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.

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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.

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Alien: Covenant and the Art of the Iconic Poster

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This poster is, in my humble opinon, a thing of beauty.

I’m a huge fan of the Alien movies (Aliens is my favourite, Alien however is a seminal classic). Family lore says on of my relatives on my paternal grandmother’s-side was involved in the production of the original movie (specifically the effects on the chestburster scene). I don’t know how much credence to give to this (my father’s claim to fame is that he was invited to be a member of Pink Floyd and while he did go to school with Dave Gilmour, was never known for playing instruments. He was, however a big Pink Floyd fan and quite rightly so).

Anyway I grew up with the Alien movies, even though I didn’t see the first one until I was probably thirteen or so. My Dad, well he was a stickler for the classification system when it came to his daughter). He didn’t give a crap what my brother watched but I wasn’t allowed to watch anything interesting (it took me about three months to convince him, at 11, to let me watch Ghost, a 12). So I did what any smart kid with her own VCR and TV does; I went through his collection of movies.

I take more after my father in that I love technology and books. He had an expansive library of music, books and VHS tapes (all neatly labeled, so perhaps he was a little on the spectrum too?) in his living room that I went through over the course of a year or so. He was out of the house from 6am to 6pm (the Parental Unit worked nights; leaving at 8pm and returning as we left for school the following morning) so it was easy to nip in, pilfer a video tape and see it returned before he got home. I watched everything from Total Recall to T2.

I suppose, in the pre-internet age, it was my version of binge-watching.

Alien creeped me out long before I saw it and this is when I learned a key point of any medium is that the scariest stuff is what you don’t see, not what you do. My cousin told me about the movie and his description of it—never the titualar Xenomorph—disturbed the crap out of me. The idea of being stalked by a creature which implanted eggs in your stomach and then burst through your stomach … it was horrifying. Of course, later, I looked into the creation of the movie (again thanks to my father, who had a couple of books on the making of the movie as well as the novelisations of both Alien and Aliens) and realised it was basically designed to scare the crap out of men because the Alien was essentially raping and impregnating the poor souls aboard the Nostromo. Pregnancy is a beautiful thing, as is birth, just not when it happens to a gender who haven’t been doing it since time immemorial.

It really is the perfect horror movie if you’re male. In fact, he told me a story (again; pinch of salt) about taking the Parental Unit to see the movie in 1979. This kind of film had never struck me as her type but I know he did, in fact, take her. As he told it to me, there was a long queue to get in and everyone was expecting a sci fi movie. Everything’s fine, the audience laughing and joking, until that scene and, as he told it, you could hear a pin drop along with retching and people running out of the cinema.

No film could ever be that scary.

Anyway, I stole the tape, along with Aliens, and watched them. Alien was beautifully filmed and the Nostomo had that perfect aura of claustrophobia. Yet it was the poster which stuck with me, that single egg hanging in a voice and the tagline: In space no one can hear you scream. It was iconic.

alien-movie-poster-1979-1Now, post-Prometheus (beautiful cinematography, shitty plot, nice cameos and easte eggs), it’s time to have a new Alien movie. Granted, I loved Alien: Isolation (which makes it the first good franchise game in forever) for its atmosphere, the creepy AI and the movie-based DLC but movie is where the Xenomorph belongs.

Alien: Covenant‘s poster is abosolutely gorgeous; plain and direct, menacing and artistic. The single word tagline, the Xenomorph, which I prefer to the various Latin names, even though it’s a generic term meaning ‘alien/other (life) form’, is remiscent of the original egg and oh-so-Giger. Giger’s Alien, the original, was a beautiful creature and Prometheus at least tried with the Deacon, even if the logic of its creation made zero-sense. But this isn’t just a movie ‘loosely’ tied to the mythos, this is an actual movie with Alien in the title. Until the new one with Ripley comes out, I’m praying this is going to be good.

Because we need something terrifying.

I’m all for the Engineers, for the lore to be expanded. I loved AvP because it was a Versus movie, you knew what to expect and on that front alone it delivered. But it wasn’t scary; we need something unsettling, just as the original was nearly 40 years ago.

I am so hoping Alien: Covenant delivers.

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