La Pompadour has a gorgeous old-fashioned formal dining room. We were lucky enough to visit on a very quiet Wednesday evening (surprising, given how close to the Festival we’re getting), and we got one of the best tables in town: tucked into the north-east corner, looking straight up at the Castle. The down side of it being quiet enough for us to get that table was that the restaurant felt empty and lacking in atmosphere, and its formality felt intrusive instead of luxurious.
I started with a medallion of sea bass on a bed of ratatouille couscous, and a red pepper and chili sauce. Main course was roast lamb on a bed of spinach and puy lentils, with roast vegetables and new potatoes. Dessert was an enormous cone of dark chocolate mousse with blackcurrent sorbet. The flavours were traditional: rich and well-balanced, but not terribly adventurous or exciting. Presentation was excellent, but the portions were a bit on the large side–I could only face one of the home-made chocolates and fudges that came with the after-dinner tea and coffee, which is a shame. The food was well-priced (£18-£26 for a main course), but the wine and spirits were expensive. £15 for a bottle of what was effectively house white is on the high side, but £6.80 for a (50ml) measure of gin is shocking.
I was more impressed by Hulk immediately after I’d seen it. Now, a week later, some of the shine has gone off it. What remains is still a very good film–just not a new superhero benchmark. The plot builds slowly in the first hour of the film, spending a lot of time on the characters and their backstories. Because you know that the Hulk is just sitting there waiting to be unleashed, the tension keeps on building. And when it emerges, it doesn’t disappoint. The creature effects are excellent–much better and more believable than you’d think from the trailers. But don’t go to see the film expecting an all-out action flick. It’s far more introspective than that. As Bruce Banner says after the first transformation, “It was about rage, power, and freedom.”
The film explores these themes in the context of a man coming to terms with his unrestrained alter ego, and his father’s dark past. There are some powerful emotional moments, but also a few over-the-top melodramatic clangers. The ending feels unfocussed, abstract, and confused. It really could have used an extra half hour or so to explain some of General Ross’s silly decisions, and to make the whole finale seem less stage-managed. Maybe in a director’s cut? All round, it’s a fine attempt to make a different kind of superhero film, but that isn’t necessarily what the genre needs right now.
All you have to know about this place is this: £2.99 carvery lunch, Monday to Saturday. Nothing fancy or sophisticated, just a pleasant pub lounge setting, and a giant plate of good food. Roast turkey, roast ham, roast beef, mounds of vegetables and potatoes, and a huge Yorkshire pudding and gravy. I’m still in awe of the price: £2.99. Sure, you’ll still have to buy drinks on top of that, but unless you have an appetite the size of an oil rig, you certainly won’t be needing a starter or dessert. Did I mention that it’s only £2.99?
I used to really enjoy Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone books, but I went off them for a while in the middle of the alphabet. Somewhere around M or N she wandered away from the things I liked, focussing more on Kinsey’s past and less on her detective work. (I like my murder mysteries the way I like my Regency romances: just a shade too inventive to be labelled formulaic, but safe and predictable in tone and overall content.) With Q, Grafton and Kinsey are back on form.
Unlike most of the Grafton books, Q is for Quarry uses a real-life murder as its starting point: the unidentified body of a young woman, found in a quarry in 1969. Now, years later, Kinsey Millhone is asked to look into the murder along with the original investigating policemen. Kinsey’s sarcastic tone works nicely with the acrid personalities of the cops, both of whom are facing their own mortality. There is the usual assortment of interesting characters with undiscovered pasts, dogged legwork on Kinsey’s part, and a faintly embittered outsider’s view of social structures and functions.
At the end of the book is a note from Grafton herself, about the Jane Doe who was the genesis of the book. She explains which details she has added to the true story (the presence of a tarp, for instance) and which are original (the pattern on the victim’s trousers). She also includes a facial reconstruction, on the off chance that a reader may recognise the dead girl. The serious postscript would make a pooly written book seem tawdry, but Grafton’s prose and plotting, the sheer humanity of her characters, is not shamed.
Anyone who reads Gibson knows he knows cool. His worlds are full of that intangible quality; his characters make Neo from the Matrix (who could not have existed without Gibson, of course) look dowdy. But this is the first book where he’s talked so explicitly about coolness. His protagonist, Cayce Pollard, is a “coolhunter”, finding the Next Big Thing and passing judgement on proposed brands. Ironically, she is violently allergic to excessive branding, breaking out in hives if she flies Virgin Atlantic and experiencing panic attacks when faced with the Michelin Man.
Anyone who reads Gibson knows he also knows the online world. Again, though, Pattern Recognition takes a new look at a favourite topic. In this case, the characters exist in the real world, but are members of an online community whose group dynamic drives some aspects of the plot. As a long-term member of an online community myself, I instantly recognised the personalities and situations that crop up in any such group, from newbie floods to sock puppets and troll-baiters.
The story centres around snatches of a black and white film that have been released on the Internet. The “footage” is so compelling that several online groups have formed to investigate it, and so mysterious that the groups haven’t learned anything. The plot follows Cayce’s travels from London to Tokyo (a Gibson staple) to Russia in search of the source of the footage, accompanied, aided and hindered by a mix of odd personalities.
It’s standard Gibson, with fast motorcycles and obscure technology. Fun. In some ways, though, Gibson builds the mystery too well. I was almost disappointed to find out the truth about the footage, not because the solution was weak, but because the enigma was so compelling. Apart from that, however, I did enjoy Pattern Recognition.
If you are expecting more of the traditional “Harry Potter Magic”, you won’t be disappointed. There is lots and lots of it. But I found it very frustrating because it just doesn’t go anywhere. Every chapter has its little ups and downs, but the book as a whole is a long, slow climb to a single climax around page 700. It doesn’t read like a novel, it reads like a magazine serialization, where it’s important to have a self-contained, entertaining episode each week. That’s great if you’re reading it to your children, or if you want to maximise the time you spend luxuriating in cuddly, escapist fantasy. It’s severely annoying if you like a book to have a point.
Also, although Rowling plants the seeds for characters with depth, she falls back on Scooby-Doo stereotypes, where sinister behaviour is just a mask for underlying incompetence. She sets up situations with the potential for exploring important social and personal issues, but then turns them into comic sketches, or brushes them quickly aside to make way for cozy normality. It’s like she’s afraid to make any hard choices about where her heroes and her literary world are going, and is making up for this by just keeping on writing. It may be fun, but it’s only filler. There’s no meat in this pie, only gravy.
Catch Me If You Can is the story of Frank Abignale (Leonardo DiCaprio), a teenager who watches his father go bankrupt and his family fall apart. To escape the pain, he runs away from home and starts impersonating airline pilots, doctors, and lawyers, while forging cheques and defrauding banks of enormous amounts of money. But all he really wants to do is make his father proud, and help him get back together with his mother. Abignale is a sympathetic crook, but also a scared and lonely boy. You laugh at his scams, admire his audactity, and feel sorrow for his inability to heal his family’s wounds. It’s a fine tragic comedy, beautifully filmed, with nice performances all round. (If only it didn’t have the traditional Spielberg “false endings”, where you think the film is over, only for it to roll on for another ten minutes. Twice.)