Wednesday, 25 April 2012

The Cash-In with the Dragon Tattoo

Inspired by this article about the various people selling "copycat" books through Amazon (ie books, mostly self-published, designed to cash in on, and be purchased by confused people instead of, the current hot books), I thought I'd see what Amazon was currently selling to those for whom three massive phonebooks of ineptly written Scandinavian crime were not enough...

The book referred to in the article--Amazon has just removed the book from its listings, but you can still buy it as a CD-ROM, should you go mad drinking turps

This is a sort of perfect storm of current trends in publishing--so much so that I'm frankly amazed that, no matter how appalling the prose, some publisher didn't buy the rights

Secret 1: She's not real; Secret 2: She's really badly written; Secret 3: She's the bizarre wank fantasy of a very odd writer

Given the witlessness of this title, could there be anything less funny than the contents of this book?

Adam Roberts used to write clever, entertaining science-fiction. Then he started turning out gormless trash like this.

Two girls, one tattoo.

If Larsson had been more honest about his depictions of women, this would have been the book he published.

Apparently, iPads Macbooks will survive the zombie apocalypse.

A reader's guide for those for whom the books are too difficult; presumably those people are too dumb to notice that the tattoo is not of a dragon.

The most shameful bit of attempted cashing-in on an already shameful list

Compared to the rest of the books here, this is almost classy.

The House that Groaned

The last graphic novel I read was Karrie Fransman's The House that Groaned, a thoroughly enjoyable and bizarre work that swings from straightforward comic realism to lurid surrealism. It's made up of the intertwined stories of the six residents (and six flats) in a London house. It works very well, and my only criticism is that sometimes Fransman sometimes doesn't quite trust her art to tell the story on its own, even though it actually does so very well, and adds the occasional redundant bit of text to spell out that which is already clear (see the splendid sequence where a photo retoucher deals with a model's errant pubic hair as an example of this).

The book also has a fine cover... illustration of the house with die-cut windows that opens to reveal the lives within...

Click for much bigger versions to see all the details.

The book itself is printed in moodily effective black, white and shades of blue-green. It's very nicely produced, so all credit to Square Peg, the imprint responsible, for giving Fransman's work the production qualities it deserves.

Part of the "pubic hair" sequence referred to above.

The newest resident meets the downstairs neighbour.

How to enjoy your food.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Vintage Bond

In September, Vintage Classics UK take over the rights to, and publish their own versions of, Ian Fleming's James Bond novels, which have been licensed to Penguin for the last decade or so. A couple of the covers have been released so far...

..and, while I quite like them (they seem to take their cue from Michael Salu's Italo Calvino covers), they don't seem quite dynamic enough for the books. Compare them with some of Penguin's many editions from the last 10 years...

More on these editions, released in both hardback and paperback, here and here

The appropriately lurid Penguin US covers

The Penguin Modern Classics editions

A Penguin 'Red Classics' omnibus containing Live and Let Die

The first Penguins from 2002, also made available in hardback and paperback
This also shows just how much Penguin has milked the Bond books--6 or 7 editions versions of the series in a decade (plus a few special editions of individual books in the series). You can't say they didn't do their best to make their money's worth. Vintage seem to be aiming for a more "literary" look; whether that will tap a new market of readers, I don't know.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Plastic Box

Another big book being attractively broken up into three volumes in a box: the paperback edition of Haruki Murakami's 1Q84. Click for bigger version.

Design by John Gall for Vintage US. A shame it's not in the service of a better writer and book, but it's still nice. Frankly, I wouldn't mind if all really big modern books were published like these. If nobody's going to edit the bastards, at least let's make them pretty.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Rummaging Around in the Atticus

Most of the most interesting new literature these days seems to be the work of small, independent presses, even at a time when you'd think it would be harder to make a small press a manageable business proposition than ever before. One of the newest, smallest presses I have come across is Atticus Books (first discussed here), who I discovered via this wonderful cover design.

Click for a much bigger version--all Atticus cover designs are by Jamie Keenan.

Anyone who publishes a book that looks like that deserves some investigation, I thought, so I bought a bunch of their titles, and of those I've so far read, none have disappointed.

Jürgen Fauth's just-published Kino, for example, is a clever and sarcastic literary thriller about an American woman investigating her family's cinematic legacy. Her grandfather was a silent film director in the between-wars Berlin, rubbing shoulders with (and slagging off the talents) of Fritz Lang and other giants of expressionist cinema, and making careerist use of Lang's unpleasant Nazi wife Thea von Harbou, before fleeing to Hollywood in the 1940s. His diaries show his cynical rise to fame and the heights of his self-described genius--this is a man, after all, who renames himself 'Kino'. Interspersed with these diary entries are his granddaughter's modern-day adventures as she abandons her husband on their honeymoon in order to unravel the mysterious appearance of one of Kino's long-lost German movies.

Though the modern-day sections aren't quite as strong as Kino's memoirs, it's a fun and vivid book, incorporating and playing with a number of cinematic cliches (fugitives on the run, mysterious secrets from the past, over-the-top gunplay, etc).

Atticus's first book, Alex Kudera's Fight for Your Long Day, is a very different creation, but definitely my favourite of the Atticus line so far. It's an ostensibly simple story: a day in the life of Cyrus Duffleman, an adjunct professor (meaning badly paid wage slave) at several US universities. It made this non-American feel distinctly better about his own country, which despite its many betrayals of its proud labour rights history has at least maintained a number of important protections for non-executives.

Insane students, overwork, fading health, bureaucratic lunacy and a political assassin all conspire to warp Duffleman's unsteady course through the 18-odd hours of his workday; it's both blackly funny and quite depressing. On the evidence of this and his earlier novella (The Betrayal of Times of Peace and Prosperity), Kudera (who has worked in Duffleman's shoes) has the attitude to university life that a battered wife has to a husband she loves too much to leave. Fortunately, his pain has produced some lovely, wise writing.

A Popular Girl, Despite the Facial Hair

Another cover image duplication...

Monday, 9 April 2012

Caustic "Independent" Cover Critic

Coming soon will be a guest post illustrating a specific case of effective cover design for an ebook. In preparation, let's look at some three examples of wildly ineffective cover designs for some self-published books, taken from a recent issue of catalogue/magazine Shelf Unbound.

Book design modelled on CD-ROM covers from 1991 is not the best idea. And never have the words "international best seller" been more meaningless. (My suspicion is that the author's claimed biography is probably his most entertaining work of fiction...)

Not a horrifying midnight fever dream, but someone's idea of a good cover.

Possibly the most mystifying cover I have ever seen. What is that? Some sort of trophy? A sex toy shoved through a frozen Pop Tart? A mutant banana promenading on some toasted Swiss cheese? What connection does it have to the book? Why would anyone think this was a cover that would sell books? And is the sentence "Can an iPad become the key to the mystery?" the least exciting hook line ever? It's quite sweet, though, that the author describes himself on the cover as 'Author'. Presumably he was worried that otherwise we might think that he was the cruising serial killer. Also, when serial killers recruit their victims while cruising, there are usually no boats involved.

Maybe that thing's an iPad skin? You kids with your weird fashions.

Monday, 2 April 2012


Dammnit! How am I supposed to relax when books I already own in perfectly good condition get rereleased with far superior covers that cry out 'Buy me! Buy me, even though you already own me, and could just look at the new covers online if only you were a normal person, or even not worry about the fact that there are new covers, which maybe you would be able to do if you just liked sport and had social skills!', or words to that effect.

The books in this case are the 10-novel Alms for Oblivion sequence by Simon Raven, collected in three chunky volumes by Vintage UK. I've read half of them so far, and thoroughly enjoyed them: they're the madder, nastier, more body-fluid-soaked warped mirror to Anthony Powell's great A Dance to the Music of Time sequence*. The versions I have are the serviceable, staid covers shown at the top of the post. But in May, they're being rereleased as Vintage Classics with marvellous, luridly coloured, half-sexy, half-horrible covers by Andrew Archer.

So that's more money down the drain buying books I already own.

* This was adapted into an unsatisfactory BBC series in 1997, which attempted the hopeless task of compressing twelve complicated novels into 4 episodes. However, it did open with a full frontal nude Claire Skinner, so I enjoyed it more than it may have deserved.

Anatomy of a Disappearance

"She must know that your father married her because of you. He always punished himself, wishing he were a better father. He used to say he loved you so much he froze around you. At first he thought Mona might be good for you because he saw how fond you were of each other."

Trying to analyse why you pay attention to reviews and hype about some books and not others can be quite difficult. Somehow Hisham Matar's first novel, In the Country of Men, passed me by, as did the original hardback release of his second, Anatomy of a Disappearance. It doesn't help that I don't really pay attention to Booker and other such prizes the way I used to, when I was an earnest young man determined to Keep Up with what was happening in the world of books. But I did myself a disservice, as having finally read Anatomy of a Disappearance, I can say that it's an excellent book, and one I pretty much devoured in one hit.

It's a novel about an unconventional love triangle, between 12-year-old Nuri el-Alfi, his widower father (a former Egyptian politician), and his father's new wife, half-English, half-Arab Mona. Most importantly, it's about what happens when the father is violently removed from the picture. Even as the two survivors start to turn against each other, Mona is the centre of Nuri's existence. The time he spends apart from her flies by, sometimes whole years passing in a line or two, while the time spent with her is described almost gesture by gesture. And the book is very good indeed on the demands  adults make on children who are too weak to give what's needed, or even to understand it, which can look like cruelty--and sometimes is.

Anatomy of a Disappearance is also unusual in that its concerns are entirely emotional, physical and political: it's rare for a book by a writer with an Arabic background to succeed in the English-speaking publishing world these days unless they overtly grapple with Islam, whereas Anatomy barely considers faith of any kind at all. This has the excellent side effect that the designers of the various covers are free to concentrate on what's really important about the book, rather than resorting to the cliches of covered female faces that seem to feature on every second book with a Middle Eastern (the rest of the covers usually make use of either guns or oil). The physical reality of Mona is what the different cover designs focus on instead...

Commonwealth hardback (Viking/Penguin), photo by Stephen Simpson

Commonwealth paperback (Penguin)

US edition from Dial Press