickman is the only one offering anything other than sub-Bendis/Brubaker/Rucka reheats. As evidence, may I present this barking comic book, in which an assortment of supergenius scientists – among them Wernher von Braun, Richard Feynman and Enrico Fermi (plus a couple of doppelgangers) – fend off an alien invasion and then fall to fighting amongst themselves, and where a current storyline details the psychological struggle for supremacy between Robert Oppenheimer and his cannibalistic brother Joseph who has, er, eaten him.

Lazarus by Greg Rucka and Michael Lark (Image, 2013)

When I read the prelude to Lazarus in The Walking Dead #109 back in April I suspected Rucka and Lark's new series might be right up my alley, but I wasn't prepared for quite how far up it it's, ah, ventured. Set in a dystopian future where capitalism has triumphed, the world is ruled by the top one percent (headed by cartel families) and everyone else is considered "waste" – not dissimilar to our own dystopian present, then – it's evident from the commentary and timeline in the back of each issue that Greg Rucka researched and planned the bejeezus out of his concept before committing it to the page – still is, if his Tumblr is anything to go by. On that solid bedrock he and his old Gotham Central chum Michael Lark have constructed a credible science fiction spy thriller that for me stands head and shoulders above every other mainstream adventure comic being published at the moment – and that's a judgement based on merely the first four issues. I for one am jolly excited to see where the series goes from here.

Next: the ten best albums I heard in 2013.

Friday 6 December 2013

The Existential Ennui Review of the Year in Books, Blogging, Babies, Records and Comics, 2013

What's this? Only the 6th of December and already I'm beginning my traditional, tedium-inducing, widely reviled, multi-post look back at the year that was? After all, for the past couple of years I've tended not to begin the Existential Review of the Year in Books and Comics (as was) until deep into December, posting the third and final missive either on or just prior to the 31st. So what in the name of blistering fuck is going on this year?

Two things. The first is that my intention this time is to down tools and step away from the blog for the festive period, knocking off well before Christmas Day and not posting anything until the new year. Quite frankly, my dears, what with one thing and another, I'm bloody knackered, and though blogging isn't, I don't think, the root cause of that (I'm looking at you, work...), it couldn't hurt to take a short break from it anyway. (Some unkind souls might suggest a more permanent one is in order.)

The second is, and related to that intention, having scaled back the number of posts in the Existential Ennui Review of the Year from a preposterous six in 2010 – the year I instituted the Review – to a marginally more sensible three apiece in 2011 and 2012 – an introductory survey of the year, a big long list of all the books I read that year, and my pick of the ten best books from that list – this year I'm planning a patience-testing five posts in total: this introductory one wot you is reading right now; the aforementioned big long list of books; its attendant ten best; and two others to be revealed further down this post. And given that these days, with the various demands on my time, I'm not able to post as frequently as I'd perhaps wish (although still more frequently than others might prefer), I figured I'd better get cracking if I've a hope of finishing before Christmas.

So, let's kick off this year's introductory survey with by far the biggest event of 2013 chez Louis XIV, the Sun King:

An outsize picture book. No, wait:

Edie! Yes, 19 May 2013 saw the birth of a tiny, mewling, blue, gore-covered creature which on closer inspection stood revealed as a little baby girl, and which on later reflection I realised was, er, mine* (and Rachel's, obvs). (*Unless there's been a mix-up at the lab, which is always a possibility.) Since then Edie has grown into a much larger, mewling, blue--I mean beautiful, bouncing – literally, when she's in her door bouncer – bundle of fun... except when she's overtired and grouchy, when she's a complete pain in the posterior. But hey! That's babies for you. Not unexpectedly, her arrival, although in and of itself a thing of deep joy, has had an adverse impact on both my reading and my blogging. As you'll see when I unveil the big long list of books I read this year, it's neither as big nor as long as previous years, and as for the blogging, well, I've barely topped 100 posts to this point.

But though those posts have been fewer in number, I like to think they've been higher in quality – or at least kid myself that that's the case; with the odd exception, usually for reference purposes for new posts, I rarely go back and reread them, and I can't be fucking arsed to go and check now, so the reality may be somewhat different. Scanning the 'Previous Posts' list in Existential Ennui's sidebar, of this year's crop I reckon I could probably stand to read the closing Great Tom Ripley Reread essays again – the extended gap in the middle aside, that series turned out quite well, I thought – and maybe some of the Elmore Leonard ones, of which there were quite a lot – see below; and latterly I enjoyed writing about James Mitchell and Ian Mackintosh; and the two new permanent pages I established, British Thriller Book Cover Design of the 1970s and 1980s and the Patricia Highsmith First Edition Book Cover Gallery, aren't too shabby I guess (and neither is the still-expanding Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s). Otherwise I've little wish to rake over my foul droppings for the year; feel free to scroll down the sidebar yourselves.

As for books, for some inexplicable reason, around the time Edie was born, I found myself in the grip of an urge to read loads of Elmore Leonard, an impulse which was further spurred when in August the author unexpectedly fell ill and then died. As a result I ended up buying (and blogging about) a lot of Leonard first editions – some of them signed, no less – but by and large – the insane book splurge otherwise known as the Jones-Day late-summer holiday aside – this year I've made a concerted effort to cut back on the number of secondhand books I buy. (Baby milk and nappies are sodding expensive, y'know.) Fear not, however: I've more than enough books in reserve to see me through at least 2014, if not beyond, and I dare say I'll still be acquiring the odd one here and there.

Of course, inveterate hoarder that I am, it's virtually impossible for me not to be collecting something, and more recently that something has been vinyl albums – new ones, I hasten to add, not old ones, of which I already have rather a lot. See, although I've never stopped buying albums, for the past ten years I've been getting them on CD (you'll doubtless be unsurprised to learn that I still prefer a physical format to downloads). (Side note: for a few years in the mid-to-late 2000s, at the peak of the indie artrock scene, I got hooked on 7" singles, and have a decent collection of those... but that's a tale for another time.) This year, however, belatedly, I realised that unlike in what seemed like the dying days of the vinyl album in the 1990s, when they were being shoddily pressed and sounded dreadful, now they're being pressed on heavy 180 gram (so-called 'audiophile') vinyl, and as a consequence sound really good. And not only that, by and large they come with a CD or a download code included.

I can't see myself ever returning to the days when music was my overwhelming obsession – before it became my job for seven or eight years in the '90s and consequently killed that passion stone dead for three or four years after that – but at least the flames of my ardour have been slightly rekindled, and so this year as part for the Existential Ennui Review of the Year I've decided to post my ten best albums. And yes, I know this is supposed to be a books blog, but I have touched on music before – here and here – and anyway it's my blog and I'll do as I damn well please.

And one other thing which it damn well pleases me to do as part of this Review of the Year is post a ten best comics list. I can't claim to have read every single comic book released in 2013 – certainly I don't think I've read a single graphic novel, or much in the way of small press and indie stuff – and I don't believe I've managed a single post on comics this year either, not even a Notes from the Small Press – but I have continued to buy a fair number of, for want of a better word, 'mainstream' comics, i.e. those published by Marvel, DC – albeit very few from either of those companies – and Image. So I'll be picking my best of those in the next post.

Tuesday 3 December 2013

Our Man in Camelot (Gollancz, 1975 / Doubleday, 1976) by Anthony Price: David Audley Spy Novel #6; Book Review

NB: Linked in this week's Friday's Forgotten Books.

Back in July 2011 I had the pleasure of interviewing spy novelist and journalist Anthony Price at his (then) Oxfordshire home (the interview can be found in two parts here and here). After an hour-long recorded conversation in his study ranging across his life, his book reviewing, his politics and of course his David Audley spy novel series, we retired to the conservatory, where Price kindly signed and inscribed two books I'd brought along (Gollancz firsts of the first two David Audley novels, The Labyrinth Makers and The Alamut Ambush).

As we chatted, Price began telling me about an American Air Force pilot who had at one time lived just up the road. Mid-sentence the author upped and disappeared off to his study, returning with a 1976 US Doubleday first edition of his sixth novel, Our Man in Camelot (originally 1975). He explained that the book had been inspired by that pilot – that one day he had informed his near-neighbour, "I'm going to write a book about you lot." To which the pilot had replied, rather surprisingly, "I thought you wrote about King Arthur." So Price decided to combine the two strands in one novel.

Having recounted this tale, Price then inscribed his copy of the book and presented it to me as a parting gift:

That it's taken me over two years to get round to reading the novel only serves to demonstrate what an ungrateful swine I am – or possibly illustrate how many books I have awaiting my attentions; take your pick – but that's by the by: read it I finally have, and a fine piece of brain-tickling spy fiction it is.

Each of the David Audley series novels – those I've read thus far anyway – is related from the perspective of a different character: Audley himself in The Labyrinth Makers (1970); then Hugh Roskill and Major Jack Butler, his colleagues in the Ministry of Defence's Research and Development Section, in, respectively, The Alamut Ambush (1971) and Colonel Butler's Wolf (1972); followed by October Men (1973), which unfurls from the twin viewpoints of Captain Peter Richardson and Pietro Boselli; and Other Paths to Glory (1974), which stars researcher Paul Mitchell. This time the tale is told through the eyes of Captain Mosby Sheldon of the US Air Force, a dentist by profession, stationed in Wiltshire with his wife Shirley and currently sightseeing around the south. At least that's the story he tells Audley and his wife Faith, who are also on holiday in the local area, and whom Mosby assists when their car breaks down.

In fact Mosby and his missus (in name only, it transpires) are deep cover agents of the CIA, tasked with covertly enlisting Audley's aid in unravelling the mystery of why a USAF pilot was trying to locate the lost site of a 6th century Arthurian battle, Badon Hill, and whether that had anything to do with said pilot's death in an unexplained plane crash. As is by now traditional in an Audley novel, the answers are (eventually) forthcoming largely as the result of chapter-long – sometimes multiple-chapter-long – discussions between the various protagonists, who also include a variety of other CIA operatives and a selection of Research and Development stalwarts, notably the returning Hugh Roskill, plus a new character, Frances Fitzgibbon, who is destined to head up her own novel before too long (Tomorrow's Ghost, 1979). And somewhere in all this is the hand of Soviet spymaster and archaeological expert, the manipulative Nikolai Panin.

Six books into the series I've become accustomed to Price's agreeable mix of espionage, archaeology, history and detection – and myth and legend in this instance – but that doesn't make the plot of Our Man in Camelot any less perplexing. I spent a fair amount of the book scratching my head wondering what the hell was going on, and even by the denouement, which finds Mosby heading up what he believes to be Badon Hill in the certain knowledge that it will mean his death, I had to reread earlier parts to make sense of the revelations that dawn on Mosby as he tramps up the slope. It's a bit like being at a dinner party where all the guests (except you) are particularly clever and erudite – not that I've ever been invited to such a thing – or many dinner parties at all for that matter – but in any case that's precisely how Mosby himself feels at one stage of the story when he's caught between the piercing intellects of Audley, Audley's archaeologist friend Dr. Anthony Handforth-Jones and their old don Sir Thomas Gracey, Master-designate of the King's College at Oxford.

That said, it's a pleasurable sort of perplexity to have to endure, and especially in such beguiling company. For me that Mosby/Audley/Handforth-Jones/Gracey tête-à-tête (à-tête-à-tête) is one of the highlights of the book, although there are other memorable, and less-talky, scenes too, notably a violent encounter in a church graveyard between opposing intelligence agents, the unexpected aftermath of which packs a real emotional punch.

For reasons too tiresome to go into (short version: I'm unhinged) I actually own two editions of Our Man in Camelot – the aforementioned Doubleday edition, with its John Sposato-designed dust jacket, and the 1975 Gollancz edition too, with its iconic yellow wrapper. Intriguingly, the two books carry different dedications. The US edition, the one Anthony Price inscribed to me, is dedicated to a Judy and Bob Holstein:

But the British edition is dedicated to a John Grassi:

I wasn't recording the conversation at that point, but I believe that's the name of the American airman who lived up the road from Price, and who inspired the writing of the novel. If memory serves, anyway; I've kept up an intermittent correspondence with Mr. Price ever since I interviewed him, sending him print-outs of some of my blog posts (he's not online, and no longer owns a computer either), so I shall have to ask him if and when I send him this one.

Next: the Existential Ennui Review of the Year, 2013 edition.