If I visited half a dozen game shops in the States I must have gone in twice as many bookshops, and it was a real pleasure. The American shops have bookselling down to a fine art. The display is generally excellent, the stock is good if not exhaustive and the customer really seems to count. Most of the shops sell magazines, and the likes of the excellent Waldenbooks also sell computer games and even a small range of games. Brentanos even have complimentary tea and biscuits. Overall they make shopping for books a real pleasure.
The worst aspect when one returns home is that the shortcomings of the shops in London are emphasised in comparison with those described above. I do virtually all of my book buying in the central London area and the saddest fact has been the decline of Waterstones, a chain I was praising only two years ago but which now is a shambles. I know it is geared up for Christmas but the piles of unstored books, low stocks and incompetent staff only drag the place to the level of the execrable Foyles. At least in Foyles they will probably have the book if you can find it. Let's hope that Waterstones picks up in the new year or my account is going to be closed pretty sharpish. I now use one of Books Etc or Claude Gill for general books and of course Forbidden Planet, The Book Inn, Sportspages and Murder One for the more unusual purchases. I also find WH Smiths in the Plaza useful for ordering books.
The other angle is that some American shops seem to offer only basic facilities but counter this with discounts on books, anything up to 20% or 25% in some cases - even on new releases and best sellers. This is something you never see in the UK and I certainly hadn't realised why. I read an article recently that explained that books remain one of the very few goods whose prices are fixed by law. The reason the article appeared is that Dillons are making a brave but illegal move to avoid the fixing by discounting in the run up to Christmas. The article went on to discuss the impact of the move on prices and the survival of the smaller retail outlets. It summarised by recommending a boycott of Dillons on the basis that while the big London shops may be able to survive a price war, the shops in the provinces and specialist stores like Forbidden Planet and Murder One would go under.
I have no idea whether this conclusion is correct or not, I suspect there is a degree of truth in it, but having worked in the book trade, albeit part-time, I know that the 30% retail markup offers some room for reduction with no real consequences apart from a sharpening of competition. As a big buyer of books I will of course have no objection to a reduction, however small, in the ever escalating prices of both paperbacks and hardbacks but if that meant shops would disappear then I have reservations. It will be interesting to see the outcome of this one.
Another trend I noticed in the American shops was the large section devoted to books on cassette tape. I have never actually tried this so when I came back I bought a couple to experiment with to see if I was missing anything. The selection over here in the general bookshops isn't too large and at anything from £5 to £8 it isn't exactly a cheap way of buying a book and of course you don't have the aesthetic appeal of the actual volume. The prices in America were quite high - Clancy's books were selling for $15 which is the same as the hardbacks so it must be regarded as an expensive option. My idea was that I could in theory just have a book read to me on the train or while typing which would save time and let me get through some more books, especially the classics, but in practice it felt rather odd. I suppose I like to have the thing in my hands and turn the pages! I haven't ruled it out but for the reasons above it seems to be pretty much a non starter. Anyone else tried them?
I suppose one of the drawbacks in writing this sort of stuff every month is that if you steam in and criticize something you have to know what you're on about. As a result I have made a boob in commenting on the price of and trend for the large format paperbacks last time. I have subsequently been told that these are of course 'trade paperbacks' which are an easy way of the publisher getting cheap copies out without photoreducing to the normal paperback size. These smaller paperbacks, at the usual bargain price of £4, then appear later. Derr, me brain hurts.
Right, to the books. Old stuff first. I have recently been re-reading some of the Flashman books which I note are now becoming available again under the Fontana imprint, having been bought from Pan. I have read the first book three or four times now and still find it an excellent read, covering as it does the first Afghan War. George Macdonald Fraser has a very characteristic style which is always humorous yet deals with some pretty nasty subjects. The running themes are sex, soldiering, historical figures and a bit of torture or incarceration thrown in. I suppose if there is one criticism it is that the other half dozen books are really formula writing with the characters and setting changed. I don't really mind this as the history is rivetting and the Flashman character carries any quiet sections with his cowardice, scheming and womanising. I find the personality of Flashman very thought provoking as it always strikes me that there is a very fine line between his activities as a utter coward and the fact that he always seems to land on his feet and passes to most as a hero. There is a luck element there certainly but one wonders just how many of the heroic deeds of history have been futile desperate flings. I guess one would have to have been in combat to understand and I have no inclination to do that. I particularly enjoyed Flashman and the Great Game which has the Indian Mutiny as its theme and makes fine background reading for the new S&T game. Marvelous stuff.
In the long-standing tradition of Siggins catching on late, I have become a convert to Gary Larson's Far Side cartoons. I can't explain the delay apart from the fact that I steer well clear of the London Evening Standard and the cartoons I've seen before haven't done anything for me. It isn't easy to review cartoons but these are almost beyond description. Often very simple, often using anthropomorphised animals in everyday situations or sayings, they range from brilliant to downright obscure. I will offer some advice to potential buyers. Don't, as I did, buy the three Far Side Galleries as apparently they have some cartoons missing. The nine individual books, including the latest, Night of the Crash Test Dummies, are not much dearer and have all the cartoons. I suppose my favourite of all of them is the Dog waving the Fear-O-Sensor at the man but that is probably more as an in-joke for us dogophobes. Excellent.
I read a really good book at Chuff's called The Macrobiotic Way by Michio Kushi (Avery Press, New Jersey). I have recently had a strong interest in eating more healthily but I frankly found this to be a bit too far towards the weirdo end of the market for me. It still made for a fascinating read despite some of the claims for the diet being rather over the top. What was most striking was that most of the food types eligible for the diet include those I already enjoy. The difficult thing would be maintaining the diet when you are at work, going out on business lunches or having an addiction to pasta like I do. Ultimately I suspect the information gained from the book will be simply stored away for future reference and if I'm honest I doubt anything will come of me moving toward vegetarian or macrobiotic food unless I am forced to. Nevertheless, at least I feel more aware of what the subject involves and why it has so many adherents. A good book for those reasons. For those interested, there have recently been some very good discussions on the subject in Simon Billenness' ECU zine, which is always a good read anyway.
If there is one thing that annoys me is buying an expensive book, most often on pretty obscure subjects I must admit, which then quickly appears in a cheaper form, or worse, on the remainder piles. This time I didn't get caught out. The book in question is With Flying Colours, a large pictorial book covering the history of the racing car. It was published a year or two ago at about £25, which I bravely resisted, and it has now appeared in Marks & Spencer's range at £13. At this price it is a bargain and it includes an excellent selection of pictures that is probably all I will ever want on the subject. My interest all stems from the TV programmes Supercharged and the C4 series on The Grand Prix Car. Recommended.
My further experiments into graphic novels have included the interesting first two books in The Prisoner series from DC Comics. The feel of the series is captured very well and likenesses of McGoohan are very well done but the main problem is that the stories are very short. Apparently there will be a series of six books, lettered a to f of course, and I will continue to buy the series as they appear. If you are interested shop around for prices as I paid £3.30 in Murder One and only £2.00 in the Comic Showcase for a $3.50 comic.
The Hercules Text by Jack McDevitt (Sphere £3.50) was one of my holiday reads and comes with an impressive range of awards and blurb. It is the most recent winner of the Philip K Dick award (for paperback originals) and strangely enough I have enjoyed all the previous winners which prompted purchase of this one. The book is original, superbly conceived and very well written. It covers a subject I always find appealing: First Contact. The story starts with an observatory receiving a contact message from a controlled pulsar. This instantly points to a civilisation with immense power and also that may well have been dead for millions of years, so physical contact seems to be out of the question. Following the initial communication are a sequence of coded messages which start with basic shapes and geometry, an indication of the alien biology and basic mathematical tenets. As the the messages increase in number the concepts and information become more and more advanced and the scientists working on decoding them start to discover information beyond their, and humanity's wildest dreams. This gripping yarn is pure science fiction and covers the first half of the book but then it changes. The novel evolves into an account of an administrative, personal and political struggle. The scientists realise the information they are discovering is going to cause major changes to the Earth and all the governments of the world are of course keen to be in on the action. I can say no more without spoiling the plot but it is handled superbly even if I would have preferred a more technological second half. Despite the shift in emphasis, it builds to a fine, thought provoking finale. A fine book and even more impressive as a debut into this competitive field.
The Tom Clancy inspired hardware-thrillers continue to thrive. I bought his new one, Cardinal of the Kremlin, as a last chance for recovery than anything, but haven't yet got round to reading it. From a brisk look it seems very much as if Clancy hit his peak, for me, with Red Storm Rising and it has been downhill ever since. I will confirm or renounce this theory as soon as I read Cardinal over Christmas. The me-toos have been churning out Clancy Clones as fast as their word processors will permit. I finally got round to reading Team Yankee by Harold Coyle which is the basis for the GDW game of the same name. It has its moments but in general it is slow, predictable and the writing rarely rises above average. It has nevertheless been a massive seller and the follow up hardback, Sword Point, is earning Mr Coyle a few more dollars as I write. Stephen Coontz of Flight of the Intruder fame has also been tapping away and has produced Final Flight, a rather unlikely novel which concentrates on a Tomcat pilot who, it seems, single handedly takes on 'a North African Terrorist country'. Wonder who that could be. My advice is that you leave all these on the shelf as I did.
Sumo by Lyall Watson (Channel 4, £7.95) is a big disappointment. It is little more than a colour brochure with pictures of the big stars and a summary of their names and nicknames. Nothing much on background, levels of the wrestlers, numbers or anything that could be useful in developing a game. In fcat, there is less information here than on most of the current programmes. Surpisingly weak given Channel 4's usual high standards. Save your pennies.
Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution by Steven Levy (Dell $4.50) is my sort of book. I have been waiting for this to appear in paperback for some time and it is now out in the States but I couldn't find a supplier over here. It covers the story of the early computer pioneers from the fifties and sixties and then those more in my life time who worked in the seventies to develop the likes of the Altair, the Apple II and the Pet. One is reminded of Kidder's excellent Soul of a New Machine in style and it has far more interesting insights and facts than the earlier Microsoft book on the same topic. I realise this is a rather obscure area but like Kidder's book I feel it would be of interest to the general reader as well as the computer fanatic. Recommended.
The problem with buying books 'on sight' on a favoured subject is that from time to time one ends up with a turkey. Graham Flashner's Everything you always wanted to know about Woody (Robson Books, £9.95) is just such a book. I should have guessed from the cover and presentation that this was a waste of money but it took only a few pages and a brisk read to be sure. It is basically a quiz book with tacky multiple choice answers and some quotes thrown in which are about the only saving grace. I suppose quiz books are pretty boring fare anyway and I enjoyed this one hardly at all. The trouble is that the author has assumed immense in depth knowledge and then decides to be funnier than the great man, for instance: (On Manhattan)
319. "I've never had the wrong kind...my worst one was right on the money." What is Isaac referring to?
The answer is a) (or 1) as if you didn't know but what sort of person sits around and thinks up the other answers? There are a few good questions and a few interesting facts (I didn't know Diane Keaton's real name is Diane Hall) but to make matters worse, I found at least three errors in the book. Definitely one for real fans or collectors only.
A while ago the BBC put on a short but superb series on collectors which was not really the stamps/cigarette cards/bottles angle but concentrated on the big boys at the connoisseur end of the market. I remember one on antiques and another on paintings but the one enjoyed the most, and which I still have on tape (somewhere), featured a collector of Faberge eggs. I have looked on and off ever since for a good, inexpensive book with colour illustrations and I have found one in the shape of Faberge by Alexander von Solodkoff (Pyramid £9.95). While probably not as complete as the £30 coffee table jobs this one seems to fit the bill. Most of the eggs and other work are shown in some excellent photographs and the text is well written, informative and not at all pretentious. The workmanship of the pieces is of of course fantastic and they are perfect even under magnifying lenses. This is lovely work and one wonders if we will see its like again.
I can't go a whole issue without mentioning Phil Dick and the latest news is very good. There is nothing like the feeling of finding a book after a long search. I experienced that in Berkeley when I was lucky enough to find a copy of Philip K Dick: Electric Shepherd. Sadly the book has four pages overprinted but at $5 I wasn't much bothered. I believe this is one of the rarest books on the author and I was overjoyed to find it though on reading it I find that it is, ummm, pretty weird. It is best described as 'very sixties' and I suspect that some substances were used during its compilation. Interesting and certainly a find but I still rate the Olander and Greenberg book for engaging viewpoints. On the non-collector front, Phil Dick books continue to appear. A Handful of Darkness has just been re- issued and Confessions of a Crap Artist is promised from Paladin in January. Also just out is Michael Bishop's Philip K Dick is Dead, Alas which features PKD as a character in an alternative history plot. Though it may be wise to wait until I hear from them, there is a Philip K Dick Society at PKDS, P.O. Box 232517, Encinitas, CA 92023 USA which offers a newsletter and the usual bumf. Finally on this subject, I noticed in a small science fiction shop in Harvard that Valis has been made into an Opera and has been performed on several occasions in Paris. Sadly, the tapes were completely sold out but I think that may be going a little far even for me.
I have never read a book on cycling as good as Kings of the Road by Robin Magowan and Graham Watson (Springfield Books, £9.95) and it has the added bonus of being bang up to date. Individual chapters cover the stars, the major races and of course the Tour de France. The text is full of valuable facts and explains the background to the races like never before. The writers, whom I have never come across before, obviously know their stuff and this is also reflected in the choice of excellent black and white photographs. There are only a few colour pictures which is sad and I would have gladly paid a little more to get a better selection, but you can't have everything. Highly recommended and an essential purchase for cycling fans.
If anyone has a hard act to follow it is Tim Powers. The Anubis Gates remains one of my favourite books and while he hasn't previously produced anything worthy of that work, I expect much from him in the future. His new one in paperback is On Stranger Tides (Grafton £6.95 and Ace $3.95) and while very different in setting, it has the same depth in its characters, superb pacing, historical interest with the usual Powers fantasy spice and a climactic ending. The setting this time is the Caribbean in the early eighteenth century and the theme is piracy. Once again Powers creates a few typically English characters and weaves them into a brilliant yarn encompassing Blackbeard, The Fountain of Youth, sea battles, pirate raids, voodoo magic, witch doctors and zombie crews. Weird, but superbly done. The story races along and builds to an unbelievable finale in which a lot is explained and once again Powers has the mix of history, action and weirdness spot on. Powers has an uncanny knack of creating believable, interesting characters who fit in well with his brand of 'light' fantasy. By this I mean that this book and some of Powers' previous works are basically historical situations with a touch of underlying magic. These aren't worlds full of dragons and wizards but the magic is that of history, if you like. You can always imagine history, or indeed certain present day situations, where this magic would not seem impossible. I like the approach a lot and because the feel is so close to reality it is that much more positive in effect. Another excellent book and I await the next one with interest.
To round out this month's list we have Terry Pratchett's latest hardback in the Discworld saga, Wyrd Sisters (Gollancz, £10.95). Pratchett is now six novels into the series and it must be said he is sadly, at last, running out of steam. The book runs to 250 pages and very little happens to fill them up. A king is murdered in the Ramtop Mountains (nice name - a computer reference there?), his only heir is secreted away with some witches and the rest spins off that flimsy plot. Strangely, it didn't use to matter if the Discworld novels had weak plots as they were busy frantically lampooning all that had gone before in the fantasy mould. Now that the parodying is not as pronounced there is a need for something to hold the gags together. Yes, there are lots of jokes, and damn good ones at that, but even the brilliantly created character of Granny Weatherwax is disappointing, having little of the subtle humour shown in Equal Rites. In reviewing Sourcery a couple of issues back I commented that while Pratchett was still cracking jokes with the best of them, the drive and originality had gone out of the books. In retrospect it is probably safe to say that Mort was the last of the truly excellent books - The Colour of Magic was a bit slow to start but it and the next three were superb. Now, we have Pyramids to come with a couple more due after that. This makes nine books and I shall be surprised if we see another to match the early novels. It is in a way churlish to comment adversely on Mr Pratchett's books because they are still way ahead of the field, it is just that, like may before him, he is living up to earlier works and the comparison is revealing. I have no intention of abandoning the books, simply that I may just wait for the paperbacks from now on.
Mike Siggins. 17/12/88.
Sumo - Mike Siggins - Legal Notices and Other Information