16 September 2014

Northumberland

We started our time in Northumberland in the centre of Newcastle for the Diana Wynne Jones Conference.  I quite liked what I saw of Newcastle (though most of that was this massive mall-amoeba which had grown and sprawled underneath seemingly endless city blocks).

Sadly, the venue for the first day of the conference (Seven Stories) was - while a neat place - hot, stuffy and oddly-lit, which is a perfect trigger for migraines for me, so I had to go back to my hotel at midday and lie down.  The next day was at Newcastle University, which was very pretty (although confusingly right next to another, similarly-named university) and starting to be touched with autumn colours (I get two autumns this year and no spring).

After the conference, we spent an entertaining morning collecting our rental car (there was a big race in the city, the rental office was shut, two hours with suitcases by the roadside, etc, etc) and headed for the first of our holiday lets.  [Much cheaper to rent a place in a district for a week than constant hotel rooms, and so much nicer to have a whole house at our disposal rather than a single room.]

The cottage was near a place called Haydon Bridge.  We walked down into the village one day (and then, wheeze, we walked back up O.o).


After lolling about for a day or so, we headed off to our only castle for this particular county, a place called Alnwick - once Hotspur's castle - and also Alnwick Gardens, which had both a very nice walled garden section, and a garden dedicated to plants that can kill you:


The next day we headed to Vindolanda, an excavated Roman Fort:


We were also planning to do a big walk along Hadrian's Wall the next day, but my sister had been nursing a cold the entire week, and finally managed to pass it on to me, so we did part of a circle walk around Sycamore Gap:


It was very misty most of the time we were in Northumberland, but it had burned off by the time we did get up to the top of the wall after doing the flat part of the walk. It was actually quite flat for most of the wall once you got up to the top as well - the photo quite fails to convey the being on top of a hill part.  I can't help but feel sorry for the people who had to build this thing.


After this, enormous amounts of snot and phlegm, and a relocation to the Lakes District.

06 September 2014

Four Castles and a Rock

In Scotland, it's hard to drive down the road without stumbling across a castle, so it's a matter of willpower (or, increasingly, of 'meh, another castle') to not be stopping every five miles to poke about another.

I'd checked off a couple of castles to visit (more or less by googling 'castles with nice gardens'), and once we were back on the mainland we headed first to the Castle of Mey.



I am very fond of high walled gardens (necessary here due to the exposed position on the north coast of Scotland), but also found this castle tour rather interesting.  Mey was the holiday home of the late Queen Mother (and so functions as something of a shrine to her).  The tour was full of fascinating tidbits about the battle over tacky gifts, and the soundproofing to the kitchen.  Writer hat very thoroughly on there.

Our next visit, Dunrobin Castle, was one we were passing on the way to another castle.  It had a bagpiping busker girl at the front door and some lovely formal gardens below.


I actually ended up liking it more than the castle we were going to see, Cawdor Castle, which was perfectly nice but not quite so spectacular.


All three of these castles, however, paled in comparison with a castle that had little in the way of garden at all (or roofs, for the matter).  Dunnottar Castle, however, has a coastline walk, and the kind of stairs-from-the-bottom access that is exactly what I pictured for the Castle Rotation in Touchstone.



We had a gorgeous morning's walk to it from nearby Stonehaven (and a contrasting woodland walk on the return trip).

After this, however, we were fairly 'castled out', and when in Edinburgh didn't go for a tour of the castle there, but instead took in a nice view of it from Arthur's Seat in Holyrood Park.


I expect we'll be seeing more castles in England and Wales, but for now a relative break in Newcastle.

31 August 2014

Islands of -ithics

So, the Orkneys are basically big windy cattle and sheep farms on islands, but seething with 5000 year old monuments and ruins.

Getting there involved driving onto a ferry - a first for me, and one of those things that could do with a little handy 'this is how it works' dot point list on the back of your ticket.  While it is remarkably straightforward, it would be even easier if we'd known little things beforehand, like when you're allowed to get out of your car.

We had beautiful weather for our first full day there.  I must admit that Skara Brae reminded me strongly of a mini-golf course.  Though being wedged between two groups from cruise ships probably helped that impression along.


We went on from there to the Ring of Brodgar, and really enjoyed that, both for the relative solitude, and for the lovely circuit walk through fields and along the edge of the nearest loch.


My favourite walk, however, was next day, when we went to visit the Tomb of the Eagles.  Getting into the Tomb was a little...challenging.


The fun part was the cliff walk back, since the sunny weather of the previous day had been replaced by a blasting gale.  But the direction of the wind was 'in' not 'over the cliff you go', and was really spectacular - we were at the same height that the local sea birds were hovering, which is always incredible to watch.

There is a ton of stuff to see on the Orkneys - I wish we'd scheduled more time there.

27 August 2014

Inverewe Gardens ; Kernsary Loch

The Inverewe Gardens, while well up in the Highlands, are in a sheltered position and their combination of sheltered garden beds:



and somewhat overgrown woodland walk were well worth the trip north.




The next day we headed out for this walk around Loch Kernsary (a name I pronounced so badly that the local we asked about it had trouble figuring out what I was talking about).  We did this walk in reverse order to the guide (accidentally, thanks to following signs rather than maps), so it started out really simple and easy (except for the raining on us part).  Fortunately it had stopped raining by the time we got to the boggy part:


And the narrow path above the twenty metre drop to the loch.


As you can see, it was also very lovely - though balancing on rocks for a large portion of the return leg left us thoroughly tired.

24 August 2014

Eilean Donan Castle; Skye

We've had very changeable weather for our excursion into the western reaches of Scotland.  Clouds, rain, sun.  Here, for instance, is Eilean Donan Castle when we arrived:

 And then when we left:

The castle itself is as spectacular as it looks, and great fun to explore.

We were lucky that it remained for the most part dry when we headed across to Skye for some touring about in the car - particularly when we found that the funny dotted roads on the map were single lane, with an amusing system of occasional wider sections of the road where you lurk when you spot someone coming so that they can get past.  This is followed by the obligatory thank you wave (somewhat confused by the cars with the steering on the wrong side, so you don't spot the person who waves).

This, however, is not a high enough difficulty setting for the Scots!  So there's some additional challenges:


The sheep are entirely unperturbed by passing cars, sitting on the verge eating grass and wandering in any direction they choose.  And let's not even get into the occasional roaming cluster of highland cattle...

A spectacular day, and we're a little more certain of the speed limit now. :) .

22 August 2014

London to Skye

I hadn't seen a great deal of London while the con was on - other than grabbing the last afternoon to walk around Tower Bridge and London Bridge and briefly wondering if I'd wandered into World of Warcraft:


But since we were taking the night train to Scotland we had a whole afternoon to fill after checking the luggage at Euston Station.  Wandering randomly, we came across the British National Library, and had an explore.  Don't you hope this guy is inventing a table?


Then we thought we'd take the tube to a nearby station:


Because there was an interesting museum on the map.  There, we admired a line:


And decided to go to the park instead.  Regent's Park was just down the street, another enormous collection of flowers, winding paths and statues.



Having thoroughly worn out our feet, we returned to Euston Station, and the enormous hall of no doubt equally tired people all standing in a mass staring at a giant departures board.  I'm sure there's a reason they don't put more seats in there.  A good reason.  A very very good reason.

Eventually the train to Fort William arrived, and we crammed ourselves into our teeny sleeper room and did manage a reasonable amount of sleep (though wondering yet again if it is really necessary to be cooked).  At Fort William we walked down a street and then back up the street and then caught our connection to Mallaig.  This is an exceptionally scenic route, particularly recognisable to fans of Harry Potter for the scene where the train goes over a magnificent curving aqueduct.  The train drivers evidently are well aware of this and obligingly stopped twice on the curve to allow people to stampede to one side of the train and take pictures.

However, that did make us almost late for our ferry connection to Skye, so there was a teensy bit of racing up slopes with wheeled suitcases (and then some highly challenging trying to haul wheeled suitcases up a ferry gang plank with six inch anti-slip ridges every foot or so).

The ferry trip was uneventful (or may well have had dinosaurs, but we were recovering from the hauling, and not paying much attention).  Then we had a small amusement of the rental company accidentally giving our hire care to the wrong people (but fortunately working out the mistake before those people drove off), followed by driving in a new car in a new country and wondering what the speed limit is.

So a lot of connections and standing about, but in the end, arrived.


19 August 2014

LonCon 3

All done, and a rousing success.  The venue, a place called the Excel Centre, was an airway runway with a hanger dropped on top:


The building is loooonnnggg - it's a good ten minute walk from one end to the other.  I was fortunate to register the afternoon before the con started.  Very lucky, as I learned at lunch the next day when I (*ahem*) happened to be chatting with Michelle Sagara in the lunch place of my hotel when Tanya Huff arrived, saying she'd given up on registering because the line was over an hour wait.  [Connie Willis was staying at my hotel as well - going to breakfast was great fun for celebrity spotting.]

My primary mission was quickly accomplished, as I located and photographed the bench the DWJ mailing list had sponsored:



['Quickly' being after wandering twice around two enormous halls randomly scattered with benches.  I suspect I checked them all before finding the right one.]

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Adding a couple more bench photos in here for those who wanted to see it:




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After having not written at all since getting on the hell flight, I was pleased to find a nice balcony over the runway where I made good progress on Pyramids.  Or, well, people-watched.  Deadpool had some excellent transport jawas.


I also had actual real people show up for my fan meet-up, which was a relief!  It was lovely to meet everyone! [Any time I can rabbit on about my books is good for me, but everyone was so nice that I quickly stopped being nervous - and then just didn't shut up!]

Panels were mostly quite interesting.  I particularly enjoyed the romance in computer games, the Zombies! Run!, and the pessimist/pragmatism in space travel panels.  Lovely to see Sarah Webb and Julie Dillon win Hugos, though sad The Book Smugglers missed out.

Off to Scotland tomorrow, which looks cold and wet (just like home at the moment, apparently).

15 August 2014

LonCon meet-up details

Okay, having scoped the site (or, ah, failed to cram into the back of the panel I was intending to go to), here's the details for anyone who actually wants to sit and chat with me for a while at LonCon.  This will work for both con attendees and non-attendees as the main 'runway' of the Excel Centre is open attendance and anyone can wander in quite happily.

For those travelling in, get off the DLR at the Prince Regent station and head into the east end of the Excel centre.  Not far in (opposite Hall N11) is an "Andronicus World of Coffee" shop.  They have an upstairs seating area/balcony (stairs at the back of the downstairs seating), and I will park myself up here (near the piano) from 10.30 am to just before midday on Saturday (16th).  I'll be wearing a red and black shirt - and the name tag should give me away (plus it's quite quiet up here so I might be the only one present).

Note: the Excel Centre main runway retains heat real well, so layers you can shed are probably a good idea.

14 August 2014

Hampton Court

Another simply enormous place.  We spent less time here, however- in part because the main things to see are compactly arranged around the palace, but also because we wanted to beat rush hour when changing hotels.

The palace was definitely spectacular on every scale, but I think I was most impressed by the William III section, both for the number of rooms the King needed to just get away from people (each room seemed to allow less and less people in), and also for the room of decorative weaponry.  This was one guy prepared for a zombie invasion on a grand scale.



But, as usual, I spent most of the time in the gardens, of which there was nearly a dozen different sections.



This was the 'water garden', and the hedges around it were full of peep holes to allow you to look at it from different angles (but not go in).  Perhaps the plague of cupids are considered a danger?


Nice dahlias, too. :)



13 August 2014

Kew Gardens

I need new feet.

Not as much as Cass did, but after spending seven hours at Kew Gardens today, I am feeling very sorry for making the poor girl walk so much .  The place (along with being the world's largest collection of plant varieties) is 300 acres, and I'm fairly sure we saw the greater portion of them.  Not everything though, as we ran out of opening hours.  [And the will to live.]

A lot of the day seemed to involve climbing stairs.  First there was the treetop walk.


And then there was the pagoda:


And a palm pavilion:


And, oh, just a ton of stuff.  Palaces and follies and temples, woodland walks, a hunter's hide, a badger's den, blackberries, hundreds of trees and, of course, plenty of flowers.



It's definitely a place worth seeing, not least for getting your head around the idea of princesses being given pagodas as surprise birthday presents.


09 August 2014

Travels 2014

My family wasn't one for a yearly holiday trip, so I'm not in a habit of travelling.  I'm more likely to spend free money on a new computer than going somewhere.  Besides, I loathe long-haul plane flights.

For the next few months I will discover whether I can travel and write.  If not, I very much doubt Pyramids will be out this year.  But at least being away from my gaming computer means I won't be able to continue replaying Dragon Age II!

Depending on my roaming internet connectivity, this blog may fill with blather about wherever I've been that day, accompanied by amateur photography.

If people (in the UK) are particularly keen to meet me, I will be at both LonCon 3 and the Diana Wynne Jones Conference.  I'm not signed up on the program or for an author reading or anything like that, but figured if people particularly wanted to say Hi, I could have an informal kaffeeklatsch.  I'll probably do that Saturday morning of the LonCon, and will tweet and add a brief post and Goodreads status update with more detail once I have settled on a cafe.

So, heading for Summer in England and from the looks of their weather reports, I better go buy a coat. :)

03 August 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy (no spoilers)

Guardians of the Galaxy is not a Marvel property I'd ever encountered in written form, but presumably it's similar in tone to the movie, which is snappy, irreverent and by no means takes itself seriously.

Light fun, a bit of mystery behind the main character, fun use of music.  I'll see the next one.

Still, there's some dreary 'background' sexism.  A lot of it is caused by the main character's 'disposable' attitude toward women, but with the exception of Glenn Close's planetary leader character, all the other women are victims (or crowd-scene Mums).  This includes Gamora and her sister, whose plotline revolves around their monstrous father.  And for someone theoretically so kick-ass and competent, Gamora sure needs rescuing a lot.

The previews before GotG included Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles (which looks amazingly sexist) and The Maze Runner (I'd heard of the book, but didn't know all the people in this maze were boys, with the exception of a late showing-up and connected to the main character girl).

All the Smurfette Syndrome I've been encountering lately seems to be impacting on Pyramids.  I usually aim for 50/50 split of M/F characters (with occasional other), but Pyramids is coming out more 20/80.

02 August 2014

Child of Light

Child of Light is an Ubisoft game about a princess named Aurora, whisked away from her loving father into a realm rather overpopulated by monsters.  Fortunately she's more than ready to defend herself, and without hesitation starts swinging the too-large sword she finds.

The production values on this non-AAA game are excellent.  The graphics, particularly, are lovely, and very different from the style of most games, with their water-colour painting feel.  And, fortunately, the gameplay itself is quite well done, although I definitely recommend playing this with a game controller rather than a keyboard - the keyboard controls weren't very easy.


Unfortunately, the story didn't ever manage to be very interesting. The villain of the game is announced in the very beginning, and there's no real examination of the rightness or wrongness of her reasons - she's just bad.  Aurora has no real emotional arc (beyond becoming a little less bratty).  She collects an enormous number of companions who can be mixed into the combat, but the sheer number means most of the companions are just there to be there, with no real interest in their stories.  I never played Child of Light to find out what happens next, which is a particular failure for a game deliberately aiming for a storybook feel.

And the rhyming!  Gods.  If you're going to make all the dialogue and narration in your game rhyme, go find someone who is really really good at it.  There are writers out there who can turn a shopping list into a throbbing paeon, a series of measured cadences that can make even sprouts and detergent compelling.

Bad rhyming has the opposite effect, even when you have a little girl with a sword, and all the pretty pictures in the world.

31 July 2014

2014 Snapshot of Australian Speculative Fiction

I was interviewed by Tehani Wessali (of FableCroft) for the 2014 Snapshot of Australian Speculative Fiction.

Fish