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review 2018-02-18 13:50
A Little Light Charming...
The Penguin Lessons: A True Story - Tom Michell

“Delightful and charming” was the cover description of this book, attributed to the Daily Mail, which to my mind is not a ringing endorsement. As adjectives go they seem….bland, like ‘inoffensive’ or ‘nice’. Still, set in the 1970’s, the author does successfully evoke a sense of other-worldliness, before technology shrunk the globe and ‘gap years’ made the pursuit of ‘adventure’ and ‘experience’ more…. ordinary. Moreover, by relating his experience of life in South America, in particular pre-Falklands conflict Argentina, there is a certain curiosity value. However, since Michell is relating time spent as a young master at an English boarding school in Buenos Aires, it does also, at times, smack of rather dated colonialism at work.

Undoubtedly what saves the book are the antics of a Magellan penguin, named Juan Salgado, which/whom the author rescues from an oil slick washed up on a beach at Punta del Este. This, we discover, is on the Uruguayan side of the mighty River Plate (Rio de la Plata) and so one of the funniest anecdotes tells the tale of the necessary border crossing. Of course, we humans seem to have a universal soft-spot for penguins, they are after all inherently funny in their permanent tuxedo get-up. Still, the experience also sealed the perception, among the locals, of Michell as another eccentric Englishman abroad.

Though the relationship the author builds with his feathered friend is quite touching, I couldn’t quite shake off a sense of déjá vu and then I recalled the 1960 novel “Ring of Bright Water”, in which the author (Gavin Maxwell) described how he brought an otter from Iraq and raised it in Scotland. Different species, different continent but the crux of the story is similar, man’s capacity for connecting with the wild and a means of lubricating the wheels of human interactions. A pleasant read, perhaps sometimes such light relief can be just what’s needed.

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review 2018-02-09 15:14
A wonderful memorial full of humour, pathos, and incredible cover art.
Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of '70s and '80s Horror Fiction - Grady Hendrix

Thanks to NetGalley and to Quirk Books for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

I love horror novels (and movies) although I don’t read the genre often enough (I’m not sure why, but as I review books that are submitted to some review blogs and to my own, perhaps horror authors don’t submit to these kinds of blogs and look for specialised reviewers). I have read several enthusiastic reviews of this book by some book reviewers who regularly read and review horror and I could not resist. It came very highly recommended, and it deserves all the praise.

I have not read any of the other books written by the author (and he writes fiction in the genre) but now I must admit I’m very curious. And, his collaborator, Will Errickson, has a wonderful blog that also talks about the genre (and includes plenty of cover art), that you must check: http://toomuchhorrorfiction.blogspot.co.uk/

This book is a labour of love. Of love for the genre and for a particularly fertile period of the genre (and the book follows the chronological rise and fall of those paperbacks, including brief histories of the most prolific writers, publishing companies, and subgenres) and for the cover art that is an intrinsic part of it. Although I got an ARC e-copy of the book, the many covers included in the book are gorgeous (yes, and many disgusting, disgustingly gorgeous or gorgeously disgusting) although you might recoil at some of them (but yes, many are glorious, daring, and incredibly imaginative). There is plenty of research behind the book, as the detailed credits at the back show, and the end note and acknowledgments explain, at least in part, what the process of creation of the book involved.

The book contains large doses of humour (it is difficult to talk about the plots and characters we find in some of the books without it) but it also cares deeply for the subject and there is a great underlying respect for the books, even for some whose descriptions makes one’s head spin. There is nothing too outrageous or bizarre to be included. From the better-known tomes (whose success gave rise to copycats and innumerable books trying to cash on the popular topics) like The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby to books I had never heard about, like George R. R. Martin’s Fevre Dreams or Dennis Wheatley’s The Devil Rides Out.  (I know I must read them, mea culpa).

I have been inspired by the book and I definitely must check some of these novels (I realised Richard Matheson had written I am Legend, The Legend of Hell House, and The Shrinking Man, and this last one’s film version is one of my all-time favourite sci-fi films).

Although the version I had is only an ARC copy and there might be some slight changes, I could not resist but share a few quotes:

Bears hate us, bats hate us, dogs and cats clearly hate us. Let’s face it, humans are delicious. In the eyes of the animals, we are walking pizzas, and the best thing is that we deliver ourselves.

In Brain Watch (1985), superpsychic powers are the result of splitting a doctor’s noggin into a quadruple brain, unlocking his ability to project illusion, become superstrong, and control the pigment of his skin to ensure a really great tan.

Rice gave vampires a voice. And then they wouldn’t shut up.

This is a book that I recommend to any lovers of the genre and to those who are curious about cover art and its recent evolution. Even if you don’t like horror and are not interested in reading the actual novels, this book is full of information about the paperback publishing business and how it evolved during those years (and we know that those who don’t remember the past…). 

The final words go to Will Errickson:

We can’t be certain that anyone is reading these books anymore. But we can hope. Because after all the monsters have flown away, hope is what’s left at the bottom of the box.

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review 2017-03-08 22:28
1970s Australia from the point of view of a child with an edge of creepiness and intrigue
The Silent Kookaburra - Liza Perrat

I write this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team and I was provided with an ARC copy that I voluntarily chose to review.

The story —set in an Australia richly brought to life by the writing that describes landscape, animals, trees, food, furniture, cars, lifestyle and social mores— is told in the first person by Tanya Randall. Adult Tanya is back in her childhood cottage and a newspaper cutting from 1973, which her grandmother kept, makes her remember that time when she was only eleven. The story of adult Tanya frames that of her childhood memories, which take up most of the book (I had almost forgotten that fact until the very end of the story).

Young Tanya is quite innocent (of course, she doesn’t think so), overweight (she eats compulsively, seemingly to comfort herself when the situation gets difficult at home, when they call her names, when she has any upsets or… most of the time. There are long lists of biscuits and other foods she consumes at an alarming pace, well-researched for the period, although I’m not familiar with them), and loves her mother, father, cat (that she insists on walking as if it were a dog, even if that brings her even more unwanted attention), dog, true crime magazines, and her friend Angelina, although not so much her grandmother, Nanna Purvis.

Seeing (or reading) things from a child’s point of view is a good way to reflect on how adult behaviour might appear to children and how difficult certain things might be to process and understand. Her mother’s miscarriages and depression (that keeps getting missed until very late in the novel), her secret uncle’s devious behaviour (it’s hard to read the scenes of Tanya with her uncle, as she’s clearly craving for attention and we know from early on where things are headed, but Tanya doesn’t and she finds it more and more difficult to extricate herself from the situation). The author is excellent at making us share her point of view and her thought processes that create an atmosphere of dread and impending disaster. The dualistic life view of young children, for whom everything is black or white is reflected perfectly in Tanya’s reactions to her grandmother (whom at first she doesn’t like at all but later, as she realises she’s the only one to stick by her, goes on to become complicit with) and to her uncle, who goes from being perfect to being a monster (although the novel suggests that he had also been a victim).

The novel is not easy to classify, although it comes under the thriller label, but it is a psychological exploration of childhood, memory, tragedy, the lies we tell ourselves, and also a work of historical (albeit recent history) fiction, as it beautifully recreates the time and place (down details such as hit songs, records of the era, bicycles, toys, cars, magazines, foodstuffs, clothing and hairdos) and even historical events, like the opening of the Sidney Opera House. There is something of a twist at the end, and plenty of secrets, like in most domestic noir novels, but for me, the strong points are the way the story is told, and some of the characters. Nanna Purvis (who is a fantastic character and proves that grandmothers are almost always right) has old-fashioned ideas about relationships, sexuality, religion and race, but manages to surprise us and has good insight into her own family. Tanya reminded me of myself at her age (although I read other types of books, I was also overweight and wasn’t the most popular girl at school, and we also lived with my mother’s mother, although thankfully my home circumstances were not as tragic) and she tries hard to keep her family together. Her point of view and her understanding are limited, and her actions and frame of mind repetitive at times (she munches through countless packets of biscuits, pulls at her cowlick often, bemoans the unattractive shape of her ears, wonders if she’s adopted) as it befits a character of her age and historical period (so close but yet so far. No internet, no social media, no easy way to access information). Real life is not a succession of exciting events; even at times of crisis, most of our lives are taken up by routine actions and everyday tasks. Her mother’s sinking into depression and her bizarre behaviour, which is sadly misunderstood and left untreated for far too long, rang a chord with me as a psychiatrist. It is an accurate portrayal of such conditions, of the effect the illness can have not only on the sufferers but also on the family, and of the reactions of the society to such illnesses (especially at the time). Uncle Blackie is also a fascinating character but I won’t say anything else as I want to avoid spoilers. Although the setting and the atmosphere are very different, it brought to my mind some of Henry James’s stories, in particular, What Maisie Knew and The Turn of the Screw.

This is a great novel that I recommend to those who are interested in accurate psychological portrayals, reflections on the nature of memory, and books with a strong sense of setting and historical period, rather than fast action and an ever changing plot. A word of warning: it will be difficult to read for those with a low tolerance for stories about child abuse and bullying. If you’re a fan of good writing that submerges you into a time and place and plunges you inside of a character’s head, with an edge of creepiness and intrigue, this is your book.

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review 2017-01-26 15:22
Falling in Death and Love- Magnus Stanke

     This is a good suspense thriller written with an easy read style and a good deal of wit. The 1970s setting in Mallorca works very well, as do the bunch of main characters. All of who are unique enough that one has little danger of confusion. We read into a holiday romance that promises to be so much more, and then for tragic reason proves to be life changing for one and life ending for the other.

     This is a plot easily ruined by knowing too much, like so many popular films one sees a week too late. Try to avoid reading the plethora of spoiler reviews. Not easy I know. As to the question of converting this book for film medias, it would make a gift of a screen script.

     I don’t usually manage to read books in a sitting, however good they are, and I didn’t quite manage with this one, but not through lack of trying. Young readers for who the ‘70s are ancient history, and older readers put off by early pages of period ‘hippiness’, read on, you won’t be disappointed. This really is a good adrenaline rush read, not just another middle-aged author dreaming up a regretfully missed life of dope, speed, and sex in the sun. And yes, Sushi chefs really were moving in on Europe right back when baby-boomers were still young, even though we associate Japanese style cuisine more with western city life in the new millennium.

     The book is so well written, especially when one accounts for the fact that Stanke is German, and writing in a second language, English. Correct me if I’m wrong, someone, but I don’t think this book has versions in German, Spanish, or any other language, and it certainly hasn’t been translated by anyone other than the author. Stanke has both a feel for language and the skill to weave a good yarn.



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review 2016-08-15 08:16
Love's Long Road- G. D. Harper

   The plot is set in the second half of the 1970s and is so well researched and or remembered, that it gave a really genuine feeling of realism to me, one who lived through this period and even visited some of its chosen physical spaces at a close chronological age to the main character. I short, this was read by me as accurate real-life fiction. Before reviewing I took the trouble to ask the author if he/she is a contemporary of that period. I got no answer, but I was informed that the book is ‘only’ fiction.
   I am surprised by a number of negative reviews I’ve read about this book. We all have our very individual and subjective opinions. Mine is that this is an excellent read. It is very journalistic in style, deeply psychological, and is as profoundly revealing of the main character in as much that isn’t said as is. This is really strong first person writing. What are any of us prepared to reveal of ourselves, of our strongest, often unflattering, behaviours? The mixed vulnerabilities and strengths of Bobbie were totally believable to me. One of the best drawn characters was only a ghost behind the story, until the very last pages, that being the father of an early tragic boyfriend of Bobbie’s.
   For me, the book is all the better as contemporary dramatic fiction for having a strong social message. In the end, it is a book of hope, harsh, brutal, real-life hope, but hope none the less. Unlike some reviewers I see this as a profoundly moral book, a morality drawn as much from the gutters of British life as from its more wholesome features.
   It is my belief that this book deserves readers and perhaps especially ones that believe they have no dirt in their own souls. This book seems to hurt a range of readers. That suggests to me that Harper has hit some very rusty old nails right on the head. Please don’t leave it too long before you get your hammer out again, G.D. Harper, whoever you are.


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