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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 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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Review: “Perchance to Dream: Selected Stories (1952-1960)” by Charles Beaumont (4 Stars)

Even though I know there’s going to be a twist, I still wonder how the author is going to flip things at the end.

Beaumont was one of the main writers contributing stories to Rod Serling’s scifi/horror anthology television series “The Twilight Zone.” In this select collection there are a number of short stories that were originally published in various magazines and then later adapted for the television series. There are also other non-twilight-zone stories, which reflect the author’s other interests including his love of cars and jazz music. It’s a fairly eclectic collection from an author who died too young from a strange ailment, but who put noteworthy material during his relatively short career.

Beaumont’s writing is decidedly perfect for the Twilight Zone. It’s no wonder that he fit into Serling’s vision so well. He has short straightforward pose that seeks out an inevitable twist to tie off its conclusory or sometimes ambiguous ending. While reading this book I came to expect things would be flipped on their head at some point, yet I thoroughly enjoyed wondering and waiting in anticipation for the author to perform his magic. The narratives ultimately did not feel predictable as I read them, despite my expectation.

Another thing of note, was that despite the age of these stories they all seemed fairly contemporary and relevant for the most part. This was probably due in part to the author’s inclination to skim deeper into areas of social commentary as he sped us along with his prose. These stories felt ripe for adaption into Twilight Zone episodes even though they were written for magazines first. This tendency to explore themes like environmentalism, colonialism, conforming versus individualism, spirituality and doubt, nostalgia, and dying with dignity–make the narratives more universal and timeless. It also made the twists at the end feel less like clever tricks and more a complimentary part of the greater theme being touched upon. Yet, for the most part everything was done in an entertaining way and without coming across as preachy. Beaumont was probably a bit of an adrenaline junkie and full of get up and go (on a personal level)—it seems he expected no less from his stories.

While most of the writing moved along in an entertaining way with occasional reflective views about the greater human condition, there was also more subtle efforts of craft. Beaumont was able to build and maintain with expert control, an impending and faltering sense of dread or fear in some of his characters which made for authentic and lasting pieces that were memorable after having consumed them.

These stories were a joy to read. The collection is fairly varied, but does glow with a certain Twilight Zone nostalgia through much of the writing. It’s also very easy and a pretty quick read. Highly recommended for those looking for some thoughtful entertainment, and doubly so for those of familiarity with the iconic television show that this writer was a part.

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: http://nodeodorantinouterspace.wordpress.com/2019/03/19/review-perchance-to-dream-charles-beaumont

 
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Posted by on March 19, 2019 in Book Reviews

 

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Review: “Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro (4 ½ Stars)

A touching wail uttered into the emotional void that dwells between those frayed wires which hold together the complex relationship between the individual, community, and society.

The story is told by the protagonist (Kathy) in reflection of her past experiences and relationships, primarily those surrounding her two friends Tommy and Ruth. The setting of this tale lies somewhere between bleak and dystopian and idyllic and romanticized. This is due, in part, to the shifting perspectives as Kathy moves the narrative through her childhood experiences at a special boarding school and then on into adulthood and the greater world at large.

The book does not easily fit into any genres (as critics have noted). There are elements of science fiction, abject horror, and a more main stream coming of age tale. However, one theme that is woven into all the prose is a subtle, but insistent pace bolstered by continual promises of things to be revealed. Quite literally, in fact, as the protagonist-narrator will pretty much explicitly state that there is this thing coming up that she will tell you about next after she tells you something else first. Then, as promised, the new information is provided in the next chapter. At which point a new carrot is deftly waggled before the reader’s eyes toward the next prize. Yet, all the while we are aware that something is not quite right and that our worst fears will be realized before the end. Still, we go on. Working toward that uncomfortable satisfaction.

This is both frustrating and masterful. Especially with the light touch in which it is done. The parts that maddened me were in the voice of the character. The first-person style utilized by the author did well to establish a compelling tone and believability for the character. It suited the coming-of-age aspect of the book. We get a real feel of who these characters are (especially the main three), their motivations, their traits. All of it is very fleshed out and plants you right into the heart of the story which is a push-me-pull-you relationship entangled with love and friendship. It’s very nuanced and lacking in the usual melodrama that might be found in this type of book. On the flipside I felt that the character’s voice somewhat laborious at times when she would tell me about what was going on, tell me how she was going to tell me how she felt about it, say how she felt about it, and then sort of echo her thoughts on the subject. It wasn’t quite like that, but there was something repetitive in the way the character’s voice was used where she kept explaining how she was going to explain things. Just tell me! Stop telling me that you’re going to tell me all about it—I’m reading this thing, aren’t I? Perhaps, though, the dialog between the different characters could have been distinguished a little more to alleviate this concern? Now, I will freely admit some of my frustration was only due to the fact that I was fully engaged with the story and urgently looking to read more and know more. So, in that sense it all worked.

Science Fiction plays a role in this story as does horror. Again, the relationship the narrative has with these genres is subtle and perhaps tenuous. However, I feel it is there. They both permeate the background and behind-the-scenes elements that are propping up this world. And “propping” up the world is probably a good description of this. This is a book this is decidedly not deep in genre values. The world created by the author is essentially our world (somewhat in the vague future). Very little is painted to bolster up the science fiction aspects and create a cohesive world that stands on its own. To his credit the author does just enough to keep within the subtle tone which runs its course throughout the entire book. In that way, the book succeeds quite well. The sci-fi and horror aspects are splashed in for coloring and to highlight the primary story element which is the three-way relationship of these characters and how they care about each other in a world that has trouble caring about them.

It’s difficult to go into specifics for this book without spoiling the reveals. However, I will say that these do not really hit you over the head like a clever twist ending might. There is a building morose sort of tone that floats the plot toward its conclusion. Likewise, the horror is not overwrought. The horror lies more in what is not said, rather than what is said. Yet, there is a strength in all this un-saying that the author accomplishes—a universal strength which is demonstrative of what makes up good writing. In the same way that say, George Orwell painted a curious and time-tested novel with “1984.”

By using the familiar story of three young friends who grow up trying to navigate the complexities of love and caring and life and death without any kind of manual to guide their decisions, the author gets us focused on how we as people, as communities within communities, within a society, treat each other. The difficulty of marrying competing values. Balancing individual needs against societal needs. How we all may look out for each other or instead ourselves. What is important and what is not. And, of course, the futility of it all as life gets on. These are deep questions which are delicately woven into the fabric of this tale.

The strength in this story is the interrelationship of the three main characters and the author knows this. He focuses on them and brings in other characters or events as needed to show them go through a life lived. Through happy times, sad times, difficult times and easy times. It all feels familiar, yet what is going on in the background is not. And that, is what serves to highlight the real tragedies and joys of life.

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/2019/02/19/review-never-let-me-go-kazuo-ishiguro

 
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Posted by on February 19, 2019 in Book Reviews

 

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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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