Book Review: “Inferno” by Dan Brown

June 23, 2013 in Best Of, Book Reviews, Reviews

inferno

I did it. I finally made the decision to read Dan’s Brown’s latest novel, Inferno, and I stuck with it until the end. I don’t mean to be a dick about it. After all, I was a fan of The Da Vinci Code (which I credit as the catalyst for getting me back into reading regularly) and found Angels & Demons exciting in a guilty-pleasure kinda way. Even The Lost Symbol, which came after the blistering success of Da Vinci, was a page-turner.

But let’s face it, Dan Brown is not the greatest writer in the world and has been ruthlessly ridiculed for years because of it. After reading Inferno cover to cover, it’s easy to see why the man has his critics — but honestly, he is not that bad. Perhaps he has improved his writing over the years, or maybe he got a new editor, or both. He might still be no Hemingway, but he’s no Stephenie Meyer (the blood-sucking vampire who gave us The Twilight Saga) either, and he is certainly no EL James (the demon who sucked the blood of Stephenie Meyer to create The 50 Shades Trilogy).

Inferno is the fourth book to star Robert Langdon, the Harvard symbolist played by the worst haircuts Tom Hanks has ever had in the movie versions of The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons. The Da Vinci Code was focused largely on the works of Leonardo Da Vinci, in particular The Last Supper, while Angels & Demons was about the Vatican, and The Lost Symbol about the masons in Washington DC. This time, Inferno is centered on the 14th century epic poem of the same name written by Dante Alighieri, which is all about his journey through the nine circles of hell.

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It sounds pretty fascinating and it is, at times, but I found Inferno to have the least intriguing subject matter of all the Langdon novels despite having possibly the highest and most realistic stakes. Can’t say more than that without divulging spoilers.

Anyway, kudos to Brown for trying to build something to rival his most popular books when he could have been counting money instead. The formula of Inferno is pretty much the same as the other Langdon books. It starts off with the same spiel under the now-infamous title of FACT, and follows Langdon as he travels through various cities (this time predominantly in Italy) to solve cryptic clues that lead to more cryptic clues that could help him save the world from some catastrophic terror. Again.

For all his faults as a novelist, Brown is the master of creating fast-paced action and threading the action with the requisite background and explanations without skipping a beat. The chapters are short to keep up the suspense and there are plenty of twists and turns and red herrings to throw you off track, which I admit Brown does very well, probably as well as anything he does with the exception of describing architecture and giving history lessons on the run.

As expected, Inferno is filled with historical and architectural nuggets, much of which is very interesting but also completely unnecessary and irrelevant to the narrative. I had the feeling that Brown had plenty more trivia to share but was forced to pare it back (to 480 pages). There were a few times in Inferno where I felt he slowed it down too much to explain something, but in general the novel was effective as a page-turner — not bad for a book that at times felt like a collection of glorified Wikipedia entries.

Inferno’s biggest flaw is that Brown does not claim that Dante’s poem contains any secret messages in itself (like say Da Vinci’s The Last Supper or in the architectural symbols in Washington DC). All the cryptic clues are artificially “inserted” by a Dante fanatic who really has no reason to be giving them away, especially when they would help the fanatic’s enemies from stopping him achieve his ultimate goal. That’s the thing with Dan Brown novels — you start wondering “why” and it all falls apart.

The problem with Brown’s writing is still…the writing. Inferno is an unsightly adverb fest (zing!) with little subtlety (never his strong suit), too much overwriting, and littered with irritating phrases like “smiled at the handsome academic beside her” and “involving the distinguished academic in the crisis” — for God’s sake, his name is Langdon! Even a simple “him” would have sufficed. But you know what? It’s still better than it used to be.

The characters are also made of paper (zing again!). We’ve followed Langdon for four books now and all we know is that he is tall, handsome, has a wry sense of humour and is claustrophobic. His new lady friend (he has a new lady friend in each book) has a little more depth, but it is impossible for someone like her to exist in real life. On top of that, there is a villain who seems to have been created with actor David Morse in mind (very tall, green eyes, enigmatic), and a beautiful, elegant silver-haired woman who conjures images of Helen Mirren. None of them are particularly interesting.

On the whole, however, I would rank Inferno as Brown’s third best book, below The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons, but above The Lost Symbol and the non-Langdon Deception Point and Digital Fortress. The subject matter of Inferno is just not as interesting as the other Langdon novels, making it also less of a page-turner, even though the writing is technically better. That said, Dan Brown fans will surely lap it up, and casual fans could still find the brisk and educational read enjoyable.

3.5/5

The “I can do better” writer’s syndrome

April 22, 2011 in Blogging, Misc, On Writing

Could you do better than this man?

One thing I have noticed lately, especially on forums, is that certain nameless, faceless people think they can do better than some of the biggest selling authors out there — Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer, Stieg Larsson — just to name a few.  Even the ones that come short of actually saying it imply it with their trashing of the author’s writing and shock that their books have sold so well.

Sorry to break it to those people, but you can’t.  If you could, you would have done it already.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with critiquing a writer or a piece of work.  Even the most revered masterpieces have their critics.  People have different tastes, and no piece of writing is ever going to please every reader.

But to say you can do better is a big call.  There is so much that goes into putting together a novel than these ‘I can do better’ people can fathom.  Sure, luck does play a role, sometimes a significant one, but at the end of the day, a mixture of skill, talent, perseverance and determination is imperative in putting together a bestseller.  And time — finding the time to actually complete it is probably the biggest obstacle of all.

The truth is, good writing alone is not enough to sell books.  It’s about meeting the demands of the market, bring at the right place at the right time, and having an interesting idea.  An idea that appeals to the masses.

Dan Brown, the creator of The Da Vinci Code, is an oft-targeted author.  His writing is, admittedly, nothing spectacular from a technical standpoint, but it’s adequate.  He also has his strengths, being an excellent craftsman of page turners.  But is that why The Da Vinci Code was such an international phenomenon?  Of course not.  It’s because he identified something when he read Holy Blood, Holy Grail, and realised that it would make an awesome premise for a thriller.  At least one that would be highly controversial.

But was that all he needed, a good idea?  Of course not again.  He must have spent hundreds of hours researching and piecing the story together, and who knows how long he spent creating the novel’s many cryptic puzzles?  Then, he had to actually write the damn thing.  I recall reading somewhere that for every page of The Da Vinci Code, there were another 10 pages that ended up on the cutting room floor.  How can anyone not find that an impressive effort?

There are times when I am reading a particular writer’s work and I don’t think it is any good, and I start wondering if I can write something better.  But I tell myself that it’s one thing to tell yourself that you may have the potential ability to do it, but it’s another thing altogether to actually get it done.

Book Review: ‘The Nostradamus Prophecies’ by Mario Reading

May 15, 2010 in Book Reviews

After struggling through the life of Madame Bovary, I needed something light and easy for my next book.  Enter The Nostradamus Prophecies by Mario Reading (not to be confused with The Nostradamus Prophecy by John S Powell or Theresa Breslin), one of the bargain books I picked up whilst travelling in Taiwan.

Now I will preface my review with the statement that I have nothing against Mario Reading.  I think he’s a good writer and very knowledgeable when it comes to Nostradamus.  I also read his blog and it’s actually great, and he seems like a nice guy.

But I have to call it like it is and say that The Nostradamus Prophecies was ultimately a disappointment.

I was initially drawn to the book because it looked like one of those Dan Brown-esque action thrillers with some interesting, semi-factual context thrown in (eg on the cover it says “An Ancient Secret; A Deadly Conspiracy); that and because I have always been deeply fascinated by Nostradamus and his prophecies.

It tells the story of a man called Adam Sabir, a writer who also happens to be a Nostradamus expert (and appears to be very closely based on Mario Reading himself).  Sabir responds to an advertisement that suggests someone has in his possession missing verses from Nostradamus’ prophecies, but ends up being framed for a crime and having both the French police and the henchman of a clandestine cult on his trail.  Doesn’t sound like the most original of plots, but I wasn’t exactly expecting one when I bought it.

The Nostradamus Prophecies had all the elements to be great.  An fascinating premise based around a legendary figure with a cult-like following around the world and prophecies that foretell the end of days.  An intellectual protagonist on the run.  A few interesting secondary and minor characters.  A dangerous, shadowy antagonist who will stop at nothing.

But somehow, none of those elements came together in the book.  My biggest gripe with The Nostradamus Prophecies is that Nostradamus and his prophecies don’t drive the storyline.  They become almost an afterthought during the tussle between Sabir and his chasers.  We don’t learn much about the life of Nostradamus, how he came to write these prophecies, or what they may contain (until the last couple of pages).  The Nostradamus prophecies become merely a plot device to get the ball rolling — there are perhaps one or two little riddles, but at no time do we feel like we are drawn into some deep mystery or that finding the prophecies would lead to some marvellous revelation.  And that’s a shame because it felt like there was enough there to make it a truly explosive and intelligent adventure in the vein of The Da Vinci Code.

As a result, The Nostradamus Prophecies runs through to the end never having that “wow” factor or that unputdownable feeling.  Yes, most of the short chapters end on a minor cliffhanger, but the tension just isn’t there.  I kept waiting for that moment where I would really get into it and want to keep reading deep into the night, but unfortunately it never came.

A big part of the problem lies with the antagonist, who has the silly nickname of the “eye-man”.  He is no doubt a dangerous and violent villain, but for some strange reason he instilled little fear in me.  Perhaps it was because his intelligence or craftiness never shone through.

The most fascinating part of The Nostradamus Prophecies ended up being the things we learn about France’s gypsies.  It’s an amazing world, an oft-misunderstood culture that most people would have trouble believing still exists today.  The story’s two main gypsy characters, Yola and Alexi, turn out to be the most interesting in the book.  So from that perspective at least, I can say the book did very well, but I wanted to read the book because of what I might learn about Nostradamus, not gypsies!

However, to be fair, I don’t think the misleading title or blurb is entirely Reading’s fault.  The original title was The 52, but it was changed for promotional purposes to reign in readers with a fascination for Nostradamus.  Sadly, if the novel was advertised as a story about gypsy culture, I don’t think it would be the international bestseller is has become today.

Reading The Nostradamus Prophecies gave me a new appreciation for The Da Vinci Code.  For all the criticism Dan Brown’s writing as received, he is a master at blending fact and fiction into an exciting story with break-neck pace.  So many people out there think it’s an easy thing to do and requires no great skill, but as the plethora of similar books in recent years has proven, it’s much harder than it looks.

So maybe I am being too harsh on The Nostradamus Prophecies.  After all, a poor book wouldn’t be translated into multiple languages and sell more than 150,000 copies (and rapidly increasing).  I just found out that The Nostradamus Prophecies is the first book in a Nostradamus “trilogy”, and the second book is being released in the UK in August 2010.  I hope this one will focus more on Nostradamus and really make us think about what his prophecies mean for the world in the next few years.

I think Reading’s biggest obstacle stems from the fact that he is such a knowledgeable expert on Nostradamus that it becomes hard for him to distill that knowledge into a story that is both educational and exciting for the casual reader.  Make us believe in the prophecies.  Teach us more about Nostradamus and the third Antichrist he foretells.  If he can do that then the second book could be a ripper.

I sincerely hope he succeeds.

2.5 stars out of 5!

Book Review: ‘The Lost Symbol’ by Dan Brown

September 23, 2009 in Book Reviews

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I just finished reading the most eagerly anticipated, non-Harry Potter book in history, Dan Brown’s latest, The Lost Symbol.  So what did I think of it?  Very interesting, very exciting and very Dan Brown.   But at the end of the day, it was no Da Vinci Code.

That said, it would be pretty unreasonable to expect Brown to write a better follow-up to one of the most read novels of all time (as stated in his bio on the book jacket!).  The pressure he felt must have been mind-boggling, which may explain why the book took so bloody long to finish!

What’s it about?

The Lost Symbol is the third adventure featuring Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon (in movie terms that’s Tom Hanks), and takes place over the course of an evening in the US capital of Washington DC.  As correctly predicted, it involves a mysterious figure, lots of problems to solve involving codes and symbols, a fascinating blend of fact and fiction, and of course, a race against time.  Oh, and plenty of twists and turns to keep you guessing.

What’s good about it?

One thing you can’t deny about The Lost Symbol is that it’s highly addictive.  Brown knows how to push his readers’ buttons, using a compulsive blend of interesting factoids, short chapters, hooks and multiple interchanging subplots to keep readers flicking the pages.  Just about every chapter ends in a cliffhanger, though the resolution usually doesn’t come until a couple of chapters later (if that).  As a result, you’ll find yourself in a perpetual state of wanting to find out what happens next!  It’s a formula Dan Brown has used in just about all his novels, and he’s clearly getting very good at it.

The Lost Symbol is the type of book you can get, well, lost in.  It’s advisable to read long chunks in one sitting because there are so many layers of mysteries and subplots stacked on top of each other that it’s easy to forget or get confused unless it’s all fresh in your mind.

What’s not so good about it?

The story itself – to be honest, is nothing special.  There is this overarching conspiracy theory regarding Freemasonry and the link between the human mind and the universe (I know, I know), and while it does traverse issues regarding religion, I don’t quite think it has the same ‘pop’ as The Da Vinci Code (or even Angels & Demons) when it comes to causing controversy.  It’s just too easy to laugh off.  That said, I do like the theory that Brown puts forward in the novel. Yes it’s out there and it probably risks incurring the wrath of every religion around the world, but strangely, it kind of rings true.

Notwithstanding all of that, some parts of the novel do feel somewhat contrived.  When Brown wants to make a big deal out of something (or nothing), he really goes all out, regardless of whether it warrants such a fuss.  It’s like he feels he needs to convince you of its magnitude through exaggerated overreaction from his characters and an ample dose of italics. Those who have read the book know what I mean.  There’s so much hype and so much build up running throughout the novel, and at the end of the day when all is revealed, you can’t help but go ‘meh’.

Furthermore, while I know it is a Dan Brown novel, I must point out that a lot of stuff in the book doesn’t really make sense if you apply some thought to it.

The characters are also not particularly inspiring.  Langdon is your typical cardboard protagonist, the archetypal reluctant hero with a big brain and a solid helping of skepticism (even when you just know he’s wrong!) but unfortunately, zero personality.  However, we all know that about Langdon already, so it’s no surprise.  With all the stuff poor Langdon’s been going through over the last few years I like to think of him as the intellectual Jack Bauer with no combat skills.  Of course, there’s also the strong-minded semi-love interest, the mentor, the mysterious helper, the decoy and the tortured-soul villain with a hidden motive.  Typical Dan Brown stuff really.

As for Brown’s writing, I won’t go into that too much because I don’t feel I’m qualified to critique it, even if that writer has been panned a lot by critics.  Though I will say that I honestly think Dan Brown has improved as a writer since The Da Vinci Code.

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Dan Brown doing the pose that says 'I'm a douche' more than any other pose

However…

The appeal of Dan Brown’s books has never been his writing prowess.  It’s always been Brown’s ability to churn out a believable mixture of fact and fiction using obscure pieces of information – information that ordinary people find interesting but can’t be bothered expending the effort to research.  Inserting this information into a fast-paced action story, however, gives it a whole new perspective.  People may scoff at this suggestion, but I guess you can say that Dan Brown’s books, apart from providing entertainment, also have some educational value.   It’s just that sometimes the readers aren’t smart enough to figure out which is which.

To me, what is most impressive about The Lost Symbol is Brown’s ability to create complex labyrinths of puzzles and codes by linking them to something based in reality. The amount of time, research, thought and effort in creating them must be astounding.  Like Angels & Demons and The Da Vinci Code, The Lost Symbol is fantastic at utilising the landmarks of the place in which the story takes place.  We’ve had Rome and we’ve had Paris – now add Washington DC to the list.  I wonder where Dan Brown will take us next?

A final point worth noting is that Brown has ensured that The Lost Symbol is a book relevant to its time, with numerous references to popular culture and the latest fads.  It fits in well with the book’s ultimate message about our world today.

In conclusion…

As I said in my First Impressions post, the timing of my review is a good yardstick for what I thought of the novel.  I bought the book on the day of its release (15 September) and it took me around 9 days to complete (I probably would have taken longer had it not been for the 2-hour traffic jam I experienced on Sunday thanks to the Sydney Marathon).

For a slightly overlong 509-page book with reasonably small font, I’d say that puts ‘The Lost Symbol’ in the middle of the pack.   In the Dan Brown hierarchy, I’d place The Lost Symbol firmly after The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons. It’s not quite as good as those two in my opinion, but it’s significantly better than Digital Fortress and Deception Point.

3.5 out of 5 stars!

[PS: I’d be very interested to know whether the slew of ‘prediction books’ that came out around the time ‘The Lost Symbol’ was announced (back then as ‘The Solomon Key’) came close to guessing what the book was about. My guess is a firm NO.]

[PPS: What’s the bet there will be a huge upsurge in searches on ‘Noetic science’?]

Movie Review: Angels & Demons (2009)

May 16, 2009 in Movie Reviews

Angels and Demons

Yesterday I saw Angels & Demons, you know, the highly anticipated follow-up to the controversial (and hugely successful) The Da Vinci Code, also adapted from the novel of the same name written by Dan Brown.

After the somewhat modest reactions to the The Da Vinci Code (which I actually think deserved more credit), my expectations were held in check this time.  Another good thing is that it had been so long since I read the book that I had kind of forgotten what it was all about.  Consequently, I was pleasantly surprised.  It was fun, exciting, and the pieces came together at the right moments.

In short, it was a vast improvement on the first film and I totally enjoyed it!

Background

Angels & Demons the book is a prequel to The Da Vinci Code, but the movie is filmed as a sequel (and there are several references to the events of the first film in the opening scenes).  As per my review etiquette, I won’t divulge plot details, but given the success of the novel, it’s safe to assume most people at least have an idea of what it is about.   All I will say is that, like its predecessor, Angels & Demons is heavily influenced by religious themes and involves a desperate race against time that leads to a lot of running around.  Whereas The Da Vinci Code was set predominantly in Paris, Angels & Demons leads you through a breath-taking adventure through the various attractions and sights of Rome and Vatican City.

Action, action and more action

Dan Brown’s novels are known to unveil at neck-breaking pace.  However, unlike the book, many felt that The Da Vinci Code movie was, frankly, a bit of a bore.  Angels & Demons doesn’t suffer from the same problem because it’s made as more of a popcorn movie with full-throttle action right from the beginning, rarely pausing to catch its breath.

The difference is in the adaptationThe Da Vinci Code movie was bogged down by the need to fully explain its complex conspiracy theories, and despite doing so very well (and innovatively), it led to dull patches that killed the momentum.  Director Ron Howard certainly learned his lesson, because even though the plot and theories of Angels & Demons also require a fair amount of explanation, this time they did it right – by giving you the essentials upfront and then feeding you bits of information at a time so that the pace never sags for very long and things are kept moving.

Though I couldn’t recall much from the book, Ron Howard definitely changed or deliberately left out certain parts of the storyline in the film – and I think it was for the better.  To be honest, the conspiracy theories in Angels & Demons sounded pretty silly when transformed from the page to the big screen (and coming from me that says a lot because I tend to believe in a lot of that stuff), so I felt it was a smart choice to leave the emphasis off all of that and focus on keeping the foot on the gas pedal.  There’s probably another reason why they decided to do it, but I won’t say because it may lead to a potential spoiler.  Nevertheless, the end product was much closer in style and pace to the novel than The Da Vinci Code was, and therein lies the biggest contrast between the two films.

Cast

The mullet is gone

The mullet is gone

Terrific all-star cast.

Of course, Tom Hanks returned as professor Robert Langdon, sans the infamous mullet from last time (I still think the new hairdo is a FAIL, just not an EPIC FAIL – perhaps he needs sideburns or something).  Hanks clearly got into good shape to portray the character, as evident from his very first scene, but there was still some awkwardness to him.  Maybe he just wasn’t the right choice for Langdon, but it’s too late now because like it or not the character will forever be associated with the actor.

The big upgrade was Ayelet Zurer (Israeli actress best known from Munich – the film not the city), who portrays the scientist/sidekick to Hank’s Langdon.  As much as I like Audrey Tautou (from The Da Vinci Code), Zurer’s chemistry with Hanks was so much better, and she more than holds her own in the film.

I was glad to see Ewan McGregor (as the ‘Camerlengo’) again on the big screen after bumping into him in person while vacationing in Berlin.  By the way, he was brilliant in the role.

There were other solid supporting roles too, such as Stellan Skarsgard as Commander Richter of the Swiss Guard and the always trusty Armin Mueller-Stahl as Cardinal Strauss.  Note both names were changed from the novel.

Special Effects

Ron Howard and his special effects team really worked miracles in Angels & Demons, because despite the film being set almost entirely in Rome and Vatican City, the Vatican made it virtually impossible for them to shoot there.  And yet you would have never noticed if no one had told you.

I don’t know how they did it, but it must have involved building full-scale replicas, smaller scale replicas and lots of digital effects.  Really just shows you can pretty much do whatever you want in movies these days (as long as you have the budget).

There were also some other sensational special effects sequences that were done with amazing realism, though I can’t discuss them without spoiling the plot.  You’ll just have to watch it!

Religious Themes

I found it interesting that the Vatican basically condemned this film before it even began shooting.  It probably had a lot to do with the anti-church reputation The Da Vinci Code had developed, but I actually thought that Angels & Demons had a pro-church and pro-faith undercurrent.  Sure, there were some thinly-veiled criticisms of the Catholic Church, but on the whole the film did a decent job of reconciling science and religion, and reminding everyone that religion is, ultimately, a man-made thing that is not perfect.  Perhaps Catholics might even find the film uplifting.  Regardless, I’m sure the boycotts are already in motion.

Dan Brown

Angels & Demons, apart from being a fun action flick, really reminded me of what Dan Brown is capable of. You see all the copycat authors that are out there today and it tends to dilute what Brown accomplished with his two most popular novels.  Seeing the film made me remember how great the storyline was and how brilliant Brown was in being able to link everything together so intricately, making all the pieces fit so perfectly.  A mind-boggling amount of research and thought must have gone into it.  It’s a great example for aspiring writers who want to pen the next international bestseller.  Brown may not be a great (or even good) writer but he’s put a lot of effort into creating these engaging stories.

This has definitely reinvigorated my enthusiasm for Brown’s upcoming new novel, The Lost Symbol, which is coming out this September (s0me preliminary thoughts here).

Final Thoughts

In all, Angels & Demons is a great action film (with a little extra) that doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not.  It’s a movie that caters for a wide audience.

Those that have been to Rome or the Vatican will get a kick out of seeing all those places being used in the film (I had a few ‘remember that place?’ moments myself).  It’s also good for people who haven’t, because it will probably make them want to go now!

I’m sure those who have already read the book will enjoy the film because it is genuinely exciting and captures the thrill ride entailed in the novel.  However, I think those that will like the film most are those who haven’t read the book (and there’s probably not many out there), because they will be even more impressed by the scale of the story and the way the symbols, conspiracies, science, religion, action and storyline is all woven together.

Just go in with an open mind, don’t expect everything to make sense, take the conspiracy theories with a large chunk of salt – and you might be surprised how enjoyable the film can be.

4 out of 5 stars!