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

Archive for July 2011

The Chiswell Street Dining Rooms

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I am a big fan of Tom and Ed Martin’s cunningly named ETM Group and their string of excellent gastropubs. I’ve fond memories of strolling down the Lea to the Gun with the missus, family meals at the Empress and many meals with friends at the Arthur. They’ve now just launched their first proper restaurant, the Chiswell Street Dining Rooms, and, whilst I had a nice night, I’m not sure it is a place I am likely to ever view fondly. It is just next to the Barbican Centre in what used to be the Whitbread brewery and the stench of the City clings to it. On Friday night the bar was packed with baying City types and I was glad we’d had our pre-dinner drink on the roof terrace of the Barbican Lounge. It is liberally studded with private dining rooms and there is a very corporate feel to the place; when you go upstairs to the toilets you feel like you’ve ventured into a hotel. The menu is the sort of modern British food that characterises their pubs and the obvious market for Chiswell street can be seen in a price structure that does not reflect any technical ambition but rather what the clientele will pay. As a patron of their pubs, I had fifty percent off food and there is no way I would have visited otherwise.

Consider my starter of Herefordshire snail and smoked bacon pie with Guinness and mushroom sauce, optimistically priced at £9.50. Generally I welcome an attention to provenance but when this extends to snails perhaps its all gone a bit too far. These are classic pie ingredients which is another way of saying they are hardly luxury items so the price tag doesn’t obviously reflect the raw ingredients. Nor does it reflect much technical skill since, in the modern way, this is a pie only in so far as it is a small pot of sauce (“gravy”, I belive this used to be called) with a pastry lid. Should this really be fully three quarters of the price of foie gras with spiced apple brioche, candied hazelnuts and a port reduction?

The mains again demonstrated the creative pricing. I shared the 600g air dried Shorthorn Chateaubriand with green peppercorn sauce and sautéed Lovers potatoes. This was £55, the same price it was a couple of weeks ago when the same dish consisted of 800g of Chateaubriand. It came with unadvertised bearnaise sauce which does deserve a thumbs up (I’m surprised they didn’t charge for additional sauces) but the only vegetable was a sprig of watercress. Similarly fillet of cod, sautéed asparagus, shellfish ravioli and butter sauce for £19.50 contained only the carbohydrate of its lone piece of ravioli (raviolon?). Sides of brocolli and Jersey royals were good but I’d thought the days of needing to order them were behind us, they should be an indulgence not a necessity. This is a restaurant that in many ways feels old-fashioned and out of step with London’s food culture.

Where its corporate character pays dividends is in a wonderful wine list. Our budget only allowed us to graze the nursery slopes of the list but everything was excellent, particularly a bottle of Tokaji Late Harvest dessert wine. That meant a hundred pounds on booze and two hundred pounds on food between four. So it was a good job I had that discount because whilst I was happy paying £50 a head but I would not have been at all happy paying £75 a head.

As I said, a fun night with great wine and good but unexceptional food. A few things niggled but I’m conscious the restuarant is still very new. For example, both the beef and a rack of lamb had been well cooked and well rested but the plates hadn’t been heated so rapidly cooled. We also inserted a langoustine and oyster round between the courses and whilst the ability to do so was highly welcome I could have used a bit more weaponary; I’m capable of dismembering a crustacean with my hands but a pick and a cracker makes dealing with the claws a lot easier. It is the price that sticks in the throat though, particularly since there is no shortage of restaurants in London where you can eat better for less.

Written by Martin

18 July 2011 at 11:58

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BSFA Review – Vector #267

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The Routledge Concise History Of Science Fiction by Mark Bould and Sherryl Vint marks the conclusion of a sustain period of genre activity from the academic publisher. First in 2009 came the Routledge Companion to Science Fiction, a vast work edited by Bould, Vint, Andrew M Butler and Adam Roberts. The prohibitive price put it out of the reach of pretty much everyone but academic libraries until a paperback edition was published at the beginning of the year. It is this edition which Glyn Morgan reviews over the page.

In the course of doing so he notes “the companion to the Companion”: Fifty Key Figures (edited by the same foursome). I reviewed Fifty Key Figures for the online magazine Strange Horizons where I suggested the point of the book “is to broadly map a large and fragmented territory in a way that engages the interested general reader and stimulates further investigation…. Of course, by its nature, it is somewhat jagged itself, fifty spikes jutting up from the vast plains of the genre.”

Now we have the Concise History – the companion to the companion to the Companion, perhaps – which smoothes out that landscape somewhat. At the same time, it brings new risks; Fifty Key Figures does at least avoid the “potentially unattainable comprehensiveness that a more conventional history of the genre demands of both author and reader.” This sentiment is echoed by Bould and Vint themselves in their introduction: “Writing the history of science fiction is an impossible task, and even writing a history is daunting.” Their solution is to acknowledge their limitations, set out their boundaries and provide signposting.

So the use of the word ‘concise’ is important. Compare this book, for example, to the recent Palgrave History of Science Fiction, edited by Adam Roberts (him again). After dealing with the problems of definition, Bould and Vint devote a single chapter to “science fictions before Gernsback.” Roberts spends six chapters and 150 pages getting to the Twentieth Century. This is not a criticism of Roberts’s book, simply a suggestion that the Concise History is more likely to find favour with the general reader, the reader who is perhaps less interested in the genre emerging in the 17th Century as a dialogue between Protestant and Catholic worldviews and more in the themes and concerns of the last eighty years of modern SF.

Each chapter is short – about 20 pages including interpolated text boxes pointing in other directions – starts with a paragraph overview and ends with a bulletpoint summary. We are briskly taken from the Thirties to pretty much Now (the last word goes to China Miéville’s The City & The City). From the outset there is an emphasis on a plurality of approaches. For example, in the chapter on the Thirties (“Proliferations”) care is taken not just to address the rise of the pulp magazines but also comics and radio and TV serials. The editors remark that “histories of the genre usually marginalise or exclude such SF” but they are surely right that our collective understanding of what SF has been as much informed by the latter as the former. This careful look at “enrolment”, the way some works are brought into the canon of science fiction and others moved into other boxes (such as fantasy or horror), lends a gentle but persistent (and entirely welcome) air of revisionism to the book.

Whilst the Routledge Companion and Fifty Key Figures are clearly primarily orientated towards students, they are also of considerable interest to the general reader. The same is even truer of the Concise History, an ideal book for a new SF reader who wants to know where we’ve come from. It is a book I’ve always wanted, a book I wish I had as a child.


  • The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction, edited by Mark Bould, Andrew M. Butler, Adam Roberts and Sheryl Vint (Routledge, 2009) – Reviewed by Glyn Morgan
  • The Mervyn Stone Mysteries: Geek Tragedy, DVD Extras Include: Murder and Cursed Among Sequels by Nev Fountain (Big Finish, 2010) – Reviewed by Gary Dalkin
  • Sci-Fi London Film Festival: Dinoshark (2010), Sharktopus (2010), One Hundred Mornings (2009), Zenith (2010), Gantz (2011) and Super (2010) – Reviewed by Martin McGrath
  • Ignition City, written by Warren Ellis and illustrated by Gianluca Pagliarani (Avatar, 2010) – Reviewed by James Bacon
  • Twin Spica: Volume 1 by Kou Yaginuma (Vertical, 2010) – Reviewed by Nick Honeywell
  • Mardock Scramble by Tow Ubukata, translated by Edwin Hawkes (Haikasoru, 2011) – Reviewed by Alan Fraser
  • Gantz (2011) – Reviewed by Lalith Vipulananthan
  • Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay (Harper Voyager, 2010) – Reviewed by Dan Hartland
  • The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi (Orbit, 2010) – Reviewed by Andy Sawyer
  • On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers (Corvus, 2011) – Reviewed by Paul Kincaid
  • The Broken Kingdoms by NK Jemisin (Orbit, 2010) – Reviewed by Sandra Unerman
  • The Dragon’s Path by Daniel Abraham (Orbit, 2011) – Reviewed by Sue Thomason
  • The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie (Gollancz, 2011) – Reviewed by Maureen Kincaid Speller
  • The Scarab Path by Adrian Tchaikovsky (Tor UK, 2010) – Reviewed by Nic Clarke
  • The Wolf Age by James Enge (Pyr, 2010) – Reviewed by A.P. Canavan
  • Blood and Iron by Tony Ballantyne (Tor UK, 2010) – Reviewed by David Towsey
  • The Evolutionary Void by Peter F Hamilton (Pan MacMillan, 2010) – Reviewed by Martin Potts
  • Point by Thomas Blackthorne (Angry Robot, 2011) – Reviewed by Alan Fraser
  • Embedded by Dan Abnett (Angry Robot, 2011) – Reviewed by Stuart Carter
  • The Bookman by Lavie Tidhar (Angry Robot, 2010) – Reviewed by Niall Harrison
  • The Rivers Of London by Ben Aaronovitch (Gollancz, 2011) – Reviewed by David Hebblethwaite
  • Secrets of the Fire Sea by Stephen Hunt (Harper Voyager, 2011) – Reviewed by Lynne Bispham
  • The Horns Of Ruin by Tim Ackers (Pyr, 2010) – Reviewed by Simon Spurrier

Written by Martin

16 July 2011 at 10:57

Posted in sf

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Birthday Book Haul

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It was my birthday last week and I received a few books. Some of them were even from people other than me.

  • Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem – I bought Gun, With Occasional Music on a impulse in a bookshop as a child. Since then I’ve read everything Lethem has published. There was a time I would have said he was my favourite novelist but I’ve rather cooled on his post-Motherless Brooklyn but he is still a fascinating writer.
  • Feed by MT Anderson – I can’t remember who recommended Octavian Nothing to me but since I read that extraordinary novel I have been slowly working my way through Anderson’s back catalogue. I read this over the weekend and it is an astonishingly bleak dystopian love story that is aimed at teens but really gives the lie to the whole concept of YA fiction.
  • Parrot And Olivier In America – As with Lethem, Carey is an automatic buy. I know quite a few people found his previous novel, His Illegal Self, a bit disappointing but, after a slow start, this is firing on all cylinders: the themes and dynamic of Theft mixed with the historical pastiche of Jack Maggs in order to re-imagine the life of de Tocqueville and tackle modern America.
  • Ask The Dust by John Fante – This has been in my Amazon basket for the best part of a decade; I think it originally went in there on the strength of a Nick Mamatas recommendation but its been so long I’m not sure.
  • Delusions Of Gender by Cordelia Fine – Gender essentialism seems to be a conversation that constantly raises its head in both my professional and private life. I want to be better informed and this was strongly recommended by Farah Mendlesohn.
  • Anno Dracula by Kim Newman – I’ve always been a fan of Newman’s fiction without managing to read very much of it. This new revised edition of his 1992 novel seemed a good point to redress this situation (and the advertising push certainly helped remind me).
  • Waterlog by Roger Deakin – My wife bought this after I raved about Wildwood, his follow up book, which I recently read whilst on holiday in the lakes. If you live in London you need a good blast of nature writing and it doesn’t come any better than Deakin.
  • God’s War by Kameron Hurley – Niall Harrison made everyone in the British science fiction community buy a copy.
  • Maus II by Art Spiegelman – I only got round to reading the first volume of Spiegelman’s deeply moving memoir shamefully recently having picked it up for cheap in a secondhand bookshop. I then found that buying the second volume was more expensive than buying the omnibus edition but what are you going to do? I certainly wasn’t about to let the story stand untold.
  • The BLDG BLOG Book by Geoff Manaugh – If you don’t know BLDG BLOG, well, I refuse to believe you exist. This is blogging at its best, a wonderful resource for experts and amateurs alike. Hopefully the book will allow me to give the subject more of the attention it deserves.
  • Erotic Comics: Volume One, edited by Tim Pilcher – At the risk of sounding pretentious, I think my appreciation of erotica exists on two levels: firstly, I just love dirty words and pictures, smut is frankly awesome; secondly, I find outsider art and invisible literature fascinating.
  • David Nash by David Nash – Coffee table book in which the famous British sculptor discusses his work. Nuff said.

Written by Martin

11 July 2011 at 20:10

Posted in books


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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.

I’ve written at length about the opening chapter of Maul by Tricia Sullivan. Tony Keen has also recently posted a three part discussion of the novel over at Torque Control:

Maul was published in 2003. It was shortlisted for the 2004 Arthur C Clarke Award but lost to Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson. I’ve not read Stephenson’s novel but I find the decision suprising simply because I find it hard to imagine a better SF novel than Maul was published that year. It is a superb novel; exhilerating and exciting whilst simultaneously being thorny and challenging. I would suggest everyone read rushes out to their nearest bookshop and buys a copy immediately. But, of course, you can’t. Eight years later, Maul is out of print and Sullivan is out of contract. Does anyone believe there isn’t a problem with that?

Written by Martin

7 July 2011 at 16:57

The Language Of Victory

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My joint review of Jar Jar Binks Must Die… and Other Observations about Science Fiction Movies by Daniel M Kimmel and Monstrous Creatures by Jeff VanderMeer is up now at SF Site. It turned into a bit of a ramble about the point of collections of criticism:

You love the fantastic, it is in your blood. You have devoted a substantial part of your life to it, a part friends and colleagues have sometimes suggested has been wasted. Sometimes you wonder if they are right. You have poured your blood out through your pen but you find yourself unregarded, unrewarded and out of pocket. You are invested… so you want a return on your investment. How do you crystallise this labour into something that means something? How can you — whisper it — moneterise it? The answer is, of course, a book. A book is an artefact that has value (even in this day and age) beyond its pulped wooden weight. Commensurate with this prestige is a question though: why do my thoughts deserve collecting?

Eventually I got onto the books themselves. Guess which one contains thoughts worth collecting.

Written by Martin

2 July 2011 at 09:26