On the whole it has been a superb month for books. Far too many good, and lengthy, books are appearing and as a result this section, which once was a sub section of Inside Pitch, seems to be growing steadily - just like my reading backlog. Problems like this, I can handle.
Plug section first. No matter how many second-hand bookshops one goes into it is impossible to visit all of them regularly, let alone get to those out of town. For this reason some while ago I contacted a booksearch service to assist in tracking down a few rather obscure books for me. The idea is that they contact a large number of shops all around the country and send them your wants list. The response (titles, condition, prices) is then relayed to you on a no-commitment basis. You select the ones you want to purchase, send a cheque to the booksearch service and the books then appear in the post. The service I used, and there surely can be no better, is that of Tom Suttie of Bowland Books at 64 Highfield Road, Clitheroe, Lancs BB7 1NE. To say I have been impressed by the response is an understatement - the books have appeared quickly and are in excellent condition. The prices are extremely reasonable (in fact I wonder how anyone makes any money out of it) and the only temptation is, as ever, to buy too many. I am presuming Tom covers mainly general books but I have given him some odd subjects, including baseball, and he has always come up with large lists. Anyway, enough praise. If you are looking for any hard to find titles, drop Tom a line and I'm sure he will do his utmost to find them for you.
Second plug is for Michael Anft who runs Fine Edition Books from 30 Frazier Street, London SE1 7BG. Michael specialises in science fiction and horror books, especially first editions, signed copies, special editions, proofs and generally anything that passes for a collector's item. He produces a marvelous list which shows a small proportion of current stocks and also adds pithy and bang up-to-date news and short comments on most of the books. The striking thing about Michael's books it is that they are always in absolutely mint condition and the packing used for postage would prevent damage from a bazooka, so one is always certain that the books will arrive in perfect order. The prices are generally very good though do not expect to pick up printer's proofs for a few quid - the list is an education in itself on the pricing of these collector's esoterica which can command prices over the £100 mark. Well worth a look for the serious buyer of science fiction.
Rising from the site of the old Forbidden Planet 1 shop in Denmark Street is the recently opened Murder One, another specialist shop covering crime and mystery books. I have only really touched on these areas in my reading so far but I aim to take in more and the new shop is perfect for encouraging just that. The interior design and layout are excellent, including a superb re-furbished wooden floor and a life-size Sherlock Holmes. I have seldom enjoyed walking around a shop as much in ages. My view is that the management (and I presume here that the shops share owners) should have designed the new FP like this and left the modern hi-tech image for Habitat. I can see myself spending many hours in Murder One browsing through the excellent stock. I just hope there is enough demand to keep the shop open as every time I go in, it seems fairly empty.
Right, now the books. Sourcery is the fifth book in the very successful Discworld series by Terry Pratchett. It is still only available in hardback and will remain that way for some time, though we can expect Mort in paperback in November. The book is up to the general standards of the previous four but I feel falls short of the overall impact of the excellent Mort and the novel appeal of The Colour of Magic. We have the same excellent range of characters and the gags are as fresh as ever. Nevertheless, one wonders whether the ideas are beginning to thin out - as an example, the specific digs at the well known fantasy authors seen in the early books have all but gone. Knowing what the themes are of the coming books, I wonder if we are starting to see a 'Carry on .....' approach where each book has a running gag or theme and Mr Pratchett churns out his seemingly endless supply of great gags on the subject. If that is the case, I see no real problem because these are surely among the funniest books around. As the introduction says, "This book does not contain a map. Feel free to draw your own."
Just sometimes, a hint of Adams style or Pythonesque dialogue shines through the original prose but this is not to imply that Pratchett's style is derivative, simply that he is creating new humour to match the best. I would imagine that Pratchett is ideal for the fan element of the hobby, he has recently given a number of interviews that make for excellent reading and he even features strongly in the otherwise dreadful G.M. magazine, recently launched to cater for the lobotomized section of the Irving audience. In that interview, he admits that at least some of the ideas in the books are D&D derived from his playing days and it makes for an excellent read as Pratchett picks out the classic failings of the D&D genre and adds his own views. Anyway, for the fans, it seems that the prolific Mr Pratchett has already written two more books, Wyrd Sisters (featuring the return of Granny Weatherwax) and Pyramids, and has a contract for another three or four. That can't be a bad thing.
Mirrorshades is a compilation of stories on the Cyberpunk theme, edited by Bruce Sterling. I have a rather tatty copy that was the only one left in FP, Glasgow and I have seen no others about so it may be a case of waiting till the UK paperback comes out. I have written enough about Cyberpunk in Sensation to cheese most of you off but I can only say that this represents, for me, the cutting edge of SF and this excellent anthology does nothing to change that view. Stories from all the main protagonists are there along with a fine selection of authors of whom I have never heard. My loss. The best story of the excellent bunch is Snake Eyes by Tom Maddox, an American author who apparently has a good profile - again, I suspect in magazines. His short story covers the side effects of having fighter plane control software built directly into the brain, a disturbing and thought provoking piece indeed. Each contributor has an informative biography section and the introduction by Sterling is well handled given the current controversy. Excellent stuff. Late Cyberpunk/SF News. The UK edition of the above book should be available by the time you read this. Involution Ocean, a new publication from Bruce Sterling has just appeared at £2.50 and rumours indicate Sterling is working with William Gibson on a steampunk epic called The Difference Engine to appear next year. A new book from Michael Bishop called Philip K Dick is Dead, Alas (or something) looks to be a strange one, with PKD appearing as a character in an alternate history. We should also be getting a UK print of Samuel Delany's Tales of Neveryon, a fine book and one to look out for.
Ninety Nine Novels: 'the best in English since 1939' has been out for some time and has now appeared on the remainder piles in London for under a pound. This book sees Anthony Burgess select his personal choice of best novels and, as ever with this type of approach, the interest level is high. While the reasons for including a book are laid out, there are no reasons for those omitted so one is left to decide whether he simply dislikes them or whether other reasons apply. I like this type of book, even if the selection doesn't include some of my choices. Burgess' style is somewhat wordy and one would say pretentious if the writer wasn't who he is, but the views are sound and the reasons well argued. For me such books always provide new material to read that I otherwise may have missed. Recommended.
In the same vein, though some time ago now, I also very much enjoyed David Pringle's 100 Best SF Novels which is now joined by Modern Fantasy: The Hundred Best Novels (Grafton, £7.95). This one is, if anything, better than the earlier volume as it includes a wide spread of works covering traditional fantasy, horror and 'timeslip' stories like the excellent Replay. As with the Burgess book above, the choice is in the main sound but there are notable omissions and some controversial inclusions, while Mervin Peake's Gormenghast trilogy is included as three separate novels which if combined could have freed up two more places. Pringle includes the very mediocre Covenant books with a qualifying statement, as if he felt a need to include it despite disliking the books. I can't see the point of having a '100 best' choice and then bending the rules to cater to the masses. That said, the strangest omission must be Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, surely eligible as one of the top 100 fantasy novels, if only on the same criteria as Donaldson? Also missing are a couple of my personal favourites, Hughart's Bridge of Birds and Piers Anthony's earlier Xanth books which I also find surprising, but then that is what this type of book is all about - the choices are controversial simply because my taste differs from that of the author. As with the Burgess book, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and will be reading some of the more obscure books as soon as I can get hold of them. The whole book is well written, perceptive and above all, interesting. It is a book I will re-read over and over and is certainly worth the rather high price for a paperback.
On the same subject of price, there seems to be a worrying new trend in 'blockbuster' science fiction books in the shape of the large format paperbacks now appearing. Typical recent issues have been Roof World, Urth of the New Sun, On Stranger Tides and Islands in the Net. The page count isn't that high, the print is large and the prices are in the £6-£8 range compared to the smaller size at around £4 which all makes me wonder just why they need to be that big. At these prices I would normally go for the hardback, but these weigh in at anything up to £15 these days. Not exactly cheap and I fear, once again, the bookbuyer is getting it in the neck. And they don't fit on my shelf either.
Fathers Playing Catch with Sons is a lovely book. Written in a gentle, unique style by Donald Hall it is a series of essays on sport but as the subtitle says, 'mainly baseball'. The essays cover peripheral subjects to baseball, like the crowds, the fans, the writers and each is handled lovingly and perhaps a tad rose-tinted. Mr Hall is a fan of sport in the same way that I am a fan, in that it is not so much the teams or players that are important but simply watching good sport is what counts. In the introduction he writes,"My method for achieving calm is to watch Larry Bird on Channel 4, or listen to radio baseball, or undergo soccer or tennis - or football when there is nothing else to undergo....So mostly I watch the tube...I do not require a daily anodyne; I do not need particular teams: the game's the thing. I do not even need whole games." It is books like this that leave the me wishing that is how I could write and there is surely no higher praise. Published by North Point Press, San Francisco $13.50 or from Sportspages at £10.
Also from Sportspages and some remainder shops are a couple of books which are very good value for around ten pounds. The Pictorial History of Basketball and ditto Baseball are large, colourful and very well illustrated. Not much in the way of text but some great pictures.
Best New SF 2 is a massive compilation edited by Gardner Dozois. For me, this sort of work represents a far better, and cheaper, way of keeping up with most of the good recent short fiction than buying loads of magazines. The drawback is of course that one sees everything some months late but that doesn't worry me too much as Interzone supplies me with a constant supply of fine short work (including a preview of the new Pratchett in latest issue). The trend that one deduces from these top-notch pieces is the growing breadth of science fiction which now often encompasses ideas and themes from horror, fantasy, crime and in the case of Shepard's work - war. The edges of SF are blurring slightly and with that fact comes some superb original work. Stories include those from some of my favourite authors - Bruce Sterling, Pat Cadigan, Lucius Shepard, Gene Wolfe and Orson Scott Card. Highlight of the twenty eight stories for me was Rachel in Love by Pat Murphy, an excellent study of what it means to think and act like a human. This is a large book, being 675 pages long, and for £5.95 (Robinson Publishing) is excellent value.
Eminent Victorian Soldiers by Byron Farwell (Viking, £14.95) has been on my shelf for some time and I see it has now hit the remainder circuit at the princely sum of £3.99. That is a steal and it is a worthy addition to the bookshelf of any student of colonial warfare. The book covers eight luminaries of Victorian soldiering including Kitchener, Napier, Wolseley, Wood and Gordon and includes many fine insights into the campaigns in Africa, India and China. Read as a historical complement to the flavour of the Flashman books, it is spot on. Recommended at the lower price.
Sphere by Michael Crichton (Pan, £3.99) is a strange but undoubtedly bad book. The plot is simple and hackneyed - US Navy discover US spaceship from the future at bottom of Pacific which contains an Alien artifact. In the hands of Niven or another competent writer, it may jsut have made an above average sf/horror yarn as, yes, you guessed it, the artifact in question contains a monster. Gasp. Crichton fails abysmally in this aim and it is not so much the horribly predictable way in which the plot unfolds, or the childish and shallow characters, or the incredibly badly written token woman, or the pathetic dialogue, or the reams of boring and irrelevant technical information or even the failed attempts to simulate the suspense of Alien, it is mainly the fact that the book is pointless. The plot has been done before and there are no new ideas so it can only have been written and marketed to make money. Apparently Crichton is famous for writing the Andromeda Strain (heard of it, never read it) and this qualifies him for packaging and publication of what amounts to a hack novel in the worst traditions of pulp sf. It just amazes me that there are many good yet unpublished authors out there who would leap at the chance of a launch like that of Sphere, yet the likes of Crichton get the nod. Save your pennies.
I attended a signing by William Boyd in London recently which coincided with the launch of the film Stars and Bars based on Boyd's excellent novel of the same name. Also being launched was the paperback edition of the brilliant The New Confessions reviewed here late last year and is highly recommended at the lower price. I have gone on at length before about Boyd's work and it remains for me among the very best modern writing available today.
SF Eye 3 is a new review magazine from the Till You Go Blind Co-operative of Washington, available over here from The Book Inn and Forbidden Planet. The emphasis of this issue is very much new wave fiction and substantial coverage is given to cyberpunk and its practitioners. There is also a fascinating interview with Samuel R. Delany, a writer who I have always considered a bit of a plonker, but he proves me wrong here. I found it a good read and it is down to earth, a quality that Interzone and Vector sometimes forget. Also worth obtaining, if the subjects appeal, are the first two back issues which cover Phil Dick and a Cyberpunk special, the latter containing two excellent interviews with William Gibson and some controversial pieces on criticism. A fine magazine which is the best I've seen for some time and it is certainly worth ordering. £2.50 - £4.00 per issue.
Laying myself wide open to accusations of pseudism I will round out this section of comments with a mention of the recent explosion in Herge and Tintin popularity. Since I was a wee lad I have always enjoyed the brilliant Tintin books and the recent months have seen the appearance of two books worth having for any fan of Herge's work. The first is Nous Tintin (Editions du Lion, Brussels £17.95), a book containing around thirty large size posters portraying Tintin inspired artwork. They are in the main superbly and humorously drawn or painted and in most cases counterpoint the innocence and purity of the books. A recurring theme is showing Tintin in unpleasnt moral situations and in one rather extreme case his head is buried between a woman's legs. Different. The second and by far offering the better value at £25.00 is Herge and Tintin: Reporters by Phillipe Goddin. This traces the history of the character from the earliest days and is amply illustrated with colour and black & white photos, drawings and sketches which support the well written text admirably. Now available in English and fully revised it is a treat and essential reading for the Herge fan. I suppose if I said I had the French edition I would be deemed worthy of Pseud's Corner, so I'll keep quiet about that. Finally, there is a UK published poster book with around twenty A3 prints for £13.95 that, to my view, could have been better chosen.
New books that I haven't got round to include: The Story of the Stone, Barry Hughart's follow up to Bridge of Birds, On Stranger Tides - Tim Powers' new one, Roger Angells' Five Seasons from Sportspages, The Long Dark Tea-time of the Soul by Douglas Adams, 20 under 35 a compilation of short stories from the best young writers, the much hyped Weaveworld by Clive Barker, The Curious Case of Sidd Finch by George Plimpton, Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, The Urth of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe, Roof World by Christopher Fowler and Interzone's 2nd Anthology - I make that about 3,000 pages worth so comments will, of necessity, follow next time. I have a long holiday coming up that should see a few books digested and more purchased to keep the backlog stocked up.
Late news. I have just purchased the new US import Robots, Androids and Mechanical Oddities: The Science Fiction of Philip K. Dick from Forbidden Planet. It is a good collection of short stories, mainly from the fifties. To the best of my knowledge some of the stories are only available in the special edition short works issued last year at around £90 for five volumes so this anthology, at around £8 for 15 stories, is a fair buy and any new printing of the master's work gets my vote.
I have to print this soon and send it off to Ellis but I am already a little way into Nice Work which is David Lodge's first novel for some time. It is has been shortlisted for the Booker this year and I for one hope it wins. On the strength of what I've read so far it would be more deserving than last year's travesty in the shape on Penelopy Lively's Moon Tiger. While too early to say for sure, especially given that the earnestly self-effacing Salman Rushdie is in the field, I hope Lodge gets some acknowledgement this year from the Booker judges.
Mike Siggins. 3/10/88.
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