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.

tom-hanks-517

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

I don’t know how people with kids do it!

February 8, 2012 in Blogging, Fantasy, Misc, Novel, On Writing, Parenting

Ned Stark had kids (including illegitimate ones), and he still accomplished a lot

Action has been somewhat slow on this blog lately, and with good reason.  My baby boy had been caught a little cold, as have his parents.  A healthy baby is brutal enough, but a sick baby is the cherry on top. Man I wish I cherished my sleep more in the past!

On top of that, I have commenced a full-time job at a place where I can write and edit  for a living.  It’s mainly newsy, journalistic stuff, but it’s better than nothing.  I’m grateful for the opportunity to learn as much as I can and hone my skills, which need a lot of honing. It doesn’t pay nearly as well, but on the bright side, it’s soooo cruisy compared to being a lawyer.  I finally feel like I belong, doing stuff I believe in and that I am comfortable with, without feeling totally stressed out all the time and like a fraud who has no idea what’s going.  And the best part is that I can leave work at 6pm, not 6am, meaning I can get home in time for dinner with the family and spend time with my wife and son.  That would never have been possible before.

I’m not quite sure what this means for the future of this blog, which still has at least 2 dozen posts waiting in the wings for me to write.  I started this blog as a hobby and it will remain so, but finding time to write posts is going to be difficult.  Time is a premium commodity these days, and even finding time to read is difficult, let alone exercise or play video games.  And what about my novels, the novels I so desperately want to finish (especially my fantasy novel, which has garnered renewed interest after I recently watched the first season of Game of Thrones — I also need to read all those books, by the way)?  Your guess is as good as mine.

Seriously, I don’t know how people with kids do the things they do.  How and where they find the time to go to the gym, catch up with friends, see a movie, write bestselling novels, change the freaking world.  I’m sure it gets easier as the kids get older but seriously, there are so many other excuses to prevent you from doing what you need to do!  You can count me in as someone in awe of anyone who can finish writing a book with young children in the house.

I remember reading somewhere that John Grisham used to get to work (at his law firm) an hour before everyone else and write at least a page on a yellow note pad.  Every day.  In a year or two, he had A Time to Kill.  I also remember reading that Dan Brown would get up at 4am every day to write.  Are these people even human?  I mean, come on.  Don’t these robots need sleep?

The good news for me is that my new job is a get-your-work-done-and-you-can-do-whatever-you-want kind of place.  I’m still as slow as a snail’s turd at the moment, but if I can train myself to be an article generating machine, then chances are I’ll have some time during the work day to pump out a couple of posts or even work on the novel.  In the meantime, however, I still have a bunch of freelance editing work holding up my “free” time, so it might be a little while longer before I can get into the groove.

That’s all I’ve got time for now.  As a butt-groping former governer once said, I’ll be back.

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.

The Depressing World of Publishing

August 4, 2010 in Novel, On Writing

I’m back into the swing of things with my writing course, which has so far been extremely satisfying and enjoyable (for the most part).  Two of my subjects this term are editing and writing feature articles, both aspects of writing I’m really looking forward to.  The classes this first week have been small (less than 10, though a lot of people who were supposed to be there didn’t rock up) — and about 50% of students are ex-lawyers!  That says it all, doesn’t it?

Anyway, it was interesting and depressing to learn about how difficult it is to crack into the publishing world and how difficult it is to stay there once you make that breakthrough.  It’s hard, it’s rough, and for the vast majority, little money to be made (especially in a small market place like Australia).

For starters, most big publishing houses these days don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts.  They just don’t have time for slush piles, 99% of which is unpublishable drivel anyway (or so they say).  That means you need a literary agent, but not many agents accept people who have never been published.  Does that even make sense?  You can’t publish unless you can get an agent but you can’t get an agent unless you’re published.

Secondly, publishing has evolved into an industry where it’s all about making money.  Gone are the days where commercial fiction is used to prop up the literary fiction that generally don’t make any money.  If your book is unlikely to sell, then chances are the publisher won’t even consider it.  It could be a masterpiece, but if there is no market for the book, it’s unlikely the book will see the light of day.

There are some boutique publishers these days more willing to take on unknown writers and literary fiction writers, but the money to be made there is very small (clearly not enough to live off) and their budget for advertising/promotion etc will obviously be a lot more limited.  But at least there’s a chance.

Thirdly, and relatedly, it’s hard to keep books on the shelves these days with the increasingly accurate counting of book sales (thanks to systems such as Bookscan).  Bookscan essentially tabulates real sales from most bookstores across Australia (I’m sure there are similar systems across the world) into an exact, concrete figure.

This is important because back in the old days it was easier for publishers to inflate the success of their writers by manipulating the numbers.  For instance, you may print 5,000 books in your first run, and 4,000 of them are sold to bookstores.  The publisher might then say you sold 4,000 books, which is technically true — but of those 4,000, perhaps only 2,000 are sold from the stores, with the rest returned.  Now, there’s no hiding the truth.  If you sold 163 copies, you sold 163 copies.

So if you finally managed to get that first book published but it sold poorly, your chances of getting a second book published becomes that much harder.  You can’t even go to another publisher and lie about the success of your first book because they’ll have all the numbers right there in front of them.

Fourthly, and also related, is the fact that books don’t stay on the shelves for very long.  New titles that don’t perform well are pulled off the shelves within 3 months.  3 months!  How does that even give people a chance?  How can you build any momentum, any word of mouth?  It may take 3 months just for some people to read the book!

The need to make money out of every book on the shelf as become a recurring nightmare for aspiring authors.  That’s why we have the vicious cycle of the same books remaining on the bestsellers lists every week — you know, the Stieg Larssons, the Stephenie Meyers, the JK Rowlings and the Dan Browns — because these books are proven sellers.  People tend to gravitate to what’s “hot”, what everyone else is reading.  Hence instead of bringing in new books, book stores prefer to stock new versions (often just different sizes and covers) of existing titles to freshen them up a bit — the best example I can think of are the movie-tie-in versions and the Twilight red page-edge versions.

Let’s face it, the chances of becoming one of those superstar authors mentioned above are a hundred million to one.  Those guys can live (well, except for Larsson because he’s dead) off the sales of one book for the rest of their lives.  For everyone else, they’ll have to keep writing.

The advances on royalties for new authors in Australia are excrutiatingly small.  Essentially what they do is make a prediction of how many books you will sell, and then multiple that by 10% of the price of the book.  So if the book costs $30 and they think you will sell 2,000 copies, then your advance is $6,000.  Considering the book may have taken you 10 years to write, that’s not a lot of money.  And if the book ends up selling more than 2,000 copies, then each additional copy sold will earn you 10% in royalties.

The problem is, in a small market such as Australia, selling around 15,000 to 20,000 (in total) would be considered successful.  Even if each book is priced at $50, that’s still only $75,000-$100,000 — not exactly money you can retire on — and that’s only if your book is a success.

Look, there are still plenty of local success stories out there, such as Rebecca James (author of Beautiful Malice), which I talked about in this post here.  But these are rare, rare cases.  It’s like winning the lottery.

Few authors can become international superstars like Meyer and Rowling, but there are many minor to moderately successful writers who have been snapped up for multiple book deals at a price equivalent to working in a decent job (say $100,000-$200,000 a year).  That’s a pretty comfortable living.

However, the pressure of churning out one or even two books a year could take the fun out of the writing, and more importantly, the quality of the books will suffer.  Can you imagine being contracted to write one book every 12 months, especially if you say took 5 years to write your first one?  Can you write one every 6 months, and expect to put in the same amount of effort and ensure the same level of quality as your previous books?

That’s exactly why we have so many reasonably well-known authors (not going to mention names) that seem to continuously bring out new books, but each one is worse than the next.  It gets people wondering why the quality of their new stuff is so much less inspiring than their old stuff.  But at the end of the day, they still sell, and that’s what publishers care about.  After all, they are the ones putting up the money.

So it’s hard to get an agent.  It’s hard to get published.  It’s hard to stay on the shelves.  It’s even harder to get republished.  The money is unlikely to be good.  And even if you do get signed for more books, it might not be exactly what you were hoping for.

And yet, despite all of this, I continue to write, and I continue to dream.  Why?  It reminds me of this awful movie I just watched (review coming shortly) where a woman says that her daughter is studying and wants to get into creative writing.  Her male companion is shocked and says, “But how is she going to make any money?”  The woman responds stoically, “She’s doing what she loves.”  I can relate to that.

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!