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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: “The Haunting of Hill House (1959)” by Shirley Jackson (5 Stars)

A place of nuanced genius where psychological suspense meets the supernatural highlighting the lulls of reality in which we deceive ourselves while we all slowly tilt toward an inevitable yet unpredictable whizz-bang ending!

The story told by Jackson gives a loose account of the protagonist’s experiences at an alleged haunted house. The premise feels droll and full of artifice and the author paces the narrative in even fashion as we literally drive with the main character, Eleanor, to the story. However, the nuanced prose in which this story is wrought is delivered to us in a much more thoughtful manner than what initially appears.

We are first introduced to the protagonist and given clever details and insights into her personality and life experience before she walks past the guardian’s gate of supernatural terrors. All of this is done quick enough in this shortish book, but it leaves us with a very clear sense of who Eleanor is without the burden and weight of so much heavy prose. Perhaps this deft brevity is part of the genius of Shirley Jackson, for in counterbalance the elements which we come to readily expect in a tale of Gothic fiction bring about their own importance without unnecessary words or over-explanation. Of course, ambiguity is a classic tool in the genres of horror and weird fiction (a favorite element for me personally), though here none of it feels contrived.

The other aspect of writing carried through the narrative is the subtle way Jackson filters in the psychological elements of suspense for the protagonist which run in parallel to the rote pedantic educational expositions of the Doctor character and his wife, who serve more as checks on reality and sources of humor—another unsung element. Comedy and horror are sisters in their relationship of genre and they are often played against each other to great or ridiculous effect in film. Here, the comedy follows a sort of biting sarcasm to complement the evolving terror without jolting one out of the narrative, nor (and more importantly) as a cheap literary device designed to pull the emotional arc of the plot forward. Jackson’s use of humor feels original and different and in keeping with the characters. The absurd doesn’t feel so absurd or out of place. The laughs fit in with the growing dread and sense of helplessness in a sort of existential way.

The other characters occasionally tread near to crossing the danger line of becoming farcical and one dimensional, but we stay close to Eleanor in a ghostly sort of way. It is this unsettling closeness that breathes life and terror into the events that transpire. Our reader’s lens travels through Eleanor’s viewpoint and yet it somehow remains on the outside looking in. All of this fits together in the way that a picture might remain slightly out of focus, blurry enough to reveal all which needs seeing but also serving to make one feel uncomfortable—providing a sort of shifted-perspective on the story or on life itself. We acquire a genuine familiarity and relatability to Eleanor even as things go dark for her.

This story is heralded by many critics as the best haunted house story that ever was. Reading it in later times, after having read or seen or heard other efforts of horror in both literature or film or even in radio plays, one wonders who else might have drawn from this well. And then one reads along, nodding at the seemingly familiar mile posts expected along the way. However, as the narrative continues, we realize that the mile posts stopped following the highway somewhere a ways back and that now the path has transformed from the asphalt and straight lines of civilized society into the crooked and roughshod dirt of the untamed wilderness. By then, there is no choice but to meet doom’s end and seek the shrine of old and ancient divinities to find out just what’s become of oneself.  Suddenly, the familiar is not really as familiar as one suspected.

Don’t skip this one…get wholly lost in the darkness…and the terror inside.

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 Apple Podcast, Spotify, Tune-In Radio, Stitcher, Google Play Music, YouTube or our website (www.nodeodorant.com).

Episode Link: https://nodeodorantinouterspace.wordpress.com/2019/10/15/review-the-haunting-of-hill-house-shirley-jackson

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Posted by on October 15, 2019 in Book Reviews

 

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Review: “The Last Unicorn (1968)” by Peter S. Beagle (5 Stars)

Magical prose that flows in lyrical quality and somber notes in deft creation of a profound myth that is familiar and yet completely unique. Hope and regret and joy and sadness–a complete and wondrous tale!

The Last Unicorn is a quest story. With all the dire implications that its title bears the protagonist is indeed the last unicorn left in the world. She lives in joyful ignorance of this fact until cruel riddles from the sibyl whisperings of a magical creature hint at her true plight. She is alone.

So begins a journey out of the safety of the immortal world of the Unicorn and into the wider world of men and all the wicked and good that comes with that. The story has an air of a sort of coming of age tale mixed in with a winking nod at the classic hero’s journey. An unusual balance is achieved in the prose that intermixes whimsy and humor with a subtle sort of sadness. There is a strong voice throughout that manages this equilibrium with all the craft mastery of a mad genius.

Humor is a hard thing to write. To do it well is very rare. I would not label this book as a work of comedy similar to the efforts of other humorists in the fantasy or science fiction genre. Yet, whimsy is there and it works well to counter balance the more serious contexts that are being worked through with the over-arching plot. There are high stakes playing out. Folks risks themselves for worthy causes. The darkness threatens to dispel hope (as it so often does), and, of course, the characters must carry on and dutifully fulfill their fates.

The author’s writing is airy and light which makes for a fast read, but it maintains a certain weight to it throughout the book. There is also a lyrical quality to the voice and some actual bits of verse. I’m not usually a huge fan of song lyrics intermixed with prose, but they are done here well enough. This musical aspect sometimes compliments the dialog in an almost metered voice. The characters occasionally repeat themselves as if their words were pairing couplets at the end of a sonnet. That being said, there is none of it that is overwrought or reaching. Everything flows through to the end and is well paced in both rhythm, rhyme, meaning, and context.

The main characters in this story are all extremely memorable, however brief their appearance they are cast out onto the plot with grandiose colors and vivacious display leaping to life as they fret about with each of their own individual conflicts and concerns. The author cleverly weaves them into the protagonist’s mission. Whether they seek to thwart or aid, they are all a delight.

I was not surprised that this book has been turned into an animated feature, it reads very much like one. The whole while I read I could imagine the scenes being enacted and the songs being song. To an extent, most books do that, however this one had the feel of animation. I can’t remember if I saw the film years ago, but if I did I can’t quite recall it. The words themselves have a particular quality of levity that is different than the usual fare. Still, I was drawn into this story all the same and did not feel that these qualities undercut any of my empathy for the characters or their desires and needs and struggles.

The ending of the novel is also unique and very satisfying. It completes with the same air of familiarity as the characters and subject matter, but also something different. Things wrap up as they ought, yet with the right hints of joyful sadness that should come when there is a price paid to fight for what is right. A lesson of sacrifices and real consequences akin to old world faery tales. This harkening back to myths and legends is what makes the story feel familiar and the author’s playful use of language fits like a glove (or rather a chainmail gauntlet). In contrast, he also moves the narrative into untapped crevices and neglected niches of these classic genres managing to gain a unique and authentic hold of the monomyth.

It’s all done with a fresh and playful air and profound sincerity which has insured this story its place as an utter classic of the genre. The author has bespoke the dreams and aspirations of generations before and those yet to come creating a modern fairy tale enjoyable for all ages.

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 Apple Podcast, Spotify, Tune-In Radio, Stitcher, Google Play Music, YouTube or our website (www.nodeodorant.com).

Episode Link: https://nodeodorantinouterspace.wordpress.com/2019/09/17/review-the-last-unicorn-peter-s-beagle

 
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Posted by on September 17, 2019 in Book Reviews

 

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Review: “Second Variety (1953)” by Philip K. Dick (3 1/2 Stars)

A post-apocalyptic cold war style tale early in this author’s career that contains entertaining edges and hints, emblematic of future efforts in plot ideation and explorations into uncertainties for which this author is known.

The world in which this story lies is bleak and barren, seemingly hopeless. Machines have been given a new genesis of artificial intelligence. Enter the minor “claw” universe of Philip K. Dick where Soviet forces decimated the planet in a preemptive nuclear strike and the UN responded by creating lethal, autonomous, and self-replicating robots which turned the tide in their favor.

Soldiers populate most of the narrative. Seemingly. The author does a good job of describing the stark emotion of living in such a ruined environment and also conveying the fear and trauma of having seen the vast might and precariousness created by humanity’s super weapons. This story encapsulates well the paranoias and fascinations of post-war nuclear potentials. In particular, and in typical PKD fashion, the author drills right down into the singular mind of the protagonist. After broadly painting the massive powers which hold the world in sway, PKD wastes no time in flinging the main character out into a terrible alternate existence. In this way, we the readers, feel the full weight of uncertainty and helplessness one person can feel treading among destructive titans of power.

And yet, none of the agency is lost. We still experience the character’s journey as he is sent on his mission to answer a strange request for parley amid the wastelands between the two long-warring armies. Then we truly enter the corridors of PKD’s mind as the protagonist is pitted against other individuals who he must decide whether or not to trust. Not that this author has a monopoly on questionable veracity, however it’s the clever method in which he weaves his uncertainties that makes him stand out.

In some ways this tale might be nothing new to a fan of PKD, and in that regard the manner in which things wrap up probably seems trite even for the time they were written. And yet, the sense of it all, and the way that we get inside the character’s head as he experiences the conflicts of his situation feels special. PKD has a way of exploring interesting ideas and concepts and then taking a wild left turn into the spiraling void that never seems to land the way it ought too. That’s what makes his work unique. He gives us protagonists that are sometimes barely fleshed out, but he also leaves room for us to inhabit them. There is just the right amount of detail filled in to allow us inside so that we can be taken on the strange journey which his tales usually take.

This story has these things. The setting is not particularly different. The robots are, though. They are like things we’ve seen before and things we know and things that are unimaginable, but things we can understand. Strange anomalies that populate the protagonist’s world that must be considered. The other characters feel that way, too. One wonders if that is how PKD felt sometimes. Our own world is full of odd and sometimes dangerous things that must be reckoned as we try to carry on with our existence. So read along on this entertaining narrative journey as you escape reality, only to dive deeper inside reality.

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 Apple Podcast, Spotify, Tune-In Radio, Stitcher, Google Play Music, YouTube or our website (www.nodeodorant.com).

Episode Link: https://nodeodorantinouterspace.wordpress.com/2019/08/20/review-second-variety-philip-k-dick

 
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Posted by on August 20, 2019 in Book Reviews

 

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Review: “Metropolis (1925)” by Thea von Harbou (3 Stars)

A romanticized class struggle colored by religious and occult mythology, with implacable villains full of old world venom and heroes in glorious melodrama – all set in the vast mechanized metropolis, a city dug as deep in the ground as it towers in the skies.

*** SPOILER ALERT ***

This story has it all: star-crossed lovers, a tyrannical despot, a jilted mad scientist, a Frankenstein-esque robot, proletariat upheaval, noble-peasant wardrobe exchanges, chase scenes, and a natural disaster caused by man’s arrogance.

The author wrote this book in preparation for creating a screenplay penned by herself and her husband who would direct the legendary film of the same name. Not too many books are written this way—it’s not a tie-in novel, nor is it exactly a book that was adapted into a movie. It fits in a collaborative gray area, which makes it unique.

In some ways you can feel the film behind the words. The chapters can ramble on with descriptions (though a few were quite deft and achieved the stuff of legend painting vivid pictures in my mind) and abject reflections, repeated lines, but more often than not they conclude with a striking and key plot point that is either based in suspense and action or a significant character reveal. Dialog also comes across a tad stilted and fitting for the screen of the time. Not quite overacted, yet espousing with emotion.

Occult and religious symbols play a significant role in this story. Biblical passages and snatches of prayer lines can be found throughout. As can descriptions, metaphors, and allusions to creatures of mysticism and other beliefs. Her prose is steeped with continual citations, sometimes a bit laboriously for a work that would otherwise not be overly religious. Being versed in mythology the author draws from her knowledge for setting and tone as well as dialog and plot elements—most notably in familial roles. She explores this theme in interesting ways, using it in regards to an actual father and son, but also to play off the relationship of the city’s patriarch and his city; a maternal leader of the underclass; and that of creator and machine.

The characters sometimes feel like they are pawns of the author being moved about into inevitably precarious predicaments. When their choices are eventually revealed, we do find a few classic deep-seeded problems that carve out more dimension for their motivations—even if it might be revealed in a backhanded sort of way. In the end, things are shown to be interwoven in a fairly clever manner.

The action burns a bit slow until the third act as you might expect in a film. From then on things chase after the drama in bombastic development hurdling toward a sort of abrupt ending that at first blush feels a touch too didactic. After a breath, one realizes that this is the necessary conclusion promised from the beginning and however convenient it might feel it is rather touching and poignant. The director of the film had his doubts about it, but in later years reflected that the author had it right. The universality of the message feels like a parable; however, it would seem she might have been going for this. And, in that way, gave the story long-lasting relevancy and relatability.

The story only suffers a bit from age and the prose feels sort of weighed down and sluggish. This could be a victim of age, or perhaps the English translation from which it is derived. That said, its is not a long book by any means and the action and drama are all there. If you have a taste for more vintage letters that harken closer to epics and myths than this is probably something to enjoy. Especially when coupled with the film, where it can inevitably fill in a more colorful backdrop for the story expounded on screen at a time when movies lacked the capacity for sound (other than musical accompaniment, of course).

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 Apple Podcast, Spotify, Tune-In Radio, Stitcher, Google Play Music, YouTube or our website (www.nodeodorant.com).

Episode Link: https://nodeodorantinouterspace.wordpress.com/2019/07/16/review-metropolis-thea-von-harbou

 
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Posted by on July 16, 2019 in Book Reviews

 

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Review: “Sin City (1991-1998)” by Frank Miller (select graphic novels) (5 Stars)

Imagine getting punched in the gut by some rogue lunatic underworld gladiator who promptly collapses into your kitchen chair and chomps down on a bowl of cheerios with his oversized mitts as you crouch on the floor stunned and drooling blood…there’s a knock on the door and you pick up your corpse of a body to stare through the peephole at a knife-wielding leather-clad dame grimacing while rare classic cars skid onto the scene followed by screaming cop sirens tolling in debauchery and corruption…then the color drops out and real nice like everything goes noir…

“Sin City” by Frank Miller (select graphic novels)

  • “The Hard Goodbye (April 1991 – May 1992)” (Volume 1)
  • “A Dame to Kill For (November 1993 – May 1994)” (Volume 2)
  • “The Big Fat Kill (November 1994 – March 1995)” (Volume 3)
  • “That Yellow Bastard (February 1996 – July 1996)” (Volume 4)
  • “Booze, Broads, and Bullets (1998)” (Volume 6)

Frank Miller set his Sin City “yarns” in a timeless noir chronology. His inspiration was cool cars, hot dames, and muscle dudes in trench coats. Mission accomplished. The stories are put together in multiple volumes and flip back and forth in time, occasionally providing different perspectives from past scenes as the view point switches. The storylines interweave in expert ways over the course of the collections and it’s fun to see od characters come up again in the background or do things you haven’t seen before as you follow a new protagonist around with new problems and goals.

The world he creates is not vast. Everything revolves around a single city and its outskirts, constantly driving inward at the characters who rule or fight or flee from this place. All the spots to which they bring you really manage to pop with a lurid black and white reality.

Throughout the vast majority of narratives there is thoughtful inner monologue by the rotating cast (usually the protagonist but sometimes even secondary or background characters). We get a front seat ride in many heads, nestled right up against all the twisted struggles that torment these people. We also get to see the tarnished dreams and bitter regrets that motivate them to do what they do, whether it is for a perceived good or simply a personal selfish proclivity. Either way we are there with them in all the glory of what a first-person perspective can provide. This insight really fleshes out the people who inhabit the Sin City world and (along with the visuals) helps to distinguish the ensemble which further develops if you read through multiple volumes.

The dialog is gritty and loose, mostly used sparingly. There were times I felt a repetition in the patterns and speech, but this ultimately complimented the strong distinct style being evoked. The mood was very specific and excellently achieved. Even though the stories are set in a nameless and timeless decade, they feel grounded and real. There is nothing generic here.

The author did double duty in this series by also penciling the drawings. He also made the decision to go almost entirely black and white with almost no colors (with a few exceptions)—you can smell the plethora of black ink as you turn the pages. The resulting style is heavy handed, like everything else in this work, but utterly flawless in its delivery. His use of action and choosing what to show and when or how to show it all fell into place to maximize the narrative. The Sin City stories marry so many different elements in a perfect way that the creator is able to achieve amazing results without ever feeling over played or too intrusive.

These are the hard streets of Basin City where the players make the rules and everyone else goes along, or they pay the price. Sometimes it’s the higher ups and sometimes it’s the dregs. Nobody is immune. People get caught up in their own rachets and games and sheer humanity of being human. Everything you could want in stories like this are here. The corruption, the violence, the passion, the dreams, the loyalty, the betrayal, the revenge, the comeuppance, the chase, the desperation—all of it!

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

Episode Link: https://nodeodorantinouterspace.wordpress.com/2019/06/18/review-sin-city-frank-miller

 
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Posted by on June 18, 2019 in Book Reviews

 

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Review: “The Screwfly Solution (1977)” by Raccoona Sheldon a/k/a James Tiptree, Jr. a/k/a Alice Sheldon (short story) (4 1/2 Stars)

An epistolary narrative unraveled with increasing tension as terror reigns abomination with insect horror.

Our protagonist is concerned. She’s worried for her scientist husband who is conducting important research in the southern hemisphere. Her words reveal more than just the feelings of affection she has for him. She also makes mention of strange doings happening back home and around the world. Terrible things concerning strangers and family alike. The world, it would seem, has lost its marbles.

This story is told mostly through letters from the wife or her husband, however these are intermixed with article clippings passed along by a friend and fellow scientist. So, too, are point-of-view narratives in between the letters and periodicals. The technique allowing for personal impressions, those of strangers or authoritative voices, as well as the pure insular workings of the inner mind as the characters grapple and struggle with society devolving around them. The result being that, in a very short time, this author manages quite deftly to turn order into chaos for not only our characters, but the entire planet.

Character emotion is described strongly throughout the story. With these emotions the plot is carefully measured. Whether through the written words of letters or articles or inner monologue, there is no distance here. Every emotional beat is meted out to drive the tension forward.

But the science! And the numbers! The journals and the facts! This is hard science fiction at it’s best. A biological puzzle, a mystery—an outbreak rivaling any modern thrillers, yet holding much tighter to a poetic tone. Somehow, some way, the words used by this author paint themselves against the cosmos of the brain. They hold the heavy weight of scientific jargon, but with a vengeance that feels personal and familiar even to the wary head of a lay person such as myself. You experience the meanings, the fear behind them, the profound realizations.

These fantastical plots are ground in real life curiosities and knowledge. Researched and realized. Go ahead and look up about the germ of an idea which the story is based. It is the stuff of nightmares for sure. And here, the author, has plucked one of those nightmares and drawn forth the shadows which give them life so that we may see this horror in a new lens. Creating a horrifying tale that goes beyond simple jump scares.

Deep themes are plumbed here. Light is shined on issues of gender and on what makes a strength and what makes a weakness. These were areas which the author often preferred to explore in her own unique and subtle way. And yet, this tale is not an exercise in didactic commentary, no more than any other piece of good literature. Questions and possibilities are investigated.

In classic rhythm with all the joys of old school pulp fiction this story reaches high and far. It gazes out from one’s mind into the distant horizons of possibility for that wonderful notion of consideration that too rarely follows a reader after the last page is turned and the work is set aside. Returning in a moment of quiet contemplation of “What if….” and the thrilling silent shudder of terror which follows. Leaving an emotional resonance. Possibilities, possibilities, possibilities. Oh horror!

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 Apple Podcast, Spotify, Tune-In Radio, Stitcher, Google Play Music, YouTube or our website (www.nodeodorant.com).

Episode Link: https://nodeodorantinouterspace.wordpress.com/2019/05/21/review-the-screwfly-solution-james-tiptree-jr

 
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Posted by on May 21, 2019 in Book Reviews

 

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Review: “Solaris (1961)” by Stanislaw Lem (5 Stars)

An interplanetary philosophical oceanic alien acid trip—to funk your mind with.

Psychological depths are plumbed in this novel from a deeply philosophical conviction. The result is a fresh narrative that neither disintegrates into a rote thriller nor loses itself in esoteric meanderings. The concept explored seems simple at first: alien contact. Humans have at long last discovered an organic living life form on another planet. However, after years of theories and failed experiments mankind has been unable to breach a dialog of communication. The result is maddening, discouraging, and a disturbing enlightenment into the human condition.

This book’s prose is fairly easy to digest despite the original author’s misgivings with the currently available translation in English. There are various eye-opening complex descriptions of the exotic alien and its puzzling behaviors which easily lend themselves to rational theory, but fail utterly when such hypothesis bears out. This is all history and a firm bolstering to the future universe created for this story. I’m not one who normally relishes hard science, but all the same I found myself wading swiftly through these heavy parts in search of the imaginative details of description that painted beautiful pictures of the scientific research efforts that surrounded the mysterious alien being; something altogether different and best-described as a myriad organism akin to an oceanic brain on a planetary scale with significant cosmic weight.

There are few characters, but they serve the story well with their various perspectives, needs, and wants. They wrestle with themselves and each other in their desire to both understand and reject what they experience. Although this is no religious story, their crisis is spiritual in many ways. It’s an esoteric journey trampling across a cascading backdrop of universal dimensions. Nothing can be known for certain and nothing can be dismissed outright. Even madness is uncertain.

Do not be fooled, however, this work is not so vague and ponderous as I allude. The protagonist’s arc is firmly grounded in a concrete dilemma that is personal, relatable, and anything but alien. He must face his own self and the terrible regrets of a life once lived–even though he is far from his home on an alien planet in an unfamiliar environment.

I find it particular genius when an author can take the idea of creating an alien in a particularly different way and make the experience completely immersive without a sense of artifice or tool. This is a challenge of deceptive difficulty and the effort here delivers in every aspect, story point, and description from beginning to end.

There is just enough of everything in this rather short book, whether it is science or philosophy or fantasy or literary angst. The historical elements and scientific theories all feel authentic and unique. The stakes are real and very individual with consequences that could have echoes across the entire universe. It’s the adventure of a mind on a quest across the galaxy. Our understanding of each other is challenged, our understanding of ourselves is challenged, and our understanding of the universe is challenged. For what—we may never know; and yet, we know that we must forever pursue these questions that seem to have no answer. That somehow the price of being human in an otherwise alien universe requires it so.

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 Apple Podcast, Spotify, Tune-In Radio, Stitcher, Google Play Music, YouTube or our website (www.nodeodorant.com).

Episode Link: https://nodeodorantinouterspace.wordpress.com/2019/04/16/review-solaris-stanislaw-lem

 
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Posted by on April 16, 2019 in Book Reviews

 

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