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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 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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Review: “The Lair of the White Worm” by Bram Stoker (2 1/2 Stars)

A meandering gothic tale of wormish fiends, overshadowed by a giant kite and frequent supper respites.

Written just before the author’s death, many reviewers have speculated that the writing suffered horribly as a result. There are seemingly random point-of-view switches (not set off by modern-standard breaks), dead end plots, confusing motivations of character, and staring contests (yes, mandatory staring contests that nobody can seem to avoid). Oh yeah, horribly offensive racist elements that probably even exceed what one might expect from this time period can be found in this work.

Most times when a book is read it should be considered on its own terms. For this book, the proper placement in history, literature and an open mind do very little to help the story elevate to any kind of level worth reading.

Despite all this, there are some interesting elements that rise up from the tattered ruins like dinosaur bones poking out of a primordial swamp. My favorite of which was an ominous kite that seemed to cast a strange influence over the characters and setting and even figure into the plot proper. The White Worm and its legend and place of abode are also intriguing and bolster up the back-story. The writing itself is very manageable for being an older work.

What mainly works in this story is the horror elements and the insufferable madness that rots the brains of the two chief antagonists: Lady Arabella and Edgar Caswall. The author does a decent job of describing their increasing descent into evil chaos. We seem to know what’s driving Lady Arabella’s ambitions and Caswall’s possessiveness. In contrast, the protagonists feel a bit like fluff as they wrestle with all the evil surrounding them. The African character is made to be one-dimensional and the other character’s views toward him are despicable and provide little more than an author’s lazy and contrived plot device.

The plot is not tight and moves slow as it plods over the occasional hole along the way. For myself, I found the continual and frequent meetings for strategy over tea between the protagonist and his would-be-ally (Sir Nathaniel) tedious and redundant if not pointless. The protagonist’s invocation of morality (sometimes a twisted morality) feel like a fragile shell of trite emblematic overtures. And the staring contests go on and on and on into absurdity and hilarity. I suspect that in the author’s time “mesmerism” (later hypnosis) were new and mysterious things in the minds of the culture and perhaps audiences of that time might be more intrigued by these references. That said, the author makes no great literary effort to complement this bygone fascination.

This is a story about privileged gentry that is filled with boring anecdotes of how dire their circumstances are without really feeling so dire. There is definitely a disconnect between the perils of the characters and what’s supposed to be at stake. The contrast is felt sharply when the climax of the plot crests into an absolutely bombastic finale that is fit to fritter across the pages of Hollywood’s worst action blockbuster (though it is described very well).

Ultimately, this book is not worth checking out. Not even for the fact that it is written by the author of “Dracula.” It may hold some small interest for those wanting to fully explore the author’s career (perhaps as an end cap of sorts). Perhaps those heavily interested in horror and wacky stories might find some elements worth noting. Overall, this is book is not for the casual fan or even the avid fan of this genre or related genres.

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).

 
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Posted by on July 26, 2016 in Book Reviews

 

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Review: “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” by Jack Finney (3 Stars)

Interesting concepts that provide creepy fun for the whole pod to enjoy.

The author loosely develops a fascinating concept that later provided a veritable sandbox of inspirations and interpretations for years of analysis. This book has been combed over for allegorical meanings through the years, mostly brought on by the various film adaptions. Finney himself denied having had any such agenda other than pure entertainment.

Even still, it is easy to read into this work a tale that strives to spotlights the virtue of individuality in the face of conformity. Whether the mashing conglomeration of society is brought about by political ideology, mob mentality or consumerism, doesn’t really matter.

The writing is easy to read and the plot plods along at a nice pace, without speeding up too much or slowing down too little. The story pauses enough times at well-crafted scenes of horror to create a lasting impression of the core storyline. The dialog felt somewhat stilted, if not dated or formal (sort of like an old 1950’s TV show).

The book has been criticized for its lack of scientific plausibility or credible character developments. However, this story isn’t really meant to be hard Scifi or an in-depth character study. The book is built around a high concept and contains a decent suspense plot that is tempered with Scifi elements. In that sense it largely succeeds. There is also a dogged relentlessness pervading the story that keeps pace throughout and helps to keep the horror aspect in play.

The story centers around a medical doctor operating in a rural town as a general practitioner. He’s divorced and an old flame/fellow divorcee is back in town for him to get excited about. His love interest draws him into the main plot when she asks him to look in on a relative that has a peculiar medical concern that cannot be explained. From there things slowly develop based on the increasing incidences of people acting strangely and the stakes are periodically raised a level along the way. The author does delve into the science behind the story a bit when he uses the doctor and a psychologist to both unravel as well as confuse the mystery.

There are some interesting passages about the different faces people wear in society and what it means to be a person, along with some loose social commentary that gets flipped on its head when it comes from an alien perspective.

The ending has also been criticized for this book and the film versions did not feel the need to follow it. It’s an ending, it works, but that’s about it. Reminds me a bit of an H. G. Wells ending, but less original given the publication date.

The very idea of “pod people” comes from this book. Without having even read this book or watched any of the films, most people will have a general idea of what this means. That, in itself, demonstrates how strong the concept is and how well it was developed by the author.

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).

 
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Posted by on June 28, 2016 in Book Reviews

 

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