Wednesday 20 May 2015

Small Publisher Specials #2: New Vessel Press

New Vessel Press is a small publisher that started up just three years ago, devoted entirely to literature in translation into English. How they make it work financially I have no idea, but it doesn't hurt that they seem to publish uniformly excellent books (I've read around half of their output so far, and there hasn't been a dud amongst them). A particular highlight has been their republication of two wonderfully grim (but funny) novels by Marek Hlasko, a Polish-born, sometimes-Israeli-settled writer who died at the age of 35 from living the sort of life he wrote about so well.

All of New Vessel's covers so far are the work of talented designer and comics creator Liana Finck, They almost all use very limited colour palettes to great effect, and not one of them has any type that isn't hand-drawn anywhere on them.

I just got and started reading this yesterday: fascinating so far--a weird mix of sun-bleached nostalgia, family politics, sexual frustration and depravity

Finck's own experiences in the comics world can probably be summarised by this cartoon she created (click to make legible)...

..since, far from superheroes, her biggest comics work to date is A Bintel Brief, an anthology of true stories adapted from the 100+-year-old advice columns of New York's old Yiddish-language The Forward newspaper. You can read several extracts from the book at her site, here.

Tuesday 12 May 2015

Tyrannosaurus Pathos

In some parallel universe where hip-hop took a decidely more science-fiction/physics/neurobiology-oriented turn than in our sad, grey history, Yann Rousselot's poetry collection Dawn of the Algorithm would be the lyrics booklet to the most exciting new album of the 21st Century.

From witty riffs on Hollywood SF to a genuinely beautiful and touching poem from the point of view of a sentient but gaseous Jovian lifeform, this collection is quite unlike anything else being published. Genre poetry may not be the most remunerative field, but if it was all as good as this it would easily be one of the most exciting.

The poems are also illustrated by a range of artists. Here, for example, is Brian J. Murphy's illustration for 'T-REX IS SAD :('.

Dawn is a crowdfunded book from the previously-unknown-to-me Inkshares, who seem to combine various aspects of Kickstarter, hired editing/design staff and self-publishing without the usual financial risks (books are only published when a certain number of pre-orders have been met). Reading about how it all works made me feel old.

Cover design for poetry books is a very interesting field. The tendency towards thematic or atmospheric imagery gives a freedom for designers that a book with a specific plot or set of characters might not, and the pressure from marketeers must surely be lower (nobody is publishing poetry expecting full-window promotions and huge face-out shelf displays in bookshop. On the other hand, poetry can make use of an image that a designer can literalise in a way that might be too on-the-nose or obvious for a novel (see Four-Legged Girl below, for example).

To show what I mean, here are some of my favourite covers for upcoming poetry books. I have no idea what most of these books will be like, but I'd be more than willing to give them a go based on their looks alone. Also, most poetry titles kick most prose titles into the gutter.

Thursday 7 May 2015

Dead Disciples

Richard Beard is an unusual novelist, ranging all over the place in his work. His last novel, Lazarus is Dead, featured its Biblical hero, alive again, mystified and almost angry at his resurrection. An earlier novel, Damascus, was set on a single day, yet featured the years-long relationship between its two main characters from the beginning onwards--no matter what scene as being described, it took place on 1st November, 1993 (and used only people, places and names taken from a copy of that date's Times newspaper).

His newest, the excellent Acts of the Assassins, takes off from both of these earlier works: it's about Gallio, a Roman counter-insurgency investigator in the Middle East trying to track down Jesus, a cult leader, who may or may not be dead, through his followers--all of whom are being killed in nastily baroque ways.

The contents page: nobody comes out of this well...

But the novel is not set 2000 years ago, but in a modern world where the Roman Empire retains its hold over Europe and the Middle East, and Gallio makes use of mobile phones and surveillance technology in his quest. But its not a simple alternative history, either--there is some weird collapsing of history, with future and past colliding in weird ways (for example, a fresh murder scene is simultaneously a historic monument to the death that occurred there, with both the still-warm corpse and memorial plaque present).

The cover, by the in-house Vintage/Harvill Secker design team, beautifully combines the modern-world and Biblical aspects of the book, with the Twelve Disciples as both shooting gallery targets and haloed silhouettes, some of them already butchered.

Click for biggering

It's a very good book indeed: it successfully works as a proper political/intelligence thriller, but is so much more ambitious and interesting than pretty much any other book in that genre.

Monday 4 May 2015

Text Adventure

The book itself isn't coming out until September, but I'm already looking forward to Michael W. Clune's Gamelife, a memoir of growing up through 1980s computer games. Partly this is because I'm pathetically right in the middle of the target demographic, having spent a ludicrous amount of time in my pre-teenage years typing variations on "LOOK ROOM" and "HIT ORC" into a Vic-20, while it responded "SYNTAX ERROR. READY:" with blithe indifference. Partly this is because Clune's previous memoir, about heroin addiction and academic life, White Out: The Secret Life of Heroin, was excellent. And partly because it has such a witty and clever cover (designer as yet unknown):

White Out's cover was also rather good, if less original:

Text adventures were weirdly compelling despite (because of?) their limitations. I remember the ridiculously difficult Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy game, which killed you at almost every arbitrary choice, and a King Solomon's Mines game that responded to commands it didn't know with "YOU TALKING PIDGIN, BWANA?". I even spent a vast amount of time writing my own text adventures in BASIC, destined to remain unplayed by anyone besides my indulgent father.

Clune's book will surely be more interesting than that last paragraph. It would have to be, really.