Category Archives: Book Reviews

My cultural highlights of 2021

In past years, I have always tried to conclude the writing year with wrap up of my top fiction/non-fiction reads. But this year I want to do something a little different and look more broadly at the culture that has sustained me in what has been another difficult and stressful 12 months, dominated, as it has for so many of us, by the Covid pandemic.

Film

As was the case in 2020, Covid meant that I spent far more time than I would’ve liked at home. So, most of the movies I watched had to be on the small screen. One of the standouts for me was a 1953 Argentinian retelling of Fritz Lang’s 1931 classic, M, called El Vampiro Negro or The Black Vampire. Helmed by one of Argentina’s most famous mid-century directors, Roman Vinoly Barreto, the story focuses the panic that engulfs Buenos Aires as children are stalked and murdered by a paedophile. Barreto particularly focuses on a nightclub singer and mother, played by Argentina’s equivalent of Marilyn Monroe, Olga Zubarry, who is the sole eyewitness to the child killer and who fears her daughter may be the next victim. Proof positive that classic noir was not just a North American phenomena, El Vampiro Negro is a powerful film, stunningly restored by the US Film Noir Foundation.… Read more

Pulp Friday: Torn shirts & maneaters

Today’s Pulp Friday post looks at two pulp-related projects that I think should be on your radar.

The first is Michael Stradford’s Steve Holland: The Torn Shirt Sessions. Many of you have probably have not heard of Steve Holland but if you collect pulp paperbacks, I can almost guarantee that you will have seen his face on covers that you have from the 1950s to the 1980s. Holland was one of the foremost paperback cover models over this period and certainly the most used male model I am aware of.

While I was familiar with Holland’s chiselled features from the cover art of numerous books in my possession long before I realised who he was, since learning his name it seems like I, literally, cannot go into second-hand bookshop or browse pulp art the internet without stumbling across him. He not only modelled for paperbacks, but for the covers of men’s adventure magazines and comic books, in every conceivable genre. In the process, he worked with some of the foremost pulp illustrators of the 20th century, including Mort Kunstler, Roger Kastel, and Ron Lesser, just to name a few.

One of the characters Holland is most closely associated with is Doc Savage, The Man of Bronze. A fictional character who first appeared in American pulp magazines in the 1930s, Doc Savage transitioned to the paperback format in the mid-1960s.… Read more

Book review: The Real Diana Dors

One of the reasons I was interested in reading Anna Cale’s recently released biography of the late British actress Diana Dors, The Real Diana Dors, is that I was curious to test out what I thought I knew about Dors and the reality of her life. What I was pretty certain about, and Cale confirms, is that Dors was stereotyped from the beginning of her career as either the sultry femme fatale bad girl or, as she herself once wrote, ‘the flighty, sexy little thing who pops in and out of the story whenever a little light relief seems to be called for.’

What I didn’t know, that Cale’s book taught me, was what a determined, serious, and hard headed performer Dors was. She accumulated a hundred screen credits in a career that began with her first bit part in the 1947 crime drama, The Code of Scotland Yard, to her last film role, Steaming, which appeared in 1985, a year after she died at the age of just 54. She resisted attempts to stereotype when she could, and no doubt like a lot of post war actresses undoubtedly had the talent and drive to be even bigger if not for various factors, of which beginning her career in the morally conservative, sexually hypocritical Britain of the late 1940s and early 1950s, was a major one.… Read more

Book Review: The Snow Was Dirty

For reasons that I have not quite been able to pinpoint, over the last couple of years I have found myself reading more and more older crime fiction. The most recent of these was on the recommendation of a US crime writer I have recently had a bit to do with on Twitter, called Max Thrax, Georges Simenon’s The Snow Was Dirty – or Dirty Snow as it appears in some territories – originally published in 1946.

I had, of course, heard of Simenon but must come clean that before doing some research about him as a result of reading The Snow Was Dirty, knew virtually nothing about him or his work. Indeed, without any basis, I had dismissed as a writer of cosy procedurals.

No one knows exactly how many books Belgium born Simenon wrote over the course of his career. There are not many authors you can say that about. He started off in the 1920s, like so many mid century writers, as a pulp hack, working under a bewildering variety of pseudonyms. In the 1930s he started to churn what would become approximately 75 novels featuring the fictional French police detective, Jules Maigret, many of which were subsequently adapted for radio and the screen, large and small.… Read more

Book Review: Jane Gaskell’s A Sweet, Sweet Summer

One of the authors I really wanted to include among those examined in the third book I have co-edited with my friend, Iain McIntyre, Dangerous Visions and New Worlds: Radical Science Fiction, 1950 to 1985, was British writer, Jane Gaskell. In particular her novel, A Sweet, Sweet Summer, first published in hardback by Hodder and Stoughton in 1969. To be honest, as is so often the case, what first attracted me to finding out more about this title was the cover of the 1971 Sphere edition, with its uniquely early 1970s dystopian take on the female juvenile delinquent. It’s a wonderful piece of photographic paperback art, of the sort that the British did so well at the time, no doubt cheaply done (in all likelihood the model was one of the typists in the Sphere office), but very effective.

Plans to include Gaskell in Dangerous Visions and New Worlds were scuppered by the fact that I simply could not find a copy of A Sweet, Sweet Summer anywhere at a price that I could even remotely afford. The book is incredibly rare and has not been republished. Indeed, as I discovered when I posted an image of the cover above on Twitter – long after Dangerous Visions and New Worlds had been put to bed – I just was one of many bibliophiles who had been on the lookout for an affordable second-hand copy of this Gaskill book.… Read more