TBR tag!

It’s been quite a busy week for me so far (starting a new job, studying for a midterm, laptop dying, and being sick), so I haven’t had time to start a new book, but luckily enough for me, Zezee tagged me for the TBR Book Tag! I’m not too active on the blogosphere in terms of connecting with other bloggers, but I thought this would be a fun post to do.

How do you keep track of your TBR pile?
I use Todoist, which is my current favorite time management app. I like having the list with me wherever I go as an app on my phone, so I can add to it whenever a book strikes my fancy.

Is your TBR mostly print or e-book?
I’ve completely transitioned into e-book at this point!

How do you determine which book from on your TBR to read next?
It’s honestly quite random, and usually dependent on whatever book I just finished. If I just finished a Stephen King book, I might go for some classic literature. If I just finished some classic literature, I’d probably go for something a bit more modern. And so on.

A book that’s been on your TBR the longest?
The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters. I read Fingersmith for class a few years ago, and I’ve been eager to read more from Waters.

A book you recently added to your TBR?
Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. I was surprised it wasn’t already on there. In fact, it’s the book I’m planning to start next, once I’m finished all my readings for class.

A book on your TBR strictly because of its beautiful cover?
I’m mostly e-book nowadays so this isn’t really a factor for me anymore.

A book on your TBR you never plan on reading?
The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World by Adrienne Mayor. Like many of us, I’ve been fascinated by Greek and Roman mythology for a long time, so I added this book to my TBR after reading an article about it, but I doubt if I’ll ever get around to it. I tend to gravitate towards fiction.

An unpublished book on your TBR that you’re excited for?
The Winds of Winter by George R.R. Martin. I read the first five books in one spurt and have been pining for the next book in the series for more than a year now (although I know that’s a comparatively short wait, compared to other fans)!

A book on your TBR that everyone has read but you?
Animal Farm, by George Orwell. I never was assigned to read it in school, and people have always told me that it’s not as compelling as Nineteen Eighty-Four, so I haven’t really made it a priority.

A book on your TBR that everyone recommends to you?
Maybe Lean In, by Sheryl Sandberg. I’m a woman who works in tech who knows many other women in tech, so I guess this makes sense.

A book on your TBR that you’re dying to read?
Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I once attended a diversity workshop for work, where they showed a clip of Adichie’s TED talk, “The danger of a single story”, and I was fascinated by her intelligent, honest approach to such a relatable topic. I’ve meant to pick this up but I always get sidetracked.

How many books are in your TBR pile?
Only 116! Who knows when I’ll get through all of them…

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Book Review: An African Millionaire

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Society must see that the worst of thieves were not preyed upon by others.

An African Millionaire, by Grant Allen

Continuing on my streak of Victorian detective novels, I recently finished reading Grant Allen’s An African Millionaire. Like its predecessors, An African Millionaire is a collection of stories with the same set of characters, this time revolving around Sir Charles Vandrift, the titular (South) African millionaire, and Colonel Clay, a swindler who succeeds in fooling Sir Charles again and again, despite the many precautions he takes. The stories are recounted from the perspective of Charles’s brother-in-law and secretary, Seymour Wentworth.

At first, I simply enjoyed these stories for their most obvious appeal: trying to figure out the mystery of each masterful crime. And this is done beautifully. Although it’s usually quite simple for the reader to figure out what disguise Colonel Clay has donned this time (considering there are only a few new characters for each story), how he pulls off the crime is always creative and different.

I also appreciated that he was able to disguise himself in many different nationalities, professions, and societal stations, perhaps undermining the rigid class society of Victorian England. The same goes for Madame Picardet, his main female accomplice, although she still relies mainly on her feminine wiles to woo and lower Charles’s defenses.

After completing  his goal for each story (depriving Charles of some large sum of money or other valuables), Colonel Clay invariably leaves Charles a letter. In the letter, he chastises Charles for his own arrogance and greed, and implies that Charles deserves to have crimes committed at his expense.

And strangely enough, I came from the story empathizing with Colonel Clay, despite his identity as a criminal. As the story shows, no one is entirely blameless. Charles usually loses his money to Colonel Clay due to his own greed, dishonesty, or attempts to trick someone else out of their own valuables. Even Seymour, the narrator, attempts to betray Charles for his own financial gain. Charles, who lusts after Madame Picardet in her myriad disguises despite his status as a married man, and who often insults and degrades the narrator, is especially not a sympathetic character. Towards the end, this novel had me thinking more about the fluidity of good versus bad in each character. Despite the usual levity of detective fiction (which is also present in this novel), this particular book delves into more interesting moral issues.

YES OR NO?: YES! This was a surprising favorite out of my reading list for my seminar. An African Millionaire is elegantly written, and a quick read. Although it lacks the thrills that a modern reader might expect, it is still exciting and entertaining, with some deeper issues regarding class and morality at its heart.

Book Review: A Prince of Swindlers

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When one looks back on that time, and remembers how vigorously, even in the midst of all that season’s gaiety, our social world took him up, the fuss that was made of him, the manner in which his doings were chronicled by the Press, it is indeed hard to realize how egregiously we were all being deceived.

A Prince of Swindlers, by Guy Boothby

It’s safe to say that Sherlock Holmes was the most popular fictional sleuth of his day. Even today, he remains undyingly popular, with endless adaptations being churned out by Hollywood. But what about other Victorian detective fiction?

I’m currently taking a seminar in Victorian detective fiction, and in addition to various Sherlock Holmes stories, we’re also studying Guy Boothby’s A Prince of Swindlers. Much like Sherlock Holmes, Boothby’s protagonist, Simon Carne, possesses unparalleled intelligence and is adept at crime-solving.

What’s interesting about Carne, though, is that he is both a criminal and a detective. While Sherlock often bends the law while solving crimes, Carne takes this to the next level. He literally occupies two houses, side-by-side, as mysterious detective Klimo, and as Simon Carne, an expert on Asian art and a sensation in London society. In his latter persona, Carne pulls off daring crimes, stealing precious belongings (including jewelry and a prized racehorse) from under his friends’ noses, while crafting the perfect alibi for himself and enjoying high society.

A Prince of Swindlers is a collection of Carne stories, and, to be honest, reading them all in a few sittings was overwhelming. One thing I disliked about the stories was the way that they were structured. In many of the cases, Carne explains exactly how he will solve/execute the crime before he actually goes through the procedure, which is also documented in detail by the narrator. Then, one of his socialite friends visits him after the fact, and narrate what has been said in the press about said crime. The repetition became irritating after a while. It also removed the aspect of mystery that I prefer when reading detective fiction. For example, in many Sherlock Holmes stories, Holmes only explains his train of thought after he’s solved a crime, which keeps the reader engaged and wondering until the end. With Simon Carne, much of that mystery is gone.

However, there were other aspects of the stories that I enjoyed, especially the discussion of class in Victorian society. Carne is a criminal, but also a gentleman. He is a detective, but also a criminal. Through his many disguises, he is able to adopt the identities of a clergyman and an emperor, among others. He shows that with the right clothing and attitude, it is possible to transcend the strict Victorian class system.

Similarly, many of the stories hint at disapproval for the upper classes. One of the stories portrays one of Carne’s acquaintances, a lady of high social standing, organizing donations for a charitable cause. However, it also points out the hypocrisy of the upper classes, since despite being the organizer, the lady herself only contributed a minimal amount to the cause. The stories portray the upper classes as being hypocritical, superficial, and endowed with undeserved assets. Because of this, Carne’s stealing from them seems less immoral, and his cleverness makes the stories entertaining to read.

YES OR NO? I don’t have strong feelings about this collection of stories, so I would give this a MAYBE. Although this is a short read, I wouldn’t recommend reading all of the stories in one go, since many of the stories share similar details that can become repetitive.

Book Review: No Name

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Men, being accustomed to act on reflection themselves, are a great deal too apt to believe that women act on reflection, too. Women do nothing of the sort. They act on impulse; and, in nine cases out of ten, they are heartily sorry for it afterward.

No Name, by Wilkie Collins

This term, I’m taking the last course I need for my English major, which focuses on Victorian detective fiction. Considering my interest in crime fiction, taking this course was a no brainer (although there was another very tempting seminar on A Song of Ice and Fire…). After reading the requisite number of Sherlock Holmes stories, we’re currently studying Wilkie Collins’s No Name. While not a detective story in the traditional sense, No Name combines elements of sensation, revenge, and crime.

At 600+ pages, No Name is undoubtedly long. The book is structured into different scenes, as though it were a play, with various letters inserted between scenes. Documents are integral to No Name, with the plot revolving around a will.

In No Name, Magdalen Vanstone, a headstrong young woman, is living an idyllic life when everything suddenly goes awry. It is revealed that her parents were living as an unmarried couple, leaving Magdalen and her older sister, Norah, legally illegitimate and therefore unable to inherit her father’s wealth. Instead, that wealth is relegated to her uncle, Michael Vanstone, who refuses to give Magdalen and Norah their intended inheritance, resulting in Magdalen and Norah being forced to make their own way through life. While Norah passively accepts this fate and seeks employment as a governess, Magdalen plots to obtain the money she believes is rightfully hers.

The plot of No Name is an exciting one propelled by fascinating characters. Magdalen is a strong-willed, bright young woman that would exemplify female agency even by today’s standards, let alone more conservative Victorian attitudes. Her primary accomplice, Captain Wragge, and the primary antagonist, Mrs. Lecount, are both so adept at manipulation and deceit that it’s akin to spectating a professional ping-pong match and just being wowed by the speed and accuracy of their manipulative actions.

I loved the characters’ quick wit, the improbable and entertaining plot, and the power given to female characters, who find agency through their femininity. Magdalen is a beautiful and graceful young woman, and uses that to her advantage by seducing the men around her, and even Mrs. Lecount exerts pressure on her employer, Noel Vanstone, through her domestic position as his housekeeper. Even though Magdalen and Captain Wragge employ unscrupulous methods to achieve their means, the narrative ensures that you remain on Magdalen’s side. It’s always made clear that she’s only aiming to take what she thinks is “right”, although the novel makes you question your own morals.

YES OR NO?: YES. No Name is a highly entertaining read that will also get you thinking about identity, justice, gender roles, and countless other topics. However, I do acknowledge that it isn’t for everyone (although I can’t think of a book that is). The book is a tad long, and while I personally found the mind games exciting, I’m sure others wouldn’t. That being said, it is one of the most entertaining books I’ve read from the Victorian era.