02 February 2016

Etc — January 2016

I have decided to rename my monthly round-up posts "Etc" going forwards as I often found that the five things I included weren't necessarily my favourite things of the month — those tend to get their own posts — as much as things I've enjoyed but to which I hadn't dedicated a whole blog post. Here are my five picks for January:

1. Les Liaisons Dangereuses
I first came across Choderlos de Laclos's novel in the form of Cruel Intentions, which transports the story of scheming, cruelty and betrayal in 18th century Paris to the Upper East Side of Manhattan with spoiled, rich teenagers in the central roles; I was 16, OK... Cruel Intentions is actually a decent film, and it plays out like a scene-by-scene remake of Christopher Hampton's stage adaptation of the original novel. Although I've since seen the Stephen Frears film based on Hampton's script, I had yet to see Hampton's work on the stage.

By the time I realised that the Donmar Warehouse was putting on Les Liaisons Dangereuses with Dominic West and Janet McTeer in the central roles, it was already sold out. It still is and is only on for another two weeks, but it's worth giving the returns queue a go if you are keen to see the production — I tried one Saturday afternoon, and just missed out (there were four tickets and I was fifth in the queue), but kept checking back on the Donmar website and eventually got lucky.

It was definitely worth the hassle: although West still wasn't quite word perfect, he oozes charisma and stage presence, showing a greater depth of emotion in the denouement, and McTeer is brilliantly wicked as the Marquise de Mertueil — perhaps as good as Glenn Close in the Frears film. It was also nice to see Una Stubbs and Edward 'London Spy' Holcroft in supporting roles.

2. Randall & Aubin
I've walked past seafood restaurant Randall & Aubin, located on Soho's Brewer Street, so many times, but never got around to eating there. They don't take bookings on Saturdays or weekday evenings, but that is hardly usual these days. We went a few weeks ago for a family lunch on a sunny Saturday and what a feast it was. We shared some oysters, and then I had some delicious scallops with pancetta to start, followed by roast cod on pea mash (if you aren't in the mood for fish, there are plenty of meat options too). I definitely didn't have room for pudding but couldn't resist the cheesecake with salted caramel ice cream and didn't regret my decision. The staff were friendly and efficient, and the music was perfectly in keeping with the giant disco ball that hangs in the centre of the small dining room. Randall & Aubin has great food and great ambiance.

3. Oldboy
I've been wanting to watch the classic Korean revenge movie for years — long before the ill-advised American remake surfaced in 2013 — and happily, it popped up on Netflix recently. In Oldboy, a man (Min-sik Choi) is abducted in the middle of the night and kept in a shabby, furnished room for 15 years before he is freed without any knowledge of who kept him captive or why. The rest of the movie follows his efforts to try to find out — and to seek revenge on whoever did this to him. Yes, it's dark and often violent, but Chan-wook Park's film is a masterclass in uncomfortable tension and vengeance. It's clever, it's knowing and it's laced with dark humour. If you haven't already seen it already, I would highly recommend it — it would even make a nice double-bill with The Revenant.

4. Missing Pieces by Heather Gudenkauf
How well can we ever really know another person? This is the question Sarah Quinlan is forced to ask in Heather Gudenkauf’s new novel Missing Pieces. Sarah and her husband Jack have been married for 20 years and have a happy life in Montana with their college-age twin daughters. But when an early-morning phone call brings the couple back to Jack’s Iowa hometown, Sarah is forced to confront a battery of family secrets from Jack’s past. Jack clams up, forcing Sarah to don her former reporter’s cap as she looks into the brutal and technically unsolved murder of Jack’s mother in the family home some 30 years earlier and tries to work out if it links to a present-day murder.

Missing Pieces is a real page-turner — I read the book in a single sitting, racing through to solve the mystery. Gudenkauf’s protagonist Sarah is sympathetic and relatable as the sudden ‘outsider’ among her husband’s hot-headed and secretive family, but seemed a little too slow to pick up on the many well-sign-posted clues to be fully convincing as a former ‘hard news reporter’. There are plenty of red herrings too and a bounty of suspects, which means that even if you think you have identified the culprit, it is hard to be fully certain until the novel’s climax. 

It’s a fun and smart mystery, but Missing Pieces falls short when it comes to the relationship between Sarah and Jack, which feels two dimensional and poorly sketched. The circumstances of the story have introduced distance to their marriage, of course, but as we have never seen them any other way, it’s hard too care too much what happens to them.

Disclaimer: I received a pre-release copy via NetGalley. All opinions are my own.

5. Lumiere London
For four nights in mid-January, a festival of light-based art installations took over central London. Lumiere London is over now, but it's possible that the Lumiere festival will return in the future, either to London or elsewhere in the country, so it's worth keeping an eye out on the website. King's Cross, where I work, was one of the main hubs of the festival, and I went to check out some of the installations. Among my favourites were Diver, which was set up next to the King's Cross Pond, and Litre of Light, a tunnel made from water bottles illuminated in rainbow-coloured lights.

On Saturday, I was in the West End anyway and so decided to stay to look at some of the Regent Street installations too. Janet Echelman's 1.8 London — a fishing-net-inspired sculpture that hung over Oxford Circus, rippling in an ethereal way, and gradually changing colour (the lighting was inspired by the Tohoku earthquake in Japan in 2011, which shortened the day by 1.8 microseconds).

Leicester Square was filled with a Garden of Light, and the Trafalgar Square fountain was turned into Plastic Islands. Although I had to battle huge crowds, I really enjoyed both evenings, which took me back to my annual childhood visits to the Walsall Illuminations with my family.

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