Book Review: Around the World in Eighty Days

Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne is a quirky French adventure novel – although I read an English translation – from the 19th century. It’s about an eccentric old man, Phileas Fogg, who attempts to travel across the world in 80 days in order to win a £20,000 bet.

Mostly, I enjoyed Around the World in Eighty Days. It feels like quite a long time since I’ve reviewed a classic novel on my blog.

Phileas Fogg is very eccentric; he reminded me of Sherlock Holmes, though with less drugtaking. However, I thought Fogg was a less likeable character than Sherlock Holmes because, whilst he behaved like the perfect Victorian gentleman, he came across as quite aloof, self-absorbed and less personable.

The narrative voice was quirky and sarcastic, which I particularly enjoyed. The plot is quite fun too, mostly because Fogg’s valet Passepartout finds himself in all kinds of difficult and amusing situations.

However, for a travel narrative, it’s ironic that Fogg isn’t the slightest bit interested in his surroundings. I was expecting some  exquisite descriptions of beautiful and exotic landscapes, but that was hardly the focus of the novel.

Instead, the focus was on money – how much Fogg bets, spends, and loses as he travels the globe. Personally, I found it quite uncomfortable that Fogg just threw money at every situation he found himself in.

Around the World in Eighty Days is also obviously a novel of its period.

For example, it focuses on the grandeur and excitement of a white British man travelling to parts of the world colonised by Britain, and using money to get what he wants. Furthermore, there are quite a few problematic racial stereotypes, and the new cultures that Fogg and his companions experience are often described as odd and unusual, in comparison to British culture.

Also, Mrs Aouda is weakly characterised – she may as well not be there. I can only recall her being rescued, crying or falling in love because I suppose that’s what Victorian women do?

I still enjoyed Around the World in Eighty Days a great deal and I think it’s a fun novel. However, there are also some interesting points of contention to be made about it.

– Judith

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Book Review: The Big Over Easy

The Big Over Easy is the first in Jasper Fforde’s Nursery Crime series. I previously reviewed The Eyre Affair, the first in Fforde’s Thursday Next series about a literary detective.

The Big Over Easy is a satirical detective novel based on nursery rhymes, fables, and other stories.

When Humpty Dumpty’s body is found by a wall, following a great fall, it is up to the work of Detective Inspector Jack Spratt and his assistant Sergeant Mary Mary to investigate what happened. Did he fall? Did he jump? Was he pushed?

Humpty Dumpty
I, of course, hate using GIFs. However, the friend who lent me The Big Over Easy loves them. This is for you, Sam.

Similar to The Eyre Affair, Fforde’s intertextual references to other works of fiction are brilliant and his writing is full of irony and satirical quips.

It took a little while for the narrative to progress, but once it did, I really liked the application of detective and crime genre conventions to something as trivial as a nursery rhyme story.

In particular, Fforde satirises the blend between crime fiction and crime reports; Spratt’s superiors encourage him to solve the mystery in a way that will create great publishing material. However, Spratt wants to be an honest detective and only deal with facts. This mocks how, especially in the Victorian period, crime fiction such as the beloved Sherlock Holmes stories, and real police reports could be published in the same magazine, meaning at times readers did not know which accounts were fictional, and which were fact.

I enjoyed following the investigation, as Spratt works how Humpty died, but I didn’t especially enjoy the “background” narrative as much – Jack’s daughter begins a flirtation with Prometheus, the legendary Titan said to have created mankind from clay, and Jack’s mother accidentally grows a beanstalk. For me, these aspects of the narrative felt a bit too ridiculous. Which was probably the point.

The novel didn’t end how I expected it to, which was a pleasant surprise. The “whodunnit” narrative kept me guessing throughout, and wasn’t as predictable as I thought it would be.

Personally however, I think Fforde could have made The Big Over Easy even darker; if he had retold the Humpty Dumpty nursery rhyme as a gritty, realistic, crime thriller, in the style of someone like Peter James, that would have been fantastic.

– Judith

Themes in: The Sign of Four

The Sign of Four is a novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and is part of his famous Sherlock Holmes series, published in 1890. The Sign of Four has a plot which involves stolen treasure, a secret pact and the Indian Mutiny of 1857.

I remember reading The Sign of Four while I was trying to read the entire Sherlock Holmes series. I still haven’t managed it, and I didn’t particularly enjoy this one.

Masculinity

Sherlock Holmes is not a stereotypical Victorian gentleman man. He doesn’t work as a detective to support a family, or maintain social standing. He solves mysteries because they’re fun. He also frequently uses cocaine and opium during a time in which, although not illegal, recreational drug use was frowned upon by higher society. It’s clear Holmes does not mesh well with the stereotypical lifestyle expected of a stereotypical Victorian gentleman.

‘”Which is it to-day?” I asked, – “morphine, or cocaine?”‘

On the other hand, there’s Watson. He has good social standing as a doctor, disapproves of Holmes’ lifestyle somewhat, and even meets and courts Mary Morstan. In other words, Watson is more similar to the Victorian gentleman than Holmes. However, Watson is not entirely squeaky clean. He too is fascinated by mystery and disorder – joining Holmes on adventures together, so he can’t be overly aloof.

‘”It is cocaine,” he said, – “a seven-per-cent. solution. Would you care to try it?”‘

Otherness

This is probably my favourite theme to discuss from The Sign of Four. The novel was written during an era where the British Empire was still incredibly powerful; India did not achieve independence from the United Kingdom until 1947. With this in mind, both Watson and Holmes express problematic views regarding India, Indian characters, and convey the notion that white Europeans are ultimately superior.

Firstly, as the narrative is about the discovery of hidden treasure in India, this underlines ideas that India exists solely to be an exotic, unknown place for white colonisers to take from. Secondly, Indian characters such as Tonga are made “other”. To be made “other” in Victorian England means they are represented in a way which deliberately makes them different from, and therefore inferior to, white British characters.

For example, Holmes describes inhabitants from the Andaman Islands – which is located in the Bay of Bengal – and is Tonga’s home, as ‘fierce’, ‘morose’, ‘naturally hideous’, and associated with cannibalism, massacres, and violence. Watson also describes Tonga with abhuman language such as ‘it straightened itself into a little black man’. The use of the pronoun ‘it’ emphasises how Watson refused to acknowledge Tonga as a person or identity, simply because of their ethnicity. This language is indicative of the time in which Conan Doyle was writing, but creates the horrid stereotype that anyone “other” to the “norm” of white British men are violent, cruel, abhuman and animalistic.

Perhaps that’s why I didn’t like the book.

– Judith