Thursday 28 February 2008

This Lass Gets About a Bit

Nudge, nudge, wink, wink.

It's a Getty Images stock photo by Toby Maudsley.

Monday 25 February 2008

How to Sell Literary Fiction (in the 1970s)

In the 1970s, some paperback publishing houses more normally interested in horror, crime and romance fiction found themselves with the rights to literary fiction as well. How to sell it, they must have asked themselves. With naked chicks, they seem to have answered.

One of the more egregious publishers in this regard was Panther Books. Here they are taking similar approaches to the dissimilar authors Alberto Moravia and Kingsley Amis.

Sunday 24 February 2008

John Christopher

Back again to the end of the world, and one of the best writers about it.

In any respectable apocalypse connoisseur's list of the great books, John Christopher (born 1922) will be found, alongside John Wyndham, with whom he has often and reasonable been compared. Unlike Wyndham, Christopher (real name Sam Youd) is still alive and writing, though very little of his output oiver the last couple of decades has been science-fiction. Nor is it under the name of John Christopher, who is still perhaps best known for his children's Tripods trilogy.

Christopher has published widely under nine different names: Anthony Rye, Christopher Youd, John Christopher, Hilary Ford, Peter Graaf, Stanley Winchester, Samuel Youd, William Godfrey and, most recently, Peter Nichols. Usually the different names go with different writing genres, John Christopher being his SF name.

His four end-of-the-world novels (three of them masterpieces) were first published in the 1950s and 1960s. As far as I can tell, they're all now out of print. Here are the covers of the editions I own.

The Death of Grass (1956): This edition is the Penguin film tie-in from 1970, with a cover photo by Dan Budnik. The so-so film used the US title, No Blade of Grass. A grass-killing virus destroys the world's crops, leading to riots, starvation and the collapse of civilisation. Youd's 9th book.

The World in Winter (1962): This is the 1964 penguin paperback, with a lovely silkscreen-style image (by Bruce Robertson) of a lone car struggling through a snow-paralysed London. A sudden new ice age hits the world, with dire consequences. Interestingly enough, the European winter after this was first published was especially severe, a fact alluded to on the back cover. Youd's 21st book.

A Wrinkle in the Skin (1965): This edition is the 1978 Sphere edition; the US title was The Ragged Edge. This time it's massive tectonic activity which destroys civilisation: the surface of the globe is rearranged overnight, killing almost everybody, reshaping continents and oceans, wiping out cities. Great stuff. The cover painting of the remnants of Heathrow is by an uncredited artist. Youd's 28th book.

Pendulum (1968): This is the hardcover Michael Joseph reprint from 1974, also with an uncredited cover artist. Perhaps ending the world thrice in a decade was wearing a bit thin by this point, as this is the only one of these novels which doesn't completely convince and enthral the reader. Economic stagnation and collapsing social conventions are at fault for ending civilisation in this novel, and it gives the book a disgruntled-old-man vibe. It's still good, but disappointing compared to the others. Youd's 35th book (bloody hell!).

So, you have your instructions: seek these books out. If you're a publisher, reptint them. And if you have children you'd like to inspire with an introduction to world-ending literature, try the The Tripods, or Empty World, or The Prince in Waiting (civilisation ended by aliens, plague and tectonics (again) respectively). They'll thank you, or else spend the rest of their lives plagued by apocalyptic nightmares. It's all part of life's rich tapestry.

Thursday 21 February 2008

Only Three of Them Really Know What is Going On

I came across this cover at the nice little collection of bizarre books that 'Arty Bees Books' of New Zealand have on their pages. Is that not a fantastic front-cover blurb? Almost up there with "sexual gymnastics"!

According to another site, this is the plot: "A scientist is sent to fill an empty slot at an experimental lab involving human communication with primates. There he discovers that the prize ape is brighter than expected, and that someone is working behind the scenes to destroy the project."

The Richard Yates Rediscovery Fiesta

I've never met anyone else in real life who has read Richard Yates, though he has a sizeable online following. A great writer and a determined drunkard, he blundered his way through mid-20th-century America, turning out wonderful novels and amazing short stories. It was a remaindered complete collection of these stories that first turned me on to his work, and I've been through most of his other books since then.

Recently there's been something of a movement to restore him to his place as one of the greats, which I heartily endorse. It also means that all of his books are being republished by Vintage Classics, using a very apt selection of 1950s-era magazine and advertising illustrations on the covers--many of Yates' characters worked in advertising or low-level journalism or similar white-collar jobs.

I often have a problem whereby some obscure writer I've hunted down and found in tatty, second-hand editions is later brought back into print. I can't justify the expense of buying the invariably more beautiful new versions when I've already got the books, but sometimes it's hard to resist. I mean, look at these beauties!

(Remember, click to enlarge.)


Wednesday 20 February 2008

Charles Burns Continued!

Following on from my first Charles Burns post, I coincidentally received and read my copy of Chip Kidd's new novel, The Learners, yesterday. Kidd is the most famous book designer currently working, and certainly one of the most respected. He is also a very good novelist. This sequel to the moving and funny The Cheese Monkeys is a worthy follow-up. It also features a cover by Charles Burns.

At left you can see the front cover with its diagonally cut red half-jacket: the illustration itself is printed onto the cover boards. It's a characteristically alarming Burns image, and one very appropriate to a novel about a man whose life and ideas about himself are pretty much ruined by participating in Stanley Milgram's famous obedience experiment in 1961.

Here is the full cover (front and back), both with and without the jacket, so you can see Burns' artwork in full.

Monday 11 February 2008

The Murky World of Charles Burns

Comic writer/artist Charles Burns has been slowly gathering fans and art commissions for years now. His breakthrough work was the fascinating, un-nerving adolescence parable Black Hole, collected into graphic novel form a couple of years ago.

An interior spread from the book is shown here, giving you a good idea of his thickly inked, moody style.

Before Black Hole, he produced a number of shorter comics, which have been collected in three volumes by Fantagraphics.

Recently, however, he has started to get commissions for book covers. Two of the more notable ones are shown here. The first is his appropriately grisly cover for Upton Sinclair's muck-raking The Jungle, published as part of Penguin's Graphic Classics series (classic books with cover art done by great comics artists).

Then, late in 2007, he provided the cover for the Zadie Smith-edited story collection, The Book of Other People. The UK and the US versions use slightly different variations of his artwork. I think the UK version succeeds because of the cunning use of a "belly strap" which hides one of the more alarming 'other people'.

Here's the US version, by way of comparison.

And as a final offering, here's the man himself in a self-portrait from the inside flap of the Black Hole hardcover.

Not a man you'd accept a lift from on a dark night, but a great illustrator.