London (April 2017): Fantasy, Soup Dumplings and Secrets, Oh My!

The main reason for my visit to London is something embargoed until tomorrow (more a condition of sale, than a strict NDA) but let’s say it was Shannon’s birthday and she wanted to do a thing which also happened to coincide with some other, equally awesome things. The kind of serendipity that can only be the result of awesome karma and sweet planning.

Like, for example, the Women in Fantasy panel at Waterstones with Vic James, Aliette de Bodard and Zen Cho (moderated by Stevie Finegan). I initially told Shannon about this (she’d missed the Gollancz Festival) and jokingly suggested I come to down visit. It was something I really wanted to do but on a pipe dream level. I never actually expected it to, you know, happen. But then this other thing came up and suddenly I’m on a train heading to the capital. Score!

I came down on Tuesday afternoon and met Shannon after her shift ended, we hit Tokyo Diner for food (because it’s delicious and cheap), got our glad rags on and didn’t get back to her place until nearly midnight. Talk about dirty stop outs! More on that tomorrow though … patience, dearies.

Wednesday was my day, spent basking in gloriousness, while Shannon was at work. It was actually just long enough that I didn’t break my credit card or succumb too badly to the wonders of London’s shopping opportunities. I left her at Leicester Square, headed off to Paul’s bakery to grab my preferred lunch (it’s one of the rare times when all I want is a specific sandwich, the ancien mixte) then wandered Covent Garden. I stuck my nose in Moleskine’s store, bought ice cream at Godiva, didn’t buy any Traveler’s Company stuff at the London Graphic Company but did stock up in Muji. Finally, I headed to the Starbucks reserve for delicious coffee, my sandwich, and a few hours actually writing.

The Starbucks Reserve is fast becoming my favourite place to just sit and chew the fat. I even got given some lovely rose gold by the baristas, along with a few compliments to go with them. It sounds boring but after the franticness of London, I need the quiet of a coffee shop. Free WiFi also helps.

I made a point when planning this trip that there was one thing I really wanted to do: try soup dumplings (xiao long bao, 小笼包). We went to the highly recommended Dumplings’ Legend on Gerrard Street mainly because it was top of the list in an article I read but also had veggie options for Shannon. Soup dumplings are basically small bundles of deliciousness where the soup is inside the dumpling, separate from whatever is inside (pork or fish usually) so when you bite into them you get this amazing mouthful of soup and stuffing.

My friends, eight of these is not enough.

I actually forgot to take a picture, we were too busy eating. But they come in a steamer and the trick is to eat them without breaking them (which reminds me of the original article that caught my interest). The down-side is they come out piping hot and I accidentally burnt myself when one burst. However, leave them a little longer and they cool, the filling gets absorbed by the meat and they even more moist and amazing.

We, stupidly, ordered other dishes. Next time it’s going to be all soup dumplings.

Shannon was keen to visit the newly-opened Lego store on Leicester Square which just so happened to be on our way to Piccadilly and JP Books/Waterstones. I did the blind thing, approached a security guard and asked how long it was to get in (there was a line of children and fear-filled adults). Two seconds later, we entered my personal hell.

Now, look I like Lego and I’m sure it’s a lot more awesome when not packed out with small humans but it was just far too busy and bright for me. I can tolerate a lot but there’s a point where my autism and vision goes ‘nope’ so I took myself off back outside into the cool evening air. No problems. But it was very impressive with a two story high Big Ben, a ‘life-sized’ Chinese dragon, a mock Tube train and an underground map made from Lego. Oh and all the Batman Lego Movie and Star Wars stuff you could ever want.

It was also very, very red and yellow.

I must admit I’m still amazed by the range and some of the sets were gorgeous and complicated (think Creator ones where you remake buildings using tiny pieces). There was a pirate ship and the Simpsons house, oh and a mosaic-maker that cost £100 and rendered you, passport pictureised, into a literal Lego portrait.

I actually saw someone buying one of those and totally WTFed.

Seriously.

The important thing is Shannon loved it. Oh and it’s right across from her version of Hell: the M&M Store. We’re both okay with this. We also got to stare at the even longer line of people wanting to buy a dessert called Bubble Wrap.

Cause that’s a thing now. With a 90 minute wait.

JP Books was next, mainly so I could grab the next volume of my manga-in-progress. Oh and grab a few choice Midori essentials (another free diary, some kraft paper and a passport-sized ruler). I was restrained in my purchasing and constrained by both time and bladder as we wanted to get to Waterstones early enough to secure a good seat.

We actually scored on both points. Waterstones was packed but we managed to grab two seats in the front row and free wine. I actually didn’t realise Vic James (author of The Gilded Cage) was attending so it was really interesting as I’d heard of the book but hadn’t had any author exposure. I mainly wanted to pick up a signed copy of The House of Binding Thorns to go with my recently-won paperback of The House of Shattered Wings.

The talk was a lot of fun. Zen Cho is loud and extroverted in the best way. She’s become my hero just because she’s so confident. It was basically a back and forth between the three authors, with poor Stevie in the middle trying to keep as much order as is possible when Aliette and Zen are in the same room. It was brilliant. Much laughter and a mixed crowd which made it even more awesome. Afterwards, I got to say hi to Aliette (finally in person) and Zen as well as playing photographer because there are times when selfies just won’t do. I got my book and we were back in Harringay by 10, I think.

Shannon has the best housemates (they call me ‘Ash’; I want to take them all home with me and mother them) and, to finish the night, I ended up on their pallet sofa watching two men squealing like terrified children as Shannon tried to outwit the titular Xenomorph in Alien: Isolation. I called it a night pretty early but they were still screaming though I have to admit, the death where the Alien stabs its tail through your stomach gets me every time.

Sneaky Alien …

But it was fun. Lots of fun. I got to say goodbye to everyone before heading home on the noon train, spending a lovely hour sipping coffee and listening to my Audible copy of The House of Binding Thorns. So far I’m three chapters in and loving it.

So that is London.

Come back tomorrow when I can tell you of secret and special things.

London Spring 2017: Boardgames, Aquariums and Matilda the Musical

When Shannon first suggested I come down to visit her, she asked if I wanted to go to Theatreland for a show. Now I’ve done theatre before and never really like it but a show in London was too good an opportunity to pass up, especially when Shannon found tickets for Matilda the Musical.

I did know one thing: that if you ring some theatres and explain you’re wanting to book tickets on behalf of someone with a disability, you can often get a discount or just a plus one. The same works with other attractions (like the London Aquarium), as long as you can prove things (which I can). But the theatre took us on Shannon’s word and we ended up with nearly £60 worth of tickets in the stalls, six rows from the front of the stage.

Epic win.

Despite having tiny seats, I loved this show. The music was amazing (and is my current go-to playlist on Spotify) and I really enjoyed the play. The acting was superb, especially Matilda and Miss Trunchbull. I also really liked the focus not on Matilda’s telekinesis but her story-telling abilities and her love of reading as well as the expansion of the Magnus back story. There was a small snafu in the form of one of the actresses being sick but once that was sorted (understudies FTW), the show went on an all was well.

Before the show, we went to Starbucks Reserve in Covent Garden. We actually came across it by accident, seeking coffee and a place to kill an hour. We had no idea what it was until we walked in and I realised we hit paydirt. Starbucks Reserve is basically a restaurant that happens to specialise in coffee; there’s even a Clover which I’ve been itching to try since reading about them in Wired. We were guided to our table (it’s basically the sit-down waitered form of a traditional Starbucks) and offered menus.

I wanted to try the Clover and, oh my gods, was it the best, smoothest coffee I’ve ever tasted. That said, I did feel a bit out of my depth, like we shouldn’t have been allowed in. It is a very high brow Starbucks and I’m looking forward to going back there in a couple of weeks.

We also visited the London Aquarium, getting there early on Saturday morning before everyone else turned up. We took the bus (which was free and actually okay, Shannon’s been trying to teach me the London bus system and it has its own twisted logic) to Embankment and walked to County Hall. I actually didn’t realise that the London Dungeon had moved there as well. It was nice and quiet when we arrived, which was a good thing because, by the time we got out around noon, the place was heaving.

Lots and lots of kids. Eugh.

The Aquarium itself was cool. I got to pet a starfish and ogle some jellyfish and a grumpy old turtle. Oh and the massive tank with Easter Island Maoi and lots of sharks, that was awesome. It’s not something I’d do again, except for visiting their new and in-construction jellyfish exhibit. That was a bit sad, walking through the final section all covered in sheets and empty tanks.

Bef0re heading to our showing of Ghost in the Shell, we actually went to a nearby pub to play boardgames. I got to learn how to play Carcassonne which quickly became my new favourite game. We also got to play Pandemic too, which is always fun, especially as I pulled ‘One Quiet Night’.

The most fun, I think, was meeting Shannon’s housemates and playing on the PS4. We tried Horizon: Zero Dawn and Shannon got to experience Alien: Isolation. We actually spent Sunday night watching the original Alien movie on Blu-Ray, which stands up amazingly well given its age. I definitely want a PS4 (mainly so I can climb mechanical giraffes in Horizon: Zero Dawn) but that can wait for now.

I’m actually going to the Women in Fantasy book signing at Waterstones (which I’m psyched about) next week so more London posts will be incoming. I’m also going to be making a point of doing interesting things, returning to the Starbucks Reserve and, hopefully, wandering Covent Garden.

Winter Tide (Review) by Ruthanna Emrys

Let me be honest, not only did I score an e-ARC but I’ve been looking forward to this book since The Litany of Earth. It’s rare for me to fall so in love with books that I want to both devour them in one go and savour them over a span of days like chocolate. So, with that in mind, I originally read this is one day but am now, thanks to the audiobook, slowly appreciating all the subtle nuances I might have missed.

Winter Tide is gorgeous. It’s the cosmology of Lovecraft without the nastiness (aka the racism, the bigotry and other ideas which sadly taint a stunning literary universe). Indeed, identity, culture and otherness, they’re all front and centre; Aphra isn’t a ‘Person of the Air’, she’s got the sea running in her blood and, after her transformation, will live in the Deep Once cities until the sun burns out. It’s not forever but it’s still billions of years. The language is so Lovecraftian but it’s a gentle kind of esoteric, it doesn’t put you off but instead makes you ponder words and their meaning. At the same time, she’s still recovering from her people’s incarceration and genocide in camps later reused for the internment of the Japanese. This leads her into the lives of the Koto family with her brother, Caleb, as her only remaining kin on land. Oh and it’s left her scarred, mentally, as such a traumatic experience is wont to do. It’s even more relevant, now, for example than I think even the author thought it would be.

The story does kick off from Litany, as well as some mentions to the short story (which you should so go and read. Now. I’ll wait.) but the Tor short is essentially a prologue to a much bigger arc. Searching after old magics and fears Russians are using body-switching as the next weapon in a magical cold war, Aphra, her government minder and Neko, her adopted Japanese sister, return to Innsmouth and Miskatonic University. Both are, of course, important locations in the world of Lovecraft and they are eerie in the extreme. It feels odd to be somewhere so familiar but so strange, a place where you can study folklore and other subjects which are literal fusions of magic with physical sciences.

Occasionally, I was thrown by the odd flashback (especially in audio where the demarcation between scenes is just absent). Along the way, Aphra encounters new friends and old family. It does feel a tad deus ex machina to encounter not only a Yith but also transformed members of Aphra’s own people, now living in the depths below Innsmouth. Yet the idea of her faith, Aeonism, being openly worshipped with its own temples and rituals, is gorgeous and transforms the book from a simple mystery with magical overtones to a true Lovecraft mythos novel, reimagined for a new era but enduring never the less.

Winter Tide, Book One of The Innsmouth Legacy, is available now in ebook, print and audio from all the usual places. You can also follow the author on Twitter and you totally should.

London Spring 2017: All the Japanese Stuff

I spent the weekend in London with Shannon eating a vast amount of cheap Japanese food and visiting all the shops, from Muji in Covent Garden to JP Books next to the Japan Centre.

Seriously, JP Books is an awesome little shop I’d totally forgotten about and look at all the amazing Midori/Traveler’s Company stuff they have! SQUEEEE! I was actually rather restrained; I bought a load of cheap Muji Passport notebooks the previous day which were much cheaper than Midori ones. I bought a single insert, an unmarked diary, to use as a bullet journal/to do list. Oh and a copy of the first volume of the Your Name. manga.

Muji was actually a chance encounter; I’ve seen them but hadn’t actually gone into one. It’s very minimalist, very chic and kind of like a mix of a department store and a 100円 store (except nothing costs 100円). They had a massive range of stationary and I did buy some cool scissors which are going to be great when it comes to saving space.

I met Shannon in Leicester Square and we went back to Chinatown for dinner, eventually settling on the Tokyo Diner for dinner (karaage, yum) and also picked up tickets to see the sub of Ghost in the Shell that happened to be showing on Saturday night. I’ve not actually seen much anime on the big screen and this is a classic. The seats were cheap (because my CEA card is FTW) and actually really comfortable considering the size of the Prince Charles Cinema.

We ended up passing the theatre showing Harry Potter and the Cursed Child a lot. Shannon’s been trying to teach me how to use the London buses thanks to the power of Google Maps and her local knowledge. But, on my own, I still tend to use the tube which is a whole other blog post re my continuing quest for a new guide dog. It’s sometimes faster, though I did quite enjoy the forty-five minute bus ride to and from Shannon’s as it gave me lots of time to look out upon London and, also, read.

Shannon’s learning Japanese and it’s kinda prompted me that I need to brush up my own skills. While in the Japan Centre, I picked up a copy of にんぎょうひめ(人魚姫)aka The Little Mermaid from the picture book stand and started reading. It’s kinda nice to know I can read kids books without much of an issue but that’s a long way from, for example, light novels or manga which doesn’t have furigana.

So I have a goal … that’s good.

Wandering the Japanese sections of London has made me want to go back to Kyoto, to Sendai and to other places. It’s a nice dream to have in mind and plausible even if it won’t be for quite some time. I do want to improve my Japanese however, as I’m woefully lacking in certain areas (grammar and verbs, for example) even though I can translate Japanese to English quite well.

So reading this is going to be a fun challenge:

The World of Midori

So I’ve been trying to organise life. My memory is shite (likely an on-going thing) but I have found writing down stuff helps.

So I heard about Midori (now Traveler’s Company), specifically the Traveler’s Notebook. I actually came across these while in Daimaru, one of the most famous of Japanese department stores, in 2010. I spent a lot of time in Daimaru. Anyway, I didn’t actually know what it was and it certainly doesn’t look like your average notebook.

Because it’s not.

The TN is actually a piece of leather with a band through it and a range of ‘inserts’ (think books of gridded, blank or craft paper, diaries and zipper pockets). The key thing is the customisability and individuality: it’s the system and how you use it, what notebooks you choose just add to the experience. The TN is super expensive and only has one band so I knew that a ‘fauxdori’ was going to be the way to go. Etsy helped out and I ended up buying two: a passport-sized one for a wallet and a slightly larger one which fits Field Notes and Moleskine notebooks.

I’ve found I need order when I write so I wanted to make a wallet which allowed me to carry all my stuff but also include a Midori gridded insert for to-do lists and tracking my expenses. Having it in a wallet means it’s my go to for everything and I can have it with me all the time. I use two zipper pouch inserts to hold cards and cash, as well as USB keys and some stamps, a kraft folder at the back for receipts and other bits and pieces. Oh and I also got some plastic pockets that I pasted onto the inside cover giving me some extra pockets for coupons. I also hacked it with some hair bands (because they’re cheaper than the official Midori bands) so I can hold everything together.

It’s actually quite compact and I added a lucky 5円 coin I brought back with me. I can even put my passport and JR Pass into it the next time I go back to Japan.

The blue fauxdori (I hate that name; it’s not a knock-off, it’s an improvement on a very good idea) hasn’t gotten quite as much use. I have a stationary fetish. I found Field Notes and got some cheap Moleskines, they’re both the same size but the latter has more pages. I’ve currently got five loaded into my larger fauxdori

  • A braindump journal
  • A commonplace book (for sayings and quotes I love)
  • An ideas book for novels and short stories
  • A dedicated journal for specific projects, in this case:
  • Oh and there’s a kraft file in there too for odds and sods.

I need dedicated space for each thing and this seems like it might just be the system for me. The unofficial version is customisable and cheaper, as well as being easier to get notebooks for (as nice as the Midori ones are, they’re expensive). That said I might have to visit the London Graphic Centre tomorrow … hmm Midori ….

Actually, I’ve started decorating them. I covered my wallet Midori with washi stickers and it came out pretty well. I have some washi tape and can’t wait to decorate some of the more boring Moleskines I picked up.

Yes, I know, I have a stationary problem. It’s the least of my vices at this point.

Campbell Award Eligibility — 2nd Year

So, it’s that time again! Award season is upon us!

As far as I’m aware I have one short story up for eligibility for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer: “The Elissiad” (originally published by Windrift Books in Alt.History 102). The other story I sold doesn’t quite meet the eligibility criteria, sadly. As this is my second year, this is also my last chance in the running (not that I have a chance of actually getting the award, of course).

However, I have submitted the story to the annual and forthcoming Campbell Anthology which collects stories from all the eligible authors. I only found out about that today so I’ll have more info soon, hopefully.