Book Review: Wolf Country

Wolf Country, by Tünde Farrand, is set in a future dystopian England. The rise in cost of supporting welfare claimants – the old, the sick, the disabled – was regarded as economically unsustainable so the elites changed the system. Only they may now own property, living in fenced off tracts of land in the countryside or in exclusive high rises in the city. Others – those capable of earning their Right to Reside – are provided with a home in a redeveloped area of a city, its size and facilities based on their monthly spend.

High Spenders populate the salubrious areas with Mid Spenders aspiring to join their ranks. Low Spenders are given little space and less security. People who run out of funds – non profitables – are either sent to a walled off wilderness known as the Zone to die amongst gangs of criminals or, if they had been consistent spenders for enough years, retire to a Dignitorium where they will be looked after for a set period of time before being terminated.

The story is told from the point of view of Alice, a school teacher married to an architect, Philip. On Boxing Day he goes missing, presumed dead in an explosion at a shopping complex. Distraught at her loss Alice struggles to cope, especially when she realises their extensive savings are severely depleted. Instead of looking forward to the expected promotion to High Spender, she faces the prospect of a future downgrade.

Chapters move around in time to offer glimpses of Alice’s childhood and then courtship with Philip. Her older sister, Sophia, had been a keen proponent of the new social order, going as far as to turn in a non profitable family member who resisted the local authority’s demand that they enter a Dignitorium. Alice hasn’t seen or spoken to Sophia since she left the family home to marry the son of an Owner.

Dignatoriums are not just for the elderly. Anyone who cannot maintain the prescribed lifestyle as a profitable member of society is regarded as an unacceptable drain on resources paid for by the hard working. Non profitables are openly castigated with anyone supporting them accused of selfishness in allowing them to live.

Philip’s father, a talented artist, lives in the Zone where he has somehow managed to survive for several years. He disapproved of his son’s choice of wife, regarding Alice as a willing puppet of a deeply flawed and cruel system. When Alice tries to find out what happened to Philip she gradually uncovers the truth behind the propaganda she has accepted all her life.

The denouement offers a salutary lesson. Although a bit much in places for my tastes, the clever final lines once again raise the bar and leave a strong impression.

Given contemporary attitudes to those in need – the rise in hate filled rhetoric and blaming of the poor and displaced – this is a chillingly believable depiction. The writing style brought to mind Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go with Alice’s compliant acceptance of the brain washing that ensures propagation of blatant consumerism and dehumanising of the needy or aged. The structure and flow are well balanced with moments of tension adding to reader engagement. This is an addictive and worryingly prescient read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Lightning Books.

Book Review: You

You, by Phil Whitaker, tells the story of a father whose teenage daughter cut him out of her life after he left her mother. Told in flashbacks as he makes his way across the country to meet her for the first time in seven years, unsure if she will turn up at the rendezvous, it is a tale of inherited hurts and modern manipulation. The premise may sound familiar but its execution soars above similar tales, offering the reader an incisive portrayal of family breakdown and the damage caused by a vindictive parent from a father’s point of view.

Stevie Buchanan now lives in a West Country village but he grew up in the north of England. As he travels to Oxford, where his daughter is studying medicine and the family once lived, he takes her on an imaginary tour of significant places and events from their wider history. In his mind they fly together through time and space to observe her grandparents and parents as children. He wishes her to understand why each of them turned out as they did and how, ultimately, this caused his marriage to fail and her mother to use her children as a means to punish him for not being whatever it was that she needed.

The repercussions of parental actions ripple down through the generations. Parents’ treatment of each other, their attempts to offer what they believe is best for their offspring, perceived favouritism, and the children’s desire for love and to support a parent who is hurting, form a potent mix. The suffering and slights pierce the chrysalis of developing psyches affecting behaviours as the children grow and then become parents themselves.

When Stevie was rejected by his daughter and he came to realise how impotent he was in the face of court orders and social services, he struggled to cope. He joined a support group where other parents in similar circumstances look out for each other. Running through the narrative is a thread on the people he encounters here and their experiences. It makes for sobering reading. These are the parents whose ex-partners wield their children as pawns in their own emotional power plays.

Stevie’s flights with his daughter appear somewhat surreal yet the framework enables the telling of a history that succinctly encompasses the emotional cost of thwarted expectations. Family members and close friends take sides and are sometimes rejected. It is not just the historic damage to his wife that is explained but also Stevie’s reasons for staying as long as he did. Having left, the resulting fallout is better understood alongside the stories of his fellow victims in the support group.

The writing is subtle and concise, causes and reactions vividly expressed without need for lengthy explanations. It is refreshing to read of marriage breakdown from a husband’s point of view, although the focus remains on how the actions of all affect children long term. This is an evocative depiction of family and its reverberations.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.

Book Review: Signal Failure

Signal Failure, by Tom Jeffreys, is a considered and often wry discourse on the impact of environmental change written after the author walked from London to Birmingham along the proposed route of the HS2 railway line. He writes of the aesthetics of the places he passes through and summarises discussions he had with a variety of individuals he met along the way. There are both financial and emotional aspects to their opinions about HS2. Some see potential benefits. Many object and struggle with the impotence they feel.

The narrative is not presented as an expert assessment but rather as the musings of an interested observer. As the author walks he has time to mull many aspects of the changes huge infrastructure projects can herald and the human reaction when a way of living comes under threat.

“Some of this walk will be about clinging on to the past; some about navigating the future.”

Jefferys set out on this walk with an idea but an apparent lack of experience of such an undertaking. He suffered from an over heavy rucksack and irrational fears when alone at night in his tent. He claims not to be a nature writer due to his lack of detailed knowledge but this means his thought processes are accessable. His reflections are interesting for their cogitation but also their ordinariness.

“For this walk I was keen to retain that sense of adventure, of an openess to the unknown”

Many of the arguments against HS2 are based on nostalgia, a desire to retain a vista or the bonds of community in which residents have invested. To be heard by those in authority these must be presented in quantifiable terms.

For example, in considering the impact on a well used and locally valued regional park an employee emphasises:

“the importance of usefulness […] the reduction of nature’s great complexity, its vast unknowability, to the level of a resource – to serve a single purpose or function. Nature as utility, valued only insofar as it serves a human purpose.”

This commodified idea of the English countryside does not promote untidy wildness but rather a taming of nature. Parks, farmland, managed forests and picturesque villages are all manmade.

Throughout the walk Jeffreys observes red kites, a species recently reintroduced by the RSPB.

“In a sense, their frequency detracts from what was once a splendid sight – although perhaps that reflects a misjudged appreciation of nature, whereby scarcity equates to importance, within the skewed economies of the collector.”

As miles are covered what is noticed is that working landscapes create their own aesthetics. There are fields filled with crops and livestock, pylons, roads and winding canals. He walks paths that follow abandoned railway lines. Enthusiasts have preserved some of these along with their accoutrements and appropriate steam trains.

A vast infrastructure project such as HS2 will bring massive disruption lasting many years. It will cut through what is considered beautiful countryside damaging the flora and fauna as well as established communities. That local residents resent this unwanted invasion is understandable, but the author ponders if this is reason enough not to go ahead.

Jeffreys passes by the results of other projects – landfill sites, a massive waste incinerator, electrical substations:

“the countryside, as I’ve already learnt, is not some zone of pristine purity. We have already altered it beyond belief with our agriculture, our transport, our waste.”

Over time, change is inevitable and sometimes for the better although there are will be certain losers in any transition. Jeffreys observes listed buildings and preserved parklands, neatly manicured and maintained. He mentions slum dwellings swept away and wonders where the occupants went and how they felt. In looking back, especially at the heavy industries in and around Birmingham, not all that is gone is to be mourned. He wonders which of our many pasts we wish to retain.

HS2 will have the greatest impact on those who value the tranquility of their lives along the proposed route. The line will be used by those who can afford it with any benefits accrued long term. What this book offers is not so much an opinion on this particular project as an eminently readable wider vision of how and why a variety of people value the environment in which they choose to live and play. Whether any change will ultimately be for good or ill, and whether it will then be considered worth the cultural and economic cost, is a layered and complex question. The reader is not offered answers so much as a broader understanding of the picture beyond that which invested parties wish to frame.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Influx Press.

History lesson

The theme for this week’s ‘Remember the Time’ Blog Hop is: Thanksgiving

You can steal me and use me as your own

I should have known. When I clicked on The Waiting‘s Thursday post to see what this week’s Blog Hop theme was going to be, I realised that I should have known. What else were they likely to choose today?

The celebration called Thanksgiving is particular to America. Guys, how am I, an Irish person living in England, supposed to have memories of Thanksgiving? Plus, the post I rustled up earlier today has already used this idea, albeit in a different way that doesn’t ‘remember the time’.

But hey, I am the writer, yes? I can interpret this prompt any way I choose. So, doing what we want is going to be the driver for this post.

What do I remember when I trawl through my memories for links to Thanksgiving? I guess it has got to be Wednesday Addams.

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You see my American friends, when I think of Thanksgiving, I think not of the Pilgrims graciously inviting Pocahontas to join them and share their sumptuous banquet, but of Wednesday Addams. I admit she is a sort of heroine of mine.

Despite having been a cute, blond, chubby little child (see below), I have never felt the need to try to retain my blond hair (my hair is now light brown). I have rarely been attracted to those with sunny, blond hair, particularly when it comes out of a bottle. I guess I associated blond with bimbo more than having fun. Now, who have I insulted with that revelation?

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I have a fair few family members and friends who may well feel a tad put out by such a blunt statement. To them I say, your hair, your choice; do what you want! I just never fancied it for myself.

(Well, except for that one summer when I experimented with a product called Sun-In, which turned my head a strange shade of yellow and taught me a valuable lesson about pesky roots, but I digress.)

Dark haired Wednesday Addams was sassy, honest and original. Not for her the need to conform to society’s idea of beauty. Perhaps this is why I am more attracted to Loki than Thor. I like the bad child with reasons more than the supposedly handsome goody two shoes. I like it when people do what they want rather than what society expects.

I loved the way that Wednesday silenced the silly, little, blond screamer

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And how much fun she and her cohorts had with this patronising pair (although please don’t try this at home, kids).

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Back in the day, I was taught by this film that Thanksgiving was an American celebration of oppression, but that we didn’t have to accept such behaviour today. We could learn from history. I took home the message that those in control would always expect compliance, but it was our choice whether or not to live by their rules.

Of course, there was always the subsequent punishment to consider.

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I think being made to watch hours and hours of sickly, sweet Disney films with patronising, moralistic happy endings would have broken me too.

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Unless, of course, the Disney film in question happened to feature my favourite god.

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We can all be thankful for a little bit of mischief and magic in our lives from time to time.

To read the other posts in this Blog Hop, click on the link below.

Sunshine / sunshade

It seems like quite a few years now since we had a warm, sunny summer here in England. I love to sit out in the sun, sipping on a glass of chilled white wine, dining alfresco. My husband tolerates my wishes but becomes grumpy if he gets too hot or if he has the sun in his eyes. This is one of the reasons why we do not travel abroad on holiday. He prefers to be active and finds that the heat restricts him; exhausts him before he feels he has worked hard enough to justify a rest.

At the end of the last sunny summer I was mulling over how to allow us both to enjoy the glorious weather and decided that we needed a sunshade for our patio, where the large, wooden table and benches (that I spent months hunting down) are located. We had acquired a collection of garden umbrellas but none provided enough coverage. They were sufficient for the smaller table that adorns our upper deck and for the picnic table that we keep on the middle deck (we have a sloping garden with lots of levels built in). What I needed for the patio was a shade that would cover it entirely.

I considered having a sail and supports custom made but this proved too costly an option. I looked into having a wooden gazebo built, but this was a permanent solution where I wanted something temporary for the warmest months only. Eventually, I came across a site that offered sturdy marquees of the sort used by market traders and party providers. A small, cheap marquee can be picked up easily in the high street, but these were not available in the size that I required. I was also unconvinced about their longevity in our exposed, hillside garden.

At around the same time as the boxes containing my new purchase were delivered, the weather broke. We have not had a prolonged period of warm, sunny weather since. Each year I have erected the marquee either for a social event (it has protected us from more rain than sun over the years) or because the weather forecasters have promised us barbeque weather that has not lasted. The marquee takes several hours to erect so once it goes up it is not taken down until the end of the season. It has survived wind, rain and hail; it provides us with a useful storage area for the garden toys that emerge from the depths of our shed each year when the sun teases us with a brief appearance.

This year I decided that I would only go to the effort of putting the thing up if I was reasonably confident it could be of use as a sunshade. The weather forecasters tentatively suggested last week that this month could be unusually warm and sunny. When it started to look as if their prediction might actually happen I decided to go for it and spent yesterday constructing. I am writing this from under the marquee’s welcome shade; it is hot out today.

My husband’s reaction to the prospect of a prolonged period of good weather was to order a garden ping pong table. Thus, he is out in the sun making use of this while I sit in the shade, sipping on my glass of cooling water. He has been in town today with our younger son, watching a civil war re-enactment, while I have been tidying the house. I am the one who is supposed to enjoy being out in the sun.

The British spend a great deal of time discussing the weather. It has been said that, if the weather didn’t change once in a while then nine out of ten people couldn’t start a conversation. The welcome arrival of the sun has prompted much happy comment. No doubt it won’t be long before some start complaining that it is too hot to sleep or be exposed to the rays for extended periods.

For now, I am enjoying being able to be outside in the fresh air. I have looked out my underused shorts and strappy tops (unflattering but so comfy to wear) and am making plans to partake of activities that can only be fully enjoyed when the rain and cold stay away.

I seem to have written a blog post about the weather. Oscar Wilde would not be impressed.

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‘Conversation about the weather is the last refuge of the unimaginative.’