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Beating the nice nice nice thing to death (with fluffy pillows)

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The small plates thing is now firmly entrenched in London’s restaurants. Sometimes it is bad – the Barbican’s recently opened Lounge is an exercise in gouging hackery – but generally I am a fan. It encourages variety, greed and debate – all integral parts of a meal. It is like going out for Vietnamese or Japanese but actually having some control over the service and pace of the meal. The main criticism levelled at such menus is that they are an opportunity for price misdirection whereby your bill magically and stealthily adds up to a scary total (we might call this the Tapas Contention). So with that in mind I will now explain why the £45 pound a head I paid at Brawn on Monday was a good deal.

Brawn is at the end of Columbia Road, an interesting choice for the second restaurant from the team behind Covent Garden’s Terroirs. Six days a week this is a quiet road on the wrong side of Hackney Road (ie in Tower Hamlets), on Sunday it is an extremely popular flower market. It has lots of cafes and a decent pub but a restaurant like Brawn appearing here shows that Shoreditch is pushing ever outwards.

It was foul day on Monday and me and my mum ducked into the restaurant thirty minutes early to avoid the rain. There was no problem with this because, at half six, we were the only customers. We remained the only customers until quarter past seven. Usually this would be a warning sign but the place filled up steadily from there and only really hit its stride as we were leaving. It seems that on Columbia Road people are living the Continental dream.

It is a corner site, relatively big but split in half by a slightly odd footprint. There is lots of white wood and, even a dreich evening, it managed to be both airy and cosy (in the good way, not as a euphemism for drafty and cramped). The owners describe Brawn as a “winebar” which seems a bit disingenuous as I expect everyone else would describe it as a French restaurant but they do have a lot of wine. They specialise in natural wine and this accounts for a good chunk of that £45 a head. I was buttonholed immediately on sitting down about what I wanted to drink. What I wanted was a chance to relax and the wine list, presumably what he wanted was to dispense some advice. Instead, what he got was me ordering a glass of house white so he would go away. N arrived later and was sensible enough to shoo the sommelier away until she had a chance to catch her breathe. She ordered an elderflower aperitif and when it arrived we wondered if the order had been misheard since it was such a dark, tawny colour. But no, this was fragrantly elder despite its darkness. Similar alchemy occurred with the bottle of Roussillon we ordered for the actual meal. When I was looking up Brawn on the internet in order to whet my appetite I saw one review that described natural wine as having a propensity to taste like flat cider. There was definitely a very strong initial taste of apple to the Roussillon but this gave way to greater complexity and notes of cherry and raspberry; unusual, unexpected but very alluring. Lovely glassware too (although not a patch on their absolutely beautiful knives).

Booze ordered and the menu requiring debate we ordered what I as good middle-class boy would call them nibbles but which Brawn rather unappetisingly describe as Taste Ticklers. These were pork scratchings (£2.50) and anchoiade with fennel and breakfast radishes (£3), both of which were substantial portions. Considering that you can pay a similar price for a bit of bread and a small bowl of olives in a lot of London pubs these days, I think this represents good value for money. In fact the dozen wands of pigback probably work out cheaper gram for gram than the rancid packets of pork scratchings you sometimes get from behind the bar. The pork scratchings were well-balanced (crunchy but not dangerous, fatty but not too fatty, salty but, well, no, just salty) and the anchovy mayonnaise and vegetables was what it sounds like (a fancy, punchy version of chips and dips).

Demolishing these gave us a chance to agree on the next course. With a name like Brawn you would expect it to be piggy and it is; a whole section of the menu – which, of course, is not divided into starters and mains – is simply entitled ‘Pig’. Our lovely waitress suggested some charcuterie which would have been traditional but since N doesn’t eat meat and my mum doesn’t like most cured meats (!) we politely declined. I wasn’t going to turn my back on pork entirely though and ordered the rillette. We went for three more starter-sized seafood dishes between the three of us and stopped there because, very helpfully, we were allowed to order in multiple stages to ensure we didn’t have eyes bigger than our bellies.

The rillette (£7) came as two mounds (on the now de rigueur wooden plank, natch). If you’d added a sprig or two of rocket to just one of these mounds, it would probably easily have sufficed as a starter. The excellent bread from e5 bakehouse up the road in London’s trendy London Fields was generously doled out and replenished without asking. Potted brown shrimp on toast (£8) was unexpectedly warm and hence not potted at all but swimming in a lake of butter and paprika. This is definitely a French restaurant so be prepared to consume a lot of butter. Clams (£8 – not on the menu despite it being written daily) were similarly drowned in butter as well as chilli, garlic and coriander. Brawn is not a place of half measures, everything is big and bold. Finally, was butterflied sardines with spiced aubergine (£6) which despite being the cheapest dish was frankly the size of a main. In fact, N decided to treat it as such and kept it for herself.

This left me and my mum free to peruse the meaty options. I was briefly taken by the idea of vitello tonnato, rare veal served cold with tuna sauce, but decided I wasn’t quite adventurous/mental enough. Instead, we decided to split two fowl dishes. The pot roast quail (£10) came first and was the one minor disappointment of the meal, the glorious smell of the pea and bacon broth when the lid of the pot was lifted was not matched by the depth of its flavour and I would describe the bird more as poached than roast with the flesh subtle to the point of being anaemic. It was enough to finish my mum off though. This meant I had to step up to the plate and consume the Duck Magret with sarladaise potatoes (£15) on my own. This was a return to the perfect seasoning that had been on display through out the meal. The duck was on the verge of being too salty but wasn’t quite, the potatoes were on the verge of being too garlic; it walked the razor’s edge and it won. It was served with moist girolles that had soaked up all sorts of goodness and would have been perfection if only a few of them hadn’t been washed properly.

We also managed to persuade N to try a scallop Provencal (£5). Not usually one to need prodding, she was worried about the price but eventually succumbed. She promptly declared it the best she had ever had. Emboldened, she was the only one order a dessert: chocolate mousse (£5). That finished all of us off. Well, I say that but N and mum managed a couple of digestifs as interesting and unorthodox – green walnut! – as the aperitif. So I make that £64.50 or £21.50 a head for food on its own (and we probably ordered a bit too much). You are going to find it hard to eat better than that for that price in London. Awesome.

Written by Martin

23 June 2011 at 18:53

Posted in food

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Welcome To The Maul

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Earlier in the month, trapped by the weather in a tent only marginally bigger than my own body, I read the first chapter of Tricia Sullivan’s Maul. Entitled ‘!’, it was so remarkable that I wanted to tell someone what had happened. Cut off from civilisation, I instead read it again. Having just read it for the third time, I am again struck by what a fitting, bold and exciting opening it is:

It feels smooth and heavy and warm when I stroke it because I’ve been sleeping with it between my legs. I like to inhale its grey infinite smell for a while before I pass my lips down its length, courting it with the tip of my tongue, until my mouth has come to the wider part near the tip. This I suck, and blow gently into the hole. It becomes wet in my mouth but doesn’t soften. It remains achingly solid and I put it between my legs. Its tip snuggles around my clit. (p.1)

Yes, it very quickly becomes clear that our narrator is masturbating with a firearm. What better collision is there of humanity’s twin obsessions of sex and violence? Happiness is a warm gun, indeed.

The image is startling enough on its own but it is also so cleverly and skilfully evoked. The languid first sentence is immediately derailed by the “grey infinite smell” of the second sentence. It is an alien intrusion in what we think is a familiar scene (it also conjures up the gun as a physical object with remarkable economy). Having subverted our expectations, Sullivan goes on to subvert the language of pornography. As the narrator fellates the gun, it initially seems to be a straight forward penis substitute. “Courting” is a nice word choice, erotic in its restraint, but the mechanics of the act are familiar. Then we are told that the gun “doesn’t soften” and “remains achingly solid”. Of course not, it is metal after all, but the deployment of this porn cliché has the effect of both ironising the scene and transferring the ache from the gun to the narrator. The gun is not a penis and she aches for it because it is not. (The final sentence doesn’t really need quoting for my argument here but I love the specificity of “around” so quoted it anyway.)

The difference between the gun and a penis is highlighted when, on the next page, Sullivan moves from the mechanics of foreplay to the mechanics of orgasm:

It’s narrow enough that I can slide it into my cunt without breaking the hymen. I grope around for a while trying to find my G-spot but the urge to pee is too great when I press there and anyway I think the whole thing’s gotta be a myth so I go back to where I started. (p.2)

The transgressive word in the first sentence is not “cunt” (which her has the earthiness of the UK usage rather than the porny misogyny of its US usage) but “hymen”. An enthusiastically sexually active woman with an intact hymen is a rejection of traditional narratives about both sex and virginity. Later the narrator explicitly articulates what the opening scene has suggested: “I used to wish I had a boyfriend but now I know better.” (p.3) The word also implies something that is confirmed later: she is an enthusiastically sexually active child. So why is she keeping her hymen intact?

She doesn’t want a boyfriend but is she saving herself for someone? From the mechanics of orgasm, we then move to its depiction:


don’t end


no. oh no. don’t go.
Hmm. Not bad.
Not bad.
Pretty good.
What time is it? (p.3)

This is attempting to capture the ineffable and since I’m never going to directly experience the female orgasm I won’t try and judge its success. I am, however, very taken with Sullivan’s approach: the wild glee of its arrival, the attempt to ride the sensation with that poignant “oh no. don’t go”, the final burst (that last “!”) and then relaxing into lazy, satisfied contemplation. The final line provides a casually dismissive coda which reminds the reader that orgasm isn’t life-changing but it is a fun way to start the day.

We then move straight to a domestic scene, the sort of scene I’d like to see a lot more of in SF. The narrator gets dressed, teases her brother, negotiates her mom’s requests for breakfast. All the time the gun remains an alien, alienating presence, strapped to her leg and accessorised with a pink ammo belt – “It’s heavy, but who said fashion was easy?” (p.4) The narrator – Sun to her mom – is out the door: she is off to the maul.

(Sullivan uses the US homophone “maul” throughout instead of “mall”. The cover strapline describes Maul as a novel of “sex, shopping and terrorbugs” but it is shopping and violence that are inextricably linked by the title. The thematic density of this text is intense.)

Sun meets up with her girlfriend Suk Hee at the bus stop. Suk Hee calls her Katz so the Korean girl appears to have an (absent?) Jewish father; this is not a novel where identity is going to be simple. They talk about wrestling, boys and cosmetics. In the middle of this our narrator starts thinking about the complicity of women in supporting the wars of the patriarchy:

It turns us on when you fight, I thought. That must be why. We get off on it. It’s OK with us if you don’t give head or haven’t historically – we don’t need orgasms as much as we need wars. Otherwise why would you guys fight them? (p.8)

This is leftfield stuff; unexpected, perhaps unwelcome and considered at length. It could be an incredibly awkward scene but then we’ve already established that our narrator is the sort of high school girl who masturbates with a gun. So, instead, it is strange and disconcerting and leads us deep into both the novel’s entanglement of sex and violence and its core concern about gender and itentity. And who are the “guys” she talking to? Who is our narrator narrating for? Again, we are kept off-kilter.

Their friend Keri arrives in her car, a Saab (with a moonroof rather than a sunroof – what is Sullivan up to?). Thoughts of war are replaced by lust for Keri’s car and Sun attempts to translate this lust directly into a sexual fantasy. However, she is unable to do something as natural as this without problematising it:

I tried out several models in my mind but I couldn’t work out what kind of man would be dangerous enough and dark enough and hot enough to be next to me in the car commercial , and yet not be totally repulsed by me. Or for that matter who I’d trust to drive my Saab, if I had a Saab (because it definitely wouldn’t be his Saab). This is the main reason there are never any men in my sexual fantasies. I just can’t seem to construct one that fits. (p.9)

Until now the novel has been concerned entirely with character, mood and tone, now we sense the intrusion of the plot. The girls have been emailed by 10Esha, a “cryptic email”. There is a suggestion of impending violence but actual contents are not revealed. After all, Sullivan doesn’t need plot to hook us, she already has us tangling from her string. Instead the girls keep listening to The Sugacubes and talking about sex. The Sugacubes? Wrestling? Is this the future or the Nineties? Sullivan does everything in her power to keep us off balance. This scene allows Sullivan to sketch out the other two girls but the focus remains on Sun and, specifically her intellectual achievments in unsuccessful pursuit of boys: “Why did you have to take a summer course at Columbia, Sun? And then he goes out with Kristi Kaleri.” (p.11) Given her independence, there in everything we have seen her do or think, there is a seeming contradiction. Does she actually want a boyfriend? Does she subconsciously seek male validation? Has Sun recently come to a new understanding about herself or are these dichotomies still to be wrestled with.

The girls pull into the maul under a bad sign. The chapter ends.

Written by Martin

22 June 2011 at 14:06

What’s The Opposite Of Bellum Omnium Contra Omnes?

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As you will have noticed from my short story projects I tend to find genre short stories frustrating. For this reason I subscribe to none of the magazines and rarely read any of the freely available material on the internet. The exception is at awards time. This is, after all, part of the point of awards: to filter a huge field and identify the best of the best. By reading only shortlisted works I should avoid all frustration and experience only excellent literature.

Ho, ho, ho.

Not only does awards season mean I read short fiction, it also means I get an opportunity to talk about it. This year Karen Burnham has been running a short story club at Locus Online. It is a welcome development, although it is a shame to see no other contributors to Locus taking part. The club covers all the short stories and novelettes that received two our more award nominations this year.

One of these stories is ‘That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made’ by Eric James Stone, which was shortlisted for both the Hugo and the Nebula. It subsequently won the Nebula. This means, theoretically, that the membership of the Science Fiction Writers of America – professional writers all – thought that this was the best short story published in science fiction and fantasy in 2010. That is quite an accolade. Theoretically.

Before going on to try and puzzle out what has gone catestrophically wrong with the Nebulas, I suppose I better mention the story itself. My first encounter with the story was when Nick Mamatas refered to it as the “Mormon space whale rape story”. Then I read Abigail Nussbaum’s scathing review as part of her overview of the Hugo novelette shortlist. (Nussbaum has also written about the Hugo short story and novella categories. Poor sod.) As such, although my expectations for the short story club had already been lowered by ‘The Jaguar House, in Shadow’ by Aliette de Bodard and ‘Ponies’ by Kij Johnson, I was confident that ‘Leviathan’ would be much worse. And it was.

I tweeted the story as I read it at #whalerape (now lost to the ether) and I’ve left several comments on the Locus post so I’m not going to rehearse why the story is so bad (it is also worth reading the David Moles post linked there). If you think the story has any merit at all, feel free to try and convince me in the comments. Instead, my interest now is in how it won the Nebula. The voting system might well play a part. As Sam Montgomery-Blinn pointed out, unlike the Hugos:

the final vote is a winner take all, unranked vote: pick one of these 5-6 stories. This is precisely the voting system you would expect to produce a mediocre winner with strong hot/cold reactions, while 3 or 4 more potentially outstanding stories split the remaining votes.

But that would still mean a chunk of people had to actively vote for ‘Leviathan’. How many members of the SFWA vote for the Nebulas and how many of them voted for this story? I’ve no idea because this information isn’t published. The Hugos are very good about publishing their nomination and voting statistics and I can see no good reason why the Nebulas shouldn’t do the same. I emailed the SFWA to ask for the statistics but I’ve had no response. Because of this fundamental lack of transparency around the award, I am reliant on anecedotal evidence. For example, Rick Bowes gave a partial answer but I’m not sure what his source is:

it appears that fewer than 20% of the membership recommend on the preliminary ballot or vote on the final ballot. It’s possible for a very small number (even single digets) of recs to put a work on the final ballot.

The combination of First Past The Post and low voter turnout is exactly the sort of situation where you would expect logrolling to succeed. And, chances are, that is exactly what has happened here. Mamatas has since mentioned that Stone is a member of the Codex writers group. He is not the only one. Here is the shortlist for the Nebula novelette category:

  • ‘Map of Seventeen’ by Christopher Barzak
  • ‘The Jaguar House, in Shadow’ by Aliette de Bodard (Codex)
  • ‘The Fortuitous Meeting of Gerard van Oost and Oludara’ by Christopher Kastensmidt (Codex)
  • ‘Plus or Minus’ by James Patrick Kelly
  • ‘Pishaach’ by Shweta Narayan
  • ‘That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made’ by Eric James Stone (Codex)
  • ‘Stone Wall Truth’ by Caroline M. Yoachim (Codex)

It is the same old story, you vote for your mates, regardless of how good their work is. Of course, the Nebulas have always had this reputation but even so you would hope people who voted for this story would have the good grace to be embarrassed. ‘Leviathan’ is not the best story of 2011, it is not even a good story; in fact, it can probbaly be counted amongst the worst stories published in 2011. Couldn’t the Codex writers group just have bought Stone a cake? That way I wouldn’t have been tricked into thinking his story was worth reading, that the Nebulas retained an vestige of value and that the SFWA was an organisation interested in literature.

Written by Martin

17 June 2011 at 11:43

To Say Nothing Of The Goose

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My review of Twilight Robbery by Frances Hardinge is up now at Strange Horizons. I’ve not reviewed much this year but it wasn’t hard to persuade me to read Hardinge’s latest:

There is an enormous amount to admire in Hardinge’s novel. Chief amongst these is Hardinge’s invention. Too often children’s authors – and writers of adult genre fiction – are content to have one idea and spin off a novel (or even a series) from that alone. The creation of Toll alone is about half a dozen ideas wrapped into one and powers a many-stranded plot but it is full of peripheral ideas that seem to emerge organically from her world (and worldview). There is also Hardinge’s wit, a vital part of literature that too often adult genre fiction seems afraid of. Although there is no real reason for doing so I’d like to take a moment to quote by favourite line from the novel: “Revenge is a dish best served unexpectedly and from a distance – like a thrown trifle.”

Twilight Robbery is an extremely enjoyable novel and Hardinge is fast becoming one of my favourite writers. At the same time, the novel is not without problems, problem not unrelated to the fact its primary audience is children.

Written by Martin

8 June 2011 at 08:31

Posted in books, sf

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