Last year, I posted a list of my top 10 favorite Valancourt releases for 2013 (http://valancourtbooksblog.blogspot.com/2013/11/top-10-of-2013.html) and got some good responses, so here we go again, my top 10 favorite releases of 2014. Keep in mind, we only publish books we love, and we think all the books we publish are worth reading. But some are a little nearer and dearer to our hearts than others. Without further ado . . .
We reissued five of Colin Wilson's novels in 2013 before his passing in December 2013, and we returned in 2014 committed to keeping his works in print, issuing two more of his novels, Necessary Doubt and The Glass Cage, both of which I enjoyed very much. The Glass Cage is a great read which deals with many of the topics that interested Wilson, in particular existential philosophy and serial murderers. This one will also appeal to fans of our editions of 18th century literature, as the killer leaves a quotation from William Blake at the scene of each crime and the 'detective' is a Blake scholar.
John Blackburn wrote 28 novels, 14 of which we've now published, and every one of them is good. They have original premises and are written in a highly intelligent, literate style, and, what's refreshing, they're never one word too long. Most of them clock in at about 150 pages or less, making them a perfect short read. Blackburn's books vary in tone: the earlier ones are fairly straight-up suspense thrillers; some of the later ones, particularly those featuring Bill Easter, approach parody. But for a period in the middle, during the late 1960s and early 1970s, Blackburn wrote some very good horror novels, and this one is by far the darkest and grimmest. I won't give away any major plot surprises, but like the best of Blackburn's books, this one features a modern-day updating of a medieval legend (in this case, the story of Elizabeth Bathory, the Hungarian countess rumored to have slaughtered girls and bathed in their blood). It's a terrific read, and if you've never given Blackburn a shot before, this is the one to start with.
Our efforts to revive the reputation of Claude Houghton continued in 2014 with the release of his first novel, Neighbours (1926), which had been out of print since, well, 1926, probably. Though it's not on a par with I Am Jonathan Scrivener (1930) or This Was Ivor Trent (1935), it's still a brilliant read. The premise is intriguing: an author takes a room in the attic of a boarding house, seeking privacy and quiet. But he finds unexpectedly that he has a neighbour on the other side of the wall, whose every conversation he can hear. As time goes on, his eavesdropping on his neighbour's life turns into an obsession. In the hands of a lesser writer, this wouldn't work for a 200 page novel, but somehow Houghton pulls it off. If you haven't read Houghton yet, don't start with this one: try one of the others. But if you find that you like the style of his metaphysical, psychological thrillers, you'll enjoy this one as well.
This extraordinary novel was much compared to Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, presumably because they're both very long books dealing with tuberculosis patients in sanatoriums. I haven't read the Mann book, so I don't know how apt the comparisons are, but Ellis's first and only novel is remarkable and well worth reading. It earned near-universal praise in England when first published and was reprinted off and on as a Penguin Modern Classic but had fallen out of print by some point in the 1990s. For me, the book's brilliance is in its gallows humour: though the painful and dehumanizing medical procedures the hero undergoes are horrific to read about, the novel is infused throughout with some of the blackest humour you'll find in a novel. It's an exquisitely written book and one only wishes Ellis (pseudonym of Derek Lindsay) had written others.
During his brief career, James Kennaway published several astonishingly good novels and also wrote a number of award-winning screenplays. Unfortunately, he died way too young, dying on the M4 motorway at age 40 around Christmas, 1968, as he was driving home from having drinks with his friend Peter O'Toole. This novel, published posthumously, may be his masterpiece. For my money, opening lines don't get much better than this: 'They were painting the gothic corridors of the railway hotel when the economist arrived. It was about six o’clock in the evening, early in May, which is no time to die, and it had been raining heavily.' Time Magazine summed up the novel as 'a hard little book about dying', which seems fair. The protagonist, dying of lung cancer, has only a short time left to live. His wife, knowing the prognosis, can't help but look on her husband as a sort of walking corpse: any kind of normal relationship between them has become impossible, since she knows he may die at any time. Seeking to live to the fullest in the short time he has left, he embarks on an affair with a teenage girl, who, not knowing of his illness, is free to imagine they have a future together. Like the crab clawing at his insides, he claws desperately for life, and just as the cancer is consuming him, he becomes cancerous to everyone around him, ruining their lives in his single-minded quest to enjoy his own. It's a powerful short novel that demands to be read -- his style is unique and the book is unforgettable.
The Elementals has been by far our most popular book this year. It doesn't quite outsell all the rest of our catalogue put together, but it certainly seems to be trying to. Poppy Z. Brite has called it 'surely the most terrifying novel ever written', and plenty of the online reviews echo that sentiment: readers seem to find it genuinely terrifying. I think I'm just too jaded from having seen so many horror movies and TV shows and read so many horror books over the years, but I didn't find the book particularly scary. But I still loved it. McDowell is a terrific writer: his fortes are dialogue (which is always pitch-perfect, particularly in his rendering of dialect), setting, and characterization. Most horror novels have a cast of throwaway characters who don't serve much purpose except as fodder for the killer: they're indistinguishable from one another, and the dialogue could just as easily be spoken by any one of them. After the book's finished, you probably won't remember a single one of them. Not in McDowell's books, and especially not in this one. India (a precursor of Lydia in McDowell's later Beetlejuice script) and her father Luker, the alcoholic Big Barbara, the maid Odessa Red, each of the characters really comes to life and practically leaps off the page. If I wasn't terrified by the story, I was nonetheless carried along by it: the first two-thirds or so of the book move at a fairly leisurely pace, leading up to the real horror towards the end, but it's never dull for a moment and keeps you turning the pages. We're thrilled to be continuing the Michael McDowell rediscovery in 2015 with three more of his novels. If you're a horror fan, these are must-reads, but even if you normally don't read horror books, you'll find plenty to admire in the writing of McDowell, who is a very fine writer indeed.
This one's cheating a bit, since it's actually being published Jan. 6, 2015, but since we spent a lot of time working on it this year (and since this is my list and I can do what I want with it), I'm putting on here. Until recently, like many readers in the U.S., I didn't have a particularly clear idea who Christopher Priest was and what his books were like. I'd heard of The Prestige, of course, and seen the Christopher Nolan film, but otherwise, I didn't know much about Priest. This is probably in part due to the fact that most of his books have been unavailable in the U.S. for many years. The neglect of his works here in the U.S. is surprising, since all his books are in print in the UK, where he has won many major awards; they're also all available in various European translations (he's also won major awards in France, Germany, etc.) When I stumbled upon an old copy of The Affirmation, I knew from the jacket blurb that this was the sort of novel I'd love: it's a book that blends and transcends genres -- not exactly SF, not exactly fantasy, not exactly a thriller -- and features an intriguing premise and a very clever literary mindgame that will make you want to reread the book as soon as you've finished it, just so you can see how it was all done. An extremely enjoyable, page-turning read, and we're excited to be offering it.
Speaking of books that don't fit easily into genres (most of ours don't), this is another: equal parts fantasy, political thriller, autobiography, and nostalgia, Lord Dunsany's The Curse of the Wise Woman is one of the best books I read all year. In fact, both of us here at Valancourt Books would rank this among our top reads for 2014. It's temping to say that the fantasy aspects concerning Tir-nan-Og, the land of eternal youth, or the supernatural parts with the 'wise woman' (witch) are the most interesting, but I found myself engrossed even with the parts of the book dealing with Irish political intrigue or hunting foxes and geese on the bog. His prose here is, as always, mellifluous, and the book is charming and delightful throughout. If you haven't read Dunsany before, or if you read some of his early short stories and they weren't for you, give this one a shot: you're almost certain to like it.
This book is about 400 pages long, but it doesn't feel like it. You'll wish it had been double the length. John Wain's books are always good (Hurry on Down and The Smaller Sky were favourites of mine from our 2013 list), but this one is really something special. The plot, which is simple enough, involves an English linguist, Roger Furnivall, who spends a winter in Wales to learn the language and gets caught up in a local dispute in which a large corporation is attempting to put all the local bus operators out of business. The last holdout is Gareth, a taciturn hunchback, and Roger determines to interfere and help Gareth save his bus route and his livelihood from the encroaching forces of corporate greed. It's hard for me to say why I liked the book so much. The plot is all right, the writing is of course solid, but somehow it's a book that adds up to more than the sum of its parts. I think perhaps it has to do with the unusual earnestness with which Wain writes: it's hard not to root for him, and for his characters. Very highly recommended. (As an aside, I'd love to hear from anyone who reads this one and who has also read one of my favourite Valancourt releases of 2012, John Trevena's Sleeping Waters , which also involved an Englishman arriving as an outsider in a small Celtic town and interfering with local business affairs, and also featured a hunchback...)
This book is so good that it's almost unthinkable that its inclusion on this list is owing entirely to an accident of fate. Here in Richmond we have a thrift store that benefits the gay community center; I stumbled upon an old copy of the book there, never having heard of it. But from the publisher's blurb and the rave reviews on the cover from Iris Murdoch, Christopher Isherwood, Angus Wilson, and others, it was immediately evident that this was a book we needed to republish. Tracking down the estate took a considerable amount of detective work, but was well worth it, as this was my favourite book of ours this year. Set in a boys' boarding school (based on the Irish school that Campbell himself attended, and peopled with characters that were easily recognizable as Campbell's teachers and schoolfellows), the book focuses on two characters, both struggling with their attractions for members of the same sex. One is Eric Ashley, a former pupil of the school, now returned to teach there, and who is tormented by his attraction to young men. The other is Carleton, a student, who is in love with Allen, a boy a year younger. Meanwhile, with the school declining in quality, a new headmaster, Crabtree, has been brought in, and he is determined to stamp out any homosexual conduct in the school. (His efforts, though, are thoroughly misguided and often lead to hilarious disaster, as when he arranges for a girls' school to visit for the day). But it would be unfair to call this a 'gay' novel: as Iris Murdoch blurbs, it's really a novel about love. And though of course infused with sadness and even tragedy, the book is also very, very funny in parts. Like the Wain novel, it's about 400 pages, but again, not a page too long. It's a beautiful book and not to be missed.
What about you? What were your favourite Valancourt releases this year? We'd love to hear from you!