The Begum's Millions

'The Begum's Fortune' by Léon Benett 16 One day, out of the blue, the unassuming Dr. Sarrasin learns he is heir to an enormous fortune.  It seems he is the only living descendant of a Frenchman who married a begum - "a Muslim lady of high rank" and, through her wealth, became rich. 

As it would happen, another claimant to the fortune shows up, a German professor by the name of Schultze.  To avoid an expensive court case, they agree to split the money in half and each spend it on the projects of their dreams.  These projects turn out to be two new cities, both highly regulated but as different from each other as the masterminds who founded them.  Away in the wilds of Oregon state, the cities are built and populated, thriving till one man's sinister ideals threaten to undermine both topias. 

This is quite a page-turner and, in spite of the Vernian themes, a somewhat different read than most other of his novels I've read. The exploration of dystopia vs. utopia in the Pacific Northwest is what could bring this book back into readership, though it may be countered by the more disappointing elements (e.g. some racially prejudiced sentiments by the characters, including from the "good guys"). That said, for the times in which it was written, The Begum's Millions is a prescient 19th-century warning about issues that would face the following two centuries. The story is exciting and as emotional as it is scientific (if not more so). 4 out of 5 stars...a good read, but not quite as good as Magellania, my new gold standard for Jules Verne.

The Children of Húrin, and their Middle Earth

By David Revoy [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Courage, resilience, loyalty, and hope.  These themes, among many others, permeate J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and its immediate prequel, The Hobbit.  I think of these ideas to be as much Tolkienesque as the "ring saga" itself: the bleakness in LOTR is well exceeded by acts of bravery and strength of faith.  Yet if you go back further in Middle Earth history to The Children of Húrin, you'll find very different tale, as similar as it may seem in most respects.

Before Sauron, there was another dark lord called Morgoth.  Like Sauron, Morgoth intended to rule all Middle Earth, and he was merciless to any who stood in his way.  Túrin, son of Húrin, is compelled by his mother Morwen to leave the eventual war zone of his home village and find refuge with the elves in Doriath.  Though a natural leader, Túrin is hotheaded and impulsive, and in a world where all must fend for themselves, he finds it easier to make friends than to keep them.  As he grows from boy to man, with all the glory and heartbreak that his heritage has left him, Túrin feels he must take on Morgoth in his own way, and, if he can, reunite with his mother and the sister he has never met.

I regret putting this off so long.  It's a bleak, lingering wreck of a story, more disturbing than shocking.  I loved the characterization of Túrin and Morwen, because they seemed to me very real people, given their circumstances.  Túrin has good intentions, but in the greater scheme of things, he is not particularly heroic.  I would hardly expect him to be; he's just trying to survive, and that without a Shire to remember, or a Samwise to turn to.

Some of the plot was a little repetitive; most of it was tragic and depressing.  By the end, I almost felt like it was too tragic, to the point of melodrama, but that might just be me.  I give it 3.5 out of 5 stars, though I rounded to 4 on Goodreads.  Recommended to those who enjoyed reading LOTR and also anyone who likes mythology stories.

Top Ten Books I Liked More/Less Than I Thought I Would

This week's Top Ten Tuesday is about books that exceeded or did not quite meet expectations.  I feel like I've read quite a few of those, especially recently, so here goes!

Books I Liked More Than I Thought I Would

1.  The Picture of Dorian Gray - Oscar Wilde
A surprisingly good read (but don't forget the tissues).

2. The Club of Queer Trades - G. K. Chesterton
This book is a hilarious Sherlock Holmes parody.  I enjoyed it more than I would have thought.  ;)

3. Shirley - Charlotte Brontë
Though it's been a while since I read this, I just remember finding it a lot better than I anticipated.  It's a great historical fiction set in the Regency era, and the romance is completely Brontë.  Any Brontë fans who have not read this one should really give it a try. 

4. Dracula - Bram Stoker
This is one of my favorite Victorian novels now.  It has a few flaws, but overall I was really swept up in the story and characters, beyond my expectations.

5. Under Western Eyes - Joseph Conrad
I don't think I had any particular hopes for this novel, yet I found in it an emotional epic in the vein of Russian authors (Conrad was Polish).  Razumov, the main character, is one you're not likely to forget.  Should be considered one of Conrad's masterpieces.

Books I Liked Less Than I Thought I Would

Oh dear, this is the book that makes you wonder if the speculations are true - that maybe Lee didn't want it published.  Regardless, I was very disappointed.

I gave this one four stars but expected more from it.  It was ok, but kind of boring.

3. Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte
I remember reading this two or three times and never fully grasping the chronology or "who's who."  That, and the characters themselves, made it difficult to enjoy the book.  However, it's due for a re-read; maybe I'll like it next time.

4. Beowulf
Another one I felt like I "should" like but didn't.

5. Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde - Robert Louis Stevenson
Didn't like this one at all.  I don't remember feeling any empathy for Jekyll, so maybe that was the problem.

Sherlock Holmes: A Study in Scarlet (review)

A study in scarlet, eh? Why shouldn't we use a little art jargon. There's the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it. 

A Study in Scarlet was the first Sherlock Holmes story in print, written by a twenty-seven-year-old Arthur Conan Doyle about an eccentric detective of the same age. 

Dr. John Watson, an army surgeon with shattered nerves, arrives in London, ca. 1881, looking for respite from his experiences in the Middle East.  By a mutual acquaintance, he is introduced to a medical student and future roommate, Sherlock Holmes, whose mysterious talents seem to point to some greater purpose that Watson can't quite grasp.  A murder, a ring, and a tangle of muddy footprints set them both into the midst of a criminal investigation, where strange signs are leaving the public in fear of secret societies.  In spite of his health, Watson follows his new friend Holmes wholeheartedly into the kind of adventure he thought was the stuff of fiction.

This is, I think, the third time I've read A Study in Scarlet, so the mystery fails to impress me as it did the first time.  As a Holmes story, too, it falls short of such greatness found in The Sign of Four or many of the short stories.  The thing to remember is that this was Doyle's debut novel for Holmes - as such, it's quite impressive.  Though Doyle, via Holmes, mentions such precursors as Edgar Allan Poe's Dupin (more of a hobby analyst than a detective), there really was no character quite like Holmes before, in English literature.

As a character, Sherlock Holmes is flawed from the get-go.  He is quite proud of his knowledge and talent for analysis, just as he is unconcerned about his (purported) ignorance of the solar system.  He is little moved by the sinister details of the case he is investigating, even as Watson learns of them with horror. Watson's initial reaction is natural enough; he can hardly believe how conceited his friend acts.  However, as Holmes begins to weave webs where the official investigators are lost, the incredulity of the doctor is swiftly replaced with a new respect and fascination.

The plot is rather sensationalist, which varies at times between genuinely moving and unfortunately cheesy.  What I like most is the development of Holmes and Watson's friendship.  By the end of the story, Watson feels Holmes has been treated unfairly by the police, and he wants to set the record straight.  This is the reason Watson started writing, and - if it takes years - even Holmes will appreciate it, in the end.

Sherlock Holmes: "The Yellow Face"

Week 7: "The Yellow Face"

Sherlock Holmes: "The Speckled Band"

Week 6: "The Speckled Band"

Sorry for the late link-up post, but I figured better late than never (?).  I've been incredibly busy IRL, so I have a bit of catchup to do on my own challenge.  =/