Categories
Goals

New Weight Loss Project

I had a look back at my last post…it’s been a while since that one. Wow. Anyway, as is habit for me I decided to start another project. This one relates to my weight loss. And rather than write about it, I’ve opted to make it a podcast (for now).

21 to Go - A personal weight loss journey
Cover art for my new project

I’m calling it “21 to Go“, which refers to the number of pounds I have left to lose until my first goal (230 pounds). This isn’t a how-to podcast, or tips for losing weight. It’s a personal journey, something that could be helpful to other people – but mostly me.

In my experience – both with weight loss and with epilepsy – reading or hearing someone else’s experience has been helpful. This is especially true if this hypothetical person is similar to me both physically and situationally. This is why I’m sharing it with other people, but the primary goal for this project is to hold myself accountable and have somewhere to record my progress. Plus, I like making podcasts.

Part of this idea came out of wanting to create a new podcast. I’m not entirely satisfied with Alternative Airwaves (though I’m going to try to keep blogging) and The Slow Reader (but I’m going to keep reading), and some of that is because I don’t update them consistently enough. I guess because I’m no longer interested in the projects. Although with The Slow Reader, the issue I have with that one is it’s not the podcast I wanted it to be, so I guess dissatisfaction is in play here too.

With 21 to Go, I know going in that this is a short-episode podcast that I can update fairly easily. Even if I’m not able to use my podcast equipment I can always record a quick episode from my phone and upload it with ease and still have a product that’s of decent quality. I’m also incorporating some aspects of my other podcasts – I’m putting in music excerpts in some instances, and talking about things that keep me from focusing about weight loss 100% of the time (reading, for example).

I’m only two episodes in, and already I like the product I’ve put together. It still takes some editing so that you don’t hear my breath all the time, AND there are a few editing processes I want to try out to make my voice sound better.

My wife put the bug in my ear to do something with Instagram as well, which is why I made the cover art more generic than simply “A weight loss podcast”. So who knows? Maybe I’ll play with different media. That might be fun, too.

So we’ll see where this goes. I hope to keep it up until I at least reach my initial goal.

Categories
Podcasts

Podcast Rec: Transporter Room 3

Many people are discovering podcasts for the first time, so that’s why I’ve started sharing individual podcast episodes that I’ve found particularly enjoyable. If you want to dive deeper, check out my “podcasts” category to find more posts.

Before I get to my next recommendation, I want to share some thoughts about podcast episode backlogs (which I’m experiencing a lot right now). I recently listened to an episode of Reading Glasses that talked about not forging ahead with a book you don’t like simply because you feel like you need to finish a book once you’ve started it. The truth is, you don’t. You can put it down.

The same is true for podcast episodes. I often clear out episodes I know I’m not interested in, but yesterday I stopped listening to an episode midway through because I wasn’t interested in it. If you have a problem with too many episodes to listen to, keep this “tip” in your toolbox.

Transporter Room 3

Transporter Room 3 is a Star Trek podcast that I’ve listened to since its inception (circa 2011). The hosts don’t take Trek too seriously, and like to poke fun at it (and themselves). It’s entertaining and their episodes aren’t too long.

I am recommending their latest episode, 188: “This DS9 Episode Is Not A FAAAAAKE!!!”. They talk about the classic Deep Space Nine Episode “In the Pale Moonlight” with special guest Justin Bolger.

I’m highlighting this one not only because they have an entertaining and thorough discussion about the episode, but they also have some insightful talk about Star Trek: Picard. This discussion was prompted by a well-written fan email leveling a complaint against the show (and “new Trek” in general).

Overall a great episode, and you can also dive into their back catalog for some fun listening. They don’t cover anything in order (except for Discovery, and Picard) so you can jump around and listen as you please.

Categories
Podcasts

Podcast Episodes to Keep You Occupied

Most people are likely going stir-crazy while not being able to do what they normally like to. And you know what? That’s okay. After you get past watching TV for the thousandth hour, you’ll start doing some different things around the house.

And maybe that different thing is listening to Podcasts. I’ve been listening to Podcasts for well over a decade now, so I have my favourites (and occasionally new favourites pop into my subscription list). I thought I would write a few posts to share some specific episodes that I’ve listened to lately that I enjoyed. Most podcast players allow you to listen to specific episodes without having to subscribe to them, so don’t feel obligated to do so – although you may not be disappointed if you do.

The Crazy One Podcast

I’m 99% sure I’ve written about The Crazy One Podcast in the past, but in case you’re not familiar with it, it’s a podcast hosted by Stephen Gates. Gates is basically a creative person who talks a lot about creativity in various forms – I was introduced to him in the context of his thoughts around leadership. You can read more about him here: http://stephengates.com/

The episode I found particularly enlightening was number 94: The Lost Art of Boredom. This one came at just the right time – now is a time when a lot of people are bored, right? But the gist of it is that with all the tech and distractions surrounding us, we’re not bored anymore.

Gates suggests that “boredom feeds creativity” and I don’t disagree with him. Often when we find ourselves ‘bored’, we need to be creative with what we do to fill the time. Often, too, that’s when ideas come to us (when our minds aren’t occupied by something else).

I don’t want to give away the entire episode, but Gates also implores listeners to “impose boredom back into your schedule.” Take some time to shut out the distractions that keep us from being bored. You might be surprised to find out how creative you might become.

Categories
Podcasts

The Slow Reader Episode 14: Catching Up

I finally recorded a new podcast episode for The Slow Reader! It was becoming a chore and Not At All Fun to read, and I got to the point where I almost stopped the podcast. But I didn’t want to do that. Instead I changed up the format a bit.

I’m not the happiest with this episode, but I’m satisfied enough with it. The only thing I wish I had done better was editing in the music. I honestly did not spend that much time on it, and it shows.

Here’s the episode, plus show notes below.

Catching up on several books that I’ve read in the last two months, in addition to covering off what I’m reading now and what I’ll be reading in the future. Stay safe, stay healthy!

Music: Rebels With a Cause by Renae

For more Creative Commons Tracks, visit https://www.alternativeairwaves.com or https://www.jamendo.com.

Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/stephen_g

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/user/show/2474979-stephen-gower

Blog: https://www.noformatblog.ca

Support The Slow Reader by donating to their Tip Jar: https://tips.pinecast.com/jar/slow-reader

Find out more at https://slow-reader.pinecast.co

Categories
Media

It’s 2020! What have I been reading? What have I been watching? What have I been listening to? What have I been

Ohhhhkay. I fully recognize that I have neglected writing much of substance (not counting the last bunch of reviews that I shared for The Slow Reader) in a little while. Sure, I could blame the busy holiday season (and I do); but that’s the easy way. The truth of the matter is that aside from various medical complications, I have actually been consuming a lot of media rather than creating new media (again, aside from my podcast).

Simply put, I hadn’t really felt the writing bug exactly. But lately I’ve been consuming a lot of creative-inspiring media that are giving me that nudge in the “write” direction again, so I thought I might pump out a mass post that covers some of the stuff I’ve watched or listened to or read or what-have-you in the last little while. This is not in any particular order, but I will try to indicate the media type next to each text block. Oh and that’s another thing – I’m limiting myself to a paragraph per topic; otherwise I will just keep going. Do you see what I’ve done so far without even providing a review of anything?

As always with my reviews, expect there to be some kind of spoilers involved. I’ll do my best to keep major surprises hidden, but sometimes I need to be specific.

Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker (Movie)

Amazingly, Vanessa won tickets to a private screening on opening day to see the final entry in the Skywalker saga. By far, this is the earliest I’d ever seen a Star Wars movie; I usually wait until a few weeks and resort to dodging spoilers left and right while I let the crowds die down. In short, I enjoyed the movie. I have still only seen it once, and while I had several issues with the film, I thought it did a good job. The downside: it felt like a direct sequel to The Force Awakens, and tried very hard to play down the events of The Last Jedi. The brightside: it was a visually fantastic film. I had other points about this to make (good and bad), but I’ve run out of room. If you were on the fence and waiting on my opinion (shocker), go see this film.

The Mandalorian (TV Show)

I think most people have already watched all of The Mandalorian, but so far we have only watched the first two episodes. The main reason for us was because I was selfishly holding out for a new 4KTV, not wanting to watch a cool new Star Wars series on a 32″ 720p TV. We got our new TV, and I subsequently subscribed to Disney Plus. I really like this show – it’s the right mix of Sci-Fi and Western, and is the visualization of what a good Star Wars novel can do. It’s definitely raising some interesting questions about the Star Wars universe (such as why are Jawas on a planet other than Tatooine?), and it looks fantastic.

Star Trek Picard (TV Show)

I’m going to have to do a deeper dive on this at a later time, but for right now let’s just say that it does a lot of things right. One episode in (well…at the time of writing this), I’m really glad that it’s not just a glorified reunion show. It could very easily rely on nostalgia – and to some extent, it does – but it’s giving us a new story. It definitely feels like it’s relevant to today’s world too. I’ve heard rumblings of some people who don’t like it, because of some action sequences, or say that it’s not Star Trek. Well too bad. This is Star Trek in 2020. I find that what Star Trek is changes with the times. We wouldn’t have gotten this in the 90’s because that’s not what TV was in the 90’s.

The Big Bang Theory (Seasons 1-3) (TV Show)

I’m still not through season 3 yet, but after spending years avoiding the show I decided to finally watch it. The first season and first half of season 2 were pretty bad – the only good parts were the clever comedy that wasn’t at all related to nerd culture. In fact that’s the part I liked the least – all of the “nerd culture” jokes. I’ll have to research this a bit, but it seems that the series had a bit of a turning point in season 2 and the characters had some subtle changes introduced. They started to grow a little beyond their “haha laugh at us beecause we’re nerds” stereotype. I’ve seen some later-season episodes and think they’re much better than this early stuff, and I can at least see some of those seeds planted in late season 2 / early season 3. Ultimately I find it interesting to see how slowly they do character development in a half-hour sitcom.

The Informal Biography of Scrooge McDuck (Book)

I picked up this weird little zine (published I believe in 1974) from my Uncle’s book collection after he passed away in 2017. It just seemed like a quirky little thing that would be fun to read. So far, it’s either ironically hilarious or incredibly dry – never both. I’ll probably be reviewing it for The Slow Reader this year.

Writing Excuses (Podcast)

This is the podcast that has had me mainly growing my itch to write more. This season, the Writing Excuses crew are answering listener questions and one of them was an episode about self publishing. This is the episode in particular that made me want to get some writing done. I still don’t think I’m cut out to write fiction anymore, but writing in general is something I like to do quite a bit. I think I dropped the ball in 2019 so I’m going to pick it back up in 2020.

Descript (Software)

Descript is a recording software program that I started using late last year. The long and short of it is that the program automatically transcribes the audio that you either record or import. It starts you off with I think 3 hours free transcription services, after which you need to pay a nominal fee every year (I couldn’t tell you what that fee is right now without looking it up). But it’s not just about transcribing – it also lets you edit your audio by highlighting and deleting text! This part of it is specifically really amazing and saves a lot of time in the editing process. I really like it so far and am strongly considering paying for the product. They released a video to announce their project and it gives you a good idea of how it works.

Well, that’s all that I wanted to write about this time around. I’m not sure what’s up next; I’m trying not to force my writing, which means that I’m putting off writing my review of Master and Apprentice. I’m not feeling it right now, so I think I’d come out of the process with an inferior product. I’m also trying a new set up for my writing process, so that may lead to some different things too.

Categories
Books Podcasts

Warlight (Review for The Slow Reader)

I posted the review for Warlight last week on my feed for The Slow Reader (https://slow-reader.pinecast.co). Here’s the text! Please excuse any minor typos – I didn’t really write it to be read, but to be heard.

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje  

Welcome to the Slow Reader – a podcast about books. I’m Steve and in today’s episode I am reviewing Warlight by Michael Ondaatje. 

About the book  

Publish date: May 8, 2018  

Back of the book summary:  

In a narrative as mysterious as memory itself – at once both shadowed and luminous – Warlight is a vivid, thrilling novel of violence and love, intrigue and desire. It is 1945, and London is still reeling from the Blitz and years of war. 14-year-old Nathaniel and his sister, Rachel, are apparently abandoned by their parents, left in the care of an enigmatic figure named The Moth. They suspect he might be a criminal, and grow both more convinced and less concerned as they get to know his eccentric crew of friends: men and women with a shared history, all of whom seem determined now to protect, and educate (in rather unusual ways) Rachel and Nathaniel. But are they really what and who they claim to be? A dozen years later, Nathaniel begins to uncover all he didn’t know or understand in that time, and it is this journey – through reality, recollection, and imagination – that is told in this magnificent novel. 

Warlight is a book that, because it’s by a renown Canadian author, is going to be found prominently displayed at most large bookstores in Canada, so that’s how it first appeared on my radar. I’ve never read Ondaatje before (even though I was supposed to read In the Skin of a Lion in university), so it didn’t immediately go on my to-read list. It wasn’t until I read the back-of-the-book description that made me want to read it. I also knew that it was critically acclaimed and on several book prize lists. So that’s what really sealed the deal and prompted me to add it to my library hold list. 

The book has different chapter headings, but they’re not numbered. I might not have had a good idea of how the chapters were divided, reading an eBook copy. Unfortunately, in preparing this review, I didn’t have a physical copy to rely on and can’t really elaborate further. But the way it worked in the eBook was that the novel was split into 3 overall parts, and within those parts were chapters (with headings such as “Wildfowling”), and within those were other, smaller breaks.  

I found it really easy to read full chapters at a time, as they were all small chunks. It made for some easily digestible reading sessions – and as I’ll elaborate on in a little bit, this was really helpful in trying to decipher the book. 

My Reading Timeline 

I started reading the book on November 13th, and finished reading it on November 28th. That’s 16 days, which is quick for my standards – but the reason for that was because it was a library eBook that I had no opportunity to renew.  

My copy had 272 or 292 pages (depending on my font settings), so it was a short book to move through as well. Because I read it in my Kobo Clara HD, I was able to get some good stats: it took my 8.6 hours to read, with my average minutes read per session at 6 minutes, and an average of 0.9 pages per minute. 

Questions to Answer 


I didn’t come up with any questions before I started reading Warlight, mostly because I had to just dive right into the book. The summary I read earlier is actually a fairly good indication as to what the book is about. But to really understand it, I need to delve into spoiler territory. From this point out, while I won’t get into every detail, I recommend reading the book before continuing with the podcast. 

What’s the book really about? 

This is a complicated question, and a complicated answer. On the surface, I don’t think the book is “about” anything in the sense of conflict. It really feels like it’s three different stories mashed together. It starts out as what appears to be a coming of age story, but at the end of part one, it becomes a spy story when there’s an attempted kidnapping of Nathaniel and his sister. But given the details weaved throughout the first part, you can see that it also has always been a spy story. In Part Two, it becomes a fact-finding mission – Nathanial as an adult trying to uncover secrets about his mother. And the third part is his mother’s story – but in the end, all three parts are woven together and tied up neatly.  

I’m not going to lie, I had to do a little bit of extra reading to try to pick apart this book. There’s a section in the Warlight Wikipedia entry devoted to “interpretation”. I’m grateful for it, because it helped distill some of the more confusing aspects of the story (and also helped inform my own interpretation of the book). There’s a New York Times review by Penelope Lively where she suggests the theme of the novel is that “the past never remains in the past”, and “the present reconstructs the past”. I think this interpretation is bang on – and fits with some of the observations of the main character at the end of the story.  

When I think about it personally, I can’t help but come to the same conclusion about the present “reconstructing” the past. It’s really easy to look back at past events and remember them in a different light. “Hindsight is 20/20” is a saying for a reason, after all.  

Another part of the novel that I picked up on, and confirmed in Lively’s interpretation, that the narration is deliberately vague and not revealing. The term “warlight” is mentioned several times throughout the story, referring to periods in the war where England would create blackouts to make it difficult for German bombers to see the landscape at night. There’s also a point in the novel describing a small village outside of London where during the war, they removed all signposts from the countryside to make it virtually impossible for anyone on foot to navigate.  

Ondaatje does this in the novel as well – he makes it deliberately difficult to navigate the narration and follow along, forcing us to fill in the gaps ourselves with a close reading. There’s a quote from the main character: “I know how to fill in a story from a grain of sand or a fragment of discovered truth.” 

This really made my reading sessions somewhat overwhelming and hard to get through. I mentioned earlier that my reading sessions were short and easily broken up, but there were times where I just couldn’t keep reading because of how much information is just thrown at you to try and digest. It’s very difficult to follow and you really need to concentrate on what you’re reading. 

Highlights from the Book 

I highlighted a lot of lines from the book – for various reasons, these passages spoke to me. Unfortunately, I neglected to get the page numbers or which chapter they’re from before I returned the book, so it’ll have to remain a mystery to you. 

“Nothing lasts. Not even literary or artistic fame protects worldly things around us” 

– I’m not entirely sure why I highlighted this line. I think maybe I picked this out as one of the underlying themes of the novel. I don’t think that’s the overall message I got after finishing the book though. 

“It was strange to consider their world being organized in such a godlike way by a woman who was remembering less and less of her own universe” 

– This was referring to a bee colony and a woman from, whom Nathanial was buying a house. I just enjoyed the contrast displayed in this short sentence, which at the same time made a somewhat sad statement about the mental state of the woman it was describing. 

“In any case, this was the government job I had enigmatically referred to that afternoon in Mrs. Malakite’s garden while the bees moved uncertainly in their hives and she had forgotten who I was.”

 – There’s nothing particularly special about this line – I just highlighted it because it reminded me of how we sometimes tell stories. Something mentioned in passing gets elaborated on further. There was a lot of that happening in the novel. 

“There was a hasty, determined destruction of evidence by all sides”

 – The destruction of documents that was being described by Ondaatje put in my mind the image of the various Ministries in 1984

“In this post-war world twelve years later, it felt to some of us, our heads bent over the files brought to us daily, that it was no longer possible to see who held a correct moral position” 

– I think this might be referring to the kinds of atrocities committed on both sides of the war. Part of what Ondaatje illustrates in the novel is that we have this idea of the “good guys” winning the war, but – alongside the previous quote about destroying evidence – as his mother put it in the novel, “sins were various” no matter which side you look at. 

“She was not in her right mind, of course, then. She was exhausted. A seizure had been activated in her and she was probably never clear about the details of what had happened” 

– The fact that Nathanial’s sister, Rachel, had seizures in the novel turned out not to be an important detail. It helped to weave some minor points together in the story; but what made me highlight this was that I recently experienced a seizure for the first time. This part of the description: “…she was probably never clear about the details of what had happened” resonates with me completely. One minute I was cooking breakfast, and the next thing I remember after is waking up in the back of an ambulance. I don’t know what happened other than what was told to me. 

“Do we eventually become what we are originally meant to be?”

 – This idea of pre-determined fates was explored a little bit in the novel. I’m not sure that the question was ever really answered. But personally, I believe that yes, we all have some sort of destiny and life exerts itself to put is in a particular path. We have some control over what direction we go, but ultimately, we end up where we’re supposed to be. 

““So how long are you here? What do you do with yourself?” 

It felt to me that both questions, side by side, showed a lack of interest.” 

– I laughed a little at this quote. The way these questions were written, that’s exactly the tone I imagined. They feel like small talk made to say something and doesn’t require attentive listening. 

“But above all, most of all, how much damage did I do”

 – To be honest, I’m not sure why I picked this line out of the book. I think it was Nathanial realizing who he was and what his past meant to him and others. 

“We are foolish as teenagers. We say wrong things, do not know how to be modest, or less shy. We judge easily. But the only hope given us, although only in retrospect, is that we change” 

– This is a very bleak outlook on how we act as youth. Still, it’s fairly accurate. I think we all acknowledge that we do stupid things in our youth (from teenagers on up including even our 20’s). As adults, we look down on teenagers and chalk up their actions to “they’re just teenagers”.  So I guess I highlighted this line for truth. As for the previous line – I think it followed this line so now I understand it in context. Nathanial is asking how much damage he did as a teenager – and I suppose, asking himself if he changed. 

Wrapping Up 

I liked the book – I wasn’t really bored while reading, except for a few places here and there. But this was not an easy read, by any means, and I really feel like I need a palate cleanser in between. Luckily I have a couple of lighter books on the go that help in that regard – the only problem being that I feel the need to take a short reading break. 

On Goodreads I rated Warlight 3 out of 5 stars. After reading through I like to read other reviews, and a lot of what I saw matched my opinion. It’s a solid book, but Part Three suffers a little compared to the rest of the book. This is where it really slows down, when Nathanial starts to recount his mother’s childhood and how she learned to become a spy.  

I didn’t really think it fit with the rest of the book – I’m not sure I even understood how Nathanial knew all of these details. I think maybe he was making a lot of it up based on small bits of information he learned over the years. That could very well be what happened here. But to me it felt very unimportant to the overall story and I just wanted to breeze through it. 

I recommend the novel, with the caveat that you should give yourself time to get through it. Don’t rush through it as I felt I had to. 

What’s Next on the Podcast 

So, what’s next for The Slow Reader? I have two books that I put on hold while I read Warlight: The MVP Machine and Master and Apprentice. The latter is a Star Wars novel set before The Phantom Menace. I intend to finish these books before the end of the year, but I’m not sure if I will get to the recording process before then. I anticipate that you’ll see a new episode in January 2020.  

After those books I think I want to get through some shorter material, so I’ll have a look on my shelf and pick out some thin reading.  

The music at the start of this episode was called Labile Polvere, recorded by Mattia Vlad Morleo. Find out more at Jamendo.com. 

If you enjoyed this episode, be sure to check out previous episodes and books at https://slow-reader.pinecast.co. Share this with other people and leave me a comment on Twitter, @stephen_g. Thanks for listening! 

Categories
Books Podcasts

Review: Heads by David Osborn

This Fall I read the 1985 medical thriller Heads by David Osborn. You can hear the audio version of it via The Slow Reader; full text is below!

About the book 

Publish date: December 1, 1985 

Back of the book summary: 

More shocking than Coma, more terrifying than The Terminal ManHeads is a thriller that goes deeper into the horrifying future of medicine than any novel has dared to go before. In an ultimate step into terror, David Osborn explores the murky boundaries between volunteer and victim, ambition and ruthlessness, life and death, when what begins as highly-classified research by a team of responsible doctors ends as a deadly game in which any of the players can be condemned to a purgatory more ghastly than hell. 

Quick notes about the summary – The Terminal Man was a 1972 Michael Chrichton book (who himself referred to it as his “least favourite work”). Coma probably refers to the 1977 novel by Robin Cook.  Osborn is also the author of a book called Open Season – best summarized by this review from Leslie on Goodreads

3 former college buddies meet every year for an annual hunting trip at their secluded lodge. For the past seven years they have kidnapped a young couple, forced them to commit humiliating acts and then after a short head start they begin hunting them down. 

From what you’ll hear about later in the review, that sounds on par with Heads

I also found Heads listed as The Head Hunters on Kindle (published 2017) when searching for it online, so if you’re unable to find it try using that title. It has quite a different book cover that looks like it was put together as a cut-and-paste job compared to the 1985 cover. Had I realized these books were identical I might have paid for the eBook rather than buy a physical copy. 

Speaking of which, that’s how I found the book! I first found it at a yard sale on Manitoulin Island over the summer; however, I decided not to buy it at the time. I realized after the fact that I should have bought it, so I bought a used copy from Amazon. It came from somewhere in California, but it looks like it originated from Alberta, Canada. I’d be interested in following that trail.  

Getting back to the book, some basic stats: 

  • There are 294 pages in the main story 
  • There are 36 chapters (with a prologue) 
  • There’s a preview of the book Evidence of Love by John Bloom and Jim Atkinson, apparently a true crime novel, at the end of the novel, plus an order form for more Bantam books 

My Reading Timeline 

I started reading Heads September 10th, and finished reading it October 23rd. Depending on how you calculate it, that’s 44 days, good for approximately 6.7 pages per day. Or by chapter count, 1.2 chapters per day.   

Questions to Answer 

Of all the things I want to cover in this review, I want to make sure I answer these questions I have about the novel, partly based on the back of the book: 

  1. Are the “murky boundaries between volunteer and victim, ambition and ruthlessness, life and death” really explored in this novel? 
  2. Did I feel that any character was in any real danger at any point in the story? 
  3. Further to question 2, did the story and setting seem at least believable (in other words, could I suspend my level of disbelief)? 
  4. Somewhat related, is this “future of medicine” really something that was considered to be plausible in 1985? 

I’ll circle back to these questions at the end of the review to provide a sort of summary of my thoughts both while I was reading, and after I finished the book. Up until this point the podcast has been spoiler-free for Heads, but while I’m not going to cover off the entire book as I’ve done previously, consider anything past this point to have potential spoilers (if you were intending on reading the book). 

What’s the book really about? 

The back-of-the-book synopsis is probably one of the vaguest descriptions of a book that I’ve ever read, yet it (combined with the cool cover) still managed to spark my interest. Still, it’s not very descriptive as to what actually happens in the book so here’s a short summary. 

The Borg-Harrison Institute is conducting highly-classified research experiments for the government or the military (to be honest, I’m not entirely clear who is funding this research).  Borg-Harrison scientists are recruiting volunteer patients who are about to die – those with terminal diseases, life-threatening physical problems and the like – and offer them extended life as life-supported heads.  No body, just their head attached to a console.  In exchange, they sever all contact with their previous life and remain hidden away in a research laboratory.   

One researcher, Susan McCollough, joins Borg-Harrison and starts working on the project – although she is unaware that the project is dealing with live severed heads.  Eventually she stumbles upon the secret and must tread carefully, or else she could end up with a severed head herself.  

So that’s what’s going on at the surface level. I’ll get into some more of the plot details as I talk about the book, but I want to introduce the main characters at least. Here’s who we’re dealing with:  

  • John Flemming. Brilliant scientist and “youngest-ever medical director of the University Hospital Brain Research Laboratory in Washington” 
  • Susan McCollough.  Another scientist, and John’s assistant –  which is why she’s brought on to work with Borg-Harrison. 
  • Michael Burgess. The lead scientist and surgeon on the project. 
  • Katherine Blair. A psychologist working on the project, is closely involved with Michael. 
  • Al Luczynski. An anesthesiologist at Borg-Harrison. Apparently has a talent to perfectly imitate other people’s voices which pays off only in one scene to manufacture a tense moment. 
  • Toni Soong. Michael’s assistant in surgery. 

There are some smaller characters in the novel as well, but those are the main players. All of the lead doctors and scientists all seem to be considered experts in their field. They also know how to party, and that’s how we’re first introduced to them. Oh, and they’re also all extremely good looking. Somehow, Osborn still manages to give them a different look while still making them out to have perfect bodies. I guess in a way, it worked for me – I was able to get different mental pictures of the characters.   

That’s another thing, though; Osborn seemed to have a penchant for describing Katherine’s “titian” hair. I’d never heard of that before; apparently it’s a “brownish shade of red hair” often confused with auburn hair. I thought it was overused in the book at first, but the descriptor came up at another point in the novel to create a somewhat helpful context so I would again conclude that in terms of physical descriptions, Osborn was able to differentiate the characters very well. 

However, that’s where the “characters done well” bit stops. I felt that the personalities and motivations of the characters were all surface-level, with very little depth to any of them. The characters also portray some viewpoints very much rooted in the 1980’s. The men in the novel are seen to be powerful, and the women are forced to use “their gender” to advance their careers or ambitions. Katherine in particular is portrayed as cold and calculating, and the few times we get limited 3rd person narration from her perspective don’t do very much to cast a better light. She’s basically there to be a manipulative, power-hungry antagonist for Susan, the lead character of the novel.  

About Susan – it’s more than a little disappointing that a lot of her actions are governed by her overwhelming attraction to men in the novel. The book starts with her and John Flemming together, but when he dies early in the novel it devastates her. This is understandable, I mean I can’t imagine going through losing a loved one. But not too long after John’s death, she becomes overwhelmingly attracted to Michael and many of her decisions in the novel (until probably the last third of the book) are only in conflict because she is so attracted to Michael. Part of the attraction is rooted in his physical appearance, but they have very frequent, mind-blowing sex in the middle of the novel (some of which is described in somewhat amusing detail, but mostly just referred to in passing). The way it’s written, Susan seems to be very much controlled by her relationship with Michael and finds it hard to think straight.  

I guess you could say that I wasn’t impressed with the characters and how they were written. Luckily, the story moved along at a good pace and was interesting enough that I could look past the poor characterization. And I actually enjoyed at the way information was slowly revealed as I read along. It wasn’t a mystery novel so I didn’t feel cheated that plot details were withheld behind-the-scenes, so to speak. 

After John Flemming dies in a horrible car accident, we mostly follow Susan’s point of view with a few glimpses into the other characters actions. Most of the information that we need comes from Susan’s limited viewpoints; we really only check in with the other characters so that we know what’s going on at the surface. Osborn seems deliberately vague with what they’re talking about (even though we can kind of infer what’s really happening), but that’s okay.  

As Susan moves out of her deep depression due to John’s passing and starts to work for Borg-Harrison, we start to get more details revealed – both from Susan’s perspective, and from the other characters – and it mainly follows at the same pace as Susan’s revelations.  

For example, once Susan joins Borg-Harrison, we start to get some more details about squabbling between the scientists and the source of their funding. Not too long after that, while frustratingly coming to an impasse in her work, Susan accidentally discovers John is technically still alive in the form of a disembodied head connected to a console. He’s not the only one – there are five or six active “volunteers” in a restricted floor of the institute. Once Susan finds out what the project she’s working on is truly about, that’s when the information just starts flowing out.  

We get some more insight into just how close this project is to failure, and the inner machinations of the research institute as they try to figure out how to minimize any damage potentially caused by Susan’s discovery of the heads. The solution is to give her full access, and as Susan learns more and works more closely with John, more and more is revealed. We even get point of view chapters from the heads themselves, which in itself is interesting. At one point, they also go through the surgery involved in severing a head from the body and keeping it alive (although in that surgery, there’s an error and the head dies anyway).  

Eventually we learn more about the nature of the volunteers. They’re supposed to be those that are basically dead already – either a terminal disease that has almost run its course, or some other reason that their bodies will cause them to die. But it’s revealed that Katherine is fudging things – an unknown number of volunteers could be people who are healthy and not close to death at all. It’s implied that John Flemming’s signature was forged while he was being worked on in the hospital after his accident. 

This revelation about the source of the heads is actually very important, because it lays the foundation of the threat to Susan’s life – that she could very easily become a head on a console. In fact, that’s the main conflict at the end of the novel.  John dies, and in order to deal with knowing too much, Katherine and Michael conspire to put Susan’s head on a console. I actually wasn’t sure what direction the book would take, and thought that it was possible Osborn could actually do this to the protagonist.  

Spoilers! She makes it as far as the prep table for surgery. Part of the prep process includes shaving the head of the “volunteer” and drawing incision lines across the neck. This is what leads to a fairly cringe-inducing scene. Susan escapes, and eventually encounters Katherine in a locker room. She knocks her out cold, and anesthesiologist Al L. walks in to find her unconscious, on the floor. His first thought is not to help her out – far from it. 

No, his first thought is that he’ll never get another chance to have Katherine in such a vulnerable position again. His second thought is that he could do whatever he wanted to and take advantage of her. The only reason he doesn’t take off his own pants is that he realizes he has no time and would get caught. So he hides her hair and draws the incision lines across her neck. He figures that no one would be able to tell the difference between her and Susan without hair and naked from the neck down. 

I guess he was right, because it’s Katherine that ends up on the surgery table when the details of the program are revealed to the media – but too late to stop the surgery in progress. 

That’s probably the only spot in the novel that I thought could have been ripped right out.  

Highlights from the Book 

I dog-eared some pages while I was reading because there were some passages there that I wanted to highlight.  Here they are: 

“Al Luczynski, wearing an undersized bikini completely at odds with his round bearded face and big bearish body…” Was bikini an often-used term for Speedo’s in the 80’s? Weird image from this quote. 

In chapter 10, Katherine is going to the Borg-Harrison headquarters to meet the board chairman, and Osborn describes the house in great length. His wording for when she doesn’t find him is odd: “Katherine found him not there.” Wouldn’t it have been better to say “Katherine didn’t find him there”? 

Chapter 20 – not a particular line, but this chapter was unique in that it was from the viewpoint of John. It was neat to get inside his head (no pun intended) and then he also describes the surgery process. Chapter 23 was also from the heads’ viewpoint and what goes on “after hours”. 

Answering the Questions 

Getting back to the questions I asked earlier, let’s start with number one. 

Are the “murky boundaries between volunteer and victim, ambition and ruthlessness, life and death” really explored in this novel? 

I would say no. That quote implies to me that there are current processes in medical sciences (current in 1985, at least) that would be explored. It’s true that the line between volunteer and victim blur in the novel, but I don’t think they were really “explored” in the meaning I’m thinking about. As far as I can tell from the book, it’s clear that the research project started with good intentions and was all “proper”, at least as proper as severing heads and keeping them alive could be.  

But eventually as they started experiencing problems keeping heads alive or useful, and running out of viable candidates to volunteer, the board director basically tells Katherine “don’t tell me what you’re doing and I won’t ask” when it comes to being creative with procuring new subjects. Once we have that topic broached by the characters, it seems like the novel tailspins into creative new ways Katherine can find new volunteers.  

So no, this “murky boundary” is pretty much just a surface-level feature of the book. 

Did I feel that any character was in any real danger at any point in the story? 

Yes! I mentioned earlier that I thought Susan could potentially end up a severed head on a console at the end of the book. And I guess by direct correlation, Katherine was for sure in danger at the end. The book was at least realistic in terms of not protecting characters or pulling punches. 

Further to question 2, did the story and setting seem at least believable (in other words, could I suspend my level of disbelief)? 

I don’t truly know much about research projects or hospitals, but I had a hard time believing in the characters. They all seemed to be partying and sleeping with each other, and were all perfect specimens of the human race (except for an avuncular old man working at the institute, who made me think of Ducky from NCIS).   

But yes, I suspended my disbelief a little bit while reading the book. I don’t mean that as I was reading I believed that what they were doing was truly possible. I just mean that there wasn’t really anything in the book (the almost-rape scene aside) that made me stop reading and say, “well there’s no way that could happen.”  In the universe of the novel, it was believable. 

Somewhat related, is this “future of medicine” really something that was considered to be plausible in 1985? 

This one I need to research a little bit. Unfortunately it’s not something that comes too easily in a Google search. I think I’d have to dive deep and read some essays, but I’m not really interested in doing that (nor do I have the time). I picked a bad question to ask, in retrospect. I did find some breakthroughs in medical treatments in the early 80’s, though, and they included things like vaccines, MRI scanners, and apparently a surgical robot.  

Digging a little deeper, apparently artificial skin was discovered and developed in the late 70’s and early 80’s. But also in 1981 was the first successful combined heart-lung transplant. Since the novel features what I would call a head transplant (from a body to a machine), I looked up some more transplant firsts near the 1980’s. Here’s a short list: 

  • 1963 – First human liver transplant; first human lung transplant 
  • 1966 – First human pancreas transplant 
  • 1967 – First human heart transplant 

So I suppose if you were to look at what was happening in medical technology I’d argue that you could speculate the kind of procedure described in Heads would be at least plausible. I’m rather impressed by the research David Osborn seems to have done in this field.  

Wrapping Up 

Overall I scored this book 2 stars on Goodreads. My one-paragraph review: 

The characters act on a mostly surface level in this book, but the plot was interesting enough to keep me going. A lot of 80s view points very obvious in the characters too. 

Obviously, I’ve done a bit more thinking about the novel since then and went a little further in-depth. But I still stand by the 2-star review. It’s a very disposable novel, and I’ll probably forget about it in years to come and never re-read it. The characters are not at all memorable and some of the secondary characters are very cartoon-like and have exaggerated traits. If you want to read this book, find a very cheap copy (free, if you can) but don’t spend a lot of time hunting this down.  

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Podcasts

New podcast up!

Wow! It’s been a while. I dismantled my studio, cleaned it up, and put it back together again since the last episode. I was going to record two today (Slow Reader + Alternative Airwaves) but I opted for just The Slow Reader. I might do Alternative Airwaves later this week.

I like the way this turned out; I’m pretty much resigned to not worrying about the length of the podcast. It’s going to be a sub-10 minute show. There’s a niche for that and I’m filling it.

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Podcasts

Slow reader – Saturday Night Ghost Club Chapters 1-4

Got a new episode out! On time! I recorded it in Halifax while on vacation, so the sound quality is slightly off from what I usually cobble together.

I’m very excited to start a new book! This wasn’t entirely intended (influenced only by when I received the book from the library), but The Saturday Night Ghost Club (by Craig Davidson) starts today with episodes 1-4, right when most other people are watching Stranger Things 3 (I’ve only seen the first season + the first episode of season 2 so far). This is a spooky book, and really good so far. So dive in with me!

The theme music in today’s episode is titled “Hor Hor” by composer Alexander Nakarada, and is available under a public domain license.

Categories
Podcasts

Podcast: The Slow Reader – Bonus Episode!

I’m going to keep this short because I didn’t prepare ahead of time (oops). Check it out today and let me know your theories!

This bonus episode contains a full read of “Murder and Suicide, Respecively” by Ryan North, a story from the first Machine of Death short story collection! Buy the book from Amazon if you haven’t ever read it before. Get in touch with me on Twitter to discuss theories about this story!