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.