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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: “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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Review: “Watchmen” by Alan Moore – Dave Gibbons (5 Stars)

Unbounded artistic genius, bubbling with the bottomless, murky depths of complex allusions.

The plot of this graphic novel is not overly complicated: it’s a simple whodunit mystery. The central storyline focuses around a band of retired costumed heroes who are being picked off one by one for unknown reasons. However, the fleshed out characters, sticky subplots, rich backdrop and alternate history world-building combined with interwoven bits of paralleling metafiction all contribute toward the plunging depths of story.

A big strength this work has going for it, is the fact that it is a self-contained story. There is a beginning middle and end. This is not some sort of ongoing soap-opera type plot that looks to introduce a new supervillain for next week’s adventure.

The tale told is both big and small. Individual characters must come to grip with past life choices and personal philosophies all within the context of a world that is changing, has changed and will change more. The author (and artist) does an excellent job in pitting different worldviews against one another without having the characters come across as flat. A multitude of individual character arcs compliment the various subplots and bring things to a thoughtful and satisfactory conclusion. The main characters are fully fleshed out, while secondary characters are developed just enough to compliment the main storyline as they fade into the background leaving behind a lingering glimpse of the world in which they inhabit.

The setting of this story is in a gritty 1980’s urban landscape. In present time, we meet retired costumed heroes who are akin to stereotypical comic book figures, yet different. For the most part they lack special powers that give them any kind of advantage over wrong-doers. Instead, these would-be heroes are more like vigilantes with high-level athletic prowess and varying levels of egotism balanced against altruism. Per the author and artist’s intent, the characters are very much real-life superheroes. Their paths take realistic journeys as their effectiveness and popularities wax and wane.

Everything changes when a new hero emerges who has actual superhuman powers. His arrival is particularly explored. Not only does the story address his god-like abilities, but also his impact on the other heroes and the world at large. Echoes and downright references to cold-war history are examined and alluded to.

It’s very difficult to sum up the sheer awesomeness of this book (or collected series of comic books). However, let me note that this book came to me pre-hyped. Very often, when you are told that something will be fantastic it will fail to achieve the level of amazing that you hope and expect. This is not the case with “Watchmen.” This book delivers, and it does so on many levels. The artwork (this too is masterfully woven into the work and has many layers), the characters, the storyline, the micro and macro philosophies that are delved into…it’s infinitely complex and yet also simple and easy to understand at a basic level. That is the mark of a truly great work. This is one of those pieces of art that can be revisited multiple times and each time something new can be uncovered—without detracting from any of the joy of those first few times it touched us.

Lastly, I’ll add that this can be enjoyed by anyone whether or not they are a fan of the comic book medium. It just has so many layers. A great way for someone unfamiliar with the related genres and works to dive in and try something new (but also great for the longtime fan).

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, YouTube or our website (www.nodeodorant.com).

 
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Posted by on May 19, 2016 in Book Reviews

 

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Review: “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes (3 1/2 Stars)

A journey of self that is both compelling and crushing in its introspection.

Charly Gordon is a middle-aged, mentally-challenged man who has been selected as a test subject for the first human to undergo a procedure that will significantly increase intelligence. Algernon is the mouse whom the scientists have previously had success with.

The author tells this story in epistolary fashion through journal entries written by the protagonist. The actual words themselves become a literary device as the reader van visually see the protagonist change and grow through the spelling, grammar, word choice and sentence structure written on the pages. Keyes does a good job of using this technique for effect without coming across as overwrought.

The journey of self-realization takes the protagonist from a place of vulnerability to one of power, where he rediscovers his own vulnerability in new and different ways. Charly starts out as a positive and endearing character who is eager to please and to learn. When he is tapped by the scientists to take his learning growth to unprecedented levels there are emotional consequences and costs for such rapid changes. Charly is forced to examine his past and everything he thought he knew about the world. He finds darkness behind the light and does not like what he sees.

He also struggles with the subtleties of life when negotiating relationships with others. Charly’s intelligence ends up driving a wedge between him and others. He ends up feeling more alone the more he progresses. Despite his new found wisdom, he lacks the experiences of a lifetime of living at this new level within which to put context to all he is learning. He is a fish out of water.

Charly has both loving and strained relationships with women that bring confusion and challenges. He also questions all his old friendships and loyalties. Keyes’ storytelling is superior in this respect because he negotiates the gray areas very well. With his new minds’ eye Charly looks to focus things into simple black and white issues, but this is not so easy. Certainly the characters in this story have various selfish or at times, down right mean, motives. However, the author strays away from painting the picture of some great evil overlord that must be slain. The nuances of the character’s motives are much more complex.

The strength of the story is here. Looking through Charly’s eyes as his perspective shifts and he tries to understand the complexity of living in a society where he wants to belong, but also feels completely isolated within.

Overall, this is a great read in exploring interpersonal relationships in a heightened reality that does not feel very different from our own. A poignant tale.

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 April 19, 2016 in Book Reviews

 

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Review: “Stepford Wives” by Ira Levin (4 Stars)

A chilling tale of horror that descends into madness one step at time.

Ira Levin’s suspenseful tale of horror is both a commentary on society as well as a character study into the descent of sanity. His prose is sparse and vernacular with poignant ideas that are supported by masterful suspense.

The female protagonist’s main struggle is that she fears being swallowed up by the banality of suburban life after leaving the rich and rewarding culture of her former urban home. A trite cultural tale of a young couple passing from one phase of life into another. Yet, herein lies one of Levin’s major strengths. He takes a rather common place cultural experience and slowly twists it until by the end its purple, atrophied and rather gangrenous. And even though we know the infected limb will eventually fall off, we can’t help but hope all the while that there may just be a way to save things.

In a nutshell, the protagonist goes from general irritation toward the lack of progressive thinking in her new found suburban trappings to outright fear. He annoyance turns to distrust, outrage and terror. What is actually going on at the archaic men’s association in town, and how is it afflicting her friends and her very own husband?

There is just the right amount of tension going on throughout this work. The pace is inevitable, yet it is not relentless or swift. I felt I knew where things were going early on (through my own cultural awareness of the work), however I still felt compelled on. Levin wonderfully pulls back each new development with surgical skill. He gives just enough information to put the pieces together without providing the whole puzzle. Some may find this frustrating, but I feel that if he went the other way and really went into detail with some big reveal at the end—the horror of the story would have been cheapened.

The protagonist’s growth and emotional evolution is also very real. Her questioning and sleuthing out the mysteries connects her to the readers. Even her own self-doubts add to making the character more believable and support the more fantastical elements that exist in the shadows of the prose.

Levin touches on issues of suburban isolationism, paranoia, cultism, apathy and of course, feminism. Though the protagonist invokes causes of social injustice as she beats her war drum for long overdue change, her struggles are also very personal and individual. The way Levin is able to tie in the societal problems and show how deeply rooted evil can penetrate into the micro levels of personhood is very powerful.

This story is fiction, but the under currents feel believable. Levin takes seemingly normal people and shows how easily corruption and evil can leach darkness into those places of society that seem sunny and devoid of real problems. This, of course, is nothing new, but Levin’s take on things feels fresh and leaves a lasting impression. He drives home how inhumanity can lurk even in the everyday familiarity. What is really going on over there at that place where we can’t go?

This novella is tight and sharp. An excellent, swift read that will leave an unsavory taste in your mouth.

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, YouTube or our website: https://nodeodorantinouterspace.wordpress.com/2016/03/14/review-stepford-wives-ira-levin/.

 
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Posted by on March 15, 2016 in Book Reviews

 

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Review “The Preserving Machine & Other Stories” by Philip K. Dick (3 Stars)

An early collection of short stories touching on cold-war era fears, and other weird pseudo-realities. 

Philip K. Dick is known fairly well for toying with reality in his fiction and meta-fictional stories. His ideas negotiate the fuzzy edges of existential questions. He pushes boundaries in his writing and yet his straight-ahead prose (sometimes criticized) makes his more “out-there” concepts easier to digest. 

This book is a collection of early stories by the writer with a few from the middle of his career. The quality of the stories varies a bit from one to the other, however, even those that felt less satisfying to me may have deeper questions embedded behind their veneer that I haven’t quite appreciated during my first reading. Perhaps a later revisit will stir up more of the murky depths that I associate with PKD. 

That’s how this author is. Sometimes you read his stuff and the whacky scenarios he sets up, and feel that it’s all a bit silly. The inner thoughts of a dog… a machine turning music into animals…an alien species that is basically just a giant amorphous blob…a multiplicity of alien grubs… and then there’s the “Wub” character which felt like something that came out of the mind of Dr. Seuss in a Simpsons parody. 

Yet, throughout most of the words there is usually something more sinister going on. Some kind of undercurrent of malevolence that calls into question the human condition and what it means to be alive. The characters might fall victim to their own selfishness until they become a parody of themselves, or they may find themselves in some kind of odd alternate perception of reality or time and space that makes you reflect about the very concept of perception.

Despite PKD’s real-life personal issues, I found these stories easy to follow no matter how far-out they got. They are all intriguing in many ways and the author manages to hit enough deep notes to make this collection worthy of a reading. Especially so for fans. 

My main issue would be that some of the stories ended in ways that seemed a little too contrived. They felt like “short stories” and while reading them I could almost sense the author circling back to tie up loose ends and bring closure. Not that the endings were bad or inappropriate. I just felt that some of the finales fell a bit short of what they could have been. 

“We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” is among the tales in this collection. This story was made famous by the “Total Recall” movies. The author’s version differs from the movies—which is no surprise. Yet, all the pseudo-reality, questioning motives are present and offer a good insight into why Hollywood has continually mined the PKD library for movie fodder. The ending for this story is also wrapped up fairly neatly—but upon later reflection it does pose some lingering questions in the way a good short story should.
All in all, a solid read!

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, YouTube or our website (www.nodeodorant.com).

 
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Posted by on February 2, 2016 in Book Reviews

 

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Review: “Nineteen Eighty-Four” by George Orwell (5 Stars)

Ages like a fine wine with a dark, full-bodied harbinger of doom, increasing with relevance as each year goes by.

What can be said about this book that has not already been said? Orwell’s despondent view of an evil utopia hits all the right notes. His vision into a near-possible future is stunning, depressing and all too understandable. A warning, a final prophesy written by a spirited visionary in the final stage of his life.

Many have read this book early in their youth, most likely as part of their educational upbringing. 1984 and Animal Farm are standard, pedantic texts battle ready for disaffected youth to sink their teeth into. This book, among the greats, seems boundless in the echoes and touchstones resounding within its tome. In revisiting the text many years later, one will find that Orwell’s words seem strangely even more relevant than they were at first blanch. Perhaps even more so than they were when original meted out and scratched into paper during the author’s self-imposed exile in the Scottish isle that was his final home so many years ago.

There are so many elements here that have such deep and broad depth that will keep this work of literature relevant for many more years. Orwell invented the terms “Big Brother” and “Thought Crime” and dove unrepentantly into issues of privacy, personal freedom and individualism. All this before the revolution of the internet! He also fretted over the degradation of language (OMG!) and the breakdown and bastardization of society’s communal bonds, family bonds, bonds of friendship and the abolishment of simple love. His vision of a mechanized society (one that even turns books out by machines), is more than a decry by a luddite so much as it concerns the debasement or obliteration of the individual and sense of self.

Orwell’s main thrust seems to be right at the heart of man and the core inner lust for domination and power, simply for its own sake. That ever-present evolutionary tendency to thrive at all costs without purpose or direction, and the ability of that singular impetus to take over and distort all else toward its own end. He digs that up out of the blackest parts of the human heart and disgorges it upon the shoreline of society receding tide as if to say, “This too is what you are. Do not kid yourself.”

For me, this book was rough. The tone was bleak. Throughout. Unflinchingly somber and hopeless. Yet, the story of the protagonist and his struggle amid this world turned upside down, is relatable and believable. Despite the obvious despair and immeasurable odds, we do feel for Winston Smith (the protagonist) and we do root for him. We follow him in his desperation to find something, some way to express himself and make a dent in the impenetrable wall that has become the totalitarian society which he is a part. We feel his constant fear and ever present distrust of everything—almost. The little glimmers of possibilities, even when they are squashed, keep your interest and balance the grim-gray that pervades everything.

One thing that struck me was that the female character Julia, is an interesting addition. She has a good amount of gumption and serves more than just a goal or love interest. She is fleshed out pretty well and adds a lot of dimension to the story by sharing the protagonist’s goals, but also coming from a slightly different more realistic viewpoint.

Another thing I found interesting in reading this book in present time was how insular the story is. We are just as stuck as the protagonist. All news of the outside world and the society is filtered to the reader through the regime in power. We never really know who to trust or when something might be real or made up or mere speculation. Nothing ever really seems certain. The story never ever escapes this – there is never an Oz-like “Man behind the Curtain” moment. Not really. We are told how some things work, and sometimes by sources that are deemed more reliable than others, but we don’t truly find out.

This tight view point, keeps up a claustrophobic feeling that forces the storyline to remain connected to the protagonist’s individual struggle. Even though Winston Smith is concerned with larger concepts and a revolutionary struggle on a society level–the story remains individualistic. However, the tale is not a man’s struggle with himself, it is a man’s struggle to find himself among others; the interrelatedness of things and how important that is. The totalitarian regime in power has distorted this effect and is manifesting control by continually putting up road blocks and pseudo-constructed, societal norms to hamper true progress and growth.

Even still, the individual struggles to find their place in society. As the story goes on, I think it is clear that most of this doomed society continues to struggle with this. And the powers that be, must expend an immense amount of effort and expense to constantly suppress this. In the end, can that really work? Have a care. Big Brother is watching.

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, YouTube or our website (www.nodeodorant.com).

 
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Posted by on January 5, 2016 in Book Reviews

 

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Review: “The Martian” by Andy Weir (4 Stars)

140 million leagues under the blackness of space, Jules Verne is reborn…this time with a sense of humor and irreverent references to pop culture.

Through a series of journal entries, the protagonist of this story relays a first person account that chronicles the trials and tribulations of being stuck on the biggest deserted island in the solar system. Mars. This work was well-researched and the science in the text feels just barely out of grasp of current technological innovations. Andy Weir is to be commended for his dedication to the craft of writing and his ability to embed a compelling story within a bevy of scientific equations. For fans of hard science fiction this should be an absolute delight.

I felt myself skimming over some of the more technical science bits as they do sort of come pummeling one after another. However, this is how I felt when I read through the lists of taxonomy in Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and; like Verne’s book, I found the plot and story compelling on both an individual and a universal level (despite my personal aversion to numbers and math).

In one sense, you could say this story did not plumb very deep into a human emotional experience. We do get a sense of what the characters are going through, but we lack some of the nuances that might be happening inside their heads–despite the distraction of the dire circumstances. On the other hand, this is really refreshing in that we don’t get some sappy, romantic subplot artificially shoe-horned into the story to make us “feel” feelings. What may be missing is not really all that off. Highly trained professionals working under these circumstances would be very focused on the immediate and imperative task at hand: survival. And humans are very capable of this. People in desperate situations are able to get outside their heads, put aside daily annoyances or stresses and zero in on what really needs to be done. That too is part of the human condition.

Even though I felt overwhelmed by the “math” problems coming at me on a regular basis, the author managed (quite deftly) to bring everything back to relatable terms. He illustrated the problems well and made these an integral and believable part of the story. He also managed to make the character very human, because not everything comes together for the protagonist and many times fixing one problem led to other unforeseen problems later on (I believe the author did all this intentionally – and masterfully). This is a classic tale of, Man vs. Nature, yet the trials suffered by the protagonist do not feel contrived or random. Suspense is kept up throughout the book.

Another thing done quite well, was the protagonist’s sarcastic personality. The character is constantly making humorous, pop culture references or else giving sarcastic commentary to himself or others. All this levity is well-timed and serves as a great balance to some of the drier aspects of the book (i.e. math problems). A dual function is also served here, because it gave the protagonist more depth and personality, and provided a gateway for the reader to relate to his plight. Whether you’re a rocket scientist or professor of literature, you would probably have the same reaction to being trapped on Mars: “Oh crap, I’m screwed.” Andy Weir captures this with excellent tone. So, even if you’re not a science fiction fan, this is a well-balanced and suspenseful tale that informs as much as it delights.

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, YouTube or our website: https://nodeodorantinouterspace.wordpress.com/2015/12/03/review-the-martian-by-andy-weir-ridley-scott-matt-damon.

 
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Posted by on December 3, 2015 in Book Reviews

 

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