Wednesday, 5 August 2009

It's War!

With most publishers' backlists, periodic reinvention is vital. Books that have either fallen out of print, or which have been sat on bookshop shelves for years without a facelift, tend to be ignored. This is part of the motivation behind the various classics lines, which often bring neglected wonders back into print, but which also often simply rebadge already available books as something more culturally important.

Another approach is the themed collection. The most recent example of this is the Penguin World War II Collection, published this Thursday. These eight books (seven non-fiction and one novel) are all stories of adventure, excitement and danger from the European sphere of the Second World War. They have all been previously published, and some are decades old, but the redesign is deliberately aimed at making them look like new war thrillers.

For the thinking behind the redesign, here's one of Penguin's publishing directors, Rowland White: "I grew up reading paperbacks like these. I remember them having thrilling-looking covers that left no doubt about the excitement and drama contained within... We wanted to try to inspire the same sort of reaction in today's readers. Rather than looking too worthy, we wanted [this collection] to reflect contemporary thriller design--to look like books that might be gripping rather than just admirable."

The redesign is by Estuary English, for whom I can find no webpage, but who were responsible for the very attractive Penguin Epics series (click for bigger).

As for the World War II Collection, I'm in two minds. It's not that I don't like them, exactly, it's just that my lit-snob eyes tend drift away from books that look like these on the shelves. On the other hand, Estuary English have achieved exactly what they were asked to do: these books will surely grab the attention of people primed for Andy McNab or Robert Ludlum-style shenanigans. This is excellent, as these eight books are actually bloody good, rather than escapist nonsense.

Thoughts on some of the individual titles below, along with some of the earlier covers for these books.

Most Secret War by R. V. Jones is a big, fat, fascinating look at the scientists and technicians who devoted their lives to outwitting the Axis by ruining their intelligence and scuppering their technology. The mix of often demented genius and cunning is very appealing, especially to a science geek like myself. My only real complaint, though, is that Alan Turing rates only one paragraph out of some 500 pages. Turing was the genius behind breaking the Enigma codes, as well as being the "father" of artificial intelligence theory and a brilliant mathematician. As a reward for his role in saving Britain, he was prosecuted for his homosexuality, forced to undergo horrendous chemical castration, and committed suicide by eating a cyanide-poisoned apple (he was somewhat obsessed with the Snow White story). Turing is one of my Bizarre Life Story Scientific Heroes™, alongside Hedy Lamarr (sexy Austro-Hungarian, first actress to appear nude in a mainstream movie sex scene, and, in her spare time, inventor with her musician neighbour of the technology which underpins all of today's wireless and mobile communications).

Representative extract: The whole escapade was full of danger because take-off had to be made within earshot of German guards, and since the aircraft engine had not been run in some time, at least not since Denmark had been occupied more than a year before. They intended to swing the propellor, fling open the barn doors as soon as the engine started, taxi straight out and take off. They timed their exit to occur as a train was passing nearby, so as to mask the noise of their engine. There were electricity cables across their path and they did not know whether they would have to go over or under them.

Fitzroy Maclean is one of the claimed models for James Bond. His SAS adventures are probably the epitome 'you couldn't make it up!'-style non-fiction.

Representative extract: We were separated from our base by 800 miles of waterless desert, dotted with enemy outposts and patrols, now all on the look out for us. We had lost several of our trucks, some of our food and a good deal of our ammunition. The enemy knew, within a few hundred yards, where we were.

It's hard to know what to think about Generaloberst Heinz Guderian, given that he had a leading military role in the German mechanised army, and that he fought with Hitler, but about tactics not morality. He was found not guilty of war crimes at Nuremberg, for what that's worth (not much, according to the people of the USSR and Poland). His book is extremely interesting, but not always for comfortable reasons. He was also the author of Achtung-Panzer!, which is almost too parodic a title to be true. As you can see, previous editions of this book have either gone for full-on tank madness, or sober-looking, nonsensationalist and dull.

Representative extract: Hitler then advised me to consult his personal physician, Morell, about the weak heart which he knew I had, and to let Morell give me injections. The consultation took place, but after talking to my Berlin doctor I refused the proposed injections. The example of Hitler was hardly an inducement to place oneself in the hands of Herr Morell.

The only novel in the bunch, Monsarrat's naval adventure (a convoy-protecting British corvette dodges U-boats in the North Atlantic) is based on his own experiences, and is both exciting and unfussily well-written.

Representative extract: They all stared at [the plane], every man on the bridge, bound together by the same feeling of anger and hatred. it was so unfair... U-boats they could deal with - or at least the odds were more level: with a bit of luck in the weather, and the normal skill of sailors, the convoy could feint and twist and turn and hope to escape their pursuit. But this predatory messenger from another sphere, destroying the tactical pattern, eating into any distance they contrived to put between themselves and the enemy - this betrayer could never be baulked.

The four others I have not had a chance to read yet, but here's how they used to look.


Will said...

What's a good book on Alan Turing? Your reference to him eating poisoned apple and being obsessed with the Snow White story has distracted me from the rest of the post!

Charles Lambert said...

It's interesting that Penguin no longer think it's worth putting Patrick Leigh Fermor's name on the new cover of The Cretan Runner. I wonder if they've kept his introduction...

Anonymous said...

ahhh WWII stuff!!! I'm craving reading some content concerning that period right now.

Books are like food except you don't get fat ;)

JRSM said...

Will: Probably the best Turing biog is Andrew Hodges' "Alan Turing: The Enigma", while a good introduction to his life and work is the 100-page 'Turing and the Computer' by Paul Strathern. David Leavitt's 'The Man Who Knew Too Much' focuses more on the sensationalist side than the amazing brain work, but isn't actually that good a book, sadly.

Charles: Yes, a sad omission from the cover. But it is the Leigh Fermor translation, and it does contain his introduction.

Okbo Lover: Couldn't agree with you more!

Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


JRSM said...

Glad you liked it, Patricia. I hope you continue to enjoy it!