The Best Book(s) You’re Not Reading

One of my favorite questions to ask friends, family, fellow editors, or, really, any random reader is “What’s the best book I’m not reading?”  Working with books all the time, it’s sometimes easy to forget what else is out there.  I’m always up for recommendations!

I thought I’d take a moment to pretend that someone asked 1977me that 1974question.  The best book you’re not reading is actually a series of books: The Red Riding Quartet by David Peace.  These books—Nineteen Seventy-Four, Nineteen Seventy-Seven, Nineteen Eighty, and Nineteen Eighty-Three (coming soon!)—showcase crime writing at its finest.  They tell the true-crime story of a serial killer tormenting Yorkshire in the 1970s and 1980s.  And let me tell you, they’re not for the faint of heart.  I read these books in big, white-knuckled gulps—they’re dark, grisly, violent, and shocking.  But what makes them so enjoyable is Peace’s signature writing style.  He’s a very methodical writer and you don’t even notice as he pulls you fully into his characters’ psyches.  It’s not always a pretty place, but damn is it fun.

 

And guess what?  There are movies coming! The BBC and IFC teamed up to make three films based on the four books.  Red Riding: 1974, directed by Julian Jarrold (Brideshead Revisited); Red Riding: 1980, , directed by James Marsh (Man on Wire); and Red Riding: 1983, directed by Anand Tucker (Shopgirl).  They come out this fall. 

 

Peace, sadly, isn’t so well-known here.  (We also published the first book in his Tokyo trilogy, Tokyo Year Zero which is just as good as the Quartet but takes place in post-WWII Tokyo).  But he’s beloved in his native UK.   Ian Rankin has called him “the future of crime fiction” and The Times calls him “a writer of immense talent and power.”  I think it’s only a matter of time before this amazing writer takes off over here.  Certain Yanks are already taking note.  George Pelecanos has said he’s “transforming the genre with passion and style.”  So what are you waiting for?  Get reading!

 

*ZACHARY WAGMAN has been an editor at Vintage Books since 2006. Before that, he was an assistant at Knopf. Before that, he went to NYU and before that he grew up in New Jersey.*

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The Sunwise Turn

A recent post about the near-mint Ulysses turned up some interesting information about the bookstore where it was originally purchased. Founded with the unabashed intellectualism we associate with the interwar years, The Sunwise Turn was high minded, eclectic, and expensive.

Opened in 1916 by Madge Jenison and Mary Mowbray Clarke, the store was originally planned to service a special class of reader. The same way an art dealer contents himself with a massive sales to a handful of buyers, Jenison and Mowbray Clarke (what names!) would be kept in business not by foot traffic, but by a dedicated “fifty patrons who bought $500 worth of books a year.” That Aegean blue Ulysses would have been exactly the specialty book a well heeled New York reader would splash cash on, especially since, when published, it was as illegal as gin.

Sunwise TurnOf course, then as now it was tricky to find anybody who spends $500 on reading. To stay in the black, and to avoid the laziness that comes with private endowment, they also sold textiles, artwork and stationary. The store itself was lavish, its woodwork colored a “burning orange,” and when the shop moved uptown to a location just opposite Grand Central, it was a beacon of elite taste in the city’s most public location. (The seal at left is from their original location on 31st Street.)

They published authors as well known as Ranier Maria Rilke, hosted readings for Robert Frost, and sold books to Peggy Guggenheim and a young Alfred A. Knopf. The Sunwise Turn was probably too fancy to have lasted the Depression, if they hadn’t been bought by Doubleday in 1927. This week’s London auction is a reminder, though, that their books are still selling, even if they remain a bit overpriced.

Sources:
Institutions of Modernism, Lawrence S. Rainey. 1998
Images from Dorothy Sloan and Confessions of a Bookplate Addict.

The Book Is Dying: Part ∞

Paul Constant, books editor of the Seattle alt weekly The Stranger, recently printed a searing column best summed up by the one-word subject line in the email which circ-ed around our publicity department: Ouch.

The column, ostensibly a report from the frontlines of a “funereal” Book Expo America, makes several cutting points about the decline of our industry, ending with the dismal declaration:

The only way that 2009 will be considered a good year for the publishing industry is in comparison with the unprecedented disaster of 2008. People will tsk-tsk at the numbers and write endless, boring blog posts about it, which won’t be read by anyone except other people writing endless, boring blog posts about it.

Constant eventually finds some light at the end of his tunnel in—wait for it—the relatively booming success e-books have had over the last two years.

To continue:

Last year’s e-book sales increased by 68 percent over the year before, and 2009’s first-quarter e-book sales increased over 100 percent from 2008’s first-quarter e-book sales. Naturally, everybody was talking about them, and this was the first year that older booksellers and librarians weren’t loudly complaining about how they couldn’t roll e-books up and put them in their back pocket or read them in the bath or whatever absurd arguments they have been trotting out at BEAs past.

The knee-jerk reaction of readers, writers and publishers alike against e-books, Kindles and other e-readers was voiced through author Sherman Alexie’s disgust for the “elitist” (among other things) form, but Constant offers some hope that I think bears repeating:

The reason nobody is genuinely excited about e-books is nobody is thinking of revolutionizing e-books. . . Can’t we make e-books and e-readers a unique experience? . . . [And] can’t we somehow make the e-book experience a beautiful one? In an e-mail, Alexie lamented to me the potential loss of one of the great pleasures of book culture: “Have you ever fallen in love with somebody, a stranger, just because of the book they happened to be reading? And what about the recent awe of walking onto an airplane and seeing that forty or fifty people are reading the same Harry Potter novel? How many times have you talked to a stranger just because they happened to be reading a great book, an eccentric book, a book that you arrogantly thought that only you and the author and his or her mother had ever read?. . . And then again, I wonder this: Do you think the e-book makers will ever design a machine that has a screen on the back that displays the digitized cover art of the book that is being read? Will that make me happy? Don’t know.” But it sure would be something, wouldn’t it?

Despite the rest of the article, I found this positively uplifting.  E-books represent a tremendous opportunity, not a threat.  This is an exciting time to be in publishing, not a depressing one.  Things are happening right now that could change our experience as readers, but if we play it right, it could be a change for the better.  No one remembers the first portable MP3 player (it was the Rio, if you’re wondering—they sold very well in 1998); the iPod didn’t arrive on the scene for another three years.  The Kindle may not be the perfect medium for e-books, but that’s okay.  We still have time.  If e-books are in fact the way of the future—and it’s looking more and more that way—I’ll look forward to the innovations yet to come, and do my best to embrace them.

Sarah Cantor


Sarah Cantor is a publicity assistant at Vintage and Anchor Books. A huge music fan and originally from Seattle, Sarah misses liner notes and cover art but has learned to love her ipod, and is looking forward to seeing what the future has in store for books.

Introducing “Crime Candy” by Jen Marshall (see give-away at bottom)

Stephen King’s semi-regular column in Entertainment Weekly, “The Pop of King,” is something I look forward to. He’s funny, irreverent, and at the same time deeply serious about his entertainment. Doesn’t matter if he’s talking movies, music, or books, he expects to be on the edge of his seat, lost in the moment, and up all night. Me too. For crime fiction, anyway. And yet sometimes a crime novel of that caliber seems harder to find than a butterfly in January. Flat dialogue, couldn’t-care-less plots, and clichéd endings abound. Seriously, why does anyone think it’s a good idea to end a crime novel with an abandoned warehouse, a couple of guns, and a showdown between the hunter and the hunted anymore?

In his May 13 column Mr. King recommended seven summer reads. And while he’ll never convince me that Jodi Picoult is a supremely talented writer, I am interested in any crime novel that he thinks is terrific. After all, the man has had an original thought or hundred about dark deeds of every stripe. (Though this does not mean his picks are infallible—he was, in my opinion, abysmally wrong about The Garden of Last Days.) So I picked up Shattered by Michael Robotham two days ago. It more than meets the bar.

In fact, if you like top-shelf police procedurals at all, especially English ones, run to the bookstore and then cancel your appointments for the next twenty-four hours. Psychologist Joe O’Loughlin is trying, with the help of one of the most excellently imagined Detective Inspectors to grace recent fiction—Veronica Cray, who wears men’s shoes and likes French knickers—to outsmart an equally well-written killer, the super-scary, grimly pathetic Gideon Tyler. Tyler is such a convincingly reasoned villain that Robotham will have you wondering if this story is actually fiction. He does say in an author’s note that the novel is inspired by true events in two different countries but not based on either. What??! I don’t know about you, but I’m dying to know the details on that. Send us a note and if you are interested too, we’ll ask the author about it and report back here. And more good news for readers – Robotham has a backlist. Few things make me happier than finishing a bang-up, truly great crime novel and discovering that the author has a backlist, preferably a long one.

Check out Robotham’s previous novel, The Night Ferry. It’s about a 29-year-old Detective named Alicia Barba investigating the suspicious death of Cate, her best friend from high school. They’ve been estranged for years when a pregnant Cate shows up unexpectedly at a party Alicia is attending, begging her for help because someone is trying to take her baby. Minutes later Cate is killed in what looks like a freak accident. A secret is revealed and the game is on. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. And the crime in it is particularly interesting, one possible in only a short window of our time—say roughly 1995-2005, give or take a few years. Those who avidly read the science pages as well as crime blotters will note that this crime would be much less likely to occur in 2009. If you’ve already read this entertaining novel and want to know exactly what I’m talking about, click here . Which side of the argument do you think Robotham is on? On another topic, I’m looking—as always!—to add to my pile of thrilling reads. The first five people to post and let me know what your current favorite crime novel is and why will get a free copy of The Night Ferry.

Jen Marshall is a crime fiction fan and publicist at Vintage and Anchor Books. Her blog posts are called CrimeCandy because having access to a room full of Vintage Crime / Black Lizard titles is truly like being a kid in a candy store. An amazing perk that never, ever loses its shine.

Reza and the President

Last year’s English translation of Yasmina Reza’s Dawn Dusk or Night: A Year With Nicolas Sarkozy came at a low point for the French president. When Reza’s book, an intimate account of his unlikely campaign, was published in France, hopes were high for the new head of state. Although he ran as a conservative, he was classy enough to win over the left and center, in part because he represented a serene alternative to the bumblings of opponent Ségolène Royal. In the next year his approval ratings dropped as low as 32%, and have never really recovered. It was Reza’s book, a skinning of the political animal that sold over 100,000 copies, which helped him on his collapse.

What’s compelling about the book is that, unlike ordinary campaign trail tell-alls, it has a shelf life. By focusing on the details of Sarkozy’s neuroses—an obsession with his watch, for instance—she exposes the vanity and insecurity of all politicians, something with applications far beyond France in 2007.

Just as all presidential candidates have something in common, so are parents alike across the world. Reza’s God of Carnage recently won the Tony award for Best Play, and what made it remarkable was how American it seemed. This was partly good production and partly James Gandolfini (nobody’s more American than Tony Soprano), but those wouldn’t have been enough if the play had been too French. As Sarkozy’s cool strength won the affection of his country, Reza’s broad accessability is the secret to her international appeal. She’s lucky that crowds turn on presidents much faster than they do playwrights.

Too Expensive To Read

Our excellent Twitter scared up an article on the Guardian about a hyper rare (there are four of them) first edition of Ulysses that was just sold for £275,000—approximately $450,000—in a British auction. (The book can be yours, unsigned and slightly battered, for a comparitively cheap $60,000, or in paperback for the rock bottom price of $12.22.) The book, one of 100 printed by Shakespeare & Co. in Paris and signed by Joyce himself, has spent the last 80 some-odd years left in the box it was purchased in. This means it has maintained its sea-blue color while still, presumably, looking impressive on the owner’s shelf.

The Guardian article points out that the book is unopened save for a quick peek at the salacious (for the time) last chapter, meaning that since it was first published people have been buying Ulysses, thinking about reading it, giving up, and then deciding to just glance at the sexy bits.

Scent of the Future

Sure, we all love our Kindles and our Sony Readers. They’re great on the train, at the beach or in bed, lying in that position that’s perfectly comfortable so long as one’s arms aren’t straining to support a book. They’re even a little bit sneaky. Don’t want to be seen enraptured by the soft words of a drugstore romance novel? While you’re holding a Kindle, Lord of Scoundrels may as well be Leaves of Grass.

We love the way our e-readers look, but we miss that new book smell. Smell of Books offers the solution. Although unfortunately not a real product (I’d have ordered a can right away), their aerosol cans are the perfect gift for any nostalgic reader. It comes in five distinct scents!

  • New Book Smell — “Do you love the fresh scent of paper, ink, and glue? We sure do! That’s why we created New Book Smell in a can.”
  • Classic Musty Smell — “Like having the collected works of Shakespeare in a can.”
  • Scent of Sensibility — “The scent of violets, horses, and potpourri. It’s like living in a Jane Austen novel!”
  • Eau You Have Cats — “It’s just like borrowing a book from grandma’s house.”
  • Crunchy Bacon Scent — “A low calorie, low cholesterol alternative for your breakfast reading enjoyment.”

Okay, so it’s a joke. Fine. Now will someone please go out and make this? I’d like a ripped apart paperback sleeve for my e-reader too, while you’re at it.

Thanks to Pajiba for the link.

—W.M. Akers