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!

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

Deal Me In, Week 21 ~ “Buffalo”

(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?

“Buffalo” by John Kessel

Card picked: 4
From: Lightspeed Magazine, Issue 57 (Feb. 2015)

The Story
I picked stories from this issue of Lightspeed Magazine for Deal Me In back in October/November-ish of last year. It was an issue I had downloaded at some point in the past and I added the short stories to my list without knowing anything about them other than Lightspeed is a pretty solid mag. Around Thanksgiving I joined a read-through of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, which started me on my current scientific romance kick. So it’s a bit of Deal Me In coincidence magic that brought me to “Buffalo,” a story about a fictional meeting in 1934 between H. G. Wells and Jack Kessel, the author’s father.

Jack Kessel is the son of a Polish immigrant, an itinerant family until they finally settled in Buffalo, NY. When we meet Kessel, he’s working for the Civilian Conservation Corps, clearing trees from the road that will become George Washington Memorial Parkway. On the cusp of age thirty, Kessel has worked half a dozen jobs and lived as many places. He considers himself a step above his blue-collar peers. Kessel is an artist and a reader, fond of fantastic literature, especially the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs and H. G. Wells. His one vow is to never return to Buffalo. For Kessel the city and its culture are a limiter to what he might be able to achieve.

In 1934, H. G. Wells is in the twilight of his career. He’s spent a lifetime attempting to imbue his literature with social consciousness, but he fears that it is for nought. Despite FDR’s New Deal, Wells is concerned that it is the common man who will get in the way of those who know better and can do better. He is also dismayed by the hollow entertainments of those small men, especially the sensational but bankrupt fictions of someone like Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Obviously, when these two men meet, things don’t go well. Each is left disappointed: Wells in that Kessel sees Wells’ writings at the same level as Burroughs; Kessel in that Wells ultimately sees him as just another Polack.

Wells’s weariness has dropped down onto his shoulders again like an iron cloak. “Young man—go away,” he says. “You don’t know what you’re saying. Go back to Buffalo.”

Never meet your idols, they say.

Kessel, the author, doesn’t leave us with entirely without hope. He stages this meeting at a jazz club where these two very different men have incongruously ended up. The headliner is Duke Ellington, and Kessel asks us to ponder: What is art? What is it worth? What can it change?

Deal Me In, Week 20 ~ “Trust Me”

(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?

“Trust Me” by Joseph Lyons

Card picked: 7♠
From: The Architecture of Fear, ed. by Kathryn Cramer and Peter D. Pautz

The Story
A few weeks back I read a story in this anthology by a very famous horror writer, but I didn’t post about it. The story was quite long, involved a lot of back story, and really lacked any creepiness or tension. The prestige of the author probably sold copies of this anthology back in 1989 when the mall bookstore had a horror section that was at least a good two sections of shelves.*

I’m guessing that no one bought this anthology for Joseph Lyons’ “Trust Me.” Which is a shame. Weighing in at a mere two pages, it packs more punch than Mr. Big-Time author’s 26 pages. It begins with fed-up parents and a little girl suffering from nightmares…

“That’s right. I don’t believe you.” He glared at her until she looked down. “And I don’t think you were asleep, either.”

After doing some internet searching, “Trust Me” seems to be Joseph Lyons’ only writing credit. Anthologies are great for finding new authors, but sometimes a little depressing when you realize that the rare gem is actually singular.

The Architecture of Fear is available through Open Library.

*And only 33% of those shelves were taken up by Stephen King. He’s not the guy with the long, boring story, btw. King’s short stories are generally very solid.

 

Review ~ Curiosity

Cover via Goodreads

Curiosity by Gary L. Blackwood

Philadelphia, PA, 1835. Rufus, a twelve-year-old chess prodigy, is recruited by a shady showman named Maelzel to secretly operate a mechanical chess player called the Turk. The Turk wows ticket-paying audience members and players, who do not realize that Rufus, the true chess master, is hidden inside the contraption. But Rufus’s job working the automaton must be kept secret, and he fears he may never be able to escape his unscrupulous master. And what has happened to the previous operators of the Turk, who seem to disappear as soon as Maelzel no longer needs them? Creeping suspense, plenty of mystery, and cameos from Edgar Allan Poe and P. T. Barnum mark Gary Blackwood’s triumphant return to middle grade fiction. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
When I’m at the library, I do subject searches just to see what might come up. On this particular occasion, I searched for “mechanical Turk.” The mechanical Turk and automata in general are something I’ve been interested in since reading about Joseffy’s mechanical creations. Anyway, the search lead to my finding Curiosity, a historical fiction about the Turk. I was game…even if it was middle grade fiction.

What Didn’t Work
What didn’t work for me is the usual stuff that doesn’t work for me when I’m reading fiction aimed at young people. There is often a lack of depth to the plot and themes. The clean-slate “Who am I in this world?” questions don’t generally hold my interest.

What Worked
Despite my reservations, I really enjoyed Curiosity because it was very well done. There are other plot devices in this story that sometimes go awry, but Blackwood uses them with such a light touch.

Rufus is a chess prodigy.  Sometimes I find the kid genius trope hard to swallow because it ends up being a child with a whole suite of specialized skills. Being really good at one thing at a young age (like chess or a musical instrument) is a lot easier for me to believe than being something like a child assassin, which would involve talent and training in many different areas. Rufus’s skills are pretty limited to chess. At all other things, he’s pretty much just a twelve year-old.

I also didn’t realize when I picked up this book that Edgar Allan Poe would have as large of a part in the narrative. If I had, it might have been the thing to make me leave it on the shelf. After reading a few books involving fictional Poes, I decided that they were not a good idea for me. Poe for me is something of a sacred cow: I’m going to get grumpy when an author’s idea of Poe doesn’t match my idea of Poe. Again, Blackwood surprised me with a really good rendering of a slightly obsessed Poe.

The history? Also solid. Sure, there is some literary license taken, but the Turk is done right and I can see Maelzel being villainous.

Overall
This was another perfect read for the Readathon. Great pacing and setting, decent mystery, believable young character.

Publishing info, my copy: hardback, Dial Books for Young Readers, 2014
Acquired: Tempe Public Library
Genre: historical fiction