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First edition of legendary crime novel The Three Coffins sells for £1,300

A rare copy of The Three Coffins by John Dickson Carr has sold for £1,300 /$2,250 on AbeBooks. The 1935 Harper first edition had a restored dust jacket.  The Three Coffins is a Dr Fell mystery and at first glance appears to be a standard Dickson Carr crime novel.

However, chapter 17 of the The Three Coffins contains Gideon Fell’s famous ‘locked room lecture’, in which the amateur sleuth describes many of the ways by which apparently locked-room or impossible-crime murders can be committed. It is a seminal piece of crime-writing.

Dickson Carr wrote more than 20 Dr Fell mysteries spanning four decades.  Fell is based upon GK Chesterton – he has a moustache, wears a cape and a shovel hat, and walks with the help of two canes.

Women who write as men – from Blixen to Rowling

The publication of The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith, aka J.K. Rowling/ Joanne Rowling, once again puts women who write as men into the spotlight. The Silkworm is Rowling’s second Galbraith mystery novel and pushes her another step away from the Harry Potter legacy.

Many women write under pen names but few actually use clearly male names. Aside from Rowling/Galbraith, the three most famous examples of women writing clearly as men are Mary Ann Evans who wrote as George Eliot, Karen Blixen who wrote as Isak Dinesen and French novelist Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin who wrote as George Sand, which is also less of a mouthful.

Many prefer to use initials as part of the pseudonym such as Nora Roberts writing as J.D. Robb, Erika Leonard writing as E.L. James, Susan Eloise Hinton writing as S.E. Hinton and Joanne Rowling writing as J.K. Rowling. Initials can be understood to be either male or female but the inference is that the author is male.

There are also many examples of female authors adopting a pen name that appears to be neither male or female. Anne Brontë wrote as Acton Bell. I’ve never known an Acton, male or female.  The same could be said for Charlotte Brontë who wrote as Currer Bell. Again the inference is that the author is a man.

The whole discussion about whether it’s better to be male or female when writing is moot when it comes to Rowling/Galbraith. Rowling, the literary world’s one true show-stopping superstar, could publish as Donald Duck and still sell books.

BBC revisits Laurie Lee’s As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning

Next week’s BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week will be Laurie Lee’s account of walking in Spain, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning. The show marks the centenary of Lee’s birth on 26th June.

The memoir was published in 1969 and is the sequel to Cider with Rosie. The author leaves rural Gloucestershire for a epic journey to Spain and then through Spain, starting in Galicia in July 1935,  just as the Spanish Civil War begins.

Lee’s decision to visit Spain was taken because of his knowledge of the Spanish phrase for ‘Will you please give me a glass of water?’

To the right, you can see the cover of the Andre Deutsch first edition with its dust jacket designed by Shirley Thompson. Lee died in 1997. The third part of his autobiographical trilogy is A Moment of War published in 1991.

Here’s a piece of literary trivia – there is a statue of the author in Almuñécar in Andalusia. The town plays an important role in As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning.

A date for your diary – PBFA’s new Christmas Fair on December 6

Visit the new PBFA Christmas fairThere’s a new event on the UK’s book fair calendar. The PBFA (Provincial Booksellers Fairs Association) has added the Kensington Christmas Book Fair to its extensive list of fairs.

The Kensington Christmas Book Fair takes places on 6 December at Kensington Town Hall in the heart of London, and AbeBooks.co.uk is a sponsor.

The PBFA operates a busy schedule of regional book fairs across the UK but this new Christmas Fair is set to become a major attraction for bibliophiles thanks to its sheer size. More than 90 booksellers have committed to exhibiting books at the fair and they are a mixture of sellers, including Peter Harrington, Jonkers Rare Books and Jarndyce Antiquarian Booksellers from London, Oxford’s Temple Rare Books, Hampshire’s Holybourne Rare Books, Salsus Books from Kidderminster, and Norfolk’s Peakirk Books.

A couple of booksellers from Germany and Israel will also be exhibiting.

“When a large group of leading booksellers descend on the capital, there is sure to be a buzz of anticipation,” said Deborah Davis. “All manner of interesting, beautiful, rare, collectable and quirky books and ephemera will be offered for sale, at prices to suit every enthusiast. We hope collectors old and new will join the PBFA for this Christmas treat.”

  • Times: 10.30am to 4.30pm
  • Admission: £2
  • Address – Kensington Town Hall, Hornton Street, London W8 7NX
  • Parking – A public car park is immediately below the Town Hall.
  • Tube: High Street Kensington

Visit the PBFA website for more details.

Booksellers, who are members of the PBFA, can still reserve booths at the event by contacting fair managers Tony Mulholland (mulhollandt@aol.com) or Deborah Davis (deborah@mchardybooks.com).

The Provincial Booksellers Fairs Association has been organising book fairs across the UK since the 1970s. The association has been instrumental in ensuring the general public has access to rare books via a regular calendar of events in numerous locations.

 Booksellers exhibiting at the Christmas Fair include:

 Alex Alec Smith Books from Hull

Antiquates from Corfe Castle, Dorset

BAS Ltd from London

Bath and West Books from Bath

Black Cat Bookshop from Leicester

Bond Books from Dorset

Claremont Books from London

David Miles from Canterbury

Ellwood Books from Hampshire

Finecopy from Westbury, Wiltshire

Gerald Baker from Bristol

Graham York Rare Books from Honiton, Devon

Hans Lindner Antiquariat from Mainburg, Germany

Holybourne Rare Books from Alton, Hampshire

Hyraxia from Leeds

J & SL Bonham from London

Jarndyce Antiquarian Booksellers from London

John Atkinson Books from Durham

Jonkers Rare Books from Henley on Thames

London Rare Books

Lucius Books from York

M Pollak Antiquariat from Tel-Aviv, Israel

Michael S Kemp Bookseller from Minster on Sea, Kent

Missing Books from Great Leighs, Essex

Neil Ewart of Newcastle upon Tyne

Neil Summersgill from Blackburn

Paul Foster from London

Peakirk Books from Fakenham, Norfolk

Peter Harrington from London

Richard Thornton from Blackburn

Robert Frew from London

Robert Kirkman from Leighton Buzzard

Salsus Books from Kidderminster

Sevin Seydi Rare Books from London

Stephen Foster from London

Steve Liddle from Bristol

Steven Ferdinando from Yeovil

Surprise Books from Stroud

Temple Rare Books from Oxford

Toby English from Wallingford

Ventnor Rare Books from Isle of Wight

Walden Books from London

West Hull Rare Books from Hull

White Eagle Rare Books from London

Worlds End Bookshop from London


Zimnol Books from London




Kurt Vonnegut’s letter to the man who burned Slaughterhouse-Five

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut is a modern classic, right? One of the great anti-war novels of modern times? It’s a must-read for any student of literature? Agreed?

In 1973, an English teacher at Drake High School in North Dakota decided to use the novel in his classes.  However, the head of the Drake High school board, Charles McCarthy, decided that the school’s 32 copies of the book had to be burned because of its so-called obscene content. Despite student protests, the books were burned.

Vonnegut wrote to McCarthy and his letter can be enjoyed below. I love the part where Vonnegut explains he is a combat veteran with a purple heart. The final sentence has immense power.

November 16, 1973

Dear Mr. McCarthy:

I am writing to you in your capacity as chairman of the Drake School Board. I am among those American writers whose books have been destroyed in the now famous furnace of your school.

Certain members of your community have suggested that my work is evil. This is extraordinarily insulting to me. The news from Drake indicates to me that books and writers are very unreal to you people. I am writing this letter to let you know how real I am.

I want you to know, too, that my publisher and I have done absolutely nothing to exploit the disgusting news from Drake. We are not clapping each other on the back, crowing about all the books we will sell because of the news. We have declined to go on television, have written no fiery letters to editorial pages, have granted no lengthy interviews. We are angered and sickened and saddened. And no copies of this letter have been sent to anybody else. You now hold the only copy in your hands. It is a strictly private letter from me to the people of Drake, who have done so much to damage my reputation in the eyes of their children and then in the eyes of the world. Do you have the courage and ordinary decency to show this letter to the people, or will it, too, be consigned to the fires of your furnace?

I gather from what I read in the papers and hear on television that you imagine me, and some other writers, too, as being sort of ratlike people who enjoy making money from poisoning the minds of young people. I am in fact a large, strong person, fifty-one years old, who did a lot of farm work as a boy, who is good with tools. I have raised six children, three my own and three adopted. They have all turned out well. Two of them are farmers. I am a combat infantry veteran from World War II, and hold a Purple Heart. I have earned whatever I own by hard work. I have never been arrested or sued for anything. I am so much trusted with young people and by young people that I have served on the faculties of the University of Iowa, Harvard, and the City College of New York. Every year I receive at least a dozen invitations to be commencement speaker at colleges and high schools. My books are probably more widely used in schools than those of any other living American fiction writer.

If you were to bother to read my books, to behave as educated persons would, you would learn that they are not sexy, and do not argue in favor of wildness of any kind. They beg that people be kinder and more responsible than they often are. It is true that some of the characters speak coarsely. That is because people speak coarsely in real life. Especially soldiers and hardworking men speak coarsely, and even our most sheltered children know that. And we all know, too, that those words really don’t damage children much. They didn’t damage us when we were young. It was evil deeds and lying that hurt us.

After I have said all this, I am sure you are still ready to respond, in effect, “Yes, yes— but it still remains our right and our responsibility to decide what books our children are going to be made to read in our community.” This is surely so. But it is also true that if you exercise that right and fulfill that responsibility in an ignorant, harsh, un-American manner, then people are entitled to call you bad citizens and fools. Even your own children are entitled to call you that.

I read in the newspaper that your community is mystified by the outcry from all over the country about what you have done. Well, you have discovered that Drake is a part of American civilization, and your fellow Americans can’t stand it that you have behaved in such an uncivilized way. Perhaps you will learn from this that books are sacred to free men for very good reasons, and that wars have been fought against nations which hate books and burn them. If you are an American, you must allow all ideas to circulate freely in your community, not merely your own.

If you and your board are now determined to show that you in fact have wisdom and maturity when you exercise your powers over the education of your young, then you should acknowledge that it was a rotten lesson you taught young people in a free society when you denounced and then burned books— books you hadn’t even read. You should also resolve to expose your children to all sorts of opinions and information, in order that they will be better equipped to make decisions and to survive.

Again: you have insulted me, and I am a good citizen, and I am very real.

Kurt Vonnegut

Find more moving letters like this one in Shaun Usher’s Letters of Note.

Village in the Jungle, Leonard Woolf’s forgotten colonial masterpiece

The BBC writes about Leonard Woolf’s forgotten Sri Lankan novel, The Village in the Jungle, saying it has been unjustly ignored. Virginia’s husband published the book in  1913 and it is notable because it is the first novel in English literature to be written from the indigenous point of view rather than that of the British Empire.

The village in the jungle described in the book is called Beddagama. It consists of 10 crude mud huts in a hot dry clearing hacked from the inexorable jungle in the south of Sri Lanka, the island then known as Ceylon. The novel tells the story of one family, the wild hunter Silindu and his two daughters, Punchi Menika and Hinnihami, and the bad things that happen to them when their lives start to go wrong. There is no safety net here. The jungle is harsh, the village malicious.

Leonard Woolf knew Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon, very well. He joined the Colonial Civil Service in 1904 and was sent to Ceylon, where he worked for seven years. By 1908, he was administrating a district in south-east Ceylon, which housed 100,000 people. Woolf taught himself Sinhalese and Tamil, and travelled widely across the island. He wrote The Village in the Jungle on his return to Britain in 1911.

Ray Bradbury’s house is for sale

Ray Bradbury's houseRay Bradbury’s former home in Los Angeles is for sale at $1,495,000. The three-bedroom house was built in 1937. Bradbury died in 2012 at the age of 91. The author wrote in the basement of the home but also kept an office in Beverly Hills where he also wrote. I flicked through the slideshow of the interior and it looks lovely.

Novelist Mary Stewart, author of the Merlin series, dies at 97

The bestselling author of the Merlin series, Mary Stewart, has died at the grand, old age of 97. The five books in the Merlin series, sometimes called Merlin Chronicles, were published between 1970 and 1995 – they are The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, The Last Enchantment, The Wicked Day, and The Prince and the Pilgrim.

She also wrote romantic-suspense novels such as Touch Not the Cat, This Rough Magic and Nine Coaches Waiting that featured plucky, intelligent heroines. She was one of the first novelists to combine mystery and romance.

Her debut novel, Madam, Will You Talk?, was published in 1954 and is the story of an English woman holidaying in Provence.A former lecturer in English Language and Literature, Stewart’s books were very popular in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s with many titles translated into other languages.

The publication of The Crystal Cave in 1970 rode the wave of interest in King Arthur ignited by TH White. The novel is a fantasy take on the Arthurian legend told from young Merlin’s point of view and includes his journey from Wales through Brittany and England. It sets the scene for Arthur’s birth.

Supermarket chain Waitrose hires poet Roger McGough to liven up its aisles

Posh supermarket chain Waitrose has turned to poetry in its latest bid to win over Britain’s shoppers. The Guardian reports Waitrose plans to display “poetry throughout its stores as part of a year-long campaign which, it says, is aimed at reducing the drudgery of the regular shop.

Amen to that! I can tell you horror stories about drudgery in supermarkets.

The poems, written by Roger McGough, will be deliberately lighthearted and appear in all 317 Waitrose stores. I hope they won’t just be whimsical, but dwell on the hard realities of supermarket shopping like why the salad goes off by the time you get home, why the bread is always out of date and why they offer trashy magazines by the checkout.

Here’s a preview of what the shoppers will see – no doubt inspired by Judith Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came to Tea.

Tofu and the Tiger’ by Roger McGough

If a tiger invites you home for tea

And offers you tofu

You can take it from me

He’s only pretending

Look at those jaws

Were they designed for chewing rice?

And those claws

For peeling bananas?

Take my advice

Stay calm, be polite.

Eat up your tofu and ask for more

When the feline is in the kitchen

Make a bee-line for the door.

Heston Blumenthal’s historic tribute to British cuisine wins 2014 James Beard cookbook of the year

The biggest prize in the cookbook genre was announced yesterday and a book describing the long and complex legacy of British cuisine has picked up the main award. The James Beard Foundation Book Awards named Historic Heston by English chef Heston Blumenthal as cookbook of the year.

Blumenthal, owner of The Fat Duck, details the identity of British cooking from medieval times to the recipes of the late-Victorian era with 28 historic dishes, including such delights as meat fruit (from 1500), quaking pudding (from 1660) and mock turtle soup (from 1892).

Heston examines the history behind each recipe and, of course, the science that makes them tasty. Dave McKean supplied illustrations and there is also some top-notch food photography.

The James Beard Foundation Awards judge books published in English in 2013. There are many categories aside from the top cookery book of the year, but below are the highlights.

American Cooking – The New Midwestern Table: 200 Heartland Recipes by Amy Thielen

Baking and Dessert - The Art of French Pastry by Jacquy Pfeiffer with Martha Rose Shulman

Beverage – The Cocktail Lab: Unraveling the Mysteries of Flavor and Aroma in Drink, with Recipes by Tony Conigliaro

Focus on Health - Gluten-Free Girl Every Day by Shauna James Ahern with Daniel Ahern

General Cooking – Smoke: New Firewood Cooking by Tim Byres

International – Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking by Fuchsia Dunlop

Photography – René Redzepi: A Work in Progress by Ali Kurshat Altinsoy et al and the Noma Team

Single Subject – Culinary Birds: The Ultimate Poultry Cookbook by John Ash with James O. Fraioli

Vegetable Focused and Vegetarian – Vegetable Literacy by Deborah Madison

Writing and Literature - Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss