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!

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

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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