Welcome to London

Things to Do in Advance
Before you leave home, download City Mapper and Trip Advisor on your phone. City Mapper handles the transit options better than Google maps. There are more restaurant reviews for London on Trip Advisor than Yelp. I would also download the official Transport for London Tube Map to your phone. While there’s supposed to be 4G reception in the tube starting in 2019, there’s no guarantee visitors will have working data plans.

The Gherkin, one of the most distinctive buildings in London.

Bring comfortable walking shoes. If you’re accustomed to hopping in the car to get everywhere, your feet are in for a surprise. I’m seriously not kidding here, and I have the tendinitis to prove it. London and New York are similar when it comes to getting around. Springfield has more in common with the moon than it does New York or London. My first trip to London I had a pair of stylish sneakers, and I wore them some and dress shoes some. My feet were killing me after two weeks. When I went back to the States I bought a pair of decent running shoes and some high quality insoles to go in them. (Shout out to Fleet Feet Shoes in Springfield.) Three weeks of daily walking in London, and my feet feel great.

A rain jacket is a good idea. A compact umbrella is a good idea. A big golf umbrella is a poor idea. London gets less rain than New York, but the rain it gets falls more slowly and lasts longer.

Have a pen in your carry-on. You’ll need it to complete the immigration arrival form. Also know the address for where you’ll be staying. Be prepared to spend an hour standing in line at immigration.

Things to Know Once You Arrive
If you want cheap mobile service in London, do not do it at the airport. Get into the city and stop at any of the mobile shops that are on every street. As long as you have an unlocked phone, you can buy a sim card for £10 that will give you a few gigs of data, some amount of minutes, and unlimited texts for a month.

To get from Heathrow to central London you have a few options. There are cabs and ride hailing services, but expect them to take an hour and set you back £50 or more. The better options are to take the trains. If you’re in a hurry, the Heathrow Express will get you to the middle of the city in 15 minutes for about £25. As you leave the airport, look for signs indicating trains. You want an actual train, not the Underground (aka tube aka a subway, though a subway here is actually an underground footpath). The most common option is probably the tube. Look for signs saying Underground. The trip will take about 45 minutes on the Picadilly line and cost around £3. Personally, if I’m just lugging a suitcase or two, the tube is fine. Everyone else leaving Heathrow will be hauling luggage, too.

The pond and sculptures at the York House Gardens in Twickenham

To use public transit you will need either a contactless bank card or an Oyster card. If you’re coming from the States, you should plan to buy an Oyster card. This can be done at any tube station, including Heathrow. If you’re going to be in London running around doing touristy things, £5 to £8 per day is a good estimate. You can add more to the card in the middle of your trip, if necessary.

Busses don’t stop unless you signal them. Many bus stops have multiple routes, and the driver will assume you’re waiting on another bus unless you signal. To signal, step to the curb and extend an arm, fingers outstretched.

Once you’re on the bus, it might not stop to let you off unless you signal. There are red buttons all over the bus. Simply push one when you hear your stop announced. A bell will ring, and usually a sign will light up at the front of the bus that says, “Stopping.”

Double-decker buses offer a great view of the city. You should probably sit upstairs unless you are elderly, with a small child, or disabled. Or if your ride is only a few minutes, in which case consider standing.

The tube is great, though it gets crowded at rush hour. When you’re using the escalator, stand on the right only. People will shoulder you out of the way if you block the left side. When waiting to board your train, stand to the side of the doors and let people exit down the middle. You have to tap in when you enter the station, and you also have to tap out when you leave it. This shouldn’t be an issue unless you ride the DLR (Docklands Light Rail).

Things to Do While You’re Here
Most museums in London are free, though they do often have paid exhibits. They also have a donation box, but it’s truly a donation and not a shakedown. Feel free to drop £5 in the box. Or not. Your call.

A model of the Globe Theatre at the Museum of London

I loved the Museum of London. It shows London from the Paleolithic through the modern era. You walk through in sequential order, and it is wonderfully arranged. The Imperial War Museum is the 1B to Museum of London’s 1A. The tanks and planes are good, but the can’t miss portion is the Holocaust gallery. Prepare to be gutted.

Other places I enjoyed
Victoria & Albert
The National Maritime Museum
The Cutty Sark
The Tate Britain

I need to spend more time at the V&A. What I saw I enjoyed, but it was only an hour.

There are plenty more I haven’t visited yet, too. (Yet!)

Bits & Bobs for Other Things in the City
If you go to a football match, you will not be able to take your beer to your seat. The fan culture is even more tribal than in the US. Where Americans will jeer the opposing players, the fans here will jeer the opposing players but especially the opposing fans. It’s uglier than I expected. My understanding is that the beer prohibition is to prevent thrown cups and to contain some of the ugliness. This is one of the biggest cultural differences I’ve found, but to be fair to the English, I haven’t ever been to a Raiders game, either.

The view of Wembley as you leave the train station.

If you go to the theater, you will be able to take your beer, wine, or cocktail to your seat. I saw Wicked for 30 quid and bought my ticket the day of the show. The seat wasn’t great, but it was incredible value. There are plenty of shows with similar options. Also plenty with better, pricier seats. The performance was fantastic, and I can’t wait to go back with my girls.

The stage before the performance started at the Apollo Victoria Theatre

I’ll do some food reviews once I’ve visited a few more places. There are plenty of amazing places to eat here, and I’d like visit a few more so I can present a wider variety.

Safe travels!

Goodbye, America

The Golden Gate from the north shore

Dear America,

I’m leaving you. Or by the time you’ve read this, perhaps I will have already left. It’s not you, it’s me. Well, actually, it’s both of us.

I’m leaving for professional reasons. I’m also leaving for personal reasons. The chance to move to London, see and experience much of what it has to offer, and to see and experience more of Europe in general, well, that’s a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing. But more than seeing and experiencing Europe, the move is about perspective.

One World Trade Center

A few years ago I spent five weeks in China. When I came home, I saw America differently. It’s a lot easier to eat spaghetti with forks. It’s reassuring when the baby formula doesn’t have guards. It’s hard to find good Mexican food in a country that shares no land borders with Mexico. I want my daughters to have that kind of perspective. I want them to be able to look at their country with a critical, constructive eye, and I want them to have a broad frame of reference for that criticism.

Like the old saying goes, it’s hard to see the Ewoks when you’re in the middle of the bantha.

To be honest, I’m not hopeful about how things will be when I return. We’ve been on an ugly path lately, and I don’t see many signs of it changing for the better. The water is simmering, but most of the frogs are still croaking merrily.

A duck pond in North Texas

November is coming, folks. If you stood on the sidelines in 2016 because you felt like you had two bad choices, don’t stand on them this time around. If you’re rich enough and white enough and healthy enough that the GOP isn’t going to screw you over when they gut social security or WIC or healthcare (again), then vote for who you want. Otherwise, look real hard at your less fortunate neighbors, look real hard in the mirror, and vote for candidates that aren’t going to actively work to screw over average Americans in order to prop up themselves and their donors. You could do a lot worse than picking the candidate that exhibits the most (or any) compassion.

You’ve got this, America. I believe in you. And I’d really like to come back home to a country that isn’t in worse shape than the one I’m leaving. Don’t be a frog.

Sincerely,

Brent

Autumn in the Ozarks

Summer 2018 Update

A supermrine Spitfire suspended at the Imperial War Museum
Photo taken at the Imperial War Museum, London.

Oh, hello again.

Some things are changing around here. I’m moving from southwest Missouri to London, UK this summer. There will be more blog posts. Expect to hear lots about museums, food, travel, and general life in a place that is very different from my corner of the Ozarks.

There is a novel in-progress. It’s a sprawling thing that isn’t quite science fiction, isn’t quite fantasy, is definitely not Hamilton fanfic, but is definitely inspired by the American Revolution, wealth inequality, steampunk, and the month I cooked vegetarian food. “Sounds weird,” you’re thinking. “But I like weird. When can I read it?” Now that, dear reader, is a good question. I don’t have a good answer. “Someday” would definitely be accurate. “Next year” would be too ambitious. I’m planning to send this one out to the major publishers when I feel like it’s ready. It may well be years before it’s either published or I give up on selling it and publish it myself. Don’t hold your breath, but keep an eye on this space for updates.

There’s also another Porter Melo story kicking around in my head, but I probably won’t write it until Prosperity, LTD is out on submission. The Porter Melo story will be about soccer, FIFA corruption, and organized crime. Probably set in London since I’ll be able to do plenty of onsite research. This one I likely will self-publish. Ideally it will be available before the 2022 World Cup.

I do have a new story available Right Now, though. It’s only available in paperback, and you can find it in the Santa Barbara Literary Journal at Amazon. The story is titled “Petunia’s Baby” and it’s about a young lady that falls in love with the wrong sort of man, realizes that the world doesn’t owe her anything, and finds her own happy ending. Spoiler alert: things get dark, fast. If you’ve read “Who We Once Were, Who We’ll Never Be” (my story about the young lady in China), you’ll notice some similarities. Look, I won’t pretend that these aren’t my way of trying to send not-so-subtle messages to my daughters. Kick ass and take names, ladies. And have an alibi.

Altar of Tyranny: Available Now

AltarofTyrannyCover

Indeed, Altar of Tyranny has been available since Tuesday, but it’s also available now. And probably tomorrow, too. Maybe even the day after that.

Initial reactions have been strong. People are buying it. More people than I personally know, so that’s always a good sign.

You can find it in ebook or trade paperback, though the paperback is only available through Amazon and CreateSpace.

Amazon US, UK, CA, AU
Barnes & Noble
Kobo
iTunes

Coming December 8th: Altar of Tyranny

Greetings Revolutionaries!

It’s that time again. The holidays are nearly upon us, but it’s also time for a new book release and an ever higher bomb, bullet, and body count. Porter Melo is still in Hong Kong, and the world is collapsing around his ears. After the fiasco of the last job for the CIA, Sam’s on the ropes mentally, Porter is exhausted, and the Yan family is waging war against the state. But there’s no rest for the weary, and a Melo always looks after his own, so Porter is right back in the thick of things as the revolution turns into an all-out war.

AltarofTyrannyCover

The book is available for preorder at Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon AU, Amazon CA, Kobo, and Apple. It will be available on December 8th at those retailers as well as at Barnes & Noble.

Every writer wants the newest book to be his best work yet. I can say with certainty that The Altar of Tyranny is a big step forward for me. It’s been a year that I’ve been working on it, and it’s been through more work and re-work than anything else I’ve ever written. I’ve tried to raise the bar for characterization, detail, and general mayhem higher than ever before. I hope you all enjoy reading it as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it.

A New Crop of Boardgames

It’s been a while since my last boardgames post and I’ve played a number of other games in the last two years. Many of these games aren’t exactly new, but they’re new to me.

Some new favorites:

Hanabi Box

Hanabi
This is a cooperative card game with a unique twist. You don’t see your own cards until you play them. There are five colors of cards (plus a bonus rainbow color for advanced players) with numbers one through five. The goal is to play all five colors in order from one to five. Each player gets a turn and they have one of three actions. The player may give a clue to another player. The player may play a card from their hand. The player may discard a card. Players win by playing all twenty-five cards or by getting through the deck without four misplays. There are some limitations on the kinds of clues and the number of clues, but it’s a very elegant set of rules.

The game is deceptively simple, and there are layers of strategy in which clues a person provides, who receives clues and even how long it has been since a person has received a clue.

This a fascinating game, and I highly, highly recommend it.

Love Letter

Love Letter
Another fairly quick card game, but not cooperative. In this game there are eight types of cards ranging from a lowly guard all the way to the princess. The theme is that the player is trying to send a letter to the princess, and the person that sends her letter as close to the princess as possible wins the round. The players start with one card in their hand and then draw a single new card each turn. Each type of card has a unique effect, and the player must always play one card. There’s a good bit of interaction between players, and the rounds move very quickly. My girls love the game, though I’m not quite as crazy about it. The randomness of the card draws has just as much (or more) outcome on the game as the individual player’s decisions. This makes it fun for newer (or younger) players, but it gets old for those with more experience.

It’s fun, but simple, and well worth consideration.

Pandemic

Pandemic
Pandemic is an older game, but my group has only recently started playing it. We immediately loved the theme of CDC researchers trying to stop the world’s destruction by multiple viruses. The game requires good communication and good coordination in order to succeed, but even then there are no guarantees. Some of the role cards are significantly stronger than others, so if you’d like an easier path into the game, consider selecting some of the more powerful roles.

I love this game. The theme, the teamwork, the nailbiting tension as the draw deck dwindles and too many infections remain on the board. It’s a blast and a must-play.

Terra Mystica

Terra Mystica
In Terra Mystica you are playing as one of 14 different factions. The victory conditions are the same for every faction, but there are some differences in how they get there.

The basic goal of the game is to terraform land, build buildings, lead a cult, and score victory points. The game happens over the course of six (or maybe it’s seven, I don’t remember exactly) rounds. You get points along the way for leading some faction of the cult (Wind, Water, Earth, Fire) or building certain buildings.

The buildings themselves are pretty amazing. You have the settlement, recognizable from Settlers of Catan. It upgrades into the “trading post,” recognizable as the city from Settlers of Catan. The trading post upgrades to a Stronghold, recognizable as a squarish wooden thing, not from Settlers of Catan. Or if you’re feeling cultish, the trading post instead upgrades to a temple, recognizable as a round wooden thing that could belong to any other game ever. And finally the temple upgrades to a more expensive temple, not substantially different than a regular temple, called a sanctuary.

The real clever bit here is that your buildings are all on a little mat in front of you, and much like in Eclipse, when you place a building on the board, you then get paid the resources that the building was previously covering on your mat. Your settlements provide workers. Your trading posts provide money and “power.” Your strongholds provide something unique for each faction. Your temples and sanctuaries provide priests each turn, but also each one you build allows you to a gain a favor, and the favor itself provides various things including one time perks and recurring resources. The real key here is that you have to expand territory to put out new settlements, and those settlements provide additional workers, but when you upgrade the settlements, you put them back on your little mat, and you lose the worker income. So the game becomes a balancing act between going horizontal into more territory or vertical into better buildings.

There are four currencies in the game. One is money. It’s just… money. But money can’t buy you love, and neither can it buy you buildings unless someone actually builds them. So money gets used with your workers from your settlements to upgrade your buildings. Once you build temples, you get priests. They are used for things like building a navy (because buggery?) or incurring favor with the cults. Along the way, various things give you “power” and this is the most interesting currency, at least from a “I haven’t see anything work like this before” perspective.

Power is a finite resource on your playing mat, something like 14 little purple chips. These chips live in a set of three connected circles cleverly numbered 1, 2, and 3. They start in some combination of circles 1 and 2. The gimmick is that to spend them (which lets you do things and also moves the chips back to circle 1), you need chips in circle 3. And you can only move chips from 2 to 3 if all the chips are gone from circle 1. You can use power to gain extra money, extra priests, extra workers, bridges (recognizable as the roads from Settlers of Catan) that allow you to link buildings across rivers, and a few other things that don’t spring to mind. Once you get an engine going to bring in resources, power gives you a good bit of flexibility.

At the end of the game you score points for your position on each of the four cultist tracks. You also score for the total size (horizontal; it ignores vertical) of the linked buildings in your empire. And I definitely missed that the scoring ignored upgrades the first time I played, so that hurt. Ultimately, it’s a very clever, very fun game that combines the best bits of several other games, adds some of its own and calls it a day.

Risk Legacy

Risk: Legacy
This is not the Risk of my childhood. Yes, there’s still some dice rolling, and yes, Australia is still really strong, but there are so many changes that game only bears a passing resemblance to its namesake.

The biggest, most unique aspect of the game is that you the player will permanently alter the game every time you play it. At the very beginning of the game the players start by customizing their starting factions. Each faction has a sticker sheet with some abilities on it, and you only use part of those stickers. Once they are put on the faction’s card, they are permanent, and the others are thrown in the trash forever and ever amen. This is a theme that repeats itself through out the game. Events happen. Players respond. The game forever changes.

The second amazing aspect of the game are the “surprise” bins. The box ships with a number of sealed compartments. You are only supposed to open those compartments when the events listed on the compartment occur. This can be something like putting thirty armies on the board or using three nuclear missiles in a single combat or creating a special city. The boxes contain new cards to add to the game, new rules to put into the new rule book and all manner of wondrous and amazing things.

One of the single best moments I’ve had in any board game was when one of my regular gaming buddies and I got into a fight over a third buddy’s capital. The fight triggered an event, and it permanently modified that space on the board. It. Was. Glorious.

Unlike the Risk of yore, the game finishes when the first player acquires four tokens. At the beginning of the game (as in when you first start playing it), each player starts with one of these tokens, so victory can occur by capturing only three enemy capitals. No needs to conquer the whole world; only their nearest neighbors.

The game is intended to played fifteen times before the board stops changing. It’s been a blast getting to fifteen, and while there’s no reason to stop, I’m more likely to buy a new copy of it and start over from scratch. I really enjoy Risk: Legacy, and if you’re into wargames, you should take a look at it.

Short Story Available

Blogging is one of those activities that’s deceptively simple. How hard is it to write a few hundred words a month and keep people up-to-date on things? Hard, apparently. Because my first professionally published short story came out two months ago and I’m just now posting about it. (Though if you follow me on twitter @dbrentbaldwin you would have heard about it long ago…)

Anyway, Who We Once Were, Who We Will Never Be is available from Fireside Fiction. It’s very short, only about three pages (or 750 words for my fellow writers), but it packs a punch.

The story itself is a result of my trip to China last year. One Saturday evening I found myself trying to find a cab at Luohu Port, and I decided to cut through an alley to get to a better intersection. Halfway down the alley I ran into a number women that seemed very interested in inviting me upstairs. It was a very eye-opening experience, and this story grew from the question of “what if things in the alley went terribly, horribly wrong?”

Some News

Hello again, you handsome jumble of electrons. I have a few exciting pieces of news, which is synonymous with “I have things published again!”

As anyone following the blog is likely aware, I spent a chunk of my Spring in Shenzhen, China. I blogged about the trip at the time, but I also set to work on a novel set in the same area. I am very pleased to announce that the novel is finally finished. In addition to the novel, I also have a novella (i.e. a short novel) and a short story set in the same general area.

I grew up reading the Hardy Boys. Frank and Joe, those All American bad-asses, always running across parking lots without losing their breath, always foiling evil through cleverness and a little fisticuffs. (I always saw myself as Frank, more cerebral, more brown-headed.) From there I moved on to Tom Clancy and Jack Higgins and Micheal Crichton and grown-up thrillers with guns and spies and science. Take a few drops of spy thriller, mix in a little technothriller and dash with a trip to Hong Kong, and you apparently end up with Porter Melo, retired SEAL and CIA agent, dragged back into the shadow world.

When I set out to tell a story set in China, I looked around for historical conflicts I could use, and sure enough, there was a really obvious one right in front of me in Hong Kong and the democracy protests. Of course, I was about half-way through writing the novel when the 2014 Occupy Central protests began, and my fictional story was overtaken by reality. In my fictional world the protesters are not going to go quietly into that good night, but that’s a story for the sequel.

And so, I’m happy to share that Kowloon Sunrise and Kowloon Spring will both be available on Wednesday, November 26th. Both can be pre-ordered now at Amazon, and Kowloon Sunrise can be found at Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Nook.

The opening novella in the Porter Melo series.
The opening novella in the Porter Melo series.

After a decade of service in the U.S. Government’s black ops branches, former Navy SEAL and CIA agent Porter Melo has retired to a quiet life of fishing, sailing, and corporate espionage in Hong Kong. When a shipment of Top Secret weapons is hijacked just off the Chinese coast, Porter is yanked back into the shadow world he thought he’d left behind.

With vicious Chinese secret police, a murderous Japanese assassin, and ruthless Hong Kong Triads on one side, and a power-hungry CIA station chief on the other, Porter is in a race for his life to recover the weapons before they can be used against him… and against millions of innocent civilians.

The Kowloon Sunrise is a fast, furious story that centers on Porter, and I intend it to be the appetizer before the longer, meatier Kowloon Spring. You can find it here on Amazon, on Nook, on iBooks and on Kobo.

Kowloon Spring

When a mysterious Chinese agent tracks down former Navy SEAL and CIA agent Porter Melo in Hong Kong, Porter isn’t interested in the man’s offer: a ten million dollar payday for the high-profile assassination of the Mayor of Hong Kong, an assembly of Community Party officials, and the President of China.

But there’s one form of leverage Porter can’t refuse. When Porter’s brother Sam is kidnapped, the clock starts ticking, and Porter only has three days to find his brother and unravel a conspiracy that threatens to start a new world war with China on one side and the United States on the other.

Kowloon Sunrise is only available on Amazon for the first 90 days, but it will be everywhere else on February 27th. You can find it here.

In addition to the novel and novella, I also have a short story that will be published in late December. “Who We Once Were, Who We Will Never Be” has been purchased by Fireside Fiction, and it will appear the January 2015 edition of the magazine. This is a story set in China, but not precisely in the world of Porter Melo. It’s a dark, twisty little tale that originated when I wandered down the wrong back alley and later wondered what the worst thing that could have happened would be.

It will be available on the Fireside website in late December.

Toot toot!

One of the women in my writing group (hi Nina!) is participating in a thing called a blog train, and via a combination of charm and guilt, she has had persuaded me to write-up a little something.

What am I working on?

The working title is Kowloon Spring. It’s a near future thriller set in Hong Kong and southeastern China. I’m a few chapters into it and there’s already a major art theft, a plot to assassinate the chairman of the communist party, a separate conspiracy to overthrow the government of Hong Kong, and some major computer crimes involving the Chinese surveillance state. Thieves, spies, hackers. There’s a lot to love.

How does my work/writing differ from others in its genre?

I’m trying to squarely straddle a line between near future science fiction and spy thriller. When I come to a snag in the plot, I ask myself what Michael Crichton and Barry Eisler’s love child would do. The answer is seldom to kill people, but that’s only because there are far worse things that can happen to a character than death. I’m trying to add more big ideas than the normal spy thriller and more pacing than the normal science fiction. If I can shoehorn a Tyrannosaurus into this thing, I’ll feel like I’ve really nailed it. (That’s a joke. Kind of.)

Why do I write what I do?

I write what I want to read. Smart characters doing the wrong things for the right reasons. And it has to be exciting. I cannot abide being bored while reading, and if–as the writer–I’m boring the reader, I’m failing us both.

I recently spent five weeks in China, and that has been a major influence. I envision Kowloon Spring to be the beginning of a trilogy that explores the confluence of the surveillance state, urban migration, and an informed citizenry. People will put up with a tremendous amount of grief just out of habit. Eventually, though, someone will stand up and cry foul, and if enough people stand with them, change can occur very swiftly. The governments of North Africa can attest to that.

How does my writing process work?

It changes from book to book. I have an outline for this one that’s around five thousand words. In addition, I have character sheets for the main characters and a few more pages of notes and ideas for the major plot arcs of the sequels. Most days I set a goal of a thousand words, and I try to write extra over the weekends and on holidays. I can finish a first draft in about two months, but that’s after a month (or four) of planning and still requires another month of editing.

My novels tend to come in thinner than I’d like, so the first pass of revision is always to add additional scenes and make sure the story and the characters have proper arcs. This is done as soon as the first draft is finished, usually amidst plenty of pacing around the house and rambling aloud as I work through the story. At this point I’m ready for beta readers. I’ll do another revision based on their feedback. I may also do another pass after that to clean up the line level stuff. At that point it’s read for a copy editor and/or a proofreader.

So that’s it for the blog train. I’ll be back next quarter with my regularly unscheduled ramblings about food or indie video games or foreign countries or whatever I’ve been reading lately. Toot toot!