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Category Archives: Book Reviews

I occasionally review books as part of hosting my podcast (No Deodorant In Outer Space) and for my own enjoyment. My written reviews can be found on Goodreads.com, Amazon.com, Barnesandnoble.com and here.

Review: “Altered States” by Paddy Chayefsky (3 Stars)

Review: “Altered States” by Paddy Chayefsky (3 Stars)

Urgent and practical prose bolstered with dialog, that at times, feels weighted with jargon while fully acknowledging the supremacy of story, and at other times—stabs right into the heart of humanity.

The story is driven by mankind’s mad, singular, all-encompassing quest to break through the illusory perceptions of reality and discover what’s behind existence. We follow the main character (Eddie) who serves as both protagonist and antagonist over the years as he explores the boundaries of science. The plot centers around the main character ingesting hallucinogens and seeking the solace of an isolation tank almost as if he is attempting to time travel. He’s actually trying to go back into a sort of collective unconsciousness to search out early man–the archetype of the noble savage. Eddie’s looking not only to go on a “trip” of his mind, but to break through the boundaries and perceptions of reality to the heights of spirituality and the depths of physics. He wants to breach past notions of time and space in a cosmic way. Yet, it is a personal quest.

In many ways the prose reads as a sort of modern Jules Verne type tale with the author shoving layers of scientific theory and research into the story to explain what’s going on. The overall read is smoother than older literature and the occasional dumps of jargon and theory are always countered with genuine passages of character emotion and grounded action. I found myself skipping over a lot of the technical talk (as I have in other such books), but the terminology is appropriate to the subject and may be more appealing to others looking for hard science in their fiction. The point is that the author is a highly skilled storyteller and hits all the right beats he should even with the heavy tech references.

There were definitely science fiction elements and even some horror present in this tale. What I enjoyed most was that everything felt realistic and tension was maintained without going overboard on the action. This reads primarily like a thriller, moving fast and light. It was very visual and the author’s steeped and much lauded background in television and film sort of came through almost as if I was reading a three-act structure screenplay (which he eventually did too—when this was adapted to film).

What the author is known for is his dialog in screen plays. This is present in the novel. There are masterful monologues where the characters give grand, yet grounded speeches professing their innermost hopes, fears, and desires. These give real gravity to the material and bolster the more fantastical elements—not that those were flimsy. The crescendo of this novel is as fitting as any such solid movie of its caliber. My only complaint, and perhaps I went into reading this with some bias having researched the author a bit beforehand, was that sometimes the shorter bits of dialog felt a little stilted and redundant (the quick back and forth). Also, the other characters who also tell the story (the wife and colleagues of Eddie), felt a bit two-dimensional at times. Though this was not always the case, and when the author allowed them to fall into monologues of their own, they did come alive.

Another interesting aspect of this book was the way the author made the main character compelling despite his unlikable personality. He’s driven to the point of neglecting those around him. Yet, he’s aware of his faults. Not that his awareness will stop him. He’s simply not a monster (ironically). In many ways the main character is searching for himself in his scientific quest to alter his own consciousness. It’s like he knows there is something wrong with himself and that things might be better if only he could get outside of his own head. He is in continual quest for a primal consciousness. A more primitive self. A simpler more animalistic time. Which is a counterpoint to his own personality that comes across almost robotic.

On the book’s jacket the author noted that he was thinking about the intersection of science, philosophy, and spirituality. This book very much explores that idea. The characters are all scientifically driven, however they get into such heady and technical science that the clear answers drift away and everything becomes just as fuzzy as spirituality might be considered.

In the end, it seems that the author is saying all these elements in life which appear to be in conflict with one another (i.e. spirituality and science), are actually in conversation with one another. That they come together in the final equation.

I don’t necessarily recommend this book for everyone, but it is a curiosity for those looking to explore another aspect of this famous script writer’s body of work or as a further exploration of the film—and, perhaps those looking for lots of science theory in their science fiction.

Podcast: If you enjoy my review (or this topic) this book and the movie based on it were further discussed/debated in a lively discussion on my podcast: “No Deodorant In Outer Space”. The podcast is available on iTunes, Tune-In Radio, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music, YouTube or our website (www.nodeodorant.com).

Episode Link: https://nodeodorantinouterspace.wordpress.com/2019/01/15/review-altered-s…-paddy-chayefsky/

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Posted by on January 15, 2019 in Book Reviews

 

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Review: “The Devil Rides Out” by Dennis Wheatley (4 Stars)

A near-perfect adventure story bolstered by a well-researched study of the occult; full of daring, cunning and romance.

Dennis Wheatley writes quickly and keeps the stakes high. He masterfully balances the provision of vital information and background with stake raising in the plot game. Most of his skill lies here. The storyline feels effortless despite the amount of research he manages to doll out along the way. There are those critical of his prose and dialog, and Wheatley himself even admitted as such—still nothing gets in the way of the plot or the continual and subtle way he integrates his research.

This is the second book to use his familiar cast of aristocratic do-gooders: the Duc De Richleau, Rex van Ryn, Simon Aaron and Richard Eaton. The author does a good job of balancing the characters with different strengths and weaknesses, while still providing strong moral centers for each. One of my favorite aspects of this book was the fact that the very wise and learned Duc De Richleau was not infallible and that he got things wrong at times—despite his almost superhuman knowledge of the supernatural forces the protagonists were up against. 

The chief antagonist is a portly fellow named “Mocata” (a perfect name for a villain by the way). He is deliciously developed with an almost comical revulsion, and yet with sufficient charisma to corrupt as befitting his reputation. The secondary evil-doers compliment Mocata and add to the mystique and world-building of this occult-centric story. Wheatley does an okay job of keeping the female characters part of the action, but he could have done better. Princess Marie Lou serves to add to the world building with her exotic backstory, but Tanith Carlisle and Fleur feel a bit more like plot devices. Tanith does provide a sort of fatalistic, romantic subplot—but this gets a little shortchanged at the finish when it comes to a convenient end.

Some criticisms I have for this book have to do with the stakes and ending. Much of the book centers around chasing after the evil practitioners of black-magic whom are hell-bent on kidnapping and corrupting (or worse) the loved ones of our fearless group. The motivations behind this are explained satisfactorily enough. However, when the underlying goal of the ring leader is revealed and then the fate of the entire world hangs in the balance—I felt that it lacked some of the weight which it presupposed.

Here the story seemed to have a bit of the episodic feel to which it was written. The real peril which was professed did not feel quite real enough. Even though the story expands beyond the proximity of English countryside and the cast of characters grows, it’s not quite enough to give that full believability that turmoil would be felt beyond the circle of characters we’d already been introduced to. 

The ending too falters a tad (as other reviewers have noted). It’s fitting enough for the story which has been woven and Wheatley introduces enough elements to set things up for the ultimate conclusion. However, the bow is tied a little too neatly and all the plotlines are wrapped up a little too conveniently. Again, here, we feel that pressing episodic feel in which the author needs to hit the “reset” button to bring things to a resolution so that all will be ready for the next installment. Like a modern-day sitcom.

Despite my criticisms, the story is fun and contains all the veracity of a Jules Verne novel, but without feeling the weight of the labor involved. A great adventure story with horror elements based thoroughly and effortlessly in a scholarly bed of research. Enjoyable and informative.

I would like to add that I have read the 2013 reprint by Bloomsbury Reader, which I suspect to contain some editing to make this work more appealing to the sensibilities of modern readers without entirely sacrificing the original prose.

Podcast: If you enjoy my review (or this topic) this book and the movie based on it were further discussed/debated in a lively discussion on my podcast: “No Deodorant In Outer Space”. The podcast is available on iTunes, Tune-In Radio, Stitcher, Google Play Music, YouTube or our website (www.nodeodorant.com).

Episode Link: https://nodeodorantinouterspace.wordpress.com/2017/01/17/review-the-devil-rides-out-dennis-wheatley

 
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Posted by on January 17, 2017 in Book Reviews

 

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Review: “The Golden Compass” by Philip Pullman (4 Stars)

A tale told by a crackling, comforting fire while the bitter northern winds gust dangerously against the window panes outside.

This book starts a bit slowly at first, but then kicks up into high-adventure and keeps this pace to the end. Pullman’s writing is very good and he manages to capture a perfect voice for the main character of Lyra as she negotiates this strange world populated by anthropomorphic soul-animals, witches, ghasts, and armored bears.

In reading this book, I felt reminiscent of the that sweet, nostalgic tone achieved by C.S. Lewis in “The Narnia Chronicles.” Perhaps this is simply due to the omniscient point of view in which the narrators guide one along in these comparable fantasy works. There is something comforting when you feel as if a story is being told you by a dear old friend while at the same time you’re being truly immersed in the narrative. That is a subtle art in which the author must carefully balance the use of the narrative voice so as not to feel intrusive or too expositional. I think there is something in the human psyche that responds to this mode of storytelling that harkens back to our ancient oral traditions.

The work is not particularly a “Christian” one, even though I am mentioning The Narnia Chronicles which are more overtly Christian in their telling. Pullman does draw on the dogma, practices, history and teachings of the Christian Religion to create his fantasy world and also to better illustrate what is happening and drive the plot along. However, unlike The Narnia Chronicles, the institutional nature of religion plays a much bigger and more nefarious role in The Golden Compass. That being said, this particular tale is not overly caught up with this theme. During some portions the religious aspect is missing altogether—though I admit that it does make up an important part of the book. So in essence, I am saying that however critical this book might be toward the institutional aspect of religion—it is not solely concerned with that point.

The world created by Pullman feels rather unique, even though it is a secondary world not unlike our own (in many ways). He devises a magical system utilizing a special dust-like substance; and souls that live outside the body in animal forms called daemons. This feels very authentic and manages to be quite delightful. Probably the strongest and most developed part of the book is the relationship Lyra has with her own daemon.

Other elements of the story come flying in as Lyra (the protagonist), takes up her quest to deliver a magical item to a far off and dangerous land. She meets interesting, fun and compelling characters all along the way. My only gripe is that at times, these non-player-character-types seem to drop on and off screen as needed. So too, does the adventure seem to proceed along one step at a time. The feel of this story is that as the protagonist progresses, the author foreshadows the next event, a challenge is overcome and the protagonist advances to the next level. A bit mechanical—not exactly contrived, but somewhat stilted. The writing is really great and the plot has a lot of fun and interesting elements that leave you anxious to see things through. There is just something a bit….in the background…missing… Perhaps it was the dropping away of secondary characters without a lot of follow through on their individual subplots? But, maybe that would have just slowed things down? I’m not sure.

All in all, I have no real problems with this book. It’s very well written, a great read and I’d definitely recommend it and am curious to read more. Mainly though, the author has a great voice for his story telling and that is what really pulls you in.

Podcast: If you enjoy my review (or this topic) this book and the movie based on it were further discussed/debated in a lively discussion on my podcast: “No Deodorant In Outer Space”. The podcast is available on iTunes, Tune-In Radio, Stitcher, Google Play Music, YouTube or our website (www.nodeodorant.com).

Episode Link: https://nodeodorantinouterspace.wordpress.com/2016/12/19/review-the-golden-compass-philip-pullman

 
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Posted by on December 20, 2016 in Book Reviews

 

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Review: “Man In The High Castle” by Philip K. Dick (4 1/2 Stars)

Review: “Man In The High Castle” by Philip K. Dick (4 1/2 Stars)

A story of subtle nuances containing picturesque fables that compound reality in philosophic deep strokes.

This story is told from seven different points of view which include the unlikely characters of: a judo instructor; an antique dealer; a publisher; and a craftsman. Not what you would expect from a story about an alternate history where the axis powers (Japan and Germany) win World War II and divide up pieces of the world.

Most refreshing, was PKD’s choice of setting the story in a timeline after World War II. He establishes a plot just far enough along that the main historical players are still walking around in the background, which roots the story into the reader’s subconscious. Yet, the world has moved on from active conflict. The tale centers around a society that is getting on with things. A drawback for this is that he’s not giving you much action like you might normally get in an alternate history centered around World War II.

That said, there is always some violence lurking in the background (on the other side of reality or the other side of a door). The story is full of gamesmanship, surreptitious politics and cultural conflicts. However, as noted by other reviewers, this is mostly in the inner monologues of the Point-of-View, characters, which proves fascinating as the characters continually strategize and second guess their ways through the surrounding clash of cultures.

This book felt very different when compared to some of the other works by PKD I have read (not many). The prose felt the tightest and most polished I’ve seen from him. That said, PKD seemed to make a purposeful, stylistic choice when building out the voice for the individual characters and he wrote many of them in a staccato, broken-type of prose when monologuing their internal thoughts. This gave the sentences an “alien-like” feel and threw off the reading a bit, but was not too distracting. The distinction between thoughts and dialog also served as a continual reminder to the reader that the current reality is not the same reality that they themselves inhabit.

In typical PKD fashion there is a never-ending stripping away of reality’s onion skin layers. Behind everything going on, someone or some thing is driving the currents of life in different directions. The characters, at times, all feel lost and flailing among the forces around them—but then again—don’t we all have these moments?

To find order and meaning, many of the characters turn to an ancient Chinese divination book that acts as an oracle. The randomizing patterns in this tome make reference to philosophical expositions which can put a certain “lens” on current events or things to come. Yet, as with most fortunetelling, interpretation is everything. PKD does manage to find a way to use this device in a masterful and unconventional way and tie many of the plot points together. The denouement is simply bursting with all the existential genius which this author is famous for. Just a great picture of how much, seemingly unrelated things can affect other things.

So much of this story is focused on the individual. So readers looking for Nazi showdowns against Imperial Japan might be a bit disappointed. There is action in this book and it is powerful and pointed when it happens, but as I said previously, it is used sparingly. Instead, PKD uses the historical and cultural ques of the Axis powers to build his world in a framework that echoes the existential struggles facing his characters.

As each of the individuals struggles to find their place in the world, so too do the new nations ebb and flow in living reality (or unreality), finding their new place on the changed landscape.

This is well worth a read and probably a re-read. PKD’s prose is not intimidating, though it may put off some at first, it always compliments the heavier philosophies running beneath the surfaces of his works. The Man in the High Castle is no different. However, it feels much tighter. The ending though, is probably typical of a PKD work. A great read for a clear mind, but not necessarily a casual get away.

Podcast: If you enjoy my review (or this topic) this book and the movie based on it were further discussed/debated in a lively discussion on my podcast: “No Deodorant In Outer Space”. The podcast is available on iTunes, Tune-In Radio, Stitcher, Google Play Music, YouTube or our website.

Episode Link: https://nodeodorantinouterspace.wordpress.com/2016/11/15/review-the-man-in-the-high-castle-philip-k-dick

 
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Posted by on November 15, 2016 in Book Reviews

 

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Review: “The Hellbound Heart” by Clive Barker (3 1/2 Stars)

A carnal visage of thrill-based plotting that is both fast and to the point…that being the tip of a meat hook.

This tale is told from differing points of view. The story’s initial character, Frank, is wrought with hedonistic addictions that can no longer be satiated through earthly delights. Instead, Frank, uses his seedy contacts in the underworld to push his fingers through quivering portals which grant access to other planes of existence.

Clive Barker’s prose is airy and meaty at the same time. When the gate opens, this author is off to the races and deftly capturing the horrific tones he aims to achieve. Along the way he manages to let storyline stub its toes and scrape its knees along the ground just enough to make sure the reader is paying attention (without overdoing things).

The characters in this fast-paced novella all have issues. Each of them wrestles with banal afflictions based in selfish desires. Barker manages to intertwine their journeys through familial relationships and themes of unrequited love—contrasted by base desires. Each person’s fate is wrapped up in the others. Then Barker throws open a supernatural gate to hellish dimensions, and lets the demons feast on all the weakness and short comings that have been laid bare.

The demons, Cenobites, are unique entities that have managed to capture horror fans everywhere in their unique yet familiar perspective. Barker etches out the barest flesh of this secondary world and utilizes the fantastical elements sparingly, mostly preferring the humans to bring about their own demise (as they wont to do) and letting the Cenobites play clean up. There is always a choice, perhaps not a clear choice or an easy choice, but the characters in this novella all take matters into their own hands. And pay for their choices.

I must say that this short story took me back to younger days, when I would stay up late cracking the spine of an old Stephen King tome—every once in a while looking up to make sure that a dimensional rift hadn’t opened up behind me without my noticing. It’s a fun tale of terror that moves along at an impeccable pace and takes enough shots at your gut to make you think twice about our baser human leanings. In contrast to King, however, Barker’s prose is much less wordy.

The story has a good mix of immoral complexities and supernatural interferences to give the characters a healthy dose of agency and make you concerned about their wants/needs/goals, whether from aghast or earnest emotion. You simply have to find out if they might pull this off, or if you know they won’t—how far they’ll get before it all comes apart.

All in all, a solid read. If anything, I would have liked to see more of the Cenobites, but perhaps that was the point. Too much of the supernatural element might have lessened the effect.

Podcast: If you enjoy my review (or this topic) this book and the movie based on it were further discussed/debated in a lively discussion on my podcast: “No Deodorant In Outer Space”. The podcast is available on iTunes, Tune-In Radio, Stitcher, Google Play Music, YouTube or our website (www.nodeodorant.com).

Episode Link: https://nodeodorantinouterspace.wordpress.com/2016/10/18/review-the-hellbound-heart-1986-by-clive-barker

 
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Posted by on October 18, 2016 in Book Reviews

 

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Review: “The Lathe of Heaven” by Ursula K. Le Guin (4 1/2 Stars)

A refreshing philosophical exploration into high-concept esoteric questions draped in all the brilliant colors of science fiction.

This is a tale rooted in the exploration of hubris in its broadest sense. Whatever array of the political spectrum you subscribe too, the story will speak to you.

The plot centers around the personal struggle of George Orr who is blessed and (mostly) cursed with the ability to change reality through his dreams. This Midas-like touch tortures the protagonist due to his inability to completely control his dreams and avoid the unintended consequences.

You might be able to boil this story down to the simple posit that this is what happens when one is granted god-like powers. Not an exactly new storyline [Insert magic lamp and rub]. However, the author’s unique take is that Orr’s dreams don’t exactly change things for individuals. Instead the changes are realized more so on the macro level, which in turn affects the individual to varying degrees.

Le Quin manages to stencil in distinct and sympathetic personalities with the three main characters of this novella without excessive prose. She shies away from the trappings of rote evil and refuses to prop up some symbolic villain to be slain (I understand this to be a theme with her writings). That said, I did find myself searching for the design of evil lurking in among the fringe motivations of the characters. Everyone in this book seems to want to do the good that they see fit to do (don’t we all). However, I will contrast her writing with other authors like George R. R. Martin who also explore the many gray facets of imperfect personhood. In this novel, there is no deep-seeded, nefarious mystery that must be dredged up to elicit a sympathetic revelation for the reader.

Instead, Le Guin, has developed characters who pursue a hero’s journey that is guided more so by their philosophical ideals than by any personal faults or weaknesses. That is not to say the characters are without personal struggle and conflict. They still must question their loyalties to their own beliefs and the limits of their abilities to carry out their convictions. The struggle is thoughtful and heartfelt. The pain real. Life, reality and living are incredibly complicated without the forces of evil laying out traps and undermining one’s best efforts. Even the best of intentions cannot come without unforeseen consequences (credit: Gandalf: “Even the wise cannot foresee all ends.”).

Le Quin also has a sweet and subtle way of gently weaving in some Taoist philosophies into the storyline without any pedantic overtones. Her juxtaposition of these eastern notions against a more concerted western altruism is compelling. So too is her ability to create a world that is constantly changing with characters who must perceive more than one reality at once. Le Quin is dealing with something akin to writing about time-travel and all the confusing questions and inconsistencies that can abound from such a storyline. Here her masterful prose paints a perfect and understandable story as she tackles multiple realities at the same time and yet still manages to move things impossibly forward (with a protagonist whose chief talent is to hit the BIG reset button every time he sleeps). And she does it with such ease and such spare masterful prose that you simply float through. It would be so easy for another writer to become mired in the mechanics of such concepts.

Podcast: If you enjoy my review (or this topic) this book and the movie based on it were further discussed/debated in a lively discussion on my podcast: “No Deodorant In Outer Space”. The podcast is available on iTunes, Tune-In Radio, Stitcher, Google Play Music, YouTube or our website (www.nodedorant.com).

 
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Posted by on September 20, 2016 in Book Reviews

 

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Review: “Roadside Picnic” by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (5 Stars)

A moody morass rallying against the gray walls of reality, in perfect tone.

This book lilts like a weather-beaten gravestone, sunk in a forest cemetery littered amongst the broken fragments of classic science fiction tropes. Originality shines through in the story line and voice of the authors (and translator—I read the 2012 translation). The plot laps in along the written words in understated waves, cutting into the psyche as silent and nondescript as a straight razor.

The characters are displaced misfits revolving in orbital magnetism around demarcated zones. These “zones” are the site of past visitations from unidentified extraterrestrial beings. In the wake of these visits the aliens have left behind foreign objects that imbue strange physics of unknown purpose. An interesting premise that immediately goes off the rails when it’s revealed that nobody knows anything about the aliens; and that none of this is precipitating a massive invasion. The aliens came and went without saying hello, goodbye or cleaning up after themselves when they exited the planet. What’s left is their junk. Commence story.

The science fiction elements in this tale are subtle and yet present in perfect form. There is no ambiguous allusion to the weird or otherworldly. Strange things happen that are not of this earth, but not in any kind of grandiose fashion. Yes, the planet and mankind’s destiny is forever changed, but not in the way that some Hollywood script might explore. Also absent are long diatribes mining over the murkier parts of dark science. This is not hard sci-fi.

The focus tends to be more on the interpersonal relationships of the characters who live on the fringes of the alien zones and how their immediate, domestic lives are affected. Relationships, work, local politics all center around a black market of trade that has evolved and devolved based on the supply and demand of skilled human workers who can negotiate the dangerous obstacles in the zones and retrieve some of the coveted alien pieces for further study.

There is no quest. Well, that’s not entirely true, but the story is not so much about getting the sacred “boon” to save the world as it is about what we happen to learn about ourselves in our quest to know and understand—everything. Lots of questions are posed and the actions of the characters feel almost like poetic gestures poised against the eternal esoteric void of the universe. I’ve seen some reviewers read a “faith-type” journey into this story. I also feel compelled toward this view, but not in any specific denominational sense. I felt that the protagonist was on a spiritual journey of some sort. Almost like a vision quest. He throws himself into the dangerous zones as if he is throwing himself at the universe. Daring to be understood.

So much of the story is beyond the words and obtuse. Much is left to interpretation. Yet, things are not so abstract as to put off a straight reading. Very concrete events happen that can be tracked and followed. There just seems to be the perfect amount of an ethereal aura present that the story is transported up out of the gloomy-gray of the abandoned and ever-decaying zones, and lifted into an eternity of human existence. The experience is haunting and thought provoking.

This is one of the few books I’d like to come back and re-read to see what I’ve missed and what other universal truths I could glean from the prose. And yet, it’s not because the writing is so complex or the ideas so foreign. This work contains significant bones, multi-layered in the simple genius that I long for in a masterpiece.

Podcast: If you enjoy my review (or this topic) this book and the movie based on it were further discussed/debated in a lively discussion on my podcast: “No Deodorant In Outer Space”. The podcast is available on iTunes, Tune-In Radio, Stitcher, Google Play Music, YouTube or our website (www.nodeodorant.com).

Episode Link: https://nodeodorantinouterspace.wordpress.com/2016/08/16/review-roadside-picnic-arkady-and-boris-strugatsky/

 
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Posted by on August 16, 2016 in Book Reviews

 

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