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: The Beat of the Pendulum

“We’re not bold enough about telling the truth. We mask it and muffle it.”

The Beat of the Pendulum, by Catherine Chidgey, is a depiction of one year in the author’s life created using fragments of conversation. Each day has an entry. Some of these are a few words long while others go on for pages. The conversations are with key figures, mainly family members. They cover the mundane minutiae of life including: looking after a baby; visiting elderly relatives whose minds are slipping; medical consultations; discussions with husband. As a writer the author has thoughts on her peers and on critics. The conversations transcribed have been recorded and are presented in a manner that appears unadorned. It is a brave approach as the portrayal may be real but is not flattering – which may be the point of the exercise.

“I had the idea that I could run very expensive, very exclusive creative writing workshops for wealthy tourists. But I’d have to look at a lot of shit writing.”

Chidgey teaches creative writing at the University of Waikato, New Zealand. Her views on her students are at times searing.

With a new novel due to be published she is concerned about its reception. There is resentment that her work is not appreciated as she believes it deserves. At the same time she is highly critical of books she reads, damning one with the faint praise: “onerous”, “not horrendous”.

“I’m sick of reading about stunning first novels by stunning debut novelists. They can all piss off. What about bitter disillusioned mid-career novelists?”

She is suspicious of anyone appearing to offer friendship then mentioning their own literary aspirations.

When her new book is released she instructs her husband to post about how proud he is of his talented wife on his Facebook timeline. She also adds a mention of the novel to her mother’s Christmas letter. Such self promotion is not a surprise but the manner in which it is done adds to her feelings of resentment at how her work is received.

Interactions with her elderly mother, who lives in a care home and is growing ever more forgetful, are more nuanced. Whilst recognising the repetitiveness and frustrations of these conversations – as will anyone with elderly relatives – they were lengthy. The whole book felt lengthy.

Family and friends get together and catch up on news of people known to an inner circle. Photographs are poured over in attempts to work out who is who and reminisce. Strangers to the group would be unable to follow the conversation and, as a reader, there is a need to care enough to concentrate. There are nuggets but also much repetition.

“I’m not missing Mum as such – I’m missing a memory.”

There are numerous entries on Chidgey’s health issues which she seems to think about a great deal. She also concerns herself with cleanliness, describing her daughter’s library books as “filthy”.

The author muses on her looks, especially her eyebrows when her photograph is to be taken. There are mentions of past acquaintances and a hope that they only see her more flattering images. Little interest or care is shown about what they may have achieved.

“I googled a lost loves’s name and found his obituary”

Chidgey is often on the lookout for ideas for a next book. Some of these would be funny if there were not an underlying cruelty.

“Book of unused acceptance speeches. I would contact celebrities and invite them to contribute.”

She shares her thoughts on literary events and interviews.

“You always say brilliant things.
No I don’t.
You do.
It makes me feel sick. I’ve said everything in the book, so just fuck off and read it.”

“I’m having to tell a story about the telling of the story, because telling the story isn’t enough these days.”

Many of the conversations are notably lacking in PC editing. Such honesty can be caustic.

Described as creative non fiction, this is a book that may appeal more to other authors. As a reader it made me question how authors truly regard us.

At close to five hundred pages of recorded conversations this was a challenge to finish. In writing this review I do not expect my opinion to be welcomed.

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

Book Review: Self and I

Self & I, by Matthew De Abaitua, is a cautionary yet always engaging tale, ideal for anyone who dreams of becoming a published author. Written in the form of a memoir it recalls true events and interactions from the author’s earlier years. It offers a reflection on a bygone era capturing how life was experienced without the maturity of hindsight. It remains mindful of those involved at the time.

In July 1994, twenty-two year old Matthew Humphreys was employed by Will Self as the newly divorced enfant terrible of the British literary scene’s amanuensis, translated as slave-at-hand. Matthew lived alongside the in-demand author in a remote cottage in Sussex. He was eager to learn from his new employer and develop his own writing. Matthew grew up in a Liverpool dormitory town, took a holiday job as a security guard on the city’s docks, attained an English Literature degree from the University of York, and studied creative writing at the University of East Anglia under the tutelage of Malcolm Bradbury. He was still waiting for his expected coming-of-age moment that would define what he would afterwards be.

1994 was before the internet and social media. Authors expected to be revered, to have readers accept whatever they were given. Writers sought validation from other writers, feeling anger and frustration when readers didn’t pay their work the attention they believed it deserved.

“A sympathetic protagonist, an easy and unassuming prose style, and a strong plot – these were marks of weakness. Signs of pandering to the reader. And who wants to hang out with that loser?”

Matthew was a naive young man full of big words and little understanding. Now a creative writing lecturer at the University of Essex he may well have written this book with his students in mind. It is very funny in places and offers an insight into the mindsets of both an aspiring and an established author. Will Self was well aware of how the world viewed him and worked on maintaining his reputation despite the personal costs. He offered the young Matthew practical help and advice whilst warning him against the excesses in which he himself regularly indulged.

“Play up the vivid persona and use it to smuggle the work into the culture. The side effect of such a public persona is that it becomes the object of other people’s frustrated ambition, and they take out their grievances upon the work.”

In the period covered Matthew is attempting to find his place in the world whilst learning to accept his own inadequacies. At times he struggles with the lonely life in the cottage and his relationships with the people he interacts with, including those from his home town.

“The people you leave behind, the life you reject. Old friends are signposts down an untaken path. Ambition requires betrayal.”

Matthew worked for Will Self for six months although they remained in contact for longer. As well as relating thoughts and incidents from this time he offers the reader pivotal periods from his background, and what came after. He recognises now that he didn’t yet have the lived experiences needed to strengthen his writing. He was impatient for the life he craved to begin.

“I was a young man who compared the books I read with the books in my head, and found them wanting.”

He quotes author Jenny Offill who wrote

“You are not allowed to compare your imagined accomplishments to our actual ones.”

The ups and downs of living with a big personality like Will Self is fascinating but the insights in this book come from the author’s musings on his own thoughts and actions at the time. He has captured the intense certitude of a young person alongside that giddy concern encountered when they realise achievements beyond qualifications do not come with a map. In time Matthew will become a published author. That path is but one in a life chequered by mixed experiences and not coming to an end with the longed for publication.

As a reader with no illusions of ever acquiring the skills needed to write a book I am probably comparable to the nineties authors’ derided fans. I wonder if, in private, we are still thus perceived.

“Novels give us access to other lives, a few of which might be our own. Literary ambition belongs to readers as well as writers.”

An original memoir that is both absorbing and highly entertaining. Recommended to all with an interest in the world of creative writers, their yearnings, perturbations and conceits.

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

Book Review: The Hurtle of Hell

The Hurtle of Hell, by Simon Edge, opens with a near drowning during which the protagonist, Stefano Cartwright, has an out of body experience. He views himself from above surrounded by a concerned crowd as a stranger attempts to give him the kiss of life. Stefano then travels along a tunnel of light before briefly encountering a being he believes to be God. Prior to this Stefano would have regarded himself as an atheist having rejected Christian beliefs and teachings as a teenager. Now he faces a personal crisis, fearing his current lifestyle will result in an eternity condemned to hell. Stefano’s long term boyfriend, Adam, cannot understand what has happened. A gulf opens between them.

Meanwhile God is growing bored with his lonely life at the centre of the universe. He travels to its outer edges and contemplates what may lie beyond. He is perturbed to have been glimpsed while looking through the seeing tube that enables him to zoom in on features that grab his interest by a hominid from

“the third rock from a middle-sized star in a spiral galaxy in a part of his universe that he technically classified as ‘over there'”

God’s interest is piqued. He has never before been seen. He seeks out the hominid from time to time casually observing its strange habits and interactions with little understanding.

Stefano cannot shake his fears. Everywhere he looks he sees messages that he believes could be spiritual warnings meant for him. When Adam tries to help the situation worsens.

The narrative takes the reader back to Stefano’s childhood and the expectations of his parents. As he was coming to accept that he was gay, the AIDs epidemic was garnering media attention. Finding his home life intolerable Stefano moved to London, effectively reinventing himself and setting aside the family he left.

Following an unfortunate accident with his seeing tube, God must spend time learning more about these hominids. He discovers that they have attributed a great many strange powers to him which he regards with incredulity.

“Hominids could never have a realistic grasp of how insignificant they were, of the different scales on which they and the creator existed”

Nevertheless God makes the most of his new experiences, even growing fond of some who he observes. Their perspectives of the god they have invented and the universe in which they exist may be incompatible with practical reality but God derives pleasure from learning more about how they think and act during their brief lives.

The structure of the story flows with ease through the varying voices, providing insights into the prejudices, concerns and selfishness that each of the characters must face. The character of God adds much humour, his observations an effective commentary on organised religion and man’s exaggerated sense of his own value. It is both amusing and sobering to reflect on.

This is a light read but provokes sufficient questioning to maintain interest. An entertaining addition to my summer list.

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

Book Review: Their Brilliant Careers

Their Brilliant Careers, by Ryan O’Neill, is a collection of sixteen short biographies of Australian writers you will never have heard of. This is because they don’t exist. Taking all the tropes and conceits of the highbrow literati, the author has constructed a literary world that is entirely believable. Many of the supporting characters are real whilst others are renamed but recognisable. This is a razor sharp satire but presented with dry wit and laugh out loud humour.

Such is the apparent authenticity of the presentation it is left to the reader to determine (or investigate – yes, I did) what is actually true. Did this book win the prizes or make the shortlists detailed on the cover? Is the author bio on the back flap authentic? As the author is a character, and his late wife (to whom the book is dedicated) one of the ‘extraordinary’ writers included, all is up for question. Even the index contains nuggets that should not be missed, for reasons that will become clear in the reading.

Given the often incestuous relationships between writers, editors, publishers and critics there are many overlaps between the biographies. Manuscripts accepted for publication, and those that are rejected, are too often selected by criteria that has little to do with what is contained within the pages. Names matter, especially when a serious tome is submitted bearing a female moniker. Misogyny is just one of the many prejudices ridiculed here.

Another is the pretentiousness of those who believe themselves arbiters of quality, especially within the sphere of the avant garde. I enjoyed the idea of an 800 page opus that stands out due to its exclusion of the letter e being seen as somehow worthy for that reason. As with several of the biographies, the cause of this author’s death provided a fitting punchline to his entry.

Literary magazines and their editors’ desire to find the next great writer are lampooned. There are numerous quotes from submissions, amongst them a poet whose nonsensical words are considered thus:

“Chapman’s nihilistic, ambiguous poems were unlike anything Berryman had come across […] opaque, allusive verse the work of a genius”

Another entry is for the daughter of an influential publisher who grows up considering herself a muse, insisting that every writer she meets include her in their books – or else. Another is for a writer who comes across the unpublished work of a nineteenth century author whose work appears to have inspired numerous classic novels. Plagiarism is explored as is the art of biography itself. The meta aspects of these entries add to the humour.

Tempted though I am to highlight the wit behind Sydney Steele’s entry, my favourite is that of Helen Harkaway. When Helen was told that her debut had become a runaway bestseller she baulked at the idea of fame and eschewed the usual promotional publicity. Instead she chose to live incognito at her remote estate. She feared that anyone straying onto her land could be a fan or reporter. Unable to countenance an increase in such activity, she instructed her publisher to hold her subsequent manuscripts until after her death. The run-ins with the public that she did experience merely exacerbated her concerns. Weaving Helen’s paranoia into the book’s real world was a fabulous play on certain celebrated writer’s conceits.

Rivalries and jealousies are satirised. Writers’ friendships are milked until they sour when glittering careers wane. The invented authors may be pastiches but their biographies could almost be authentic. They play on commonly mocked elements yet remain amusing rather than cruel.

An inspired concept written with deadpan humour that is throughout engaging and entertaining. For anyone with an interest in the rarified world of publishing, this is a recommended read.

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