“Accidental Damage”: Book Review

I was recently asked to review a self-published book by Alice May, called Accidental Damage; whilst this is not a genre of book that I have really explored before, this book really impressed me, and I have therefore copied my review below! Enjoy!

Alice May’s Accidental Damage offers a first-person account of the trials and incidents possible within everyday life; whilst struggling to raise four children and keep her house in order, the heroine of the story experiences her world, quite literally, crumbling around her, as her house begins to crack in two, and her insurance provider is unwilling to offer her aid. Blaming the misfortune on herself, the heroine fights to punish herself for the incident, as she dramatically burns her treasured art-works in the garden bonfire, and forces herself to give up her greatest passion for the sake of her family. This is a story about love, sacrifice and guilt, embodying a stream-of-consciousness narrative style to reveal the internal monologue of the heroine, as she fights to choose between her passion for painting, and the care and support that she feels honour-bound to provide.

The aesthetics of the book are very pleasing; the cover art, originally produced by the author, herself, dramatically represents some of the complex themes of the text; the swirling waters coincide with the disorder and chaos taking place inAccidental Damage the narrative, whilst also linking to the fluid nature of the heroine’s thoughts, as they are delivered to the reader exactly how they are thought by the character: constant and powerful, flitting from idea to idea as the heroine processes her various situations. As the author notes towards the end of the book, the painting also offers a glimmer of hope within the chaos, as the swirling waters are centred around a white surface to the depths, just as, within the chaos of the situation, there always remains that distant feeling of hope. The formatting of the book is also very interesting; as well as having short chapters that are grouped by numbered ‘parts’, which make the book more accessible, the author has included definitions following each chapter headings. These definitions offer a unique twist to the narrative, as they not only confirm the meanings, but hint at the content of the next chapter and thus urge the reader to delve further into the book. At the very end of the text, after the epilogue, the author has also listed “The Comforting Recipes of Chaos and Logic” and “Innovative Games for Bored Barbarian Boys”, which add a personal feel to the book and end it on a unique, pleasant note, as the reader is able to take something away from it. A further sense of intrigue is created by the book’s blurb, a series of questions helping to evoke interest about the story. These questions may not be perfectly executed, certain wordings within the content, such as “or has she?” may seem a little too cliqued, and yet, as this is a present factor within any blurb, this should not be treated too harshly. Overall, it is well-written, a small exert from the text providing an accurate insight into the main narrative, as well as revealing the harsh plight of the heroine, and how she was forced to live, with her entire, rather large family of six, in a tent at the back of her garden, until her situation could be resolved. If nothing else, this intriguing blurb could be a little longer!

The actual content of the book is superb; interwoven storylines of the past and present make it more interesting, for as the heroine reflects on her past, readers of the text are offered two separate narratives: the one of the nervous painter who cringes away from storms, and the one of the struggling mother, who camps out in her back garden and braves precarious buildings for the sake of rescuing her daughters’ makeup and her sons’ PlayStation. What must, arguably, be the most interesting factor about this book, however, is the presentation, and anonymity, of its characters. There are no real names mentioned in the text; the heroine always speaks in first-person, and gives nicknames to everyone she meets, even her Barbarian Horde of children, Chaos, Logic, Quiet and Small. These humorous, but descriptive nicknames, provide an entertainment factor, as well as a proximity to the characters that perhaps real names cannot. The existence of “Quiet”, for example, as an identity for the heroine’s eldest son, opens a narrative opportunity to discuss the characteristics of the boy through his quiet persona. These names also differentiate the children and give them bigger, more interesting personalities, through being labelled by such distinctive traits. The anonymity stretches further still, however; allusions such as “Structural Engineer Man” and “Loss Adjuster Number 1” provide what might be called a more honest view of the world. In moments of chaos, the workers would be only what their jobs made them, and their personalities would be ignored; their names are therefore insignificant details that, considering the nature of the crisis, are simply unnecessary.

The pacing of the book is also something to be commended; the use of short chapters makes the book easy to read and moves the pace of the main events on at a good, consistent pace. The same is to be said about the style of the work; due to the stream-of-conscious style of writing, where it is the heroine’s actual thoughts that are being presented to the reader, the short, snappy sentences that sometimes occupy entire paragraphs demonstrate the speed of human thoughts, and help to keep the story interesting as it progresses. This speed may be an issue in certain parts of the text, however, yet, due to the style of writing, is difficult to avoid; generally, the pace of any book would be much slower at its beginning, more than anywhere else along its narrative. This text perhaps deals with the opening passages too quickly, for whilst it is very effective how the heroine recovers her painting equipment during a storm, which arguably represents her inner chaos and personal crisis, the fact that she suddenly must recover the paints could be explored a little more thoroughly. Why does she do this at that moment? What really triggers her passion once more? Pivotal moments such as this could perhaps be slowed down a little to allow more textual explanations, allowing the text to seem more powerful and effective. At the same time, however, the fact that the pace of the book is consistent is one of its main strengths, as it does not allow the reader to become bored of the plot or too confused along its course.

Accidental Damage is well written, terms more complex than what may be known as the commonly spoken language, intermingled with standard terms, keep it accessible to a wide range of readers, whilst also allowing it to reach out towards a more sophisticated audience. If there is any issue to be had with the language and presentation of the narrative, it would be the existence of potential typing errors (such as those on pages 26, 127 and 218), where there are sentences such as: “The general consensus from all consulted was that it had stood for 350 years already it would stand for 350 more.” Arguably, this sentence may be missing an ‘if’ or a ‘because’. Overall, however, the writing style is erudite, working to create a very readable, concrete piece of work. Such small errors appear in most books, especially self-published books, if only because they have had less editors reading over them numerous times. Indeed, what this novel is, is very credible. The plot is not only interesting, but moving and haunting, particularly when considering the fact that it was based on a true story. What with the elegant mode of writing, the fantastic formatting and unique twists both within the narrative and its presentation, this is really is an excellent read. Because, when it comes down to it, it just is a good story: fast-paced, but relatable and genuine. It is therefore a book that I would happily recommend to anyone.

Play Review: The Taming of the Shrew

We all know Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and Macbeth, but we are generally less educated in Shakespeare’s comedies. The fact of it is, though, that Shakespeare wrote more comedies than he did tragedies or histories. Tfullsizerender-1his review will focus on one of Shakespeare’s lesser known comedies, The Taming of the Shrew, which, in my opinion, has some of the most controversial issues of any of the Shakespearean plays.

The play essentially tells the tale of a rich man who is desperate to see his two daughters marry into noble families. The youngest of the two, Bianca, has many suitors, and is admired for her beauty and modesty. Yet her father, Baptista, refuses to let her marry any of these suitors until his older daughter, Katherina, has married. Unlike her sister, Katherina does not have a single suitor; she is outspoken, loud, and, in contemporary terms, unlady-like, or, as one suitor calls her, a “fiend of hell” (Shr. 1.1.98). The play continues, disguise and intrigue entering its narrative, forming what is generally seen as an amusing story, fitting for what was labelled a “comedy”.

Petruchio: And you good sir. Pray, have you not a daughter 
                     Called Katherina, fair and virtuous?

Baptista:    I have a daughter, sir, called Katherina.
(Shr. 2.1.42-44).

I, personally, found the above lines very amusing, but there are frequent periods of blunt comedy within the text, especially concerning Grumio, a servant to one of the suitors. Whilst not being directly named a “fool”, this is the role he seems to play, and strengthens the element of comedy in the play.

Despite this, the genre of “comedy”, in concerns to The Taming of the Shrew, has often been challenged. After all, whilst this is essentially a tale of romance, and thus presents the opportunity for comedy, it is a dark romance, the “shrew” in the title actually referring to Katherina, and the story depicting the “taming” of her outspoken personality, meaning that the end product of the play is a quiet, obedient Katherina who follows every word her husband says, her personality seemingly obliterated.

Petruchio, Katherina’s husband, forces her to endure several days without food and sleep, torturing her as a part of this “taming” process. Then, upon returning her to his father, he tests her obedience. He calls the sun the moon, and an old man a young maiden. Katherina, perhaps out of terror of her husband, agrees with him. This misogyny goes a step further, too; the very conclusion of the play depicts the husbands of Katherina and Bianca to have a bet, each claiming to have the most obedient wife. Petruchio wins the bet, having Katherina fondle his feet in front of the crowd, which includes her entire family.

Obviously, The Taming of the Shrew was designed for a patriarchal world where the woman was seen as lesser to man. The majority of its audience in the globe would have been men, and so it is easy to see why a play with what now is such controversial content, could have been, at the time, funny. However, this may look too bleakly on Shakespearean society. Whilst it is true that the play’s audience would not have the same views of equality that exist in modern society, for this was a time before the waves of feminism, many critics argue that not everyone would be able to laugh at Katherina’s torture at the hands of Petruchio. This is, of course, complete speculation, but some argue that the sexism is so blatant in the play, that Shakespeare actually uses satire to indicate the injustice in society, and, in this move, makes himself one of the first feminists (although he cannot be labelled as such, seeing as how the word “feminism” did not exist during his time, let alone a concept of this movement).

Regardless, The Taming of the Shrew is an exceptionally interesting play, if confusing on occasion, when more than half of the characters on stage are in disguise. It is funny, and it is thought-provoking; I would recommend giving it a read, or else checking to see if there are any recent performances of the play, seeing as Shakespeare was meant to be heard, not read on a page.

Note: the quotes in this post use line references from the Norton edition of the play:
Shakespeare, William. The Taming of the Shrew. Edited by Dympna Callaghan, Norton, 2009.

“What is a Novel?” / Book Review: “Roxana”

One of the most important questions in literature, and yet one which is rarely asked, is, “where did the novel come from?”. Many assume that it has always been there, supposing, perhaps that it is a term as easily associated with J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, as it is with Homeric epic. Whilst the majority of us never discuss the issue, the fact of it is that the novel hasn’t always existed. After epic poetry, lyrical poetry emerged, preceding Romances and Shakespearean plays: texts that we would never attribute with the word novel. In fact, the ‘first’ novel is claimed to be Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.

Whilst this may be an odd assumption to make about what is now such a wide branch of literature, Daniel Defoe did something in literature that had never been done before; he brought a sense of realism to his work that transported his readers, causing them to clearly picture Crusoe’s marooning on that desert island, and to take it as fact. This is because Robinson Crusoe wasn’t published under the name of Defoe at all, but the name of Crusoe; the novel is the character retelling his story, Defoe insisting that the story is fact throughout the narrative. In modern novels, this trait no longer exists; we do not read Wuthering Heights and take it as a true story written by Cathy Linton, or believe that Frodo Baggins wrote The Lord of the Rings trilogy. In fact, what we now consider a genre with the biggest flexibility for fantasy, is one rooted in nonfiction.

Defoe did something else unusual in Robinson Crusoe too, but I want to talk about this in connection to his lesser known novel. Still one of the first ‘novels’ of the genre, and a text published under Defoe’s anonymity, Roxana reveals the true meaning of what such a text once was. It tells the story of a French lady who moves to England, in order to find a new identity for herself. She addresses her audience, telling her own story, as her first husband disappears, leaving her an assumed widow in a state of extreme poverty. Having to give up her children and marry for wealth, Roxana soon realises the satisfaction in being an unmarried woman. She becomes promiscuous, a mistress to many a rich man as she raises her own fortune and lives, for the most of the novel, independently of men.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Roxana, however, is this second trait of the traditional novel that I mentioned earlier. Defoe included a precision that hadn’t really been seen in literature before this. Roxana records everything in the text, from the exact profit of her dealings, to the exact times and locations which she refers to as she travels about Defoe’s world. This novel was published in 1724, following on from texts like Milton’s epic, Paradise Lost, and, of course, Shakespeare, himself. Whilst such texts may include the locations of scenes, or give vague descriptions of the time of day, they left no room for the thorough explanation of the facts that Defoe allowed for. In fact, what with the anonymity of Roxana, combined with an inclusion of such precise facts that the first assumption would be that the tale is true, it is clear that the traditional novel barely resembles what we now assume it to be. As Defoe remarked in the preface of Roxana, “the foundation of This is laid in Truth of Fact: and so the Work is not a Story, but a History”.

On a side note, I would thoroughly recommend Roxana to anyone who enjoys a good story; due to the realism of the work, it is easy to relate to the character, readers both condemning her for her crimes, and admiring her for her determination to have her own rights in a protofeminist world. It is also worth appreciating the age of a work that is centred around a female protagonist, and the scandal that is included. Whilst we may now see the novel as an authoritative symbol of knowledge and wealth, the novel was once seen as something sordid and dirty.

The only issue many readers seem to have with the text is its ending; some argue that the novel wasn’t ready to be a novel when Defoe composed it, as the narrative appears to trail into nothingness. However, if you like a sense of mystery after reading a book, unsure of whether a character lives or dies, this is a book that can only satisfy, as well as intrigue, your senses.

Book Review: “The Lais of Marie de France”

Consisting of twelve short stories, supposedly composed during the late twelfth century, The Lais of Marie de France tells of chivalric knights and Arthurian wonders, an insight into the nature of love, as well as magic. It demonstrates the values of courtly love, a principle that viewed love not only as a suffering, but a social requirement for the nobility. As Marie notes in Equitan, the second of the lais, “how could she [the Lady of the lai] be a true courtly lady, if she had no true love?” (Equitan, 57).

One of the most memorable quotes from all the lais, however, is this: “love is an invisible wound within the body, and, since it has its source in nature, it is a long-lasting ill” (Guigemar, 49). This quote summarises the main content in all the lais, for they describe the practices of love, both true and adulterous, and the pain that they can cause.

In Equitan, a king has an affair with his seneschal’s wife; when they fall in love, they plot to murder the Lady’s husband by boiling him in his too-hot bath water. Comical though this may seem, the brutal descriptions of Equitan and the Lady boiling in the tub, for their plan backfires on them, are far from the comedic.

Bisclavret, delving further into the genre of fantasy, describes how Bisclavret’s wife imprisons him in the form of a werewolf by stealing his clothes. The wolf befriends the king, who treats him as his beloved pet, up until Bisclavret, still transformed, rips his wife’s nose right from her face, and the king thus discovers his true identity.

Considering this, it is fair to argue that the lais of Marie de France are exceptionally varied; this has been one of the problems for translators and critics over the centuries, for the lais were not discovered in one intact document, but pieced together, said to be written by the same author through the analysis of writing style in its original French dialect. In fact, there is no way to be sure that these lais were all written by Marie de France, or whether Marie existed at all; she may be a mythic figure such as Homer, her works, just like his, perhaps being collaborations of writing by multiple authors and poets. Whilst this may deter from the magic of The Lais of Marie de France, it may also add mystery. After all, these are influential tales that have had impacts on our fairytales, folklore, and culture, yet their origin is completely unknown.

Another interesting aspect of the lais comes back to the concept of courtly love. Whilst the renowned knights are admired for their heroic prowess and fighting techniques, they are never fully accepted by, or able to integrate with, society, until they find love. Courtly love was believed to be a requirement of the true knight, or Lady, of course, which meant that marriage was always to be expected. In my view, this is the true message carried by The Lais of Marie de France, and is one that ties the stories together in a way that indicates one sole author: love is a requirement of life, and, without it, one may never gain the wealth or reputation that they seek.

Honestly, I had no knowledge of The Lais of Marie de France before being handed it as part of my university course, and when I discovered that it was a collection of short stories, I was not altogether enthused; I was unfamiliar with this style of reading, and was unsure how to react. In truth, though, this is an incredible read, and I would recommend it to anyone. It deserves more fame and recognition, considering original tales that excite the mind and engage the senses. A reader must, of course, accept the clear misogyny of the time, noting how the majority of the female characters in the lais are referred to only as “the Lady”, but, once you are past this barrier, the true magic of the lais is set free.

Book Review: “Wuthering Heights”

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With its complicated themes and layered narrative, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights is renowned for being one of the leading novels of the gothic genre. It is undeniably a fascinating read, if only due to the numerous character and plot interpretations that can be had from it.

However, you should not take this book on if you’re not prepared to be fully committed to the storyline. Lockwood, a seemingly unnecessary character, is, in many ways, merely a device for the story to be told through, and yet the first few chapters resolve primarily on his impressions of the Wuthering Heights building and its inhabitants. Arguably, this gives depth and a better understanding of the isolation that Heathcliff and his family experience, but, in many ways, the gripping story of Wuthering Heights doesn’t really begin until after Cathy’s death, and the relationships within the next generation become steadily more intriguing. One thing must be made clear, though; this is not a love story. It is not a cheerful, upbeat novel in which readers have no choice but to expect a happy ending.

Wuthering Heights is a brutal insight to the class divisions and xenophobia of the Victorian Era, its narrative intrinsically linked to themes of envy, betrayal and revenge. Some critics would even go as far to say that the famous couple, Cathy and Heathcliff, never really had a mutual love between them; perhaps Heathcliff’s insanity produced an entire relationship for his deprived mind to obsess over; perhaps our impressions of the perfect, untainted love between them are, in reality, completely deluded.