Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Sweet Thursday by John Steinbeck

Earlier this month, I read Cannery Row by John Steinbeck and really enjoyed it. In doing a bit of research on the novel afterwards, I discovered that Steinbeck actually wrote a sequel to it.  This was weird to me; I'm not used to the classic novels I read being part of a series. I knew that I wanted to give the second book, Sweet Thursday, a shot. I stopped by a Barnes and Noble and got lucky - it was sitting right there on the shelf, waiting for me.

Sweet Thursday is structured as another collection of  connected stories about the residents of Cannery Row in Monterey, California. This novel picks up shortly after WWII ends, several years after the events of the first novel. The intervening years have brought many changes to the neighborhood. For example, Lee Chong no longer owns the grocery store, and Dora, the brothel owner, has passed away in her sleep. Henri, the artist, has left town and the sardine canneries for which the street was named are now closed due to over-fishing. Some of the residents still remain, however, including Mack and most of his boys living in the Palace Flophouse and Doc, the kindly marine biologist that everyone loves and looks to for advice.

Most of the stories in the collection center around the neighborhood's quest to find a wife for Doc. Doc has come back from an administrative job in the war feeling depressed, and he isn't sure why. His old hobbies no longer satisfy him, and he finds himself struggling to settle back into his pre-war routines of catching and preserving marine animals for schools and museums. He tries to offset this sadness by writing a research paper on the octopus, but finds himself unable to even get started on it, and his inability to do this depresses him further. The rest of the town can sense his struggles and they decide to try and help by finding him a woman to marry.

They settle on Suzy, a new arrival in town that has recently started working at The Bear Flag, the town's brothel. Suzy isn't cut out to be a working girl. She speaks her mind too readily, is very disagreeable, and doesn't fit in with the rest of the girls. Despite that, there's something about her that draws people in. Fauna, the new madam of The Bear Flag, determines that she would be better suited as a wife, and begins to nudge her towards Doc. The rest of the street, including Mack, Hazel, and the rest of the Flophouse boys, do what they can to assist her and finally, on one absolutely perfect Thursday, everything starts falling into place.

This novel was completely charming and a very fitting sequel to Cannery Row. Anyone who enjoyed the first novel will likely enjoy this second one as well. It has the same sort of endearing characters and unlikely, but funny, plot points. In fact, Sweet Thursday is even happier and more satisfying than its predecessor, with some romance added into the mix of stories. As Steinbeck's most famous works tackle social issues, like Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, it was definitely a surprise to read a lighthearted romance from him. It didn't have the same emotional impact as his more serious novels, but it was an incredibly nice, happy read.

I learned from the introduction to my edition that Steinbeck wrote Sweet Thursday after coming out a a rough patch in his own life. The death of a close friend and the dissolution of his second marriage caused him to fall into a depression. Meeting the woman who would become his third wife helped him turn things around and become happy again. He based Doc and Suzy's story on his own, which is probably why their sorrow in the beginning of the novel and their recovery at the end feel so genuine. He was truly writing from his heart here, and the story is all the stronger for it.

Overall, Steinbeck's writing was, as usual, a treat to read. It flowed smoothly across the pages and brought his quirky, goodhearted characters to life. I especially loved Hazel in this novel. He isn't a smart man, but he is a loyal and well-meaning one. When he notices that Doc is struggling with something, he stops at nothing to try and help him. What he does to "help" is quite unorthodox and also completely illegal, but I have to admit, it got results. I really enjoyed watching him figure out what he could do to support his friend.

I really liked Sweet Thursday. It has all the good stuff from Cannery Row plus a nice bit of romance for a beloved character. These two novels together show a different aspect of Steinbeck than I was previously familiar with, and I enjoyed experiencing some lighter fare from him. While I can't say I would rate either of these novels higher than his more serious works, I still liked them a great deal. It's nice to read something that makes you feel good, and this series is one of those ones that lifts you up.

Challenge Tally
Finally in 2019: 14/6 Books Read - Complete!

Total Books Read in 2019: 27


Saturday, April 20, 2019

Poorly Drawn Lines by Reza Farazmand

I picked up Poorly Drawn Lines on a whim at Target a few days ago. I hadn't heard of the web comic it comes from before, but the cover art caught my eye and drew me in. I flipped through it and read a few of the comics. It made me laugh, so I took it home.

Poorly Drawn Lines is a collection of short comics and essays featuring a cast of human and animal characters. There is no overall narrative to the book; each piece is its own separate, absurd little scenario. Farazmand uses sarcasm, dark humor, and a healthy amount of swearing throughout, and the accompanying simple illustrations are a good match to the jokes. No important issues or themes are explored here, rather, the comics are a fun way to spend a little bit of time, laughing at some ridiculousness.

The humor in this collection was right up my alley, so I found myself snickering a lot as I read. It took less than an hour to finish, and I considered it time well spent. Anything that can brighten up my day that much is worth the $20. It wasn't a perfect novel, however. There was an over-reliance on swearing that led many of the comics to feel repetitive, and I felt like there could have been a bit more cleverness present overall, but I enjoyed myself anyway.

As this was a short work,  I don't have much more to add to this review. Poorly Drawn Lines was a pleasant diversion and I'm glad to have a copy hanging around to laugh over later and share with friends.  It was funny, and a good time, and that's about as much as you can ask from a book like this. 

Challenge Tally
Finally in 2019: 13/6 Books Read - Complete!

Total Books Read in 2019: 26

Friday, April 19, 2019

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

I've considered Charles Dickens to be one of my favorite authors for years now, but lately, I've been a little worried that it's not really true. I first read one of his novels when I read Bleak House in college. I LOVED that book, so I took that to mean that I loved Charles Dickens too. Accordingly, I went out and purchased a ton of his works (I'm not one for subtlety when it comes to book buying).

The next Dickens novel I tried was A Tale of Two Cities. I liked it, but it was not an easy read. It didn't have the same feeling as Bleak House at all, but I brushed it off and figured that, hey, it was a historical fiction novel and it was never meant to be the same as Bleak House anyway. A few years later, I went back to Dickens with Great Expectations and I was bored out of my mind. Now I was worried. This is supposed to be one of Dickens' best works and I didn't like it.

I started to think that maybe I wasn't a Charles Dickens fan at all. Maybe I was just a Bleak House fan. Maybe I've been kidding myself this whole time about my classy and sophisticated literary tastes. Could it be true? Determined not to throw in the towel just yet, I put Oliver Twist onto my Classics Club list for this year. As I'm on my spring break at the moment and have ample time to devote to reading, I decided to give it a go this week.

The plot of the novel follows the life of Oliver Twist, a sweet and kindhearted orphan growing up in 19th century England. Poor Oliver starts out life without any advantages. He is born in a workhouse, where his mother immediately dies, raised in an abusive group home by a tyrannical woman, and apprenticed to a cruel coffin maker at age nine. Unable to stand the conditions at the coffin maker's house, he runs away to London soon after arriving. However, despite this tumultuous and joyless childhood, Oliver remains innocent and naive. He is so naive, in fact, that he accidentally stumbles into the care of a band of criminals immediately after arriving in London.

Wandering alone in the streets, Oliver runs into a curious young man who goes by the name of the Artful Dodger. The Dodger takes Oliver back to his home and introduces him to Fagin, the leader of a gang of boys. Oliver assumes that they make their living honestly, but it is very obvious to the reader that Fagin and his gang are criminals, with theft being their main trade. Fagin attempts to teach Oliver how to pickpocket, but the whole scheme fails once Oliver finally realizes what is going on. His refusal to participate in a robbery on the street leads to him being taken under the wing of Mr. Brownlow, a nice, genteel London man.

However, Oliver's story has barely begun at this point, and his arrival into a happy family is short-lived. There is a secret behind Oliver's birth, and a scheme is being enacted against him to ensure that he never discovers who his parents are. He will bounce between heroes and villains and meet all manner of people over the next few years as he endeavors to settle into something resembling a happy life. His search for a safe living situation and the quest of the kind adults around him to solve the mystery of his parentage form the heart of the novel. Part fairy tale and part social commentary, Oliver Twist manages to be charming, funny, and smart. I am relieved to say that I really enjoyed reading it.

One of the elements I started to enjoy right away as I was reading was Dickens' tone. His writing in this novel is deliciously sarcastic, and, to make things even better, it is sarcastic in a way that a modern reader can understand. He has a lot of pointed observations to make about England's treatment of the poor and doesn't hesitate to lampoon the unfairness and hypocrisy he saw in their policies, all the while remaining wickedly funny about it. These comments run throughout the novel, but one character that he particularly uses to show his dissatisfaction with the system is Mr. Bumble, the beadle in charge of Oliver's care throughout the beginning of the story. Mr. Bumble is shown to be pompous, incompetent, and completely oblivious to the suffering of those he is supposed to be assisting, or, as Dickens characterizes him, a typical beadle. His actions throughout the story constitute an ongoing criticism of the parochial method of dealing with the poor, which places cutting costs and shaming people above offering empathy and saving lives. As is usual with a character in a novel like this, he meets a very fitting end in the closing chapter of the story, cementing Dickens' opinion on the morality of the system.

Another strong aspect of the novel was the cast of characters. As is typical in a Dickens story, there is a cast of (seemingly) thousands, and some of them number among his most memorable. Of course, Oliver is sweet and lovable ("Please sir, may I have some more?"), and his other virtuous characters, like Mrs. Maylie, Rose Maylie, and Mr. Brownlow, are enjoyable to read. However, in Oliver Twist, it is the villains that truly shine. The evil and scheming Fagin, the irrepressible Artful Dodger, and the murderous Bill Sikes are names recognizable even by those who haven't read the novel, and Dickens does a wonderful job of making them complete scoundrels. They are undoubtedly evil, but they are written in a way that you can understand the logic behind their criminal acts and their personalities are distinct from each other. We spend more time with them than we do with the "good" characters, and it was quite interesting to watch their schemes unfold.

Even more interesting was Nancy, a character that walked the line between good and evil. Nancy is one of Fagin's gang. She is a prostitute, a thief, and in love with Bill Sikes, who is the most dangerous and evil character out of the whole book. In spite of these things, however, she still has a flicker of goodness buried inside of her. She regrets her actions in the schemes against Oliver, and even goes as far as to assist those trying to help him later on. However, she can't bring herself to leave her life of crime or Bill, even when a perfect offer of escape presents itself. Her inability to leave raises some interesting questions about forgiveness, reform, and the emotional costs of turning to crime. In a novel where most of the characters are clearly good guys or bad guys, her inclusion elevated some of the deeper themes running through the story.

I did end up noting a few issues in the story as I read. At times, the pacing was a little slow, and I felt like Oliver dropped out of the story too much in the second half of the book. Also, there was a romantic storyline between two of the characters that I was not invested in, as it had nothing to do with Oliver and most of it happens before the events of the novel take place. These issues weren't enough to seriously impact my enjoyment of the book though. One aspect that did continually trouble me, however, is the pretty naked antisemitism. Fagin is a Jewish character, and he is described using all the classic stereotypes. His facial features, personality, and behavior around money embrace the very worst kinds of attitudes and opinions about the Jewish people. Dickens even uses the term "the old Jew" instead of the character's name at least half of the time throughout the text. I'm not sure how to reconcile my distaste and discomfort for that with my enjoyment of the rest of the text. Sure, it's not an unusual characterization for the time period, but we aren't talking about a random comment or two within the story here, it's literally a key part of Fagin's negative characterization. How is a modern reader supposed to deal with that?  I don't know how to answer this question. I still enjoyed the book, but I feel slightly guilty about it.

Victorian-era prejudices aside, Oliver Twist is a really fun novel. The story is entertaining, with lots of characters to love and hate in equal measure. The plot is full of suspense, cliffhangers, near-misses, and impossible coincidences. There's even a few shocking moments sprinkled in to mix things up. Aside from all that, it's really, genuinely funny too. It's not a perfect novel, but it's definitely a good time. I felt the same reading this as I felt when I read Bleak House, which I am taking to mean that there's still hope for me to correctly claim to be a Charles Dickens fan. I'll definitely be trying out more of his work in the future to figure out how deep my fandom truly runs.

Challenge Tally
Classics Club (#51 on my list): 44/100 
Back to the Classics 2019 (19th Century Classic) 6/12 Books Read

Total Books Read in 2019:25

Monday, April 15, 2019

Plastic by Doug Wagner

I first came across Plastic in a YouTube video. As the woman reviewing it described the plot, I was instantly intrigued. I don't read a whole lot of graphic novels, but I have a fascination with them. There's something about those glossy pages and columns of pictures that I'm instantly drawn to. I tend to really like the ones that I do pick up, and this one just seemed too weird not to try. It's a good thing Amazon exists though, because the idea of picking this one up in a bookstore was a little bit embarrassing to me.

The plot concerns Edwyn Stoffgruppen, a retired serial killer enjoying a road trip across America with his girlfriend, Virginia. He's left his old life of murdering people behind him, and is content to wander along lonely back roads with his girl. Their trip is disrupted, however, by a group of young men that begin to harass Virginia at a gas station in Louisiana. Edwyn lashes out at the men, horrifically injuring them before driving away. Later, it turns out that one of the men Edwyn attacked is the son of a prominent crime boss, and this man isn't going to let Edwyn get away with hurting his son. He does some research and discovers Edwyn's background. Realizing that he could both punish Edwyn and use him for his own ends, he formulates a plan.

This man arranges for Virginia to be kidnapped and he gives Edwyn an ultimatum: kill the local sheriff and her family for him, and he will let Virginia go. Edwyn agrees to the plan, but also pursues his own mission of revenge against everyone who has laid a hand on Virginia. The story is fairly straightforward, except for one interesting twist - Virginia isn't a real woman at all. She's Edwyn's sex doll.

This was such a weird and engaging read! It is most definitely not for children. The storyline is graphic, violent, and written for mature audiences. For the right reader, however, Plastic is very enjoyable. It has a surprising amount of heart for a story about a murderer who is obsessed with his sex toy. I really wanted Edwyn to get his "happily ever after," however strange that outcome would be. In a way, he does, but not in the way you might expect. It's a slim volume, and only takes a few hours to read. For the curious, it's worth the time. 

The artwork is similarly gory, but very well done. The colors are well chosen and the images are well drawn. The end of the volume has a few pages talking about the art decisions that I found to be quite interesting. As I haven't read a lot of graphic novels and do not have a lot of experience with art, I don't quite have the vocabulary to go into depth on the quality of the illustrations. However, I liked what I saw and I felt that they went together with the story perfectly.

Plastic is definitely not the kind of novel I usually pick up, but I really ended up enjoying it. My true rating for it is probably a 3.5 out of 5 stars, but as I don't do half-stars on this blog, I'm settling on a 3 out of 5. It was a very entertaining way to spend a few hours and was a wild ride. The only elements I would have changed would be the addition of more details. I wanted it to be longer. I wish it had spent more time developing Edwyn's character--I would have liked more information on some elements of his background. For what it was though, this was a cool read. I'm definitely interested in trying out more graphic novels in the future.

Challenge Tally
Finally in 2019: 12/6 Books Read - Complete!

Total Books Read in 2019: 24

Burning Chrome by William Gibson

When I purchased the Sprawl Trilogy after reading Neuromancer a few months ago, I noticed that there was an edition of Burning Chrome published in the same cover style as the other books in the trilogy. After a bit of research, I learned that this short story collection featured some of the Sprawl characters throughout its short pieces, so I picked this one up too. I decided to read it right on the heels of Mona Lisa Overdrive so that I could remember the details of that story (as much as anyone can retain details from such an odd story, anyway).

Burning Chrome is comprised of ten of William Gibson's most popular short stories. The volume includes: "Johnny Mnemonic," "The Gernsback Continuum," "Fragments of a Hologram Rose," "The Belonging Kind," "Hinterlands," "Red Star, Winter Orbit," "New Rose Hotel," "The Winter Market," "Dogfight," and "Burning Chrome." On the whole, I found the collection to be quite strong. Most of the stories held my interest and all of them contained Gibson's trademark cyberpunk style. Short fiction is a good format for him to play with; it allows him to create a  world and show his characters interacting with it. This is where he shines. He can show readers short glimpses of possible futures without having to worry about crafting a longer narrative. In my (probably unpopular) opinion, the Sprawl Trilogy made less sense as it went on. Once you start relying on Voodoo gods to characterize your science fiction future, things have gone off the rails somewhere. In a short story, however, Gibson's style plays well. He gives us a bit of story, we see it play out for a while, then we leave it. Nice and easy.

"Johnny Mnemonic" was one of my favorites in the collection. It concerns a young man, Johnny, who works as a kind of human data storage device. He has an implant in his brain that allows customers to store huge amounts of data in his head. Johnny then safely transports this data to a location of the client's choosing. The information he stores can only be accessed with a special password created by the client. Johnny himself can not access it at all and his implants prevent him from reading it. This method of transport is supposed to be the safest way to send information, as hacking into a person's brain is nearly impossible. The story begins when a job Johnny is working on goes wrong. His client dies before retrieving his data, and whatever the information is that got his client killed has got the Yakuza on Johnny's trail. In an effort to escape the Yakuza and purge the information from his head, he teams up with Molly Millions (my favorite mirror-eyed street samurai from Neuromancer) and embarks on a mission that leads him to a crazy underground fighting arena and, improbably, a cybernetic dolphin partner. It basically had all the best parts of Gisbon's storytelling: a cyberpunk setting, high-tech crime, intense action sequences, and bizarre plot twists. It was a good time. Interestingly, this short story was also made into a movie in the 80s staring Keanu Reeves and it looks awesomely bad.

I think my overall favorite story though was "The Belonging Kind." The plot of this one was bizarre and difficult to explain without spoiling it, so I'll be brief. It involves a socially awkward guy who we first meet hanging out in a bar and trying (unsuccessfully) to pick up women. Eventually, he runs across a woman who seems to mirror his own awkwardness and finds him good company. They talk for a while and flirt successfully. Intrigued, he follows her once she leaves the bar and watches her casually shapeshift into an entirely different woman. She heads into a bar with a totally different vibe than the one she was in before, and fits in with everyone there flawlessly. She repeats this several times throughout the night, and the man keeps following her in a state of disbelief. She turns into several different women with several different personalities. Eventually, he loses track of her when she heads home. He becomes obsessed with finding her again, and his quest to seek her out and determine what she is leads him down a very strange path. 

It's tough to give one rating for Burning Chrome, as I enjoyed some of the stories more than others. Most of them were pretty enjoyable on the whole, so I'm going to go with a three out of five stars here. The collection is a great sampling of the many odd and creative ideas swirling around in Gibson's brain. He presents a lot of different ethical questions for readers to dissect and shows us a lot of possible futures, all in his distinctive science fiction style. Any fan of his novels will definitely enjoy this, especially Sprawl Trilogy fans, as they will get a chance to see a few of the characters from that universe again. This was a weird (in a good way) and entertaining read.

Challenge Tally
Classics Club (Sequel to List Book): 44/100
Finally in 2019: 11/6 Books Read - Complete!

Total Books Read in 2019: 23

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

There is, though I do not know how there is or why there is, a sense of infinite peace and protection in the glittering hosts of heaven.There it must be, I think, in the vast and eternal laws of matter, and not in the daily cares and sins and troubles of men, that whatever is more than animal within us must find its solace and its hope. I hope, or I could not live.” 

*This review will contain spoilers*

I have been in a science fiction mood lately, so I decided to tackle The Island of Dr. Moreau next. It's one of my Classics Club books, and I've always been intrigued by it. I went into my reading fairly blind. I didn't know many specifics about the plot, aside from the fact that it involved an evil scientist. I think this was the best way to start the book, since it allowed me to be surprised at its weirdness as I read. That being said, if you are interested in reading this novel, and don't know much about the plot, stop reading this post and go read the book instead! It will be more fun if you don't know what's coming!

The novel is set up as a true account of the adventures of Edward Prendick, a young man shipwrecked on the Lady Vain in 1887. He manages to survive in a dinghy until a larger ship, the Ipecacuanha, is able to rescue him. This ship is in the midst of a curious job. It is transporting a shipment of wild animals, including a puma and several wild dogs, to a doctor on a remote island somewhere in the South Pacific. The doctors assistant, a man named Montgomery, is overseeing this task, and befriends Edward and tends to him as he recovers from his ordeal. Once Edward is on his feet again, he begins to realize that he's managed to stumble into an extremely odd situation. One of Montgomery's helpers has a physical appearance that is extremely off-putting to the rest of the crew. His facial structure and movements are unnatural, and his presence is causing tensions to rise precipitously. What's more, the animals on the ship are creating a huge mess and the alcoholic captain is furious about it. In a fit of rage over these disturbances, he drops Edward off on the remote island along with everyone else and washes his hands of the whole business.

Abandoned with these strangers, Edward is uneasy and wants to return home to England. However, Montgomery explains to him that ships don't come that way often, and he will be stuck with them for a while. He meets the doctor, the eponymous Dr. Moreau, who cautiously agrees to let him stay in one of the rooms on the outside of their compound. He isn't allowed to venture inside though, as the Doctor is working on some private experiments. Edward is initially fine with this, but after a few hours pass, he begins to hear some terrifying noises. The puma is screaming as it is being experimented on, and Edward can't abide it. He leaves his room to wander around on the island for a while. In his wanderings, he stumbles onto the beast men.

After encountering several terrifying creatures that appear to be some sort of human-animal hybrids, Edward returns to his room and forces an explanation out of Dr. Moreau. The doctor eventually explains that his private experiments involve him trying to turn animals like dogs, pigs, and apes, into humans through the use of vivisection. He believes that by cutting into animals and reforming their parts, he can turn a beast into a man. He's had some successes, the helper from the boat that unnerved all the sailors was once a dog, but he has hit a stumbling block. He can reform the brains of his creations, and teach them to walk and talk like people, but eventually, their bestial nature returns and they begin to revert back to their animal state. He frees his failed creations to roam the island, after impressing them with a set of rules about never hurting humans. These failed creations are what Edward encountered on the island during his walk. They have set up their own strange society on the island where they have been living more or less peacefully while Moreau continues his experiments in his compound. 

Edward is understandably uneasy about all this. He trusts no one and can sense rising tensions among everyone on the island. He wishes more than anything to go home. Then suddenly, a particularly frightening group of the beast men start reverting to their original states. Once they have re-tasted blood, their natural predator tendencies reemerge and this sets off a battle between the men and the beast men that Edward must try to survive.

This novel was fantastically weird. It's chock-full of impossible science, disturbing monsters, and chilling medical experimentation. It's a quick read and quite action-packed. I managed to finish the whole thing in just a few sittings and was thoroughly entertained the whole time. It's one of those older science fiction works that just keeps you turning the pages, excited to see what absolutely absurd and creepy thing will happen next. It was definitely an enjoyable read. That being said, I feel like it could have been stronger, and one of the aspects I was the most disappointed with was the narration. 

The decision to tell the story from the point of view of Edward is effective in allowing the reader to be scared and horrified along with him as he pieces together the atrocities that are happening on the island. This structure, however, means that we don't get very much background on Dr. Moreau himself, which is a significant drawback. Moreau is definitely the most interesting character here, as Edward is just a reader surrogate, and it seems a shame that we only get a few pages of him explaining his background and experiments before the novel becomes an action story. 

This is meant to be a novel with a message about the dangers of playing God with science, much like Frankenstein. Unlike that novel, though, The Island of Dr. Moreau doesn't spend a lot of time discussing the reasoning or implications behind the science. We don't see any of the path that lead to that kind of science being explored and we never get a clear understanding of what Moreau hoped to do with his experiments. The closest thing we get in way of explanation for all of this is Moreau's claim that he is merely curious. That all this experimentation was just to see if he could make an animal into a man; he wanted to test the limits of vivisection. He expresses no regret or second thoughts about what his creations go on to do and feels no particular responsibility for them. I suppose the overall message that H.G. Wells was going for was that performing morally dubious experiments solely for curiosity's sake was wrong. It feels like there was a missed opportunity here to go a little deeper though. I wish Moreau's character had been developed more.

There is one part of the novel that contains a very intriguing spark of thought that I can't end my review without mentioning. Unfortunately, it doesn't come until the very last pages of the book. Edward, in reflecting on his experiences at the conclusion of his narrative, makes some interesting comments on his inability to separate the beast men from regular men now. When he looks at the faces of normal people, he can't help but see flashes of the animal parts of them. He now feels like there isn't as much separation between man and beast as he once thought, and the idea of this frightens him and has caused him to mostly withdraw from society. This concept of how much beast lives within man is an interesting one, and I wish this idea was explored more in the story. This, more than any pig-man or ape-man, was the most unsettling part of the reading experience. I wanted more.

Due the overall lack of depth, I don't feel like I'll ever have the urge to visit this novel again. Since the narrative mainly focuses on Edward's horror and his attempts at survival, once you know the ending of the story, there's not really a reason to come back for multiple readings. That doesn't mean that The Island of Dr. Moreau isn't worth reading at all though. On the contrary, this is a classic piece of science fiction from one of the masters of the genre. It 's a wild, fun, bizarre read, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone looking for a creepy adventure story. This was a cool entry to my Classics Club list, and I'm glad to have experienced it. 

Challenge Tally
Classics Club (#42 on my list): 44/100 

Total Books Read in 2019:22

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson

Mona Lisa Overdrive is the third book in the Sprawl Trilogy by William Gibson. I read Neuromancer and Count Zero last month, and enjoyed them both enough to keep going with the series. I started my reading very curious to see where the plot would go next. I was a bit disappointed with how Count Zero felt very unrelated to Neuromancer, so I was very interested to see what, if anything, Mona Lisa Overdrive would do to connect those stories.

Much like the second book in the series, Mona Lisa Overdrive follows several separate story threads that come together in the end of the novel. Instead of three stories, however, this time we have four. All four threads take place 8 years after the events of Count Zero, in Gibson's futuristic, cyberpunk world. Having this many perspectives going on at once makes the story messy and difficult to explain, but I will do my best to summarize.

One thread follows Mona, a teenage prostitute that bears a striking resemblance to a famous celebrity. Her boyfriend/pimp draws her into the main narrative by involving her in a plot to abduct Angie Mitchell, the celebrity she resembles.

Speaking of Angie Mitchell, another of the threads follows her. She is the same Angie from Count Zero, and in the eight years since the end of that novel, she has become the world's biggest actress. She still has the ability to jack into Cyberspace at will and this ability has allowed her to communicate with the Voodoo gods living in the Net periodically over the years. The plot to abduct her forms one of the major plot points of the novel.

Another thread follows Kumiko, the daughter of a Yakuza boss. At the beginning of the novel, her father sends her to London to shield her from a situation going on in Japan. In London, the people her father is using to mind her end up having their own suspicious agendas, which she picks up on almost immediately. She ends up teaming up with Sally Shears (who is actually Molly from Neuromancer) and gets drawn into the celebrity abduction plot.

The final thread follows Slick Henry, a reclusive artist living in an empty factory in a poisoned section of land in New Jersey. He wants nothing more than to live in solitude and work on creating his art (giant killer robots). However, his peace and quiet is disrupted when an acquaintance from his past shows up asking for a favor. Slick owes this guy, so he can't say no. The favor is to hide someone - a mysterious man unconscious on a stretcher hooked up to some sort of super-sophisticated computer (Bobby Newmark from Count Zero, as it turns out). He reluctantly agrees to this, then becomes drawn into a massive fight when people come looking for the computer Bobby's hooked into.

Much like in the previous books in the series, these storylines are complex and multilayered. Once again, I felt like I was always on the edge of being confused about what was going on. Following four different threads was a lot, and it was easy to forget details with all the constant switching around I was forced to do. By the time I would circle back around to a character, I would have the details of three other stories floating around in my brain. It would take a while to reorient myself to who I was reading about. That being said, I was still able to follow the story for the most part and was entertained throughout.

On a positive note, this novel did provide the connection I was looking for to the rest of the series. Characters from both of the previous novels appear again, and the existence of AIs in Cyberspace is examined more closely. Some explanation is offered for a lot of the confusing Voodoo stuff, as well as the motivations for the Tessier-Ashpool characters from Neuromancer. I especially enjoyed seeing Sally/Molly again, as she was my favorite character. She still kicks butt, in case you were wondering.

However, while Gibson did make an effort to clear up the vagueness and mystery from the previous two books in the series, it was all still a bit hazy for me. By the time I finished reading, I did not feel like everything came together in a satisfying way and I did not feel overly attached to any of the characters. I feel like Gibson's main pleasure in writing these novels was to play around in his cyberpunk world. To explore possibilities for future technologies and how people might be affected by new and highly immersive types of electronic experiences. Character development and a clear narrative aren't really his priorities. I believe he just wanted to put this crazy world down on paper and let people watch his characters play around in it. In that, he is very successful. I just wish the story was a bit tighter and the characters a bit more three dimensional.

I did enjoy reading Mona Lisa Overdrive and ultimately, I am happy to have finished reading The Sprawl Trilogy. It is certainly unlike any science fiction I had read before. William Gibson is highly imaginative and the genre owes a lot to the ideas he developed in these novels. That being said, Neuromancer was clearly the best book out of the bunch, and I would not say it is necessary to read all three books to be satisfied with the story. The explanations Gibson offers for his AI sentience plot points are never terribly clear, so it wouldn't be a big deal to leave some of the unanswered questions in Neuromancer a mystery. For those who enjoy exploring Gibson's gritty, weird world though, this trilogy is worth your time.

Challenge Tally
Classics Club (Sequel to List Book): 43/100
Finally in 2019: 10/6 Books Read - Complete!

Total Books Read in 2019: 21

Friday, April 5, 2019

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

“When you collect marine animals there are certain flat worms so delicate that they are almost impossible to catch whole for they will break and tatter under the touch. You must let them ooze and crawl of their own will onto a knife blade and lift them gently into your bottle of sea water. And perhaps that might be the way to write this book-to open the page and let the stories crawl in by themselves.”

One of the Back to the Classics challenge prompts this year was to read a classic from the Americas. I figured that this was a good time to read another John Steinbeck novel, since when it comes to North America, and specifically the Western U.S.,  there are few authors who capture the spirit of the place as well as he does. Cannery Row is one of the novels I put on my Classics Club list as well, so I decided to give that one a shot. I went into my reading knowing nothing about the plot, but hoping to find another Steinbeck favorite.

Cannery Row is a series of loosely connected stories centered around a group of people living on a street named Cannery Row in Monterey, California. Cannery Row is home to a series of sardine canning factories, but the novel doesn't concern itself too much with the business in the area. Most of the stories feature characters who work outside of the factories, or who don't work at all. Each new story moves between different people, but without a set pattern or structure. It merely is. Cannery Row is a calm, thoughtful look at the lives of generally goodhearted people in a small town.

One of the first people we meet is Lee Chong, the owner of a small grocery store on Cannery Row. Most of the inhabitants of the area do their shopping with him, so his store features in many of the stories. He is shown to be a peaceful and laid back businessman with a good head on his shoulders, but he seems to come out behind in a lot of his dealings. From there, we meet Mack and his boys, a group of unemployed men living together in an old, disused storage building. They've turned the place into a home and spend most of their time lying around outside and drinking, when they can scrape together the money for it. The group is (mostly) harmless and free-spirited. Their hapless antics form the heart of the novel.

Another character that appears in several of the stories is Doc, a kindly marine biologist that works in a lab on the street. He studies aquatic species in Monterey Bay, preserves them, and sends them off to labs, museums, and universities around the world. He is a fatherly figure in the town, providing minor medical help when needed and paying various residents for collecting specimens for him. He is universally loved on Cannery Row.

Other, more minor characters move in and out of the stories as well, including Dora, a brothel owner, Henri, a local artist, Sam, who lives in an abandoned boiler with his wife, and at one point, a groundhog. Together, the stories combine to form a detailed and charming portrait of an American street. Steinbeck's writing shows us what is interesting in the ordinary and brings a colorful cast of characters to life.

I really enjoyed Cannery Row. It's a quiet kind of novel, one that focuses on character sketches and "slice of life" style episodes. There isn't an overall plot to tie the chapters together or a general theme that everything hangs around. However, the novel doesn't feel scattered. Every piece feels necessary and is very engaging to read. I was surprised by how quickly I fell into these stories. I finished it in just two days and was completely charmed

My favorite bits of the collection were definitely the ones centering around a surprise party Mack tries to throw for Doc. His first attempt at doing this does not go well. Things get out of hand rather quickly and the whole event is a failure. His second attempt goes much better, with the whole street getting involved. This event forms the closest thing the novel has to an ongoing narrative and it is truly heartwarming.

Cannery Row is the seventh Steinbeck novel I have read. It's not my favorite out of all the ones I have tried, but it was still a fantastic and worthwhile read. Steinbeck's writing is masterful and truly captures the spirit of his simple characters. This is a humorous, hopeful, and touching collection of stories and my literary life feels richer after reading them. This ended up being a great choice for my classic from the Americas category. Like many of Steinbeck's works, it feels quintessentially American.

Challenge Tally
Classics Club (#87 on my list): 43/100 
Back to the Classics 2019 (Classic from the Americas) 5/12 Books Read

Total Books Read in 2019:20

Count Zero by William Gibson

I read William Gibson's Neuromancer last month and really enjoyed it. As it is part of a trilogy, I decided to continue on with the story. Count Zero is the second book in the series. I went into the reading expecting more gritty, cyberpunk action and mildly confusing plot points. In this, I was not disappointed.

The novel consists of three separate stories that eventually intersect. The first thread follows Turner, a corporate mercenary who is hired by the Hosaka Corporation to help a brilliant scientist from a rival corporation, Maas Biolabs, defect to them. The extraction plan, however, is a complete disaster. Several members of Turner's team are killed and he ends up escaping with the scientist's teenage daughter, Angela Mitchell, instead of his intended target. In the aftermath of the attempt, Turner discovers that Angie is no ordinary teenager. Her father left plans for a valuable new piece of technology, a biochip, inside her head. He also gave her the ability to jack into cyberspace at will, without needing an external computer. With Maas Biolabs hot on his trail, anxious to reclaim Angie for themselves, Turner follows a trail of obscure clues in an attempt to bring her to safety.

The second thread follows a young man named Bobby Newmark. He's an aspiring hacker living in a rough section of New Jersey. He's taken the name Count Zero as his cyberspace handle, and is anxious to start taking on jobs and stealing data. Unfortunately for him, his first job goes awry when he attempts to test a new hacking software for a client and is nearly killed. Just before his death, a mysterious girl appears in Cyberspace and helps him extricate himself from the program. His interaction with the mysterious girl attracts the attention of a group of people investigating the appearance of a series of voodoo deities that have recently shown up in Cyberspace. They believe the girl is related to these gods and they draw Bobby into their quest to find her.

The third thread follows a woman named Marly Krushkova. She was recently forced to close her Paris art gallery after being caught selling a forgery. Her fortunes improve, however, when she is approached by the enormously wealthy Josef Virek and commissioned to find the maker of a series of art pieces. The pieces are boxes filled with seemingly random, old bits and bobs like scraps of lace and bone. One of the boxes, however, contains a fragment of a biochip, and that is what Virek is after. He's looking to extend his life, and needs access to this technology, so he hires Marly to find the artist. Marly's search brings her all the way into space and what she discovers there about the boxes and the artist is quite surprising.

If it sounds like all these threads are very weird and complicated, it's because they are. Eventually, all of the characters come together to tell a complete story, but the connections between them aren't always direct or clear. Much like in Neuromancer, I enjoyed this book, but I was always on the edge of being really confused about what was happening. The story is multi-layered and difficult to describe to someone that hasn't read it. If someone were to ask me what the story was about, I wouldn't be able to give anything approximating a concise summary. It deals with questions about using technology to extend human life, the power and immortality that comes with incalculable wealth, the connection between religion and technology, and the potential for covert warfare between powerful and corrupt corporations, but I would not say that any one theme stands out as the "point" of the book. The story is twisty and challenging, and fans of the cyberpunk genre will fall into Gibson's gritty world, but the narrative is definitely scattered.

Aside from the inclusion of one minor character and a few hazy references, the connections between Neuromancer and Count Zero are, surprisingly, almost nonexistent. I was a bit disappointed by this, as I was curious to see what Case and Molly would get up to next. I was also disappointed with the mystical elements of the work. The voodoo stuff felt really out of place and a little insensitive to Caribbean cultures. In a universe where your characters could take on any form in a limitless cyber world, why pluck real things from Haitian religions? It didn't feel necessary to the story, just bizarre.

Despite these issues, I did still like the story and I plan to finish out the trilogy. Gibson is one of those authors where you literally have no idea where his narrative will drift to next, and I am interested to see what the end of this series will be like. Count Zero is a middle book, and those often are the weaker entries in a trilogy, so I have higher hopes for Mona Lisa Overdrive. I'm hoping that will tie everything together and provide something resembling a satisfying ending.

Challenge Tally
Classics Club (Sequel to List Book): 42/100 

Total Books Read in 2019: 19