Pizza Express

I first visited a Pizza Express in 1995. I was on a training course in Marlow, Bucks, and my car had just exploded, so I felt like I deserved a little treat for myself. (Actually, it was only the exhaust that detonated. It blew a hole in our bank balance all the same, though.) Since then, I’ve been to branches in London, Edinburgh and Perth, and every time the experience has been consistently good.

This evening, we were in Perth to pick up my mum’s car (which we’re borrowing while my parents are off on holiday), and we decided to grab a bite to eat while there. The Perth Pizza Express is, like many others, a converted bank branch. Bank branches seem to have the right kind of space that Pizza Express restaurants go for: light, bright and airy, with tall ceilings, and all the acoustic subtlety of a tube station. Wee baby Alex stayed asleep for most of the meal, but when he woke up, his yells echoed through the restaurant like a yodeling constest in the back of a Ford Transit.

The food was good, though. Between the four of us we ordered two portions of garlic bread, and a portion of dough balls with garlic butter. At £1.45, each order is fairly inexpensive, but I’ve always found the portions a little stingy. The garlic bread is a single chunk of golden brown baked pizza dough, glistening with melted garlic butter. Very tasty, but one is rarely enough. On the other hand, massive all-you-can-eat platters don’t really fit in with the restaurant’s stylish modern demeanour. On yet another hand (er…), no-one is going to stop you from ordering more than one portion.

When it comes to choosing pizza, I’m pretty unadventurous. I like pepperonis and chillies, so the American Hot (£6.70) is usually the one I go for. Pizza Express’s pizzas are about nine inches across, and are made in the traditional Italian style: a thin base, topped with a relatively plain, un-herby tomato sauce, with thin slices of mozzarella draped on top and melted in place. This way, the cheese doesn’t end up spread evenly over the surface, so you end up with more varied bites. Personally, I prefer this to American style pizzas, where the base and crust are generally thicker, and each bite tends to be more uniform.

Although the American Hot pizza is loaded with sliced green jalopeno peppers, the flavours of the tomato sauce and the mozzarella cheese still come through clearly. I think this is the main reason I like Pizza Express: the ingredients they use are clearly of a very high quality. The tomato sauce is fresh and tangy, the cheese has just the right stringy texture, and the pepperoni sausage is recognizably meaty instead of greasy and bloated with generic spices. I’m a big fan of pizza, and this one ranks very highly on my list of all time greats.

If you’re not a pizza lover, there are a small number of other items on the menu, like cannelloni, lasagne, and melanzane parmigiana. This is a bit like lasagne, but with the strips of pasta replaced by slices of aubergine. Snoogums and my mother both had this. I tried a bite, and while it wasn’t as dark, rich, greasy and overcooked as it I like it, it was sweet and tasty nevertheless.

On this occasion we didn’t have wine, but from previous visits I remember the house red and white as both being nice and slurpable. Likewise, the desserts are all fun and unobjectionably sweet (the tiramisu is particularly good, though). But the name of the restaurant really spells out what they’re best at: pizza. They have branches all over Britain, and if you fancy something a bit more adventurous and a little less bland than your local Pizza Hut, try Pizza Express instead. You won’t be disappointed.

Opera Web Browser

If you’re relatively new to this whole Internet thing, you may not remember the olden days when there was no such thing as Internet Explorer. Web browsers started out as simple things (ah, good old NCSA Mosaic!), used by researchers for publishing papers and documents. Then came Netscape, and an increase in popular and recreational usage of the Web. Around 1995, Microsoft decided they wanted a piece of the pie (it was only later they decided they would like to have the whole pie), and out popped Internet Explorer.

Now, in 2001, the Internet is one of the main reasons people have a computer at home. Your web browser is now much, much more than a simple document reader: it’s your gateway to the on-line world. Chances are, it’s the first thing you start up when you switch on PC, and it’s the last thing you shut down. It’s a newspaper, a TV, a radio, a telephone, a shopping centre, a village hall. There are few people who would dispute that it’s a communications revolution.

And more likely than not, your gateway to this revolution is Internet Explorer. But why?

Two reasons. First of all, Microsoft fought a hard battle to make Internet Explorer the default browser for anyone using any form of Windows. Because most people use a Windows PC (sorry, Mac fans), and have a natural reluctance to change default options, Microsoft was going to win that battle from the start. (Although recent court actions in the US have proved this to be an illegal business tactic, this conclusion is about five years too late for it to matter.) But secondly, Internet Explorer is a very good product! It had features that people wanted, and after version 5 it was much faster at displaying web pages than Netscape was. As we all know, on the Internet speed matters.

But is there anything even better out there? For me, the answer is yes, and the product is Opera.

I say “for me,” because of the way I use the Web. My browsing habits include reading a lot of sites whose primary purpose is to serve up news, opinion or information in text format. I’m out to absorb as much information as I can, as quickly as possible. I don’t care about pretty logos or snazzy animations. Just plug me into the wire and feed me from the source!

I first tried Opera earlier this year, when I was revamping my own web site. I was trying the page designs in the various versions of Internet Explorer and Netscape. I’d just read an article about Opera, so I decided to try it out as well. After just a few hours of using version 5.11, though, I knew I had something special on my hands. So I kept on using it, and being pleasantly surprised by how good it was. And a few days later I was hooked completely. At work, I still use Internet Explorer (most of the projects I work on use IE as their sole target platform), but it seems awkward and slow now, just like Netscape did when I first switched to IE.

So here is the list of things that, in my opinion, make Opera a better product than IE (in reverse order):

5) Multiple Document Interface (MDI)

Michael Marshall Smith – What You Make It

Michael Marshall Smith is the author of three novels, Only Forward, Spares and One of Us, which have assured him–in Britain, at least–the status of Hot New Author. This status is quite rightly deserved. Only Forward is a true masterpiece of modern fiction, weaving a unique blend of science fiction, psychological horror, fantasy, dark humour, and genuine literary charm. He has been a bit quiet of late, but this appears to be because he is taking more time than usual over his next book, The Straw Men. (Working title, currently due some in August 2002. Check for updates.)

Smith has an engaging narrative voice that draws you into his books like a snake charmer hypnotising a cobra. You’re led into a world that you know is strange, but because his characters are so convincing and sufficiently comfortable with their own reality, you go along with it, thinking, yeah, this is cool, this is interesting, and then suddenly–snap. The trapdoor shuts behind you and you can’t get out. The protagonist is on a nightmare ride, and you’re right there with him.

What you make it is Smith’s first story collection, and it brings together eighteen pieces from 1988 to 1998. The stories range from humorous (“Diet Hell”) to downright disturbing (“More Tomorrow”), with several excursions into tender and deeply touching (“The Man Who Drew Cats”, and “Always”). What they all have in common, though, is Smith’s confident narrative. Whether his protagonists are witty and urbane bachelors bemoaning their lot in life, or old men sipping their beers in their favourite bar and swapping tales of old times, they are always believable. You know these people. You see them every day. You live and go to work with them.

This is exactly what makes you uncomfortable when the world in these stories suddenly takes a turn for the worse (which it does in most cases). Rather than choosing the option of supernatural horror (although in “A Place To Stay” he does his own take on vampires), Smith stays firmly with the psychological. Inside the human mind lie terrors far more upsetting than the worst creature from the dark dimensions.

One of his recurring themes is the continual questioning of reality: has the world gone mad, or have I? As in his novels, Smith explores the possibilities of this question in several of these stories. “The Owner” and “The Fracture” follow the protagonists through their descent into insanity. In “Foreign Bodies”, like in all three of his novels, he examines his characters’ reaction to the revelation of truths so hideous they’ve kept them hidden from themselves.

Another common thread running through the stories is that of (romantic) relationships gone awry. Many of his characters have been through a psychological wringer, involving painful break-ups and the inability to find or keep hold of love. Smith’s sharp wit is at its finest when he lets his twenty-something single males rant about women, work and life in general; his tenderness and compassion shines through most when he talks about love. Here is a writer with a lot to say, and I have a lot of time to listen.

If this all seems a bit heavy and deep, well, it is. This isn’t an easy read. In places it is profoundly unsettling. The first story, “More tomorrow” built up a feeling of genuine dread in my stomach, and left me feeling shocked at its end. “Always”, the second-last story, produced a lump in my throat. It took me about a week to read through the whole collection, because I had to give some stories time to sink in before I was ready to read the next. Like strong drink, it doesn’t take much to intoxicate. Take too much too quickly, and you’ll feel like you’ve been kicked in the head.

There are inevitably a few weaker stories here as well. “Sorted” is blunt, and covers the same ground as “More Bitter Than Death” but with much less flair. “The Dark Land”, one of the earlier stories, is fairly perfunctory in terms of its plot, but is interesting in that it seems to lay a lot of the foundation upon which the novel One Of Us is built.

On balance, though, the good stories outnumber the bad, and the excellent outnumber the merely good. I can’t give the book anything other than a top rating, but I should warn that it will not be to everybody’s taste. To draw a somewhat inaccurate analogy, in terms of the experience it provides it is far more Blair Witch than Scream: deep discomfort rather than slash ‘n splatter. Read it and be impressed.

Joe Haldeman – Forever Free

When Joe Haldeman won the Hugo award for his novel _Forever Peace_ in 1998, a lot of people were disappointed that the book wasn’t a sequel to his 1974 Hugo and Nebula award-winning classic, _The Forever War_. Both books have a similar thematic underpinning, though, and put across a strong anti-war message. As a Vietnam veteran, Haldeman is always at his best when he writes about his “core values”.

In _Forever Free_, he does return to the same characters he left behind in _The Forever War_: William Mandella and his wife Marygay. In _The Forever War_, the main characters are soldiers, fighting battles on distant worlds. Because of relativity, whenever they travel such interstellar distances, they also hop forward through time. Each time they return to Earth hundreds of years have passed, and they find society changed almost beyond recognition. Eventually, human society evolves into a group mind known as “Man”, and the war the soldiers had been fighting ends.

Between the two books, some twenty-odd years have now passed. Mandella and Marygay have settled down on the planet Middle Finger. They have a family, and live in a peaceful farming community. Life is hard (the planet spends most of its 6-year “year” in deep winter), but peaceful. Mandella and his fellow veterans, though, believe that Man (the group mind) is keeping the old humans around as a genetic backup for the human race, in case something goes wrong with Man as a species.

To Mandella, the society is stale. His life is stale. He doesn’t have confidence in the future of Man, and wants to do something about it. And if he can’t change the society itself, then he will escape from it. He and a group of other veterans come up with a plan to borrow an ancient spaceship, crank it up to relativistic speeds, and take a short-cut to the future. They want to come back in 40,000 years’ time to see how things will pan out.

So far, so reasonable. This is a fairly logical extension to the first book, and takes the ideas forward at a gentle pace. Haldeman sets up some interesting conflicts between Mandella and Marygay, who consider the society a dystopia, and their children, who think the opposite. The group mind of Man is initially willing to go along with the whole expedition idea, but puts up resistance later; this ultimately leads to a showdown in which the veterans are forced to steal the spaceship.

…And then it all goes a bit strange.

I don’t want to give too much away about the second half of the book, but it’s like Haldeman decided he’d had enough of the original plot, and threw it away in favour of something completely different. All of the interesting questions he sets up in the first half get dropped unanswered, and the emotional conflicts get rolled back to a previous state, as if they hadn’t happened at all. The characters are the same, but they’re in the middle of a bizarre and completely unexpected adventure. This new story doesn’t depend on the original characters in any way, and could have been set in any generic SF world–no need to place it in an established and well-loved environment. He introduces not one but _two_ dei ex machina, and then doesn’t do anything with them!

I’m baffled. It’s like a head-on collision between two different novels. The characters ultimately end up walking around in a bit of a daze.

What bothers me most is that Mandella and his fellow veterans to have no apparent stake in the outcome of the second part of the book. Why did Haldeman not choose characters upon whom the outcome would have a deeper (read: “any”) impact? I wanted to see the first part of the story brought to its conclusion!

I feel like this is a waste of a sequel, and I can’t help wondering if this book was more inspired by marketing forces than a genuine desire to explore the further story of William Mandella. Haldeman is a master writer, and he has written some of the best SF in the last quarter century. (In addition to his novel Hugos, he has also won numerous awards for his short fiction.) But although this book is unquestionably well written, I found the story terribly disappointing. Perhaps I had my hopes up too high.

_The Forever War_ is a hard act to follow. I wish Haldeman had left it to stand on its own.

Lee Child – The Visitor

I finished this book a couple of days ago now, and since then, I’ve been trying to figure out why I disliked it so much. Because in theory, I should have loved it.

The story is about a former military policeman, Jack Reacher, who gets pulled in for questioning by the FBI, because he fits the psychological profile of a deviously clever serial killer they’re tracking. The first two victims were women who used to be in the army, and had been subject to sexual harassment. They had both pressed charges, resulting in the conviction of the men in question. The FBI investigators suspect a military connection: they think someone blames these women for ruining good men’s careers, and is out to avenge them. When Reacher was an MP he worked on both of these women’s cases, and knew them personally.

He isn’t the killer, though, and the FBI knows this. They’ve been following him for a week, and in that time another woman has been murdered. But they do need his military connections and help in tracking down the killer, and they’re not willing to take no for an answer.

So far, so good. I like serial killer crime novels. (John Sandford is a particular favourite.) The story gets even better than this, because it turns out that the killer is so clever, he doesn’t leave behind any forensic evidence at the crime scene: no fibres, prints, DNA, or any trace of violence. And the coroners examining the bodies can’t even figure out how the women died. So we have a seemingly impossible mystery as well. I have a penchant for locked room murder mysteries as well, and even though the rooms aren’t locked in these cases, they might as well have been.

Jack Reacher, the book’s hero, is another reason I should have liked the book: he’s a tough guy, a loner who does things his own way, and who isn’t afraid to bend or break the rules to set right what he sees as an injustice. He’s smart, he’s strong, and he’s not afraid of anything. Not entirely unlike Robert B. Parker’s Spenser, or Robert Crais’s Elvis Cole, two of my all-time favourite private eyes.

So why did I come away so disappointed? Where did Lee Child go wrong? What is the missing magic ingredient that could have made this alphabet soup taste sweet?

At first I thought it was Reacher’s arrogance and know-all attitude. He considers himself smarter and better than the FBI agents he’s forced to work with. Because we’re seeing the story through Reacher’s eyes, the FBI come across as generally unpleasant characters of frequently dubious morality and competence. This emphasises Reacher’s high opinion of himself, and his firm belief that he is the only person who is capable of solving this crime.

But that’s not it. I think back on the number of books in which Spenser has taken on the hardest cases and toughest villains armed only with his wits, muscles, and stout heart. I enjoyed those books. Spenser’s attitude has never bothered me.

Then I considered the plot and the narrative. The story follows Reacher throughout, except for brief interludes where we briefly see what the killer is doing or planning. I have no problem with this in general; John Sandford does it in almost every book. Child does break the rules when he shows you the viewpoint of someone completely unrelated acting suspiciously, and lets you believe you’re seeing the killer. But this is no worse a piece of misdirection than you’d see in any Agatha Christie novel. And so what if I’d figured out who the killer was, and how they’d done it by the end of the book? The thrill of the chase is till there, and the tension builds up to a nail-biting climax regardless.

Okay, so I was definitely disappointed by how linear the plot turned out to be. The story feints and dodges a couple of times, but ultimately it charges straight at you like a two ton rhinoceros. It’s not subtle, and it’s not intricate. The only deviousness lies in the meticulous planning the killer has put into the crimes in order to confound and deceive the FBI, and all of this is explained (in loving detail) by a smug Jack Reacher at the denouement. But again, this is not the main source of my discontent.

No, what really bugs me about this book is its complete and utter lack of humour or joy. Jack Reacher is cold, miserable, and selfish. When the FBI take him in at the start of the book, he claims that their profile of the killer is “obviously” wrong because it fits him, and he would never do such a thing. But you know what? He would. After being exposed to Reacher for 500 pages, I was convinced that if the circumstances were right, he would not hesitate for a second to be just as deep-down unpleasant as the killer.

And it’s not just Reacher’s character. The whole book seems to take itself far too seriously. Fair enough it’s a thriller, but I don’t remember cracking even a wry smile at any point throughout the book. Every paragraph is fuelled by aggression, every chapter fed by violence. It’s all plod, plod, thump, thump. There is no redemption, no joy. No peek into the human soul to see a pocket of goodness and light despite the persistent darkness that surrounds us. Every single character wears a mask to protect their own loneliness. The ending may look happy on the surface, but take it apart and you’ll see that the people you thought were smiling are merely frowning upside-down.

At the time I found it exciting, but in retrospect it feels like the book mugged me and robbed eight one-hour bills from my wallet. Writing this review has crystallised in my mind just how depressing a book The Visitor actually is. Buy the latest Robert Crais or Robert B. Parker instead, and be pleasantly surprised by how literate, humorous, and touching a hard-boiled detective novel can be.

Jeffery Deaver – The Empty Chair

A couple of years ago (is it really that long?), the film The Bone Collector was released. It was based on the book by Jeffery Deaver, and starred Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie. The trailer looked slick: a forensic expert is left crippled by an accident while tracking down a serial killer, and his young protegée must take up the investigation where he left off. Many tense, and intense shots of him directing her actions from the confines of his bed. Very dark and broody, much in the style of The Silence of the Lambs and Se7en.

Unfortunately, I never caught the film while it was showing at the cinema. Then, a couple of months ago, it was playing on cable pay-per-view. I didn’t see it then, either. But now that I have read The Empty Chair, I sense a trip to Blockbuster in the very near future.

The Empty Chair features the same two main characters asThe Bone Collector: Lincoln Rhyme and Amelia Sachs. Lincoln Rhyme is the world-famous, brilliant, arrogant quadriplegic forensic expert and criminalist who is capable of tracking down a killer from mere grains of sand left at a crime scene. Amelia Sachs is his beautiful, sharp-shooting, fast-driving, former model, former patrol cop sidekick. With arthritis.

To be honest, when I was bombarded with these character sketches (developed over the course of the first few chapters rather than in the space of two sentences) I was put off by their blatant unreality. These people are perfect heroes, with perfect flaws to make them perfectly sympathetic. Over the course of the book, however, they do take on much greater depth and become more plausible.

The story starts with Rhyme, his personal aide Thom, and Sachs travelling to a clinic in North Carolina. Rhyme is going there to undergo radical therapy that may restore some of his mobility. Before he even checks himself in, though, the local Sheriff comes and asks him for help in an urgent kidnapping case. Ga
rrett Hanlon, a local teenager known as the “Insect Boy” because of his fondness for the creatures, has killed one man and abducted two women. The police believe that if they don’t find him quickly, he will kill the women as well.

Rhyme, anxious for nothing to interfere with his scheduled surgery is initially unwilling to lend his assistance, but Sachs talks him into it. They set up an improvised forensics field office at the local police station. Sachs goes out with a search party to try to track Garrett, and acts as Rhyme’s eyes and ears, while he sits like a spider at the centre of his web, evaluating the evidence and clues she finds. All the while, the narrative is cutting between Garrett and Lydia (the most recent kidnapping victim), Sachs, and Rhyme, showing the action from all angles.

At this point (about a hundred or so pages in), I expected the book to turn into a standard thriller cat-and-mouse chase. There would be blind alleys, some of the evidence would be misleading, and the bad guy would seem to gain the upper hand just before the good guys win through. I could not have been more wrong.

At less than half way through the book, the police actually track down Garrett and take him into custody. They rescue his second victim, but he is unwilling to tell anyone where he has stashed away the first woman. This is where the plot starts to take devious turns. All the while this manhunt has been going on, Deaver has been developing an intricate cast of secondary characters. They appear to fall into standard stereotypes: Lucy Kerr, the female cop who feels threatened by the presence of Amelia Sachs. Jesse Corn, the male cop who is infatuated with Amelia. Mason Germain, the disgruntled cop who bears a grudge against Garrett, and who is angry at not being sufficiently involved in the investigation. The three local rednecks trying to hunt down Garrett’s victims on their own to collect the reward that’s being offered.

None of these people turn out to be as straightforward as they seem. But then, neither does Garrett Hanlon….

It’s been a long time since I’ve ever come across a book with as many twists and turns as this one. Every time you think you’re following the main plot, Deaver ties up that thread and reveals the next layer of the mystery. And even though this is a series book with recurring characters, he made me feel like I couldn’t rely on them all finding a happy ending, or even surviving to the end.

This is always a problem with series books, or TV shows: most of the time it is be all too obvious that no matter how much danger you place your heroes in, they’ll make it through to the next book, or episode. Even if the writer doesn’t kill off any of main characters, if they can make you believe that they might, you care about them much more strongly.

Deaver has this all figured out. The second half of the book hits you with reversals of fortune at an ever-increasing pace. Towards the end, every chapter is a heart-stopping cliff-hanger followed by a startling revelation. And while I may not have cared much for the characters at the start, the last few pages produced a minor lump in my throat.

The greatest compliment I can pay an author is to go out and buy more of their books. That is exactly what I’m going to do. If you enjoy a good edge-of-your seat mystery thriller, The Empty Chair is definitely a book for you.