Tag Archives: review

Postcard #13: The case of the dangerous dowager

After something of a hiatus (sorry, dear reader), we’re back with postcard number 13 – lucky for some, but apparently not for this poor disillusioned reviewer, who clearly feels about as thrilled by this novel as a reclusive Scrooge with a headache at the annual office Christmas party.

To be honest, I can see their point. Perry Mason novels are hardly lauded for their depth of character and literary genius. A Booker winner this is not. Wooden dialogue and crude character development are unquestionably the order of the day. 

But isn’t that the point – just a little bit? Crime fiction – that old hard-boiled American detective novel – takes its stylistic heritage from 1920s pulp fiction – which offered mass-produced, cheap and affordable fiction to Britain and the US for the first time. Unrealistic, poorly-written, sexist and stereotypical? Sure.

But a bit of a guilty pleasure? …I’ll leave that up to you.


The cover was created by Polish designer Romek Marber. His template for the separation of the cover (horizontal bands at the top) is now known in the industry as the Marber grid. Fact.


Gardner takes his reader to a time of gambling, sexism, and boring masculine stereotypes. If you can get over how completely flat and unrealistic the characters are, it’s an easy read with a completely unrealistic plot line to match. I’ll stay away from detective novels from now on.

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BREAKING NEWS – Acclaim for Helen Eustis’ masterpiece:
‘A good read’
‘A great deal of… wit’
‘This book should be read’

Err… Or perhaps not.

I have to admit, it’s at times like this I feel a pang of guilt for unleashing the burden of the Penguin Postcard Project on its poor discerning victims. And this review started off so promisingly, too. Truth be told, though, I’m quite tempted to read The Horizontal Man anyway. Our reviewer pulls it to pieces… but really rather affectionately. Maybe.

Did you know? This book won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best First Novel by An American Author in 1947. I’m willing to bet our reviewer wouldn’t have voted for it…

The Horizontal Man is a good read, simply for how awful it is. It’s best captured by a sentence in the author’s bio: ‘Helen Eustis… attended Smith College, where she won a medal for creative writing, a degree, and her 1st husband…’ Set at a women’s college, the story involves a dead poet, a disturbed student coming close to failing her degree, a geeky student winning her (1st?) boyfriend, and a great deal of forced wit and insipid storyline. The unconvincing banter between the characters, however, is the reason why this book should be read: entertaining for the one-liners as well as the second-order sneer that anyone could honestly write it.

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This is what I call making the most of your postcard.

Over three hundred words, along with the creative use of a highlighter pen and a small-but-perfectly-formed drawing of a car, have conspired to create this little gem of a review. I love the incongruous snowboarder making his way off stage-right, and the fact that we have to improvise the words that have been lost beneath the stamp.

There’s not much more I can, or should, add to this splendid thing, so I’ll let it speak for itself.


Did you know? Peter Cheyney, not content as just a writer, was also ‘a fencer of repute, a golfer, a crack pistol-shot, and a jiu-jitsu expert.’

[review transcribed from unappreciated curvaceous secretary of Callaghan] In a spare minute between bandies, hailing Berkley Square cabs, cigarette offerings and answering to my alias ‘Slim’, I have a proposition for you. You won’t like […it…] but I assure your it’s better than anythin[g] else you’ll be offered. Just write me [a] cheque for £5,000 and don’t ask questions. If you deduce the nature of t[he] review by the outset I will tear up the cheque, or alternatively dispo[se] of your doped up girlfriend (with the nice fitting clothes). We’ll get […] somehow and who the hell cares how! The motto of my private investigation firm lives up to every word. Smoke? You’ll be lulled into that seems a sterile case, solved from the outset. Last night I was out on the San Pedro, a nice boat, good lines, inspected a murder between the crook Raffano and a young cad, who shot each other through the heart and lungs in a row over dough. Simple wrap up, one day job you say? Throw in Azelda, the sweet faced junkie, Mrs Riverton, an empress in ocelot, old Kells, and a pair of swimming trunks, and you have the makings of hard boiled detective fiction at its best. The tone drives an iciness into your very soul, dislodged only by copious underworld cigars and fixing tough men in shadows with razor blades in your fists. It’s a shame my respect for decent women is occasionally lost in telling them I have more experience in my little finger than they have ‘in the entire area of their nice figures’. But it’s a good thing it’s the forties and they love that sort of thing! Read it, I’ll distract the doorman and get the Jag. The reviewer of this book is a nice sort.
Keira Dickinson www.ragandboneman.org

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Here at PPPHQ (got to love an acronym), we don’t like to be judgemental. This project is, after all, rooted in creativity – a hundred different takes on a hundred different books from a hundred different places around the world.

But we can’t help but feel as though one reviewer might have missed the point. Postcard #8 came tumbling through the letterbox… housed snugly in its own little envelope (as you’ll see, since there’s no stamp or postage mark). It does bear a couple of lines of review, but the main book analysis was on a separate piece of paper inside the envelope. Well, it’s certainly one way to get around that whole pesky ‘fitting a review on the back of a postcard’ issue. And it means we get to see the lovely little penguin strutting his stuff at the top right. So it’s not all bad.

Tempted as we were to omit the paper review from the blogpost on grounds of objection, it seemed rather against the spirit of the thing, so here is review #8 and its addendum in all their glory. It sounds as though HG Wells’ On The Rights of Man is somewhat less riveting than the science fiction he’s best known for – even though such work also clearly expounds his socialist outlook (dystopian worlds flourish in novellas like The Time Machine).

I think I’ll stick to Wells’ sci-fi output for now – but have a little more respect for the man in knowing that he fought hard, and earnestly, for social equality at a time when others did not.

Did you know? HG Wells was diabetic. In fact, he founded the charity Diabetics UK. #pubquiztrivia

‘Possibly the mouldiest book I’ve read!’
A book full of opinions on rights and laws; would benefit from an injection of 1940s humour.
Not for the faint-hearted.

The Rights of Man – HG Wells
This book is part of a series of specials that Penguin produced. Written in 1940, this is a discussion essay looking at the rights of man, what these should be and why.
The book opens with two lectures that HG Wells had submitted during the Second World War. He discusses how man should understand what is being fought for – retaining human rights.
HG Wells outlines a 10-point declaration of rights and the book covers the discussion of these points; what they mean and why they are important.
While the book is quite dry (okay, very dry… 120 pages is tough going!), it does highlight issues then that are still issues we look at now, for example, removing racism and gender inequality.
Would I recommend it? Probably not. Unless you have a particular interest in this area of human rights and laws to coincide with them, you may find this isn’t the ideal read for you.
Jeni McNicoll
April 2012

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It’s Friday 13th, and nothing says spooky like hens and fluffy little bunny rabbits…

Here is postcard #5 for your viewing pleasure! I love the way our reviewer has placed the book in its context of wartime, and the ‘make do and mend’ mentality that went with it hand-in-hand. In the years spanning then and now, consumerism and globalisation have made everything our hearts desire instantly available for us at the click of a button – brand-new, same-day delivery, buy-one-get-one-free… Can’t help but feel we’re missing a trick somewhere along the way.

Although, come to think of it, the idea of brand-new, same-day delivery, buy-one-get-one-free fluffy little bunny rabbits isn’t such a bad one.

Bunnies, chicks, dancing penguins… animal OVERLOAD


I’ve never kept hens or rabbits so I’ve no idea if the advice within is any good. However, I have learnt that hens are ‘humble and slightly ridiculous creatures’ and how to build my own battery cages (?!) It seems fairly comprehensive and there’s much more than just advice on feeding, with tips + information on everything from buying to diseases to killing your animals humanely. I would definitely want to check modern sources too, but I quite like that it’s not been updated since 1941. The book captures, in a useful way, the wartime spirit of doing the very most with the very least, in a (sometimes unintentionally funny) matter-of-fact way.
Debbie Kinsey 08/04/2012

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Another day, another postcard – and this time it’s the turn of the wonderful P.G. Wodehouse, and My Man Jeeves.

Wodehouse (known to his friends and family, pleasingly, simply as Plum) is admired and loved today as much as ever he was. While his most famous creations of Jeeves and Wooster were just about as English as one could possibly be, Wodehouse himself became a naturalised (or should that be naturalized…) US citizen way back in 1955 – 20 years before his death. It was only earlier this year that it was revealed that Wodehouse was persistently refused immunity from UK prosecution should he ever return to this sceptred isle, for alleged war crimes after describing the German army as ‘a fine body of men’… Golly. You’d think they had more important things to worry about, really.

And now, not two months after this little revelation, one lonely postcard confirms – as we always knew – that Britain’s loss was truly America’s gain. The man whom Britain shunned remains, as ever, an undisputed national treasure.

Right ho, Jeeves – onwards!

I say – what a spiffing cover we have here

‘I say Jeeves! This book is absolutely ripping! One of our very best efforts.’
‘Oh, don’t be so modest, Jeeves. And while you’re there, bring me a whisky and soda?’
‘Certainly, sir. And might I just add, sir, how pleased I am that you have enjoyed our latest – how shall I say – adventure? Sir.’
‘Top stuff, Jeeves. Particularly like the one where you got me out of that ghastly engagement,’ I said, lighting a cigarette.
‘Will that be all, sir?’ said Jeeves. ‘Very good, sir. Thank you, sir.’
– Jenna Eyers, 6 April 2012

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April has arrived and with it another postcard review! This time it’s for Hotel Splendide, written by Austrian author Ludwig Bemelmans in 1942. (Little known fact: Bemelmans was also, apparently, an internationally known gourmet.)

Now, I wouldn’t exactly call this review gushing… but there’s something rather sweet it reveals about the book somehow; a meandering sense of purposelessness. Not that sweet, though: I’m going out on a limb here to say this has not made it to the top of my reading list. But then my reading list is a very long one, and ever-growing, so we shouldn’t hold that against it too much. A bit, but not too much.

Anyone else intrigued by the ending?

The end is the best bit: possibly not a good sign

Say what you like about the book, but who can spy these beautiful old Penguin cover designs and not feel a little bit happier inside?

I like a reviewer who can finish their sentences

1942: Hemingway had just published For Whom the Bell Tolls, Camus had just published L’Etranger, and Ludwig Bemelmans published this slice of fluff. A series of loosely connected vignettes and character sketches set upstairs and downstairs at the Hotel Splendide, it reads as what it was – a collection of pieces written for The New Yorker. My interest waned long before the end, which was only 140 pages from the beginning. Yet I can’t think of anything critical to say about it, beyond the fact that I can’t think of anyone I’d recommend it to. Plus it suddenly gets good in the last chapter, only to leave the story unfin— Jonathan Eyers, jonathaneyers.com/blog 02/04/2012

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If you’ve been feeling unnecessarily buoyed or heartened by our last review – which revelled in As You Like It‘s frivolity, silliness and general high jinks – I’ve got the perfect antidote for you. Postcard review #2 is in, and with it we are dragged back to earth with a resounding bump. 

The childlike, almost eerie cover illustration is brilliantly designed by Milton Glaser – the very same man who designed that ubiquitous 'I heart NY' logo. Does its simplicity sit uncomfortably with the dark and complex subject matter of the pages behind it? (The book cover, that is, not the NY logo.)

'Bleak' doesn't even cover it

'Updike’s novel is divided perfectly between the beauty of its prose and the ugliness of its content. The language – always present tense – is poetic, peaceful, transcendent. The depiction of working-class life is brutal, hopeless and terrifyingly real. Abandonment, alcoholism, abuse, tragedy and hopeless dependency allow no room for redemption or hope, which are continually dashed by human frailty. I wish I could read more Updike for his beautiful words but I cannot face his bleak reality.' Nicholas Price, London 17/03/2012

So there it is, laid bare for the world. And maybe it does have something in common with our previous review after all – a recognition of the author’s mastery of language – so beautiful that it gilds even the ugliest of sentiments, whether it’s Rabbit’s brutality in Updike’s classic, or, say, Iago’s moral bankruptcy in Shakespeare’s Othello

So, does the review make me love the book? No.

But does it make me want to read it? Well, yes, it sort of does. Devastating or no, how can one doubt the power of a narrative than provokes such a visceral response?

But what do you think? Have you read it, and do you agree with the review? Will you be picking up a copy?  

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It was a special moment when, groping inside the Penguin Postcard Project HQ mailbox, my hand came to rest on this anonymous little oblong card. The metaphorical gold star for first review goes unequivocally to Mr Thomas Green of York – congratulations! (Real ones, not metaphorical.)

And look – it’s typed up! For a fleeting moment, I supposed that to be some sort of obscure cheating – was using a computer to help you squeeze in 292 words really, you know, cricket?

But then I read the review, and loved it. I remembered all the reasons I love As You Like It, all the reasons I love Shakespeare, and all of the reasons I’ve been so excited to receive your postcard reviews. The thing was settled: far from fraudulent, it was absolutely in the spirit of the project to be creative and resourceful. It was the perfect start. One down, 99 to go!

I’d love to hear your comments – do you like it? Is it inspiring? Do you want to (re)read the play? Answers on a postcard… oh, on second thoughts… maybe just in the Comments box below.

Postcard design by C. Walter Hodges, 1956. Walter Hodges (1909–2004) was an illustrator and author whose lifelong attachment to the theatre led him to be heavily involved with the construction of Shakespeare’s Globe in London (the new one, obviously, not the 16th-century one). He designed costumes and scenery for the theatre throughout his life and once argued that ‘the theatre must be seen as a most powerful instrument in the social history of mankind’. Cool, huh?

This little bit of fluff is my favourite example of Shakespeare’s frothy mood. Don’t read it for a guide to natural history (a lioness in the Forest of Arden?), nor to the art of disguise (change a girl’s clothes, and her own father won’t know her); and don’t look for subtle studies of the growth of love, either: Orlando and Rosalind, Celia and Oliver, and unlucky Phebe all fall in true and eternal love at first glimpse. Equally abrupt are the two conversions from unmotivated villainy to sudden saintliness. Nor is it tightly plotted. Random events (the lioness) and persons (William) pop in from nowhere. In the second half Celia, important and engaging in the first half, suddenly fade out of view and just stands around monosyllabically, and Touchstone’s character and role become very different. Do read it for the down-to-earthiness – briskly sending up all rubbishy claims to be dying of love. And enjoy the set-piece speeches, including the Seven Ages of Man and Seven Types of Lie, though these are simply pasted in – I think Shakespeare wrote them for fun in his bath and stuck them in the play at random. Read it for Shakespeare’s usual stunning phrase-making, and for his compassion for all unlucky people. Some good songs, too. And of course, read it for the clever knot that tangles all the main characters, but comes apart will one pull on the end of the strong: the boy ‘Ganymede’ is revealed as the girl Rosalind, and all is sorted out. Above all read it for Rosalind’s bright repartee, especially with Orlando her would-be lover; and for the brilliant contrivance of presenting a boy actor pretending to be a girl pretending to be a boy pretending to be a girl. Thomas Green, York

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