Friday, November 15, 2013

Top 10 of 2013

Well, 2013 is winding down, and very soon we'll be posting our list of 2014 releases, which will include some really exciting surprises.  This year we've published a rather shocking 76 new titles and by the end of the year that will probably increase to about 85.  We've introduced a new generation of readers to John Blackburn, John Wain, John Braine, Keith Waterhouse, David Storey, Colin Wilson, Thomas Hinde, and a great many others.  With so many great titles and authors, it's going to be hard to narrow it down to our 10 favorites.  But here goes:

10. Michael Nelson, Knock or Ring (1957) 

Knock or Ring, Michael Nelson's first novel (he's better known for his second, the gay classic, A Room in Chelsea Square, which we'll be reissuing soon) is not a masterpiece, but it's a true joy to read.  A light-hearted story about shady book dealers trying to get their hands on a priceless book at a country auction sale, it's a warm and funny book and pure pleasure from first page to last.

9. R. Chetwynd-Hayes, The Monster Club (1976)

Legend has it that when The Monster Club was being adapted for the screen, the filmmakers contacted Christopher Lee about starring in the film.  Lee asked what the title of the movie was, and as soon as he heard it was 'The Monster Club', he said, 'No'.  Don't make the same mistake!  Yes, it's a somewhat silly, tongue-in-cheek book, but it's also extremely clever and original, and a perfect blend of horror and humor.  We loved it and the finished book, with Stephen Jones's excellent intro and John Bolton's gorgeous cover painting, is one of the best we've ever put together.

8. Gerald Kersh, Nightshade and Damnations (1968)

The neglect of some writers is truly inexplicable, and Kersh is one of those. Copyright problems involving his estate may partly explain why his books were unavailable for so long, but we're thrilled to be part of the Kersh revival.  The tales in this collection are brilliant -- extremely well written, ingeniously contrived, and a nice mix of the humorous and the horrific.  One of my favorites is probably one of the least known in the collection, 'Busto is a Ghost, Too Mean to Give Us a Fright', a grimly funny story of an extremely unsympathetic character whose dog is dying.  Also not to be missed are the classics "Whatever Happened to Corporal Cuckoo?", "The Brighton Monster", and "Men Without Bones".

7. C. H. B. Kitchin, Ten Pollitt Place (1957)

Our friend, the late Francis King, recommended this one, along with Kitchin's equally fine The Book of Life, but unfortunately, despite the efforts of both Valancourt and Faber Finds to reissue Kitchin's novels, the neglect of his work continues unabated.  A shame, since his books are unfailingly delightful, real treasures that deserve reading and rereading.  Interestingly, though not often considered as a writer of the occult and supernatural, these themes run very strongly through both his novels we've reissued; in Ten Pollitt Place, they manifest in Hugo, the disabled boy who has the ability to see the future and forecasts the death of one of the residents of 10 Pollitt Place.  Who will die?  You'll have to read and find out.

The neglect of every writer on this list is puzzling, but perhaps none more so than David Storey.  His novels have won every award there is, including making the Booker shortlist twice and winning it once, and his first book, This Sporting Life (1960), was adapted (by Storey) for a classic film.  Not content with success as a novelist, he also won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for the best play of the year three times in the 1970s.  Of the three Storey novels we've published, Pasmore is probably the most accessible.  It's the story of a 30-year-old man who suddenly finds his life disintegrating for no reason he can discern: he's lost all love for his children, cannot bear the presence of his wife, and has lost all interest in his work. Perhaps the most quietly terrifying book you're likely to find and told with the same unique sense of detachment that characterizes Storey's Booker winner Saville.  A great book.

5.  J. B. Priestley, The Other Place (1953) and The Magicians (1954)

If anyone can explain why every single one of Nevil Shute's books -- even the not-very-good ones that no one's ever heard of -- is in print, while almost none of J. B. Priestley's are, I'd love to hear it.  I've paired the story collection The Other Place with the novel The Magicians, since they were published back-to-back and deal with the same themes.  Both are concerned with Priestley's philosophy of time and with his horror at the increasing mass consumerism he saw springing up in the 1950s. One imagines he rolls over in his grave every time people queue up to sleep on the sidewalk waiting for the new iPhone model to be released.  Both these books -- like almost everything else Priestley ever wrote -- are sheer delight from beginning to end, charming, warm, and funny; the kind of books that can actually leave you with a smile on your face at the end.  How many modern writers can make that claim?  If you haven't made J. B. Priestley's acquaintance yet, you owe it to yourself to try one of his books. He'll never disappoint.

4.  John Wain, The Smaller Sky (1967)

I suspect I'd have rated this book even higher if I'd read it when I was 19 and greedily consuming everything that the likes of Camus and Sartre wrote.  It's a very minimalist story, a study of despair and alienation, in the person of a middle-aged man who suddenly finds he can no longer bear the feeling of being overwhelmed by life and the world and takes refuge inside London's Paddington Station, where he feels safe and sheltered beneath the 'smaller sky' of the station's roof.  John Wain has a highly individual voice that comes through in this and his other books, and he's a writer well worth taking the time to discover.  We're releasing two more of his in 2014.

Billy Liar has never been out of print in the UK, where it's justly revered as a classic.  By contrast, it's been out of print in the States for over 50 years.  I have to confess, I never would have heard of this book but for the fact that it gave its name to a song by one of my favorite bands, The Decemberists (they also named one after David Storey's This Sporting Life).  Billy Liar tells the story of one Saturday in the life of young William Fisher, whose overactive imagination leads him to tell lies constantly, leading him into all kinds of trouble -- he has three girlfriends (two of whom he's engaged to marry) and problems with his boss and his parents. The stolen calendars under the bed, Billy's affectation of a Yorkshire accent while talking to his boss, his attempts to ignite passion in his frigid girlfriend by squishing 'passion pills' into pieces of chocolate candy, and many other scenes and plot elements are unforgettable.  We were also thrilled to track down William Belcher, now in his 90s, who designed the original jacket and who kindly allowed us to reuse it -- one of the most iconic British dust jacket designs of the 1950s.

3. John Braine, Room at the Top (1957)

Another book that has never been out of print in the UK but has been unavailable in the States for 50 years, I think Room at the Top is still considered by many to be a 'bestseller' and a key social document of the time, but to me the book is quite simply a classic of British literature.  Braine's novel was a runaway critical and popular success and today, nearly 60 years later, it's still explosive and still holds up on reading and rereading.  I loved it.  Joe Lampton, the narrator and protagonist, who has grown up in poverty and lost his parents to the war, is determined to reach 'the top' and achieve social and material success, with terrible and tragic consequences.  This is a brilliant novel.  Read it.  (An aside: a recent Amazon customer complained about the 'poor' cover of our edition, which he didn't feel stacked up to the film still used on an old Penguin paperback.  We love the cover, which is the original 1957 dust jacket art by the important gay artist John Minton.)

Forrest Reid died in 1947, and still no one has come along to supplant him as the greatest Ulster novelist.  Brian Westby, by far his scarcest book, is the only of his novels not tinged with aspects of fantasy or the supernatural.  It's also -- possibly -- his masterpiece (he wrote so many fine novels that it's hard to choose one).  Even if you know nothing of the back story, the book is extremely compelling: the plot involves an aging novelist who meets the teenaged son he didn't know he had and tries to win his affections and ultimately tries to take him away from the boy's insane religious freak of a mother.  But once you know the back story (as explained in this edition by Dr Andrew Doyle in his introduction), it takes on a whole new level of meaning and interest.  The entire book is a thinly veiled portrayal of Reid's friendship with the teenaged Stephen Gilbert, who after Reid's death wrote a rather unflattering portrayal of their relationship from his own point of view in The Burnaby Experiments (1952).  The character of 'Brian Westby' in the novel is a portrait in words of Stephen Gilbert, and as you learn more about the facts of Reid's and Gilbert's lives, you can come to appreciate more and more what an unprecedented achievement the novel really is.

Way back in late 2007, we published Francis King's An Air That Kills (1948), the first 20th century novel we ever published, and for a long time an aberration in a catalogue comprising mostly 18th and 19th century texts.  From 2007 till shortly before his death in 2010, we had the pleasure of corresponding regularly with Francis, and he expressed his wish that this novel, the second of the 50 volumes he'd eventually publish, would be reprinted.  It was originally issued in 1947 by the firm of Home and Van Thal, a relatively new publisher that was never well off financially and folded not long after.  One suspects that if Never Again had been released by a better publisher, it would have entered the canon of classic twentieth century fiction, for it is quite simply a masterpiece.  Any attempt to describe the plot would fail to convey the excellence of the book as a whole; you'll simply have to read it.

1. Claude Houghton, I Am Jonathan Scrivener (1930)

Not just my favorite release of this year, but one of the best novels I've ever read. Curiously, Houghton's novel isn't really a 'mystery', a 'suspense novel', or a 'thriller', and yet it's extremely mysterious, very suspenseful, and unflaggingly thrilling. It's also very wise and very, very funny.  One of the early editions of the novel had a quote from Ralph Straus of the Sunday Times on the front of the jacket, saying, 'I defy anybody to put the book down until the last page be reached.' Aside from the old-fashioned use of the subjunctive, his quote holds true nearly 85 years later: to use a modern coinage, the book is 'unputdownable'. Several scenes and characters are highly memorable, and the book contains so many quotable wise, clever, and very funny observations that I guarantee you'll find posting them on Twitter or Facebook irresistible. We're grateful to Michael Dirda for allowing us to print his essay as a foreword, which has helped some people discover the volume.  If you enjoy this one, do not miss his This Was Ivor Trent, which is in many ways a similar novel, but is also very well worth reading and contains at least one unforgettable character.