Saturday 31 December 2016

Planespotting in Madeira - tips (off-topic post)

It's not exactly a secret, but one of my geeky interests has always been flying and planes. I love travelling, but flying to the destination is usually one of the biggest highlights of any trip. I don't go planespotting often - only a handful of times in the past 15 years - but I decided to share a bit of my other geeky interest on my blog too, after a recent planespotting holiday in Madeira.

Why Madeira?

Madeira has a special place in the heart of European planespotters, not because of the number of planes or the variety of airlines or the proportion of widebodies flying there, all of which are a bit underwhelming. No, it's the airport itself, its location and construction, and, most importantly of all, the more-exciting-than-usual approach and variable winds that make the island a bit of a Mecca for aviation enthusiasts.

Key Attractions
  • The island is virtually all mountains and valleys. (The plateaus at the top are national parks and nature preservation areas and unsuitable for airport building). The airport is by the coast, with a runway running alongside the coastline.
  • The runway was extended twice. As there was no land to extend it on, the extensions were built on hundreds of 70m-high concrete pillars. Basically, about a third of the airport is built on platform / bridge. Several roads and entertainment facilities are below the runway among the pillars carrying it.
  • Planes landing at the airport either do an approach which involves a u-turn into a very short final approach, or they approach in a less dramatic line, but through an area that seems a lot more plagued by gusts and crosswinds. The U-turn approach involves flying towards the mountains, which can be a bit nerve-racking for passengers. 
  • Planes landing via the u-turn approach can be photographed with the terrain in the background, so you can see houses and gardens and mountainside just behind the plane...
  • As the airport is small and space very restrictive, planespotters can also get very close to the runway. Even better, as the land rises away from the airport, you can be close to the runway and above it, looking down on planes landing and taking off, at an angle usually only available to airport towers or helicopters...
  • Because of the way the coastline zigs and zags, you can also find locations directly aligned with the runway, and above, from which to take photos of planes approaching and landing. It's not the same as the famous checkerboard hill at the long-closed Hong Kong Kaitak airport, but it's a pretty rare opportunity nonetheless.
  • Oh, and Madeira is a stunning, stunning island. The most spectacular in the Atlantic. If you want sand beaches, you'll have to go to the Canaries or to Porto Santo, and if you want calm nature and few tourists, you should visit the Azores. However, if you love mountains, forests, nature, the sea and spectacular scenery, while also appreciating good weather that never gets too hot or too cold, and being tolerant of relatively high tourist numbers, then Madeira is perfect. If I were religious and believed in Eden, I'm pretty sure Madeira would be it. The island also hosts a variety of festivals - apparently, the New Year's fireworks are world class (and were recently in the Guinness Book of World Records for their scale), there are is a huge island-wide flower festival in spring, etc. etc. - basically, Madeira is a world class destination even if you aren't a planespotter.
Below the break, you will find lots of photos to illustrate the points, and a planespotting travel guide.

Monday 19 December 2016

Review: Planesrunner by Ian McDonald

Planesrunner starts when Everett Singh, a London teenager from a Punjabi-immigrant family, waits for his father to join him at a museum. In front of his eyes, his father is abducted. Of course, Everett calls the police, but they are strangely unconvinced by his story, and even the evidence he collected (camera phone photos of the limousine carrying his dad away) seems altered when it is returned. The plot thickens when Everett receives a dropbox file about his father's research...

Planesrunner is a story of parallel universes, and Everett's dad, a quantum physicist working at London Imperial College, was heavily involved in researching these. Soon, Everett goes on a quest to rescue his dad, using just an iPad with an installation of the Infundibulum - the key to the multiverse - to help him on his journey.

The story is engaging from the start but it really hooks its claws into the reader when we meet Sen, a girl who lives and works on an airship in a parallel London. Everett is on a quest, but Sen introduces him to her swashbuckling world filled with its larger-than-life crew, and turns his quest into a joyful, relentless, occasionally piratical adventure. (I'm sure I wasn't the only reader who found the Everness a bit reminiscent of the Firefly...)

Highly recommended: a novel which is smart and superb fun.

Rating: 5/5

Saturday 3 December 2016

Book Review: The Elusive Elixir by Gigi Pandian

The Elusive Elixir is the third novel in the 'Accidental Alchemist' series. This sort-of-urban fantasy set in Portland, Oregon, is a pleasant romp. Using alchemy as the driver of its supernatural aspects is a different approach - even if, ultimately, it is used quite similarly to magic.

Zoe Faust is the 'accidental' alchemist the series is named after. Having discovered the philosopher's stone, she does not age, and has lived for several hundred years as a young woman. (All alchemists can discover the secret to eternal life, except it is a different one for each and its method cannot be transferred to any other)

In the first book, a living gargoyle, Dorian Robert-Houdin, turned up at her (newly acquired) door and turned her life upside down. Since then, she's discovered that a sinister group of alchemists have been using 'backwards alchemy' and a 'death rotation' to take alchemical shortcuts, which is Evil. Dorian, however, owes his life to it, and as backwards alchemy has started to crumble around the world, so Dorian, too, is rapidly losing life force.

The Elusive Elixir is therefore a book about Zoe's continuing quest to save her friend. The first two books were primarily (murder) mystery novels. The Elusive Elixir, too, is bound to please fans of Jessica Fletcher / Murder, She Wrote, but the urgency of Dorian's deterioration is more in the foreground than before.

The Accidental Alchemist series is pleasantly entertaining fun. Murder, mystery, magic (well, alchemy) and an incorrigible living gargoyle and an equally incorrigible teenager provide plenty of diversion. Meanwhile, as Dorian is a chef by training and Zoe is a vegan, the series is unique in its focus on vegan food, which features heavily. The foody descriptions throughout are plentiful, and each volume includes a bunch of vegan recipes at the end.

The one thing that Gigi Pandian has not quite mastered yet (in my opinion) is the art of exposition. There's quite a lot of it in each novel, mostly delivered by Zoe reminiscing. If you have not read the first book in the series, rest assured, all its plot points are delivered in each subsequent volume by means of slightly clunky exposition To make matters worse, there is an awful lot of repetition. If I didn't know any better, I would think Gigi Pandian is a fairly elderly writer, as it does have a bit of a nattering habit of self-repetition. (She's not elderly, at least not according to the 'About the Author' text in the back). Perhaps the Accidental Alchemist series is aimed at an older reader demographic (like the Brenda & Effie Mysteries series) - for me, it was a bit annoying.

If you like light entertainment murder mysteries, (urban) fantasy and a dash of vegan cuisine, and if you can forgive a little clunky repetition, you'll enjoy this book (and its predecessors) very much.

Rating: 3.5/5

Sunday 27 November 2016

Book Review: In Calabria by Peter S. Beagle

Peter Beagle is one of the most highly revered authors of fantasy, especially among other authors.  The Last Unicorn is a hugely acclaimed and beloved classic (also an animated movie), but his other novels are not as well-known. He still writes, and In Calabria is his latest novel.

Incidentally, it is about a unicorn. Or rather, it is a novel about the impact a unicorn has when it appears one day in the back yard of a cranky old farmer in the Italian region of Calabria.

Our hero, Claudio Bianchi, is just the right sort of curmudgeon. He grizzles and growls, but without any malice. He's virtually a hermit, content to live at the outermost edge of society, but cares deeply about the animals he tends to. His only regular human contact is the postman, who teasingly asks Claudio about his poetry on a daily basis. Beagle knows how to create authentic reality by zooming in ever so briefly on the minutest, but most human detail, and this gives a richness to the flavour of his stories.

Two things change in Claudio's life: the unicorn appears, and, coincidentally. the postman's younger sister takes over responsibility for delivering the mail on Fridays.

In Calabria is a lovely novel. Even though it is set in the present, it has a strong sense of the Romantic (in the sense of the Romantic period of literature & art) and a yearning for magical beauty. It is also a novel about a curmudgeon slowly softening up, and a novel about defiance against evil. That said, it is not quite as wonderful as the recently published Summerlong: the story has fewer characters to play with, and, though unfathomable, the unicorn does not have the same charisma as Summerlong's Lioness...

Rating: 4/5

Sunday 20 November 2016

After Atlas by Emma Newman

After Atlas is set in the same universe as Planetfall, but it is neither sequel nor prequel. It can be read as a standalone novel, but I rather suspect that it is the start of a separate strand of story, which will eventually meet up with story strand from Planetfall - I think Emma Newman is planning some huge opus in this universe.


After Atlas is the story of Carlos Moreno, a hard-nosed far-future homicide detective with a complicated personal history, who is assigned a gruesome case that is intimately interwoven with that history. He's the left-behind son of a woman who was on the interstellar Atlas spaceship that left Earth 40 years ago. He was, briefly, member of a cult that turned its back on the internet and technology. And, after fleeing from the cult, he became a refugee and ultimately a slave.

Stories don't get much more noir than After Atlas. Not only is our (enslaved) gumshoe a cynical lone wolf, not only is the locked room mystery grim and brutal, but the world is cruel and unforgiving, and the grotesquely gory case is just a bloody symptom of a larger, deeper corruption in the world.

After Atlas is very different from Planetfall. Where Planetfall is dominated by its psychological angles (tackling mental illness in a character trying to colonise a planet), After Atlas is much more conventional. There is a tangential element of mental health stuff going on (Carlos uses meditative practice to ground himself when he gets into situations he struggles to cope with), but for the first half of the book, solving the crime is really the be-all and end-all of the story. The second half - well, let's say that the story simultaneously widens out and narrows down in very unexpected ways.

What it does have in common with Planetfall is that this is not a feel-good novel. It's an intelligent, well-written and tense one, but it puts you through the wringer. Ultimately, its view of humanity and society is much more bleak than that of even the grimmest film noir. Worth a read, but be prepared for a tough time.

Rating: 3.5/5

Friday 14 October 2016

Rawblood by Catriona Ward

I don’t read many horror novels. After growing up very timid and easily scared, I find horror novels  disappointingly un-scary these days. However, the description and buzz around Rawblood drew my attention. The promise of a modern gothic novel, genuinely unsettling, with originality and flair – who’d say no to that?

Rawblood is the name of a mansion, the home of the Villarca family. There’s something sinister about the house and the family. Alfonso Villarca and his young daughter Iris live alone in the mansion, with just Shakes, an old groundsman / servant / stablemaster to look after them. Iris is constantly warned to stay away from other people, to not dare to develop strong feelings. And the local people are similarly keen to steer clear of the Villarcas. All except Tom Gilmore, a boy of Iris’ age, who befriends her, much to their fathers’ concerns.

The story soon spirals outwards in time and characters. We follow Iris as she grows up, chafing against her father’s rules, yet deciding on a future worth adhering to the rules for. We also follow a friend of her father's, years before Iris is born. Those two narratives run in parallel for a while, revealing different aspects of Alfonso Villarca, and different glimpses of the looming darkness around the man.

Rawblood is a well-written novel, showing different narrative styles in different segments. Diary entries filled with long sentences and slightly florid language are intermingled with scenes told in minimalist language and dialogue that rarely includes a complete sentence. A lot of it is written in present tense and first person, which might not sit well with some readers. It can be a little disorienting, but for the most part, I was sufficiently engrossed in the book to not pay too much attention to this.

It’s not just a stylistic exercise - Rawblood also allows itself a measured pace. There is real skill in the way tensions and horrors shift. I wouldn't say the horrors escalate over time, but they start out all-too-natural and change as the story progresses.

With its fin-de-siecle prose, gothic leanings, and its setting in a rural mansion in the moors, Rawblood is every bit the atmospheric chiller you may hope for. Comparisons with Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca are more than justified - Rawblood is a classy, complex novel.

That said, all the atmosphere and writerly craftsmanship and style didn't quite manage to distract from the fact that the novel felt a little disjointed. For half its length, there are only two time periods and viewpoint characters. Then, as their narratives reach their climaxes, the number of timelines and viewpoint characters grows rapidly and unexpectedly. In terms of the reading experience, there’s a real moment of disjointedness, and a bit of a lull in excitement. The second half of the novel does add to the plot - significantly so - but the transition felt a bit hackneyed to me. It felt like reading two separate novels, rather than one.

There’s enough visceral horror and sinister horror to entertain most readers, I imagine. Is it scary? If you have the capacity to be scared by books, then I would wager that yes, it is. I didn’t find it scary, but then, the last time I was scared by a book was half a lifetime ago...

Modern gothic horrors don't get much better than this: it's original, atmospheric, and diverse in its sources of horror. It's a very smart novel.

Rating: 3.5/5

(People who love the horror genre may find it rates higher - for me, 3.5 is about as high as I would expect a horror novel to reach)

Tuesday 11 October 2016

The Ferryman Institute by Colin Gigl

The Ferryman Institute is a fantasy novel with a premise that's more unique than most. Our hero, Charlie, is a ferryman, someone whose purpose is to accompany the souls of the recently departed and safely transfer them to their afterlife.

With its striking and evocative cover and its original premise, I was immediately sold on the book. Honestly, I could fawn over the beauty of the cover for a while - I adore it. That said, Colin Gigl imagines the Ferryman Institute as an office-based, public service type organisation. There are sadly no rivers to row across, no souls in the Styx...

Charlie's job, in fact, is to be there when a person dies, and when the spirit appears, to convince the spirit to walk through a door towards the light (their afterlife), rather than staying behind on Earth and becoming a ghost, doomed to fade from existence. His job is made hard by the mental state of the spirits just after death: depending on their demise, they can be distressed, confused, terrified, irrational...

We soon learn that Charlie is the best among Ferrymen: he has never failed to convince a spirit to walk through the door. He's the only Ferryman with such a perfect record, and he's been doing his job for a long while. But all is not well with Charlie: his work is eating away at him, grinding down his own soul. Unfortunately for him, he's immortal (and unable to sense pain), so it seems like he's stuck. Until, that is, a special assignment offers him a choice...

The novel is the story of what happens after Charlie makes that choice. It's in large parts a chase thriller, accompanied by wise cracking dialogue and sarcasm. The story moves at a cheerful pace and never fails to entertain.

On the other hand, if you're looking for something more than light entertainment, The Ferryman Institute is probably not for you. The humour is pleasantly diverting, but not cutting or particularly memorable. The story seems a little less original than I'd hoped for (it has quite a lot in common with Chris Holm's Dead Harvest, while the Ferrymen seem surprisingly similar to Dead Like Me - style grim reapers). Characters can occasionally seem a little contradictory (Charlie can go to and fro between being super-competent and completely gormless. Alice's ability to be humorous and sarcastic seems somewhat at odds with her debilitating depression). The plot can feel a little predictable. And the book does this post-post-postmodern thing of referencing pop culture a lot. One character even chose his own name from pop culture references. It feels a little like cheating - as if the author is either overly self-conscious of characters being too similar to others that went before, or as if the author is trying to use a shorthand way of telling the reader what to think and expect of a character / situation.

Basically, The Ferryman Institute is a good first novel. Solidly entertaining, fast paced and fun. A promising start, though not quite as memorable and original as I'd hoped.

Rating: 3.5/5

Saturday 1 October 2016

TV show review: BrainDead

Eyes I could stare at for hours.
A few weeks ago, I was in the mood to watch something shorter than a movie, so I glanced through Amazon Prime's selection of TV shows to see if there was something worth watching an episode of. I settled on BrainDead because I was in the mood for something silly. Instead, I was surprised by the show - it's wry rather than silly.

BrainDead's premise is that alien brain-eating bugs have landed on Earth and headed for Washington D.C.. We follow the story through the adventures of Laurel, a young woman from a political dynasty who wants nothing to do with politics (she prefers using her film making degree to make well-meaning documentaries about heritage music of small communities around the world, but, unsurprisingly, there is not much of a market for Austrian yodelling or Melanesian choirs...). Pressured by her father, she agrees to work for her brother, a young senator, in the run-up to, and during, a government shutdown over budget disagreements between Republicans and Democrats.

BrainDead is a surprising show. It mixes West Wing style political drama with wry satire, scifi, and whimsy. Oh, and brain-eating, people-controlling bugs.

It feels like a labour of love from its spot-on casting to the delightful way that "previously on BrainDead" summaries are delivered at the start of each episode. It's a show custom-made for young geeky adults. It also seems about as good an explanation as any for the way US politics (and UK politics, and politics across the Western world) have got to the dysfunctional, somewhat crazy place they're in.

BrainDead definitely feels very, very contemporary (a year or two from now, it might feel aged): Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton appear in the background, and the political crises and topics will be familiar to anyone who follows the news.

I'm an unashamedly political person, so the notion that a Republican could be a fair approximation of a decent person is quite baffling and the single biggest obstacle to suspension of disbelief in the entire show. Brain-eating, politician-controlling alien bugs? Seems legit. A Republican with a heart? Inconceivable!

However, watching the huge-eyed actress last seen in Scott Pilgrim (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is always a delight, and makes up for the show's attempts to tread the political middle ground. And, of course, Tony Shalhoub is always entertaining, whether cameoing in Men in Black, leading in Monk, or antagonising in BrainDead.

Well worth watching - and watching now, before the US election, while it might still be funny.

Rating: 4.5/5

Tuesday 13 September 2016

Movie Review: Kubo and the Two Strings by Travis Knight, Marc Haimes, Shannon Tindle and Chris Butler

I've read about Kubo and the Two Strings, many months ago, when it was in production. Then I promptly forgot all about it. So, when I started seeing posters for the film appearing in Cardiff, I had no idea about the film at all. In fact, to my embarrassment, I thought it was that new Disney movie about Polynesians (the posters looked 'exotic'), only I couldn't quite figure out how the Japanese aesthetic and monkeys would fit with the tale. Let's just say the film turned out to be a surprise.

The first few minutes of the film were a bewildering experience for someone expecting YA Disney. The stop motion animation is absolutely gorgeous, and the look and feel of the film is on a grand scale. So far, so Disney-compatible. However, the very start shows a young mother in a storm on a tiny boat, coming to harm, cracking her head on rocks on the bottom of the sea, and a little cloud of blood... with that single cracked-skull sound, that facial cut, that moment of utter despair, we're left in no doubt that this movie is set in a more perilous universe than any (recent) Disney film.

From the harrowing beginning, the film works up emotional intensity as we follow young Kubo caring for his obviously mentally disabled mother, while scraping by as a gifted storyteller performing for crowds in the market. The film never really lets go of its emotional resonance.

Which is not to say that the film is sad or glum. In fact, it is filled with joy and energy and swashbuckling grand adventures enough for three movies. There is laughter aplenty, and we get frequent reminder that Kubo, much as he might be on a quest in tragic circumstances, is still a little boy who can be playful, stubborn, sarcastic...

Kubo's quest into the Farlands to find three magical items to protect him against the evil Moon King is wondersome and epic in the way of the best fairy tales. At the same time, the Japanese aesthetic and influence flavours his adventures with a tinge of melancholy and cultural richness. None of which prevents the movie from enjoying moments of physical humour and whimsy.

I have no idea whether Kubo's story is based on a "real" fairytale, but it is so rich in beauty and narrative that if it isn't an old tale, it easily could be. It has that mythical, archetypal quality, while featuring complex, likeable (and in some cases, genuinely scary) characters.

There are plot twists, but grown ups will see them coming a mile away. There is a sense of real peril, and characters can be wounded and harmed: Kubo's story is probably not suitable for younger children. Visually, the film is eye candy so beautiful that I want to see it a second time in the cinema.

If you love Neil Gaiman's Sandman, or Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth, or the novels of Pat Rothfuss, then I am confident you will love Kubo's story, too. It's as close to flawless as a movie can get - highly recommended.

Rating: 5/5

Saturday 13 August 2016

The Conclave of Shadow by Alyc Helms

The Conclave of Shadows is the second book in Alyc Helms' Missy Masters series. You should definitely pick up & read the first book before you buy this one.

Picking up where the superbly fun, ultra-twisty The Dragons of Heaven left off, Missy tries to re-establish normality in her day-to-day life in San Francisco. Her alter ego, Mr Mystic, has been hiding from the press attention and the clutches of Argent, the western world's premier (capitalist, corporate) superhero organisation.

It is not to be. Her acquaintance Abby, who is an Argent hero, looks her up and drags her back into the spotlight. Meanwhile. San Francisco has been experiencing a series of increasingly powerful minor earthquakes, the supernatural protections that Lung Di had put in place to separate the worldly realm from others are crumbling, and her friends and family are all juggling competing interests and problems...

Conclave of Shadows affirms that Dragons of Heaven was not a fluke (not that anyone would ever think so). Alyc Helms really can write, and write very well indeed. Infused with wit and humour, filled with a fundamentally open and kindhearted warmth, this is the contemporary speculative fiction at its stylistic best. Contemporary, in that it features multicultural characters of various sexual orientations, women characters who are central to the story, and adversity which is not powered by pure villainy, but by conflicts of interest between complex individuals and entities that each try to be as good as they can, within their own moralities...

Is it just me, or is there a trend for (women) writers to write books that are a bit more huggy in recent times? I'm thinking Karen Lord, Becky Chambers, and now Alyc Helms. The Missy Masters series differs from Long Road to a Small Angry Planet and Best of All Possible Worlds in one key aspect: it mixes the huggy warmhearted approach to its characters and events with a big dollop of action adventuring. It's what the Marvel Cinematic Universe would be, if it had just a little bit less testosterone...

This is not to say that Conclave of Shadows is perfect. The second half of the novel is a bit repetitive - it feels like a character in a video game having to pass level after level, battling a boss at the end of each stage. And, after all the twists of Dragons of Heaven, the number of major plot revelations in Conclave feels oddly subdued. The biggest obstacle to my own enjoyment of the book is that there are too many characters. I kept forgetting who's who, especially among the male side characters. Then again, that is a particular problem of mine: I keep forgetting who's who in the organisation I work for: I have a rubbish people memory.

That said, the series is definitely on my must-buy, must-preorder list from now on. Urban fantasy at its very best. It's on a par with Ben Aaronovitch's Peter Grant series, Daniel O'Malley's Checquy series, Genevieve Cogman's Invisible Library and slightly superior to Chris Holm's Collector series. Thrilling, funny and fun. Go get it now!

Rating: 4/5

Saturday 6 August 2016

The Beginning Woods by Malcolm McNeill

The Beginning Woods was originally written and published in German (with a title which translates as 'The Forest of Dreaming Stories'), by a Scottish Brit living there. Now, it's being published in English for the first time. This is the sort of cultural mixing worth celebrating about Europe and the EU...

OK, ok, back to the topic at hand. The book, not Brexit.

While it is marketed as a children's novel, The Beginning Woods strikes me as book that grown ups will appreciate more. Reading it on an e-reader, I can't be absolutely sure, but my impression was that this is a fairly thick novel. It's not just the length that might intimidate children - the story starts with two nestled prologues, each of which concerns adult characters. One explains the back story of this world - people have started vanishing and leaving behind only a puddle of clothes, and no one knows why - while the other introduces readers to a scientist and a witch.

Only after those preambles do we meet our protagonist, a kobold baby in a human orphanage, too ugly to be adopted. Except, at the very last minute before he would have been discarded / moved to permanent accommodations (apparently, orphanages are sort of showrooms for children - those no one wants are taken elsewhere. Who knew?), a one-armed man and his wife adopt him after all. They call him Max.

Max grows up, and over several chapters we follow him during his childhood. Eventually, he reaches an age where he starts to resent his parents (who had been nothing but loving), predominantly for being different from him and not wanting him to be a complete bookworm. Then, books are banned as a scientist claims they are to blame for the vanishings, and events rapidly take turns for the dramatic.

The Woods, which are mentioned in the prologue, only begin to enter the narrative when Max crosses from the real world into theirs, in search of his origins. Once in the woods, Max meets Marta, a cold girl, and the story gains a lot of heart, soul and joy. It becomes playful where it had been sullen and sulky.

The English blurb reads like a movie trailer. The German blurb, meanwhile, calls the book a dark fairytale with philosophical depth, perfect for fans of Carlos Ruiz Zafon and Michael Ende. It's pretty clear in both cases that publishers and editors saw a treasure in this book. They are not wrong.

There is indeed a lot to love about the novel. Once Max is having adventures in the Woods, the story is alive and wonderful. However, it takes a long time before the novel reaches that point. Comparisons with The Neverending Story and The Shadow of the Wind are well deserved: the book is indeed rich and deep. Like the Neverending Story, the transition between worlds happens almost halfway through the tale. However, unlike the Neverending Story, the joyful, pacey half comes second. The Neverending Story hooks you from the start, while The Beginning Woods hook you in the latter half of the tale. With a somewhat plodding pace (similar to Shadow of the Wind's), the first half might lose readers' attentions.

I don't really think this is a children's novel. No, there is no inappropriate language, gore or sex. However, children't novels rarely follow characters as they grow from babies to teenagers. Usually, children's books take place at a specific age of their protagonist's life. Similarly, children's novels tend to start with children, not with prologue after prologue about adults. Most importantly of all, children's novels don't usually allow themselves any slack in their pace. It takes patience to stick with this book. Much as that patience is rewarded by the richness and depth of the fantasy woods, I fear child readers are unlikely to persevere (and I'm not entirely sure about adult readers, either).

The Beginning Woods is indeed a magical, beautiful book. It's much better than Shadow of the Wind (in my opinion), but not as accessible to young readers as The Neverending Story. Recommended for grown ups who love stories, books, and stories about stories.

Rating: 4/5

Friday 22 July 2016

The Dragons of Heaven by Alyc Helms

The Dragons of Heaven is a debut novel, set in a world where superheroes and some kinds of magic are real. It's also a world in which not everyone believes in magic - sceptics believe the superheroes just have very advanced tech (which some do) and very good PR (ditto). There are laws about 'citizen vigilantes' and some form together into SHIELD-like organisations, some commercial, some state-run. But all of that is merely backdrop: the novel is much more interested in its Chinese-influenced mythology and magic and a hero's journey.

Our hero is Mr Mystic, one of those superpowered vigilantes. Able to control shadows and even drift from the 'real' world into a shadow realm, Mr Mystic is a fedora wearing, arch-British-sounding, Chinese-magic-wielding martial arts expert. Oh, and she's also a woman, Missy Masters, who inherited the superpowers from her grandfather, the original Mr Mystic, whom she impersonates. (Said grandfather, meanwhile, has disappeared without a trace or a goodbye).

Superheroes tend to be the stuff of movies and comic books, but The Dragons of Heaven is a funny, slick, energetic romp, filled with action and jaw dropping (but believable) plot twists.

I will admit that it took me a while to get properly absorbed by the story: the timeline is a little wobbly at the start of the novel, with two parallel storylines (one in the now, one in the past) and flashbacks galore. Also, I am not good with (character) names at the best of times, so I tended to get confused between all the Asian characters. Worst of all, I read the book while stressed / struggling with concentration, so even though I noticed the humour and the playfulness, I really struggled to focus on anything. (This has to do with life issues rather than any issues of the book, but it makes me feel I missed out on enjoying this book properly).

Eventually, even though the stress factors in the real world were still there, the book hooked me, and by the end I was not just invested in Missy, but her world and all the characters within it. In fact, The Dragons of Heaven is a novel where there is no such thing as a pure villain - all characters, even the antagonists, have reason and richness and perspectives that are perfectly understandable.

Basically, if you want a book that is fun, funny, action-packed, thrilling, a bit romantic and sexy, joyful, whip-smart, and a good romp, The Dragons of Heaven really should be up your street.

Rating: 5/5

Monday 18 July 2016

The Neverending Story by Michael Ende

Over the past twenty years, I have made several attempts to re-read The Neverending Story, a book which has shaped my story-telling mind like no other. However, in line with moving to the UK, I'd been trying to read it in English. I have no idea why, but every time I tried, I found it mindumbingly boring, and gave up well before the crucial halfway point (the point where the movie ends).

So, this time, I decided to try re-reading it in German. Lo and behold, it was perfectly readable. I suspect there must be something wrong with the translation. [By the way: if you're a publisher thinking about adding this to a Fantasy Masterworks series & you're contemplating getting a new translation, get in touch with me!]

The Neverending Story is the tale of Bastian Balthasar Bux, a fat little 9-year-old boy who has no friends, gets bullied, and is doing badly in school. His mother has died, his father has fallen into a deep depression and become quite distant, and on top of it all, Bastian is a timid boy with a habit of overthinking things.

In short, aside from his academic performance and family tragedy, Bastian was basically me at that age. My middle name, meanwhile, happens to be Sebastian (the long form of Bastian), so perhaps it is no surprise that the book hit me harder than any other - especially as it was my first experience of metafictional narratives. At one point in the book, the book breaks the fourth wall. It's a book about a boy being sucked into a story, and a character tells him that other people are following his story. Therefore, I was a Sebastian reading 'The Neverending Story'  about Bastian reading 'The Neverending Story' about stories and imagination, and while Bastian was being drawn into Phantasia, he was being told that someone else was following... I was grown up enough not to expect to disappear into Phantasia when I read it, but it still messed with my head a little bit. (A nagging doubt, I guess)

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The book starts as Bastian rushes into a little dusty antiques shop, hiding from the bullies who are chasing him. There, a grim and spiteful old man, Karl Konrad Koreander, interrogates him, and quickly forms a harsh opinion of Bastian. Not just fat, but a loser and a coward, and stupid too - and above all else, Koreander believes the boy is up to no good and likely a thief. Reading the scene is almost painful: Koreander hates children, but you can't help feeling sorry for Bastian when Koreander hits one raw nerve after another with his hostile questions and viciously blunt judgements about Bastian.

However, Bastian notices that Koreander is reading a special book of rare and unique appearance. A book which, Koreander assures him, is not for the likes of Bastian: it is not a book for cowards, or for those reading safe stories. It is an altogether dangerous book. Bastian covets it with all his heart from the moment he sees the title: The Neverending Story. (Reading and being a bibliophile are just about the only things that Bastian is good at and which bring him joy.) [By the way, my reaction when seeing the book was exactly the same as Bastian's, so that too resonated when I first read the story.]

Koreander answers the phone, and, in a moment of madness, Bastian steals the book. He runs off, convinced that he can now never return home to his father, that he will have to live a life on the run and be a criminal forever. Without thinking, his feet take him straight to school, so he decides to hide away in the one place he knows he won't be found or disturbed: the school's attic. He takes the caretaker's key and locks the door from the inside, builds himself a nest, and starts reading...

...about the magical world of Phantasia, where a mysterious and sinister doom has started to appear and befall the land. A doom which is directly linked with the sudden illness of the child empress, who can't be cured by any of the best healers of the world. She tells them that only one great hero can save her, so the greatest healer of them all seeks and finds that hero: Atreju of the green people in the grasslands. Arriving, the healer discovers that Atreju is a young boy on the cusp of going through a rite of passage - hunting and killing a giant red buffalo - and becoming a man. Despite his surprise, he offers Atreju the quest, who proudly accepts it. 

His quest takes Atreju through several episodes in very different places: swamps of sadness, neverending mountains, a gorge of certain doom, a desert oracle, an ocean, a city of ghosts and ghouls and more. Along the way, he learns a different part of his task from three mysterious guides and he encounters Fuchur the luck dragon and forms a lifelong friendship, all while being closely pursued by a monstrous menace - though he does not realise it.

If you've seen the movie, this might all sound familiar, but there's a lot more in the book. The film makers only used the first half of the book for their plot, and even that was cut down heavily. The cuts range from cosmetic - the great healer is a zebra centaur, not just a black man, and Atreju is green-skinned, not slightly tanned, while Bastian is fat, not just wimpy - to much more significant and substantial changes. In the movie, Atreju has a much easier time of it with the monstrous wolf than in the book, while an entire section of actions by the child empress is left out entirely. Several characters are missing from the movie, while some have been changed quite noticeably. Basically, the movie is not a loyal adaptation.

The book's more meaningful bits are in its second half. Atreju's chapters are great fun to read: each chapter is an almost self-contained tale of mythical / archetypal adventuring. The intersections between Bastian's experience (in a reddish font) and Atreju's (in a blueish font), and the gradual intertwining of narratives, are exciting and interesting. All of which comes to a head at the point when Bastian's tale crosses into Phantasia. Then, things rapidly shed the comparatively lighthearted direction of adventure quests, and turn into a surprisingly rich and deep psychological and philosophical tale while charting Bstian's gradual descent into soullessness.

I would even go as far as comparing The Neverending Story with Philip Pullman's Northern Lights trilogy: there is a helluva lot of complex stuff going on in later chapters, interrogating human nature, the power of imagination, lies, and the question of what god-like powers do to a mind...

The author is clearly more interested in ideas than anything else. Modern readers might baulk at the extremely low number of female characters (two), the strangely subservient attitude of other characters towards Atreju and Bastian, the clunky, exposition-rich dialogue and even the bland covers of the book (considering how much is made of the ornate richness of the book described inside the story, I am quite disappointed that all print editions I have encountered are spectacularly bland on the outside: surely The Neverending Story warrants at least one ornate, engraved beautiful edition, no?)

The Neverending Story had a lasting effect on me, not least because Bastian's story is a cautionary tale ("be careful what you wish for" times a hundred). After the fantastic delight of seeing an alter ego be sucked into Phantasia, and reading about some absolutely stunning places, realising that the seeds of his own undoing were in my alter ego's psyche all along was not the most comfortable of experiences!

I always wanted this to be my favourite Michael Ende book, but I do remember how dispiriting and deflating the second half was when I first read it. It has not become lighter to read with the passage of time. In truth, I suspect Ende's most joyful achievement is actually Momo, which is told in lyrical, beautiful prose, while being packed to the brim with singular and coherent imagery. Neverending Story is written in much more mundane prose and filled with such a diverse cornucopia of imagery and themes that it doesn't always feel like a single book at all.

The first half of the book is joyful; the second half is thoughtful. One is full of physical peril, the other full of psychological one, and it's the latter which makes it a quite dispiriting read (especially for fat little loser book worms). There's enough subtext in there to write several PhD theses about it, which is pretty brave for what is essentially a children's novel. I can see why the films ignored all of that - but by doing so, they ignored the very heart of the book.

It's a great literary achievement, an influential and complex work. Give it a try (especially if you are fluent in German) - but don't expect it to be just a basic adventure story.

Rating: 4.5/5

Saturday 9 July 2016

Soft Brexit

Apparently, there is now a name for the least worst Brexit option: "soft Brexit". That said, it is baffling to see British politicians and press talk of a "Norway Plus" model. I think this is a staggering miscalculation: opinions in the EU range from "let's be punitive towards Britain" to "let's give Britain a deal that matches an existing deal with other countries". There is literally no one, aside from British punters, who is willing to contemplate letting the UK carry out Brexit with a special deal that is somehow better than the deal any other country has.

When the Brexit negotiations happen, the UK will have to choose which is more important: access to the single market, or opting out of the free movement of people. Seeing pundits speculate about deals that would retain one, while restricting the other, is mind-boggling. Only a very deluded politician or journalist could believe that the UK will get yet another special deal after spitting in the face of the EU.

Meanwhile, I continue to make the best of a bad situation, by campaigning for the Norway model. I know that it is the option which would hurt the UK's population the least, and result in no loss of UK citizens' rights.

My Letters and the Replies Received so far

I've started to receive a few replies to the letters I've been sending out to elected representatives. What delighted me most is that some of the replies seemed individual letters rather than form letters / bulk responses.

Please join my campaign efforts, and write to your representatives. If you are an EU citizen, please also write to your elected representatives - they may well be receiving fewer letters than British representatives do, and they are likely to pay attention. (As you can see below, the  most individual response I've received was from a German parliamentarian)

Below the break, you can read the letters and the replies I've received.

Saturday 2 July 2016

Jeremy Corbyn and the broken political system

Post-referendum, reading the news is about as dispiriting as it can get. As if the collapse of government and the risk of economic destruction weren't enough, we're also getting a daily dose of the most remarkable case of workplace bullying that's ever been seen - the way Jeremy Corbyn is being treated by the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Two very different conflagrations

The media have been delighted at the internal bickering and sniping within the Conservative Party in the lead up to the referendum. It might have looked like Game of Thrones, House of Cards, a Tory Civil War, but it's a very different conflict from the one tearing Labour apart. The Conservative Party presents a broadly united front except for a single issue (Europe), and it's roughly evenly split on that one - and the politicians have taken care to attack each other's rhetoric and points a lot more than each other's characters. (Well, Heseltine talking about Boris is an exception).

In Labour, meanwhile, the conflict plays out as 170 people against one. Every single attack is on his character and person. However, the one is the avatar of a few hundred thousand voters, and the underlying conflict is much more broad in its ideological differences. Labour is no longer a united front of any sort, and it's dying.

Toxic Labour

Chakrabati's inquiry into racism in Labour concluded that there is no systemic problem, but that there is an 'occasionally toxic atmosphere'. What an understatement - the atmosphere has been toxic since Jeremy Corbyn announced his intention to stand as candidate, and has been getting steadily more toxic by the day.

I'm one of those people who joined Labour in order to vote for Corbyn's leadership bid. It was very clear that:
  • Jeremy Corbyn has morals and principles which are largely the same as what Labour is/was supposed to stand for
  • He's a decent person
  • He is unlikely to betray his values
It's also been very clear, right from the start, that principles are more important to him than networks. He's not a bridge builder, not an appeaser, not someone who compromises on the fundamentals. He's an outsider with a strong moral core and values that match those of many grassroots left wing and liberal activists (including me). Perhaps unsurprisingly, he had few allies among Labour's MPs, after many years of not towing the party line if he did not agree with it. 

Even so, the viciousness of the internal conflagrations in Labour took me by surprise. Right from the start, barely a week went by without some senior Labour politician declaring him unfit to rule. On an almost weekly basis, some people in the shadow cabinet planted stories in the press suggesting that Corbyn was planning to fire them all. Somehow, they played the victim even though no attack had taken place. 

Looking just at the facts rather than rumours and accusations that never materialised, Corbyn has been admirably principled leader. A minor cabinet reshuffle took place, MPs were given freedom to vote with their conscience on military intervention in Syria, and, though immediate rumours were planted that Corbyn was planning to get rid of Hilary Benn after all the positive attention the press had paid to his (rich in rhetoric, thin on substance) speech, Corbyn did not 'punish' anyone for having disagreed with him. The most mindboggling thing is how the press have been selling the idea that Corbyn is a vengeful, plotting schemer, when all the scheming and plotting appears to have occurred around him. Then, the "anti-semitism" crisis which was carefully manufactured by the media and a handful of politicians, presumably because of Corbyn's history of supporting Palestinians. Corbyn again responded as a decent person might: by launching an independent inquiry and putting a highly regarded outsider in charge of it. 

Now, the mass resignations and votes of no confidence by MPs, apparently carefully stage-managed and long in the planning, are designed to remove him. The amount of spin that's been employed against Corbyn is mind-boggling. Labour winning a by-election despite Corbyn being its leader? A failure (because UKIP came second). Winning the biggest share in local elections? A failure (because Labour didn't make gigantic gains, merely four mayoral posts and a few councils). Having more than two thirds of his party's supporters vote for Remain? A catastrophic failure (because all Labour voters should have obeyed Corbyn?). The man could solve climate change and yet still be branded a failure by his party politicians and the press.

He's standing fast so far, but I can't imagine the psychological pressure he must be under. The most bullied man in Britain.

Ugly Politics

Politics has gotten very ugly indeed. This does not exclude Corbyn's supporters...

JK Rowling spends a lot of her energies attacking Corbyn at the moment. This is disappointing, because I usually respect her opinions.

However, it's also true that Corbyn has attracted support from die-hard socialists, from angry activists who are as angry and bitter on the left, as Britain First & UKIP are on the right.  Corbyn has repeatedly spoken out against their behaviour.  But the press and public discourse are acting as if they are his base. They're not.

Jeremy Corbyn's base of support is built on people who have been feeling disappointed with Labour for years. It's built on people who vote Labour as "least worst option", not because they believe Labour still stands for anything. It's built on people who have been voting LibDem and Green in some elections because Labour had moved too far from its principles. It's built on people who felt alienated and yes, betrayed, by Tony Blair's government. It's built on people who look at Nicola Sturgeon and wish she'd not be a Scottish Nationalist, but a Labour Leader, people who think Blair was a despicable war criminal, who want more idealistic, principled leaders, people who think that the difference between New Labour and Compassionate Conservatism is paper thin, and who are sick of being forced into a binary, tribal choice because their own instincts are not "new" labour at all. Many of my friends are Corbyn supporters, having voted LibDem, Green, and, strategically but reluctantly, Labour.

When I joined Labour, I had to promise to adhere to its principles, which include "socialism". I am not actually a devout socialist, so I hesitated slightly. But Blairite MPs? Would any of them openly call themselves socialists? Under Blair, Labour stood for one thing only: wanting to be in power. It had no core beliefs, except that it was "not the Tories", and that seemingly was enough for Blair & Co.

I do not support political parties like people support football teams. They are meant to be more than a brand. They are meant to have some kind of philosophical basis. Corbyn, of all the candidates in the last leadership election, seemed to be the most ideologically Labour candidate, and that was why I voted for him.

It's not Jeremy Corbyn who is tearing the Labour party apart - it's the MPs. They've wronged him, they've wronged Labour supporters, and they are making Labour completely unelectable.

When the entire world is wrong and you are right, then that doesn't mean you should give up...

Will I vote Corbyn?

Assuming there will be a leadership contest, will I use my Labour membership to vote Corbyn?

I don't know. 

I think he's like Jimmy Carter - a great man, but not, perhaps, a great politician. (Turns out having a large network of sleazy and corrupt MPs is a pre-requirement, unless you want to be bullied out of office and constantly surrounded by conspiracies). I don't think he's inherently unelectable, but I do think the persistent, public bullying by Labour MPs, and the hostile stance of the press (including, in a case of bias that reeks to heaven, the BBC) is making him so. A political self-fulfilling prophecy.

That said, there's no way in hell that I'd vote for Angela Eagle after finding out more about what she stands for (last year, I'd voted for her as Deputy Leader). I guess a whole lot depends on who stands against him. If Jo Cox were alive, I would vote for her in a hearbeat. I would consider voting for MPs who are new to Parliament since the 2015 election, provided they stand for things I can support, and provided they haven't been part of this horrendous bullying.

I would prefer seeing Corbyn in a shadow cabinet, as Shadow Foreign Secretary or Shadow Minister for Work and Pensions, and someone young, idealistic, freshly elected and not tainted with the stains of toxicity & backstabbing as leader of the Labour Party. 

Failing that, I will probably vote Corbyn again.

I suspect that, unless things change, I will leave Labour. The way the parliamentary party has been acting is nothing short of despicable and abhorrent. I'm vaguely horrified that I am more impressed by the Scottish Nationalist Party (even though I hate any and all nationalism) than by Labour.

The Mess Needs Fixing

It seems to me that the real reason why this country's politics is being torn apart is the First Past The Post electoral system. It is this system which created two political parties which are largely tribal, with limited ideological basis. It is this system which has resulted in voters getting more and more frustrated and angry, as they struggle to find a politician or party that they can support. It is a system which forces people to vote for the lesser evil, rather than the things they really believe in.

Now I know Owen Jones is an 'acquired taste' (he seems like a smug lefty demagogue to me whenever I see him), but have a look at this video. He actually talks sense.

...and yes, PR would mean a much bigger UKIP presence in Parliament, and other parties I don't like. But that's democracy. Let people vote for something for a change, rather than voting against things. The compromises required to form a government are much more palatable if the coalition of ideas is one between different parties, rather than an internalised coalition of specific MPs.

If you agree, please join / follow / support Make Votes Matter. It's the only way to fix Britain's political system and make meltdowns like the one we are witnessing at the moment less likely. 

Monday 27 June 2016

Fuchskind von Annette Wieners

An einem nebligen Herbsttag kommt Friedhofsgärtnerin Gesine Cordes einfach alles unheimlich vor. Der Pförtner scheint nicht zuhause zu sein obwohl das Licht an ist, irgendwo im Zaun muss ein Loch sein, denn ein Fuchs ist in den Friedhof eingedrungen, und es klingt, als schlich da jemand durchs Gebüsch...

Zu ihrer vollkommenen Überraschung findet sie dann ein unterernährtes, frierendes Baby. Kaum gefunden, erleidet es dann Krämpfe, as wäre es vergiftet.

Unterdessen findet man um die Ecke eine nackte Frauenleiche, und als kurz danach auch noch ihr Ex-Mann auftaucht, passt gar nichts mehr zusammen.

Fuchskind ist ein Krimi-Thriller, der zweite in einer Serie. Man merkt schon, dass es nicht der erste Roman über Gesine und eine ihr inzwischen befreundete Komissarin ist. Es wird oft auf die traumatischen Ereignisse des vorherigen Sommers hingewiesen.

Am effektivsten ist der Roman, wenn Gesine sich um das Baby kümmert, denn die Empfindlichkeit des schwerbehinderten Babies und die Fürsorge der Friedhofsgärtnerin, deren Sohn in ihren Armen verstorben ist, wirken zusammen sehr Einfühlsam (obwohl ich selber Babies nicht besonders mag).

Allerdings gelang es dem Roman in anderen Gebieten eher weniger zu überzeugen. Die Sache mit dem Ex-Mann klingt eher nach Seifenoper als nach Krimi. Zudem gibt es viel zu viele Täter und nicht genug Gründe für ihre Taten. Das Netz der Verbrechen, das die Autorin hier gewebt hat, hält leider nicht zusammen - es zerfällt wenn man es mit dem geringsten Zweifel anhaucht.

Das hochspannende Finale kann den Roman daher leider nicht retten - er ist zwar mehr oder weniger unterhaltsam, aber letztendlich nicht sehr befriedigend.

Bewertung: 3/5

Friday 24 June 2016

If the electorate hands you lemons...

So, Brits actually voted for Brexit.

Britain, to Europe

My (and most of my friends') reaction...

They voted Lemons. Let's make Lemonade.

I don't believe in asking for a second referendum (though if you do, there's a very popular petition for that). But I do believe that, after the initial shock has worn off, there's no reason to lose hope.

Here's why hope is warranted:

I still believe that the Brexit scenario the UK will end up with is to continue its EEA / EFTA membership (the Norway model). I outlined why in my very long first Brexit blog post, but here's a refresher of what it would entail:
  • Continued access to the single market.
  • Continued free movement of people (i.e. no changes to immigration, still the same rights for Brits to live, work and study in European countries)
  • Continued acceptance of most EU regulations (though without input into shaping them)
  • Financial contributions to the EU under the Norway grants scheme - probably a little less than the UK currently contributes to the EU. This would go to recipient EU countries in need of development (but not to recipient UK regions in need of development), so Greece, Bulgaria, Portugal etc. would not be out of pocket by the UK's departure.
  • No Common Fisheries Policy (i.e. no fishing quotas)
  • No Common Agricultural Policy (UK farmers on anything but industrial scale farms are going to be screwed)
  • No votes in European Commission, Council, Parliament etc.

At this point, this scenario is the best that Britain can hope for. However, I no longer believe that it is certain to be the outcome, just that it is still likelier than any other alternative. Several politicians (in the UK and in the EU) have openly declared intentions that the UK should leave the single market. 

Here's why I think the Norway model is more likely than leaving the single market:
  • Every other instance of countries having referenda about membership in European markets, where the referenda came out negative, has resulted in arrangements that are as close as possible to EU membership while still honouring the democratic decision. Iceland, Norway, Switzerland: the two former countries are in the EEA, the latter has replicated almost all of EEA through a batch of "bilateral" agreements that are all linked together. Basically, political leaders faced with a population that is eurosceptic have almost always ended up putting their countries as close to the EU as they could. 
  • Politicians want to be (re-)elected. Leaving the EEA would throw the UK into ten years or more of economic chaos, with a lengthy recession at the start. Any government proactively causing not just a brief stock market crash, but actual long-term recession, would severely scupper its chances of getting re-elected.
  • Aside from the SNP, politicians want to preserve "the Union". If the UK remains an EEA member, then most benefits of being in the EU still apply. For the fishing industry, there'd be fewer restrictions. Any second Scottish referendum would therefore have to present "EU-accession" (which includes eventually adopting the Euro and continuing to abide by Common Fisheries Policy) as the "Independence" option, while the "staying together" option would stick with the pound and stay out of fishing quotas. Basically, if they want Scotland to stay, they have to keep Britain in the EEA.
  • The referendum wasn't won by the "Leave" extremists. It was won by confused, mostly undecided voters who want "change" and were shown a long list of (semi-fictional) grievances and who were promised the world. Now they see the first shockwaves of their decision. They also see how quickly the promises are being abandoned. Staying in the EEA is the UK's best chance of preserving its economy (and JOBS), and of not completely alienating the bulk of the electorate. 
  • It'd be the quickest solution and actually achievable within 2 years. (The main sticking point would probably be just how much the UK would have to put into the Norway Grants). 
Will Boris turn the UK into The Black Knight?

Likely, however, is not the same as assured. If, post-Cameron, the more far-right elements take over government, the UK could continue shooting itself in various limbs (the foot having already been shot yesterday) until none are left.

So, my request for friends and readers who opposed Brexit is this:

Please start writing to politicians NOW.  Please keep writing to them (and feel free to write to more than one, and perhaps even to write to MPs where your families live). Please tell politicians what your priorities are for the upcoming Brexit negotiations. 

If you don't want to spend a long time writing your own letter, I've prepared two for you to copy, paste into the contact form online, and adapt. Delete stuff you disagree with, add stuff of your own.

Tell them what you value.

  • As a Brit, do you value the right to travel, live, work and study in other EU countries? Do you want children / future generations to have that right?
  • Do you value the contribution of immigrants to UK society?
  • Do you value access to the single market (and how appealing this is to major manufacturers and employers)?
  • Do you value solidarity with nations hit hard by the recession and decades of underdevelopment (Greece, Portugal, Spain, Bulgaria, Romania etc)? Do you think they should suffer financial losses if the UK leaves?

  • As (non-UK) European, do you value Britain's inclusion in Europe?
  • Do you value being able to travel, live, work and study in the UK?
  • Do you value a quick resolution and return to economic stability?
  • Do you value solidarity with the 48% of the British electorate who want to be part of the EU?

Please, write to your MP. Write to your AM. Write to your MEP. Write to your Abgeordnete/r, your sénateur, your deputati, ...

We can stop the UK from slipping further towards insanity, and we can stop the EU from crumbling. We just need to make sure that common sense prevails among the people who implement Brexit.

Wednesday 22 June 2016

Summerlong by Peter S. Beagle

There are a small handful of authors who are widely seen as the Greats of fantasy literature. With his highly influential, much beloved novel 'The Last Unicorn', Peter S Beagle is one of those Greats. So, when I saw on Netgalley that he has a new novel coming out this year, I obviously had to give it a try.

Summerlong is a slowly building, highly atmospheric read set in the Pacific Northwest of the USA, on a commuter island near Seattle. There, retired historian Abe Aronson lives a pleasantly cantankerous life, joined regularly by his girlfriend Joanna, a stewardess nearing retirement. Together, they have a wonderfully sardonic, yet very comfortable relationship, which has grown very close over the twenty years that they have been not-married and not-officially-dating (but sleeping together nonetheless). It's rare to see such a curiously uncategorised couple in literature.

One day, they go to their usual local restaurant, where a new waitress catches their eye. Lioness is special. She has a classical look about her, as if she belongs into antiquity. Somehow she shines and draws everyone's attention without meaning to.

It is Joanna who offers her a chance to stay in Abe's garage when Lioness complains of the cold of her current bedsit. And so Abe gains a lodger who leaves an impression on him, Joanna, and Joanna's lesbian daughter, and who appears to be on the run from something vague and undefined.

The novel is richly evocative and atmospheric, slowly building a sense of the unreal from subtle beginnings to ever more archetypal, mythical proportions. It's full of detail that adds to the atmosphere, but lean and not bloated with a single unnecessary word. The human relationships, dialogue, habits - they are utterly authentic, as if taken from real life.

If you like mythical fantasy, it is a wonderful treat. Even if that's not a genre you're familiar with, you'll struggle to find a more absorbing, beautiful novel this year.

Rating: 5/5

Tuesday 21 June 2016

Brexit 3.0: My Case for Remain

One of the most frustrating things about the EU Referendum is that it is hard to argue for the status quo. It’s one of those “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” situations. But, let’s have a go, anyway. Unlike my previous Brexit post which went a little viral, this one is not trying to be unbiased.

1 Economics

Economics isn’t as ‘pure’ a science as maths or physics or even climate change, so it’s natural that people don’t trust economists as much as, say, your friendly neighbourhood scientific genius. However, when 90% of economists agree on a prediction, it’s worth paying attention. They might disagree about how bad the economic impact of Brexit would be on Britain, but they all agree that there would be a significant cost. The British economy would shrink, by between 0.5% and 3%. The Economist predicts a rise in unemployment of 380,000 people by 2018.

For comparison, the 2008-13 recession saw the British economy shrink by 6% and unemployment rise by about 1 million people. So the best guess for the short term impact of Brexit is that it would be about half as bad as the 2008 financial crisis - not the end of the world. What happens after that is pretty much anyone’s guess.

Some of the very few pro-Brexit economists believe that it would hurt Europe more than Britain, so there could be job losses and economic plight in Europe. I have to admit, I’m not entirely clear on how this is an argument for Brexit – in a vote between “no additional economic harm” and “economic harm for us, or, if we’re lucky, for others”, the second option does not hold all that much appeal whichever way you cut it.

That’s just the immediate impact. In the longer term, no one knows. Some pro-Brexit economists believe a long rise, but simulations are impossible: everything depends on how well Britain is managed and what happens elsewhere in the world and what sort of deals get negotiated.

One of the effects of this immediate, fairly certain Brexit recession? The UK government would suffer a tax income reduction (and increase in jobseekers’ cost) that equals or exceeds the savings it would generate from not being a member of the EU anymore. All those promises about using the money the UK contributes to the EU now to prop up the NHS, Make Britain Great Again, replace the lost Regional Development income, keep funding British farmers? They’re demonstrably wrong, as the UK government would, by the reckoning of the vast majority of predictions, lose more money than it’d save.

So, in the short to medium term, Brexit would be a punch in our economic face. Even prominent Leave supporters and funders acknowledge this. Some even celebrate it: Peter Hargreaves, a billionnaire who has put millions into the Leave Campaign, is so excited about the prospect that he compared it with Dunkirk (the infamous military retreat Britain suffered early in WW2):
"It would be the biggest stimulus to get our butts in gear that we have ever had. It will be like Dunkirk again. We will get out there and we will be become incredibly successful because we will be insecure again. And insecurity is fantastic.”

2 Leadership

Churchill? Methinks Not.
Let’s, for the sake of argument, agree with him. Let’s see Brexit as an opportunity that could enable the UK’s fortunes to soar in the long term. It’s not entirely unrealistic. On average, UK people already work more hours than Germans, for lower wages. So there’s obviously a different philosophy in place in Britain – wages could sink lower, hours could increase, and the Amazon model of employee performance management could become universally adopted among employers and finally kick our lazy butts in gear.

But, and it’s a huge “but”, where is the Winston Churchill of the Dunkirk metaphor? Would anyone honestly compare Cameron, or Johnson, or Gove, or Duncan-Smith, or May, or Corbyn, or even Farage with Churchill? In what universe? 

British people may be hard working, but this isn’t WWII: the survival of Britain is not at stake (no matter what Leavers might claim). This referendum will not be decided by die-hard Leavers or Remainers – it’ll be decided by the previously undecided voters. When the recession starts to bite, when a few hundred thousand people find themselves out of work a couple of years from now, when big multinational corporations pull out of the UK, do you think any of the current crop of politicians will be able to rally and motivate the population to pull through and turn the UK into a fiercely competitive tiger economy? Which of the politicians do you believe will be that leader – I’d really love to know.

My point is this: without a great, effective, competent and trusted leader, the Brexit recession will lead to political instability in the UK, and that in turn will make it much more likely that the economy will stay in the doldrums than that it should recover. With the current crop of politicians, the economic punch to the face could turn into a knock-out blow, rather than the punch that enrages the UK into a ferocious comeback.

3 Stability

Someone famously asked “What is the problem to which the EU is the solution?”

The answer is “The vulnerability of individual nation states to become politically unstable”

It’s hard to believe that Spain and Portugal were dictatorships in living memory (though not within my own lifetime). I do remember Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Poland and East Germany being dictatorships. Watching as Poland’s current government is drifting towards authoritarianism is scary – and watching the EU push back against that is actually a big comfort.

The Troubles
This is an argument British people don’t really believe applies to them. Britain has been fairly stable for centuries, so there is a deep-seated belief that instability and political conflagrations are something that happens elsewhere, to other nations. It could not happen here, could it?

2011 Riots
Unfortunately, I think that’s an unfounded sense of superiority. It can and sometimes does happen to the most stable of nations. In the UK, The Troubles in Northern Ireland are not that far ago. They were in decline when I was a child, but people who lived through them in the 1970s and 80s may tell you that, at times, it did not seem as if a collapse of order was inconceivable. Similarly, the 2011 riots fizzled out quickly enough, but surely I can’t have been the only one watching the news open-mouthed, horrified, and beset with an uneasy sense that we’d be in real trouble if they’d continued much longer.

Look across the Atlantic, as Donald Trump is now one of only two candidates with a shot at the White House. Just because a democracy has been working for a hundred years or more does not mean it can never lead to disaster.

The EU is really a checks-and-balances operation, and sometimes it acts as a check and balance to its member states. As I mentioned in a previous Brexit blog post, it’s the ultimate centrist institution. The big decisions only come into effect when all member countries agree – and that means the EU is a beast of compromise, as there will never be a scenario wherein all member states lean to the left or to the right simultaneously.

Stability may not be exciting, and it slows down change (which is frustrating if you want to make big changes to society), but it can be a real benefit. Don’t undervalue it. 30p a day is pretty good value for that.

4 Clout

The EU is slowly establishing itself as a superpower. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it looked like America was going to be the sole superpower for a while. Now, the balance of power has shifted, and the superpowers are America, China, the EU and Russia. (Putin is staying uncharacteristically quiet, because he very obviously wants Brexit to happen. He’s keen for the EU to collapse, resenting its rise and eastward expansion, so a Brexit would suit him nicely).

While there are lots of countries in the EU, when it comes to negotiations and diplomacy, most of the decision making is heavily influenced by the big three – Germany, France and the UK. Whether it’s negotiating with Iran about its nuclear ambitions, or agreeing trade deals, or responding to the Arab Spring or the refugee crisis – the EU amplifies the UK’s clout in the world enormously. (If you think some of the global events are all being mishandled, you’re not the only one, but the handling of all these is more or less in line with the UK’s policies and wishes…)

Britain’s membership of NATO and its nuclear arsenal may be significant, but they will not guarantee a seat at the table in discussions about world events. Geopolitically, Turkey is probably more important to NATO right now than Britain. As a member of the EU, the UK has almost a third of the clout of a superpower. On its own, it’d have roughly the same influence on global events as Canada, with or without Trident.

5 Idealism

Of course the EU is partially built on idealism. I happen to share the ideal of a world (or at least a Europe) without borders but even if you don’t, there are bound to be some European ideals that you do believe in.

Culture: the EU is about multiculturalism (with exchange projects like Erasmus to expose people to other European cultures) and about local culture (funding the arts, supporting language & heritage preservation).

Education: thanks to the conditions created by the EU, most higher education systems in Europe have adopted the British qualifications. Bachelor degrees and Masters degrees are now the norm across most of Europe! Come on Britain, YOU’VE WON. Most of Europe is following in your footsteps when it comes to the way universities operate. Also, the EU supports and funds education and research initiatives.

Protection of Heritage Produce: It might have all started with champagne, but these days there are dozens of British small and medium sized companies that flourish because their regional produce is protected. From Stilton to Cornish Pasties – various British regions have become valuable brands.

Environment & animal rights: The EU could and should do more to protect the environment, wildlife and animal welfare. But even so, air quality standards, water quality standards, the banning of neonicotinoid pesticides for the protection of bees, banning animal testing for cosmetic purposes, improving the conditions for factory farmed pigs and chickens…  they might not always go far enough, but there are significant achievements that affect the environment and animals across Europe. There are certainly ongoing efforts to keep improving environmental protection and animal welfare.

Privacy and Consumer Rights: British people feel less protective of their (digital) privacy than Germans, but most will recognise that Facebook, Whatsapp, Snapchat etc. have a lot of sensitive information about all of us. The EU does work to protect people’s rights, including privacy. As for Consumer Rights, as far as I know any electrical product sold in the EU has to have at least two years manufacturer’s warranty, which is why crappy junk products are sold by scamsters from the back of vans, rather than on the high street. European air passengers are the best protected in the world (in case of cancellation or delays), European airspace is the safest in the world (there are lists of airlines and individual planes owned by certain airlines which are not allowed to fly into European skies), and, much as in-depth labelling of allergens might be a headache for small businesses, European food labelling is among the best in the world, giving consumers the power to make informed choices.

6 Potential

Maybe you’re  not planning to move abroad, or to retire in a warmer climate. Maybe you don’t have children, or your children won’t ever want to study or work abroad. Maybe Europe is of as little interest to you as Argentina, or Botswana, or Antarctica.

However, many people quite would like to head somewhere warmer when they grow old. Children and young people have more potential within the EU than outside: university education is free in some European countries, and many courses in continental Europe are now taught in English, so young people don’t even need to be fluent in a foreign language to save £30,000 of tuition fees. And, in an increasingly globalised world, having the right to live and work in many countries automatically is actually a pretty massive opportunity. An open door is open in both ways. I believe there is value in preserving and maximising one’s potential.

7 Scab UK?

The EU is not just a European Free Trade Union. In some ways, it is also a European Trade Union, with a membership that's made up of countries, not employees. It uses collective bargaining power to negotiate with outsiders. It brings in regulations to protect the interests of its member nations and citizens. That stuff Leave Campaigners decry as protectionism? That's the foundation of what trade unions do: protect the (perceived) interests of their  members.

That doesn't mean it's great, but the Leave Campaign's position can be seen as "let's be a scab: the UK might benefit (at the expense of other EU members)".

The problem with that sort of approach is that, if the Leavers turn out to be right (which I seriously doubt), then this could lead to a race to the bottom. If the UK does well out of a bonfire of regulations and by becoming a sort of Wild West for businesses and capitalist barons, then chances are, other European countries will follow the UK's lead. If the competitive advantages are as big as the Leavers claim (and, again, they are almost certainly not), then the UK would be leading the charge into lower protection for workers, natural environments, consumers... basically, all the stuff that was not great about the Industrial Revolution and its robber barons, all the stuff that makes China not just economically successful but also an inhumane mess (where people in cities have to wear breathing masks, employees are driven to suicide by working practices, where species go extinct and entire ecosystems die)... all of that could be headed our way.

So, do you see the UK as a scab? 

8 Insurance

Some people buy optional insurance, others don’t. To me, the EU has always seemed to be the biggest insurance safety net that I have.

If I get sick or tired of Britain or too depressed by the Welsh weather, I can leave and start a new life elsewhere without a problem.

If the British economy goes to pots and I lose my job, I can leave and start a new life elsewhere without a problem.

If some cataclysmic events occur (Chernobyl-style reactor meltdowns, tsunamis, intemperate climate change, fracking-related poisoning of drinking water, an invasion of spiders, the reintroduction of the military draft, a UKIP general election victory), I can leave and start a new life elsewhere without a problem.

To me, 30p a day seems a pretty good bargain for that sort of insurance.

9 Questions to ask of the Leave Campaign

The pro-Remain rhetoric, spin and fearmongering are annoying and embarrassing. The pro-Leave lies, meanwhile, are stomach-churning.

But, should you encounter Leave campaigners, ask them some questions.

  • They complain of EU over-regulation. Ask them for a list of the regulations they intend to scrap.
  • They promise how they’d spend the money Britain would save if it left the EU. Ask them where they’d get the money from if Britain entered a recession. 
  • They complain the EU is undemocratic. Ask them whether they voted in the last European election. Ask them whether they personally voted for any of the members of the House of Lords, or the Privy Council, or High Court judges, or any of the ministers in the current cabinet. Ask them whether the UK is undemocratic if its government has policies that they didn’t personally agree with. 
  • They complain that immigrants steal jobs. Ask them how the UK has the lowest unemployment rate in Europe.
  • They complain that immigrants are to blame for the housing crisis and put strains on services. Ask them why the UK government didn’t build more houses, or increase service provisions. (After all, immigration has been happening for years – is it the immigrants’ fault that UK governments haven’t been managing supply properly? Immigrants pay more into the UK in taxes than they take out in public services – without them, austerity would have to be more austere than it already is! Britain imports profitable working people and exports loss-making old retirees, in terms of public service / tax balances!) 
  • They complain that the UK has lost sovereignty. (It hasn’t, according to law professors / experts). Ask them why they don’t want any say at the European level. 
  • Ask them to explain to you in detail not what is wrong with the EU, but what they believe the UK’s post-Brexit arrangement with Europe and the world will be, and why. 
  • Ask them who they believe will be in power in Downing Street for the next few years, and whether they are confident that Britain will be sufficiently well-managed by its governments to avoid economic stagnation, and why they believe so. 

Compare the answers you get from different Leave campaigners. Do they match? Do they sound convincing? Which ones do you believe in?

10 If Remain Wins

All of the above is necessarily talking about existing achievements and policies of the EU. But, for a moment, let’s daydream about the potential for the future.

It’s Friday. The results are in. “Remain” has won, but over 40% of votes were for “Leave”. David Cameron breathes a huge sigh of relief as the nation sides with the least worst option in spite of his staggering incompetence in how he’s been handling the EU. (Meanwhile, Britain First alleges vote rigging, Nigel Farage and Katie Hopkins imply that the referendum would have had a different turnout if Jo Cox had not been assassinated / the government had played fair / British voters weren't all mindless sheeple, and proceed to whine like crybabies).

So, what next? Well, if David Cameron were a competent leader, here’s what he would do:

  • He’d take the results back to the EU and point out that Britain came to within a whisker of leaving.
  • He’d not put the UK’s relationship with the EU back on the agenda, but instead focus on EU reform, to benefit not (just) Britain, but people and nations across Europe.
  • He’d point out that the EU has a problem of rising extremism, and that the problem is growing in violence and danger, which requires addressing, not just with rhetoric and lots of educated people sitting around a room looking baffled and despairing, but with looking at how the EU should be reshaped to be less abstract and more palatable to people across Europe.
  • One of the EU’s problems is that there are many people making a living coming up with new regulations and adding to the bureaucracy. The first thing that should change is that some of the existing committees and groups should have their mission changed to scrap and condense regulations, rather than come up with new ones. (No new people should be hired – there simply should be a reallocation of existing EU resources to trimming, rather than growing, the regulations)
  • A new EU law / directive / whatever should be proposed (and passed) which demands that any subsequent new regulations and laws must undergo iterative testing before they are approved EU-wide. I.e. designated “pilot areas”, one in each member country, should apply any new law. Then, someone should assess in each area what worked, what didn’t, how it was enforced (if at all) and what difference it made. Only once there is demonstrable evidence that there’s a difference, that the law works, that it has benefit, should it pass through the EU parliament for a vote.
  • Cameron should propose a complete restructuring of the EU, to make it more transparent, democratic and efficient. The negotiations to restructure it would last about 10-15 years and far exceed his time in office, but the key thing is that EU reform should be a long-term objective on the agenda of Britain (and the EU). 
  • There should be some changes to secondary education in the UK. Every pupil should have the opportunity (and be very much encouraged) to learn two foreign languages, and European ones (especially French) should be promoted. A scheme to promote language courses to be provided to university students studying any subject should also be conceived. Why? Eurocrat jobs require as essential requirement fluency in two languages and some competence in a third. I believe one of the fluency languages must be either French or English. One of the reasons Britain doesn’t have as strong a voice inside the European Commission as it could is a lack of people who have good foreign language skills. Britain is a leading voice on the European Council, but the European Commission could really benefit from more British perspectives being present.
  • Finally, the migrant question. Britain could take a number of approaches. For example, the UK could negotiate with the EU a temporary moratorium on free movement EU migration to the UK in return for offering to take as many Syrian refugees as there were EU immigrants last year. It’s quite possible the EU might be open to such a deal. Alternatively and somewhat less nobly, the UK could implement immigration-reducing policies as outlined in my last ranty blog post...
  • Oh, and he really needs to start working on solutions to the disgusting nature of political discourse (and debates about immigration) in the UK. 

Whatever the outcome of the referendum, there's work ahead. If the next ten years aren't spent negotiating Brexit, then there should be initiatives to improve the EU and make it more accountable, representative and palatable to its people. Because fundamentally, the principle of working together with other countries, trading freely, protecting consumers and human rights and the environment, and stabilising nation states is actually pretty damn sound, whatever flaws currently beset the implementation.