Review ~ The Last Days of Night

This book was provided to me by Random House Publishing Group via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Cover via Goodreads

The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore

New York, 1888. Gas lamps still flicker in the city streets, but the miracle of electric light is in its infancy. The person who controls the means to turn night into day will make history–and a vast fortune. A young untested lawyer named Paul Cravath, fresh out of Columbia Law School, takes a case that seems impossible to win. Paul’s client, George Westinghouse, has been sued by Thomas Edison over a billion-dollar question: Who invented the light bulb and holds the right to power the country?

The case affords Paul entry to the heady world of high society–the glittering parties in Gramercy Park mansions, and the more insidious dealings done behind closed doors. The task facing him is beyond daunting. Edison is a wily, dangerous opponent with vast resources at his disposal–private spies, newspapers in his pocket, and the backing of J. P. Morgan himself. Yet this unknown lawyer shares with his famous adversary a compulsion to win at all costs. How will he do it?

In obsessive pursuit of victory, Paul crosses paths with Nikola Tesla, an eccentric, brilliant inventor who may hold the key to defeating Edison, and with Agnes Huntington, a beautiful opera singer who proves to be a flawless performer on stage and off. As Paul takes greater and greater risks, he’ll find that everyone in his path is playing their own game, and no one is quite who they seem. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
The late 19th century is a time of fantastic innovation. It was, as this book is titled, the last days of night before prevalence of electric lighting. This is also a time of industrialization of innovations. In the U.S., the notion of patrons directing invention was never a thing. Instead it’s patents and investments. And at the heart of the current war are Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse.

What Worked
Using the point of view of Paul Cravath, a lawyer, Moore allows the story to be, well, a story instead of a primer on electricity. Having said that, The Last Days of Night is more technologically sound than historically sound. All the characters are based on real people, even Paul, but characters are embellished and the events are consolidated and rearranged to serve the story. For the most part, this didn’t bug me as much as it has with other works.

Moore begins every chapter with an epigraph. These epigraphs are quotes by contemporaries of the story like Edison, Westinghouse, and Tesla or modern innovators and technologists like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Karl Popper. The use of our present day Edison/Westinghouse—Gates and Jobs—give the story a feeling of scope. After all, isn’t the Apple/Microsoft desktop lawsuit the 20th century’s current war?

What Didn’t Work
While The Last Days of Night doesn’t get bogged down by the science-y aspects of the story, it also doesn’t have more than one speed. It chugs along at a good pace, but it lacks any of the tempo changes that signifies that something is actually happening in the story. The ending in particular felt flat to me and rather “Hollywood” in the way many things were wrapped up.

Overall
About mid-way through the books I felt that it would make a pretty good TV show. I later found out that it had already been optioned for a film with Moore serving as screenwriter. Indeed, Graham Moore wrote (and won an Oscar for) the screenplay for The Imitation Game, a movie that annoyed me a bit with the “Hollywood” rounding of Alan Turing’s story. Still, I’ll probably give The Last Days of Night a watch if it ever gets made. I like the period and I like the characters. The story can stand by itself.

Publishing info, my copy: Kindle ebook, Random House, Sept. 20, 2016
Acquired: NetGalley, 5/11/17
Genre: historical fiction

This is 2/10 Books of Summer!

Deal Me In, Week 24 ~ “The Stoker Memorandum”

(Deal Me In logo above created by Mannomoi at Dilettante Artiste)
(Deal Me In logo above created by Mannomoi at Dilettante Artiste)

Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis
What’s Deal Me In?

“The Stoker Memorandum” by Lavie Tidhar

Card picked: K
From: Daily Science Fiction, Jan. 20, 2012

I’ve read and enjoyed Lavie Tidhar’s science fiction anthology/novel Central Station, but I hadn’t dipped into what might be more up alley: his Victorian steampunk series the Bookman Histories. Until now…

“The Stoker Memorandum” is connected to this series and introduces an adjacent 19th century populated by characters fictional and real, terrestrial and celestial.

The Queen herself was there, in the Royal Box, stately as ever, with her forked tongue hissing out every so often, to snap a fly out of the air. I remember the prince regent did not come but Victoria’s favorite, that dashing Harry Flashman, the popular Hero of Jalalabad, was beside her. So were many foreign dignitaries and many of the city’s leading figures, from our now-Prime-Minister Mrs. Beeton, my friend and former rival Oscar Wilde, the famed scientists Jekyll and Moreau (before the one’s suspicious death and the other’s exile to the South Seas), the Lord Byron automaton (always a gentleman), Rudolph Rassendyll of Zenda, and many, many others. Your brother, the consulting detective, was there, if I recall rightly, Mr. Holmes.

The Memorandum is, of course, written by Bram Stoker. He’s not yet the writer that we know him to be, but he’s being given the opportunity to write the biography of Charles Babbage, a recluse who has taken up residence in castle beyond the Borgo Pass… There’s a lot of literary allusions and steampunk-ery. Almost maybe too many, but I’ll probably give the first in the series The Bookman a try at some point.

(Aside: Central Station just won the Campbell Award. Congrats, Lavie Tidhar!

Review ~ The Lost World

Cover via Goodreads

The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle

Professor Challenger–Doyle’s most famous character after Sherlock Holmes–leads an expedition into the deepest jungles of South America. Together, the men–a young journalist, an adventurer and an aristocrat–along with their bearers and guides, search for a rumored country and encounter savagery, hardship and betrayal on the way. But things get worse as they get closer to the hidden world they seek. Trapped on an isolated plateau, menaced by hungry carnosaurs, it begins to look as though the expedition may never return. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
Since reading The War of the Worlds back in December, I’ve been working my way through the “scientific romance” genre. I decided to branch out from H. G. Wells and read one of my favorite authors of the era: Arthur Conan Doyle. Of course, I’m not sure I had ever read anything by Arthur Conan Doyle other than his Sherlock Holmes stories…

What Didn’t Work
Remember how in A Study in Scarlet there is a fairly long digression to the Salt Lake Valley and it’s perhaps not the most scintillating of Doyle’s writings? I felt that way about much of The Lost World. Parlors and the backstreets of London seem to be what Doyle does best. The wider world? Maybe not so much. (Doyle is one of my earliest writing influences; I don’t do the wider world any justice either. I blame you, ACD.)

What Worked
The thing that Doyle does do well is create problems for his characters. Being on safari in Brazil to an area filled with strange and dangerous beasts isn’t enough. No, our heroes must be firmly trapped, food and ammo dwindling, on a high plateau filled with dinosaurs and warring clans of natives and ape-men. As ornate as the problems are, so must the solutions be. Of course, Prof. Challenger and the rest are up to the task of escaping and proving to the world that the Lost World exists.

Honestly, I haven’t decided whether the gender politics of the story should go on the pro or con side of this review. The sole female character of this piece is Gladys, the object of affection for our narrator, Ned Malone. Honestly, she doesn’t seem that into Ned and sets him an impossibly task to win her love. I don’t know who’s worse here: Gladys for not telling Ned that she’s not interested, or Ned for buying into her BS and //***SPOILER***// being heart broken when he gets back and finds that she’s married a clerk //***END SPOILER***//. The whole situation almost feels like satire, which I’d be amused by. But I’m not sure it is.

Comparison With Wells
So far in this genre, I find that like Wells’ fiction better. Ranking what I’ve read in the past year would probably go like this:

  • The Island of Dr. Moreau, H. G. Wells, 1896
  • The Time Machine, H. G. Wells, 1895
  • The War of the Worlds, H. G. Wells, 1898
  • The Lost World, Arthur Conan Doyle, 1912
  • The Invisible Man, H. G. Wells, 1897

Two things have thus far stuck out to me. First, Wells doesn’t really give the readers a hero to follow. Yes, there are geniuses in his stories, but they are ambiguous characters at best. Often, the narrator in a Wells tale is only managing to squeak by rather than being particularly heroic. In what I’ve read of Wells, there are no manly man like Prof. Challenger to save the day or even a Ned who is trying his damnedest to prove himself. Wells’ characters are survivors, while Doyle’s are conquerors.

Second, Wells always seems to have a point to make. While I don’t find him particularly preachy, or at least he balances it with entertainment, his views shine through. Doyle, less so. When Challenger and the other explorers help the “Indians” defeat the ape-men, there is some minor note about the horrors of weaponry and a smidge mention of colonialism, but mostly it’s celebration of the modern over the primitive. Mostly, I’m okay with Wells adding some politics to his stories.

Overall
The other two Professor Challenger stories sound very different from The Lost World, so I’ll probably give them a look. But probably not before I read more Wells.

Publishing info, my copy: Kindle edition, The Project Gutenberg EBook, originally 1912
Genre: scientific romance

This is 1/10 Books of Summer!

Deal Me In, Week 23 ~ “The Snake-Oil Salesman and the Prophet’s Head”

(Deal Me In logo above created by Mannomoi at Dilettante Artiste)
(Deal Me In logo above created by Mannomoi at Dilettante Artiste)

Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis
What’s Deal Me In?

“The Snake-Oil Salesman and the Prophet’s Head” by Shannon Peavey

Card picked: Q
From: Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Issue 172

The Story

They’d preserved his brother’s head in grain alcohol and floated it in a dirty glass jar. Leo peered through the glass and his own face looked back at him, slack-jawed and cloudy-eyed.

“Don’t know him,” Leo said.

“Some people say that thing talks at night,” he said. “Haven’t heard it, myself.”

Leo said nothing.

Leo and his twin brother Cary are kind of like the “one man who can speak no truth and the other man who can tell no lies” puzzle. Cary, who has become a head in a jar in Colonel Klee’s WORLD’S MOST DEPRAVED TREASURES, can hear what people mean when they speak. Leo, who is a roadie with Klee’s travelling show (and snake oil pitch), can only speak what people want to hear. It had been more convenience than brotherly love that had kept Cary and Leo together. Who else could know what Leo meant to say? Unfortunately, Cary told Leo something Leo didn’t want to hear, which lead to the head-in-a-jar situation. Leo thought that he was done with his brother. Leo was wrong.

Great little Weird West tale. Weird West is usually a genre that I want to like more than I do. It’s probably because I am fond of Westerns and too much “weird” can sully the things I enjoy about that genre. This story has the right weird:west ratio.

The Author
I read Shannon Peavey’s “A Beautiful Memory” last year during #24in48 and was looking for more by her. And now I’ll still be looking for more by her.

 

Review ~ The Princess Diarist

Cover via Goodreads

The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher

When Carrie Fisher recently discovered the journals she kept during the filming of the first Star Wars movie, she was astonished to see what they had preserved—plaintive love poems, unbridled musings with youthful naiveté, and a vulnerability that she barely recognized. Today, her fame as an author, actress, and pop-culture icon is indisputable, but in 1977, Carrie Fisher was just a teenager with an all-consuming crush on her costar, Harrison Ford.

With these excerpts from her handwritten notebooks, The Princess Diarist is Fisher’s intimate and revealing recollection of what happened on one of the most famous film sets of all time—and what developed behind the scenes. And today, as she reprises her most iconic role for the latest Star Wars trilogy, Fisher also ponders the joys and insanity of celebrity, and the absurdity of a life spawned by Hollywood royalty, only to be surpassed by her own outer-space royalty. (via Goodreads)

I.

I started listening to The Princess Diarist as an audio book sometime back in December or January, but that wasn’t the right time for me. Instead, it wasn’t until I listened to Kevin Smith’s tribute to Carrie Fisher on an episode of SModcast that I finally really wanted to read this book.

II.

Often Doctor Who fans identify their era of Doctor Who with who their Doctor is. Is it Four (Tom Baker)? Or Ten (David Tennant)? James Bond fans do this too. (George Lazenby, anyone?) And maybe Star Wars fans will too. Is Rey your girl? Or Padme? Or Jyn Erso? Or, like me, is Leia your kick-ass, blaster-wielding diplomat alter-ego?

I was three years old when Star Wars came out. I remember seeing it at a drive-in and that was probably more than a year after it came out. I had lots of Star Wars action figures, and all the Leias.

Later in life, I remember being a little disappointed that Carrie Fisher had such a messy life. Forgive me, Carrie, I was young and dumb.

III.

The Princess Diarist is set up into three parts. In the first Fisher tells about her early education and career, getting the job on Star Wars, and how she came to be involved briefly with Harrison Ford.

The second part is the diary she kept during that period. It is, despite the singular situation, very much the diary of a 19-year-old girl. Of course, at the time, Star Wars wasn’t StarWars.  It was just some low-budget sci-fi flick that no one was getting paid very much for. It was a job and Carrie Fisher was an actress who wasn’t even sure she wanted to follow in her celebrity parent’s footsteps.

The third part of the book is Fisher’s musings on the celebrity that Princess Leia brought her. Imagine the nineteen year-old version of yourself being pretty much eternal. Imagine having fans who feel an intimate connection with you due to love of the film. Imagine fans who are a little disappointed that you aren’t entirely Princess Leia.

IV.

I’ll never be a blaster-wielding diplomat princess. I’m never going to be a quick-witted superstar writer either. But I wouldn’t mind being a woman who can age and keep a messy life together with and eye-roll and a glitter bomb. That’s something we can all reasonably aspire to.

Publishing info, my copy: Kindle edition, Penguin Publishing Group, November 22, 2016
Acquired: Tempe Overdrive Digital Collection
Genre: memoir

This is .5/10 Books of Summer!

 

Deal Me In, Week 22 ~ “Dorothy and My Grandmother and the Sailors”

(Deal Me In logo above created by Mannomoi at Dilettante Artiste)
(Deal Me In logo above created by Mannomoi at Dilettante Artiste)

Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis
What’s Deal Me In?

“Dorothy and My Grandmother and the Sailors” by Shirley Jackson

Card picked: 9
From: The Lottery and Other Stories

The Story
It’s fleet week in San Francisco and our narrator and her friend Dot have been warned about sailors.

My mother told us about the kinds of girls who followed sailors, and my grandmother told us about the kind of sailors who followed girls.

Even when nowhere near the Bay, the girls feel the heavy weight of the possible vague danger that the sailors represent. Despite that, Dot, the narrator, the narrator’s mother and grandmother, and the narrator’s Uncle Ollie (former sailor himself who served as a radio operator in ’17) have a day out to go coat shopping and attend the launching of the fleet, which includes a tour of a battleship.

During the tour, our narrator becomes lost and is helped by an officer that she assumes is a captain. But to the horror of her grandmother, she learns that he is a marine!!! To recover from the trauma of being politely helped by a sailor, the women stop for dinner and a movie. Alas, the movie theater is over booked and the girls take two seats separate from Mother and Grandmother. Eventually, the seats next to Dot open up, but before the elders can take them, two sailors sit down!!! And, you know, proceed to watch the movie. Dot, especially, freaks out and the girls and their guardians cut the evening short.

Many years ago, I had a conversation with a male friend about the amount of vigilance that being female sometimes entails. He was very dismayed that women go around being scared in many situations that are (sometimes literally) a walk in the park for him. But sometimes, I do think that women let fear get the better of them. It’s a fine line between being safe and making every molehill into a mountain.

Review ~ The Last Train

This book was provided to me by the author in exchange for an honest review.

Cover via Goodreads

The Last Train by Michael Pronko

Detective Hiroshi Shimizu investigates white collar crime in Tokyo. He’s lost his girlfriend and still dreams of his time studying in America, but with a stable job, his own office and a half-empty apartment, he’s settled in.

When an American businessman turns up dead, his mentor Takamatsu calls him out to the site of a grisly murder. A glimpse from a security camera video suggests the killer was a woman, but in Japan, that seems unlikely. Hiroshi quickly learns how close homicide and suicide can appear in a city full of high-speed trains just a step—or a push—away. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
About two years back, I reviewed Michael Pronko’s Beauty and Chaos, his first collection of essays about Tokyo. A few months back, via a fellow blogger, I saw that Pronko was planning to release a series of Tokyo-based mysteries. I was definitely interest and excited when offered The Last Train to review.

What Worked
The big thing for me: The Last Train has a great sense of place. Considering Beauty and Chaos I expected no less. There are aspects of Tokyo that I was unfamiliar with, like hostess clubs, that got me Googling.

Hiroshi is solid character. Pronko has lived and taught in Tokyo for 20 years, but I was a little concerned about his main character being Japanese. Would a Western guy be able to pull that off? (And can I, not being Japanese myself, even be able to judge that?) From my point of view, Hiroshi’s education and background give him reason to look at the culture around him from a point slightly removed. It’s a little like when I go back to Nebraska after living in Arizona for 17 years—I suddenly remember that college football is a *very big deal* and that the afternoon news includes the prices for hogs and corn.

The key to a good mystery is how well information is revealed to the characters and readers as the story unfolds. It’s no spoiler to mention that Michiko, an ex-hostess, is the antagonist of The Last Train. Chapters are written from her point of view. Doing that and not revealing all of the character’s motivations is a tricky thing to do. Pronko handles it well. The ending of The Last Train felt a little abrupt, but it wasn’t unsatisfying.

What Didn’t Work
A minor thing: Hiroshi’s position within the police force was a little muddled. Though he works white-collar fraud cases, he’s currently under the umbrella of homicide. That is explained by it being a reorganization happenstance, but I think I would have like to have seen Hiroshi even more settled as a pencil-pusher. The circumstances of the case could have brought him in even without the homicide division (mis)connection.

Overall
It looks like there are at least two more Hiroshi thrillers on the way and I’m up for ’em. All the pieces are in place: Hiroshi, his sometimes partner and ex-sumo wrestler Sakaguchi, already put-upon assistant Akiko, and Tokyo as the backdrop. Bring on the next case!

Publishing info, my copy: Kindle mobi, Raked Gravel Press, May 31, 2017
Genre: mystery, thriller