Review ~ The Island of Dr. Moreau

Cover via Goodreads

The Island of Dr. Moreau by H. G. Wells

A shipwreck in the South Seas, a palm-tree paradise where a mad doctor conducts vile experiments, animals that become human and then “beastly” in ways they never were before — it’s the stuff of high adventure. It’s also a parable about Darwinian theory, a social satire in the vein of Jonathan Swift (Gulliver’s Travels), and a bloody tale of horror.

As H. G. Wells himself wrote about this story, The Island of Dr. Moreau is an exercise in youthful blasphemy. “Now and then, though I rarely admit it, the universe projects itself towards me in a hideous grimace. It grimaced that time, and I did my best to express my vision of the aimless torture in creation.” (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
I’ve been reading my way through H. G. Wells oeuvre. I was going to read The Invisible Man next, but The Island of Dr. Moreau has a more horror reputation and I wanted an extra title for Spring into Horror.

What Didn’t Work
The science is, of course, dated. Changing the gross physiology of an animal cannot make it into a more man-like creature. Likewise, the practice of vivisection was very controversial at the time of the novella’s original publication (1896), but the depictions are perhaps less shocking in our era of PETA disseminated photos of animals in labs. So, what does science fiction with outdated science hold for a modern audience?

What Worked
Wells did believe, on some level, that the novel’s premise might be possible, though probably not in the way the novel depicts. The novel is a spinning what-if that begins in science and tumbles into philosophy. The story is more interested in how beasts might gain humanity (through fear of the law) and how human might lose humanity (through giving in to baser nature). Alas, when the Law is chanted, the refrain is “no escape.”

This Law they were ever repeating, I found, and ever breaking.

In a weird way, The Island of Dr. Moreau reminds me of a twisted version of The Tempest: a castaway ruins the tenuous calm of a genius’s retreat from the world. That work too muses on the nature of humanity.

But, also, The Island of Dr. Moreau has some pretty tense moments. Like many classics, the adaptations really aren’t spoilers for the original. I know I’ve seen the 1996 movie with Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer and probably the 1977 version with Burt Lancaster too*, but I really didn’t know what was going to happen next. I know from the literary frame that Prendick will make it off the island, but like the tagline to another horror classic, what will be left of him? What I enjoy most about Wells is that, yes, he’s presenting a lot of his views of the world in his fiction, but, unlike Swift (see the blurb), he also writes a good story. Preach at me if you want, but entertain me too.

* My running playlist includes House of Pain. Two of the tracks on their first album sample the 1977 movie. “Commercial 2” has been the projected 1.5 mile mark on many of my 3K playlists

Overall
I am three for three with Mr. Wells. Looking forward to The Invisible Man.

Publishing info, my copy: ebook – HTML & Kindle, October 14, 2004 [EBook #159]
Acquired: Project Gutenberg
Genre: Horror, Science Fiction

Review ~ The Time Machine

Cover via Goodreads

The Time Machine by H. G. Wells

The Time Machine tells the story of the Time Traveler, an inventor living in Victorian England. Traveling into the distant future using his time machine he encounters the descendants of humans and witnesses the end of life on earth. Wells’ first published book, The Time Machine, popularized the concept of human time travel and has influenced countless works of fiction. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
After reading The War of the Worlds in December and Melville’s Moby-Dick in February, I’ve become intrigued by the amount science and natural history that is included in these 100+ year old novels and by the genre called scientific romance. (No, Moby-Dick doesn’t quite fit that genre, but it does include an enthusiasm for scientific fact that I feel is missing from a lot of modern literature, even modern science fiction.) So, there’s probably going to be quite a bit of Wells, Jules Verne, and Arthur Conan Doyle’s adventures in this blog in the near future.

I also have a guilty pleasure to admit to. Back at the beginning of March, ABC premiered Time After Time. It’s based Karl Alexander’s novel of the same name (and a subsequent 1979 movie). The premise? A young H. G. Wells pursues Jack the Ripper to the modern era and falls in love with Jane, a historian (in the TV series). The science in the show is terrible. Actually, much of the writing is pretty bad and occasionally cliched. But H. G. and Jane are so cute together.* It’s enough to melt even my cold unromantic heart. But if you haven’t watched, don’t invest your time; it’s already been cancelled.

* I’m guessing that the series wasn’t going to bring too much of the historical Wells into the story. His views on sex were, uh, progressive.

What Worked
I enjoy Wells’ writing style. He adeptly mixes science with his social and psychological views. The Time Machine is a fairly simple story. Our narrator tells of the Time Traveller and recounts the Traveller’s tale after he returns from journeying to the far future.

The Traveller’s first jump takes him to a future in which humanity has split into two species: the Eloi and the Morlocks. Both are the products of a society in which one class valued ease of life and the other class has been forced to be the laborers. Taken to the extreme, the Eloi no longer know how to do anything, while the Morlocks only thrive underground, taking care of the machinery that keeps both societies going. Since agriculture is no longer supported, the Eloi live on plants and the Morlocks…live on Eloi. In both cases, intellectualism has fallen by the wayside. The Traveller’s second jump takes him to the end of the world.

In both cases, the imagery Wells uses is unlike anything I’ve read. I’ve watched the 1960 film ages ago and I don’t remember it doing justice to the text in this regard. It’s far enough into the future to be alien. And, while the novel (novella) might have spawned an entire science fiction genre, it doesn’t deal with the usual time travel paradox problems.

What Didn’t Work
It was way too short. I was reading an ebook version released in conjunction with Felix Palma’s The Map of Time. The last half of the file was a preview of that book! Curse you, ebooks!

Also, I part of my brain cries out, “But Katherine, didn’t you just complain about three guys creating a world-altering technology basically in their basement. Isn’t Wells doing the same thing here?” And, well, yes. Perhaps the Victorian scientific romance is the basis for the now very annoying trope of the lone mad scientist. (Or maybe it’s Mary Shelley’s fault. I haven’t done enough reading…) But, I’ll give hundred year old novels a bit of a pass on this one.

Likewise, I’ll give it a pass on the only female in the book being Weena, a helpless Eloi who continually needs to be saved and/or protected. For a while, Wells doesn’t describe the Eloi in terms of having gender. They seem to be a rather dim bunch, with a simple language, living in structures that they have not built themselves. Kind of reminded me of villagers in Minecraft…

Overall
I enjoyed The Time Machine. It wasn’t on my March TBR list, but it might have broke my reading slump.

Publishing info, my copy: Kindle ebook, Atria Books, May 31, 2011
Acquired: March 10, 2017, Amazon
Genre: science fiction, scientific romance

Review ~ In Calabria

This book was provided to me by Tachyon Publications via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Cover via Goodreads

In Calabria by Peter S. Beagle

From the acclaimed author of The Last Unicorn comes a new, exquisitely-told unicorn fable for the modern age.

Claudio Bianchi has lived alone for many years on a hillside in Southern Italy’s scenic Calabria. Set in his ways and suspicious of outsiders, Claudio has always resisted change, preferring farming and writing poetry. But one chilly morning, as though from a dream, an impossible visitor appears at the farm. When Claudio comes to her aid, an act of kindness throws his world into chaos. Suddenly he must stave off inquisitive onlookers, invasive media, and even more sinister influences.

Lyrical, gripping, and wise, In Calabria confirms Peter S. Beagle’s continuing legacy as one of fantasy’s most legendary authors. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
The Last Unicorn is one of my favorite books ever, and Peter S. Beagle is pretty much on my auto-read/buy list. (It’s really a very short list.)

As I did in my review of Summerlong, I feel I’d be remiss if I didn’t include some mention of the controversy between Beagle and his former business manager Connor Cochran. Peter S. Beagle filed suit against Cochran back in 2015. There are also ongoing complaints from fans who have purchased items from Conlan Press, but never received products. I would advise that if you’re going to buy any of Peter S. Beagle’s books, do not do so from Conlan Press and avoid ebooks edited by Connor Cochran. In Calabria, as well as some of Beagle’s backlog, is published through Tachyon.

What Worked
A hallmark of Peter S. Beagle’s work is his light touch with weighty subjects. In Calabria is about a man entering the winter of his years. He has regrets and is alone. It’s the quirky details that make Bianchi’s life real. His farm is populated with Cherubino the goat, Garibaldi the dog, and the cats: Sophia, Mezzanotte, and Third Cat. He has a comfortable life, but perhaps a life devoid of poetry. His visitor, a unicorn, changes all that. For better and maybe worse.

The writing is lovely, of course. Lyrical and poetical, though we are rarely treated to Bianchi’s work. 😉

The story winds out to a conclusion that might not be satisfying for some, but I liked it well enough.

What Didn’t Work
I’m not sure Beagle’s forte is ever works set in the “real” world, in the present day. Would an older man manage to survive such violence against him that is presented in the book? Eh… I don’t know.

This is also the second work in a  row for Beagle in which an older male character ends up in a relationship with a much younger woman. At a certain point in my life, I might have found these May to December plot lines to be charming. But now? I guess I’d like to see an older man in a new relationship with an older woman.

Publishing info, my copy: ePub, Tachyon Publications, January 16, 2017
Acquired: 11/15/16, NetGalley
Genre: fantasy, magical realism

Review ~ Moby-Dick

Cover via Goodreads

Moby-Dick; or, The Whale by Herman Melville

‘Call me Ishmael.’

So begins Herman Melville’s masterpiece, one of the greatest works of imagination in literary history. As Ishmael is drawn into Captain Ahab’s obsessive quest to slay the white whale Moby-Dick, he finds himself engaged in a metaphysical struggle between good and evil. More than just a novel of adventure, more than an paean to whaling lore and legend, Moby-Dick is a haunting social commentary, populated by some of the most enduring characters in literature; the crew of the Pequod, from stern, Quaker First Mate Starbuck, to the tattooed Polynesian harpooner Queequeg, are a vision of the world in microcosm, the pinnacle of Melville’s lifelong meditation on America. Written with wonderfully redemptive humour, Moby-Dick is a profound, poetic inquiry into character, faith, and the nature of perception. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?

I have a degree in literature, yet I had never read Moby-Dick. My reading in college was pointed toward pre-1800 and my reading for fun has been mostly post-1970 with a few exceptions. I have a wonderful huge gap to fill!

What Worked/What Didn’t Work

I decided this year to make an effort to point out what works/what doesn’t work in what I’m reading and, at the second review of the year, I’m stymied.

I didn’t know quite what to expect from Moby-Dick. Obviously, I knew this was a story about ill-fated obsession. I knew many of the names. I knew there were going to be long passages about whales and whaling, circa 1850. What I didn’t expect was just how odd of a tapestry this book is. There are adventure bits. There are poetical, metaphysical digressions. There is bawdy humor and Shakespearean soliloquies. And yes, a lot about whales and whaling.

The summary above kind of makes me roll my eyes because it plays up the “literature” aspects of the book. As a mostly genre reader (despite my degree), I think it’s those other things—all the boring reality, all the dirty adventure—that make Moby-Dick work. This novel is sort of a weird ride. Much like Shakespeare’s plays, especially if you’re reading/watching them for the first time, if you let the text carry you along, you get a sense of the thing. Will I read Mody-Dick again? Maybe. If I do, I’m pretty sure the next time would be a totally different experience.

Observation: The only writer I know of that “tastes” a bit like Moby-Dick (I won’t say Melville since I don’t know him well as an author) is Ray Bradbury.

Observation: Having read War of the Worlds and Moby-Dick nearly back to back, I get this sense that science was folded into literature more often in the past. Maybe this is a reflection of the times, maybe of the authors, maybe of the genres; I don’t know, but it’s something I enjoy.

Publishing info, my copy: Kindle/Pigeonhole, public domain, originally published 1851
Acquired: May 20, 2014
Genre:  According to Wikipedia: Novel, adventure fiction, epic, sea story, encyclopedic novel. I guess I agree.

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Generator Points Earned: 1
Generator Points Total: 5

Review ~ The Long Way Down

Cover via Goodreads

The Long Way Down by Craig Schaefer

Nobody knows the seedy underbelly of Las Vegas like Daniel Faust, a sorcerer for hire and ex-gangster who uses black magic and bullets to solve his clients’ problems. When an old man comes seeking vengeance for his murdered granddaughter, what looks like a simple job quickly spirals out of control.

Soon Daniel stands in the crossfire between a murderous porn director; a corrupt cop with a quick trigger finger; and his own former employer, a racket boss who isn’t entirely human. Then there’s Caitlin: brilliant, beautiful, and the lethal right hand of a demon prince.

A man named Faust should know what happens when you rub shoulders with demons. Still Daniel can’t resist being drawn to Caitlin’s flame as they race to unlock the secret of the Etruscan Box, a relic that people all over town are dying — and killing — to get their hands on. As the bodies drop and the double-crosses pile up, Daniel will need every shred of his wits, courage and sheer ruthlessness just to survive.

Daniel Faust knew he was standing with one foot over the brink of hell. He’s about to find out just how far he can fall. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
Urban fantasy in Las Vegas. Luck for Hire and its I-swear-I’ll-finish-it-one-day sequel In Need of Luck are set in Vegas and I’m interested in how other authors treat the setting. Daniel Faust also has a tinge of magician to him, using playing cards as his sorcerous focus and knowing some sleight of hand.

What Worked
I liked Schaefer’s Las Vegas. Early in the novel Faust investigates where the young woman’s body was found: in the flood channels under Las Vegas. These tunnels really exist and are haven for a number of otherwise homeless people. The glitzy Vegas is there too, though some of the casino names have been changed.

The story also really moves. Faust is an unlicensed PI and the story start with a pretty standard plea for help from a client. It then dives right into the investigation and keeps a good pace throughout. It was a fast read despite some set backs.

What Didn’t Work
My first worry was that the magic system for this world wasn’t completely worked out. It’s a tricky thing to lay down the rules while avoiding info dumps, but I was never comfortable that sorcery wasn’t being created on the fly as needed.

Regardless, I was with with book until about the 60% mark. Then, unneeded plot difficulties popped up. And a super cliché romance kicked into high gear. And by the ultimate show-down Daniel Faust seemed to forget about his magic cards. Overall, there wasn’t quite enough of Faust using his magic in his way. There is a bit at the end that is reliant on Faust using a palming techniques and it would have been nice to see that skill in used previous to that moment.

Publishing info, my copy: Kindle, Demimonde Books, April 25th 2014
Acquired: January 20, 2016, Amazon
Genre: urban fantasy

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Generator Points Earned: 1
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Review ~ The War of the Worlds

Cover via Goodreads

The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells

One of the most famous science-fiction stories ever written, The War of the Worlds helped launch the entire genre by exploiting the concept of interplanetary travel.

First published in 1898, the novel terrified readers of the Victorian era with its account of an invasion of hostile creatures from Mars who moved across the English landscape in bizarre metal transports, using deadly heat rays to destroy buildings and annihilate all life in their path. Its power to stir the imagination was made abundantly clear when Orson Welles adapted the story for a radio drama on Halloween night in 1938 and created a national panic. (via Goodreads)

I started reading The War of the Worlds over Thanksgiving through a service that sends out bite-sized chunks of classic novels…and then I downloaded the full novel because I wanted second helpings. As is usual for novels in 1898, the story moves along quite slowly. A goodly amount of it involves our narrator describing the landscape, which doesn’t seem like it should be that interesting. But the writing is really good and often pretty funny. Wells pulled me along.

When reading classic science fiction, you never know what you’re going to get. If the story has had any popularity at all, expectations are often shaped by adaptations. I saw the 1953 movie as a kid. I don’t remember much other than the glowing green and black ships with their heat ray atop a long crooked neck. I was also rather fond of the 1988 TV series which is a sort of sequel to that movie with a dash of The Thing thrown in.

What I found most interesting were the bits that I don’t normally associate with The War of the Worlds:

  • Wells refers to the “older worlds of space” and the Martians have a tentacled form that will, after Lovecraft, come to be strongly associated with cosmic horror.
  • Chemical warfare was in its infancy in 1898. The Martian’s use of black gas is more devastating than the fanciful heat ray. The Hague Declaration of 1899 would prohibit the use of poison or poisoned weapons.
  • The red weeds that take over the areas around the Martian crash sites were a totally unexpected and a really vivid detail.

All in all, I found The War of the Worlds to be a good read. H. G. Wells is going on my “need to read more” list.

Publishing info, my copy: Kindle ebook, public domain, originally published 1898.
Acquired: 11/24/2016, Amazon
Genre: science fiction

Review ~ Holmes on the Range

Cover via Goodreads

Holmes on the Range by Steve Hockensmith

1893 is a tough year in Montana, and any job is a good job. When brothers Big Red and Old Red Amlingmeyer sign on as ranch hands at a secretive ranch, they’re not expecting much more than hard work, bad pay, and a few free moments to enjoy their favorite pastime: reading stories about Sherlock Holmes.

When another hand turns up dead, Old Red sees the perfect opportunity to employ his Holmes-inspired “deducifyin'” skills and sets out to solve the case. Big Red, like it or not (and mostly he does not), is along for the wild ride in this clever, compelling, and completely one-of-a-kind mystery. (via Goodreads)

Earlier in the year, I had high hopes for a Western about two brothers. That one didn’t work out for me. The Sisters Brothers is a fairly literary work and, to be honest, I like my fiction more on the genre side of things.

To me, genre is a set of plot-related tropes. Story consumers of all types know the tropes, and story producers aim to create narratives that use the tropes as faithfully or creatively as needed. Genre is somewhat separate from setting, but many genre categories can be settings as well. “Western” (like “science fiction” and “fantasy”) can be either. If you put Western tropes in a science fiction setting, you end up with something like Firefly. Other genre categories are really only genres; “mystery” is one of those. Mystery has enough flexibility in its tropes to go anywhere. Holmes on the Range is a great Western set mystery.

I put Holmes on the Range on me TBR list during one of my Holmesathons. For some reason, I was under the impression that it directly features Holmes—that this books partially filled in his Great Hiatus. (I have a cover blurb mental block, I swear.) It is not.

Instead, this is the story of two brother Otto (Big Red) and Gustav (Old Red) Amlingmeyer. Big Red, despite his size and obvious physical cow-hand traits, is the educated of the two, the Watson of the story. Old Red, who has been relegated since early life to labor, is illiterate but loves hearing the stories of Sherlock Holmes. In fact, Old Red casts himself into Holmes’ mold and aims to solve the murders at the Bar VR ranch.

The relationship between the brothers isn’t always sunshine and light, but there is steadfast loyalty between them which rings true considering their backstory. Hockensmith also does a really good job with time-period slang. Slang can be distracting, but the narrative here is seamlessly in Otto’s voice. The plot is a solid mystery with pleanty of nod to Holmes stories.

I highly recommend Holmes on the Range. It’s the beginning of a series; I’m looking forward to reading the others.

Publishing info, my copy: Trade Paperback, St. Martin’s Minotaur, 2006
Acquired: Book Mooch (I believe)
Genre: Mystery