Book Review: ‘The Lost Symbol’ by Dan Brown

September 23, 2009 in Book Reviews

the_lost_symbol

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’?]

First Impressions: Dan Brown’s ‘The Lost Symbol’!

September 16, 2009 in Book Reviews

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The Lost Symbol is out!

I’m not going to lie.  I went out and bought Dan Brown’s latest novel ‘The Lost Symbol‘ on the first day of its release today.

There was surprisingly little buzz surrounding the release.  I had expected Harry Potter-esque queues and people dressed up as Robert Langdon rubbing their hands outside bookstores from midnight – but alas, no such scenes were to be seen.  Just stacks of copies piled behind a sign in every book store and retail outlet with no one around them.

Maybe Dan Brown waited too long since ‘The Da Vinci Code’ to release this one and fickle readers have moved on.  Since that infamous book, the market has been saturated with ‘Dan Brown specials’ – books that weave together fact and fiction into high speed thrillers.  Some of them were probably even better written.  My guess is that it’ll still be a colossal bestseller, but just how colossal depends on word-of-mouth and early reviews.

First Impressions

When the book was initially announced for release, I wrote a post pondering what the book would be like and about.  Well, I’m about 4 chapters in and it’s panning out to be a typical Dan Brown book.  My hard-cover version is a solid 509 pages with smaller-than-expected font, and begins with the usual ‘Fact’ page followed by a ‘what the heck was that?’ Prologue.  So far, so good.  I’m not sure if I am imagining this, but has Dan Brown become a better writer in the last few years?

Anyway, check this space for a review of the book.  I suppose if the book is good, you’ll see the review soon, but if there’s a long wait, you’ll know why.  However, unlike those literary snobs who look down at Dan Brown books because they think his writing is beneath them, I’m going to actually read the book before commenting.

The Most Disgraceful Book Cover Ever!

June 11, 2009 in Book Reviews, On Writing

Rarely do I see such a disgraceful book cover.  See photos below.  Pretty self explanatory.  Pardon the quality of the photos as I took them surreptitiously on my phone camera.

The front cover

The front cover

The back cover

The back cover

For those still confused, the real author’s name is Simon Kernick, and the name of book is Deadline (both down at the bottom).  I’ve seen ‘if you enjoyed X’ type recommendations for new novels before, but this took it to a whole new level.  You can even get the book for free if you pre-order Dan Brown’s forthcoming The Lost Symbol!  The writing on the back cover is not very clear, but the top half is dedicated to why you should read Dan Brown – only the bottom half is about Deadline.

There is no right of publicity in the UK, but I’m sure both Brown and Kernick would be spewing if they knew about this cover (and at least a prima facie case of passing off could be made).  It’s designed to mislead and deceive the careless book buyer, or at the very least cause what is commonly referred to as ‘initial interest confusion’.  The danger is exacerbated when this book is placed right next to Dan Brown’s books, which it was when I found it in WH Smith (a UK bookstore chain).

The thing is, Kernick is not some crappy first time author who can’t sell a copy.  His previous novel, Relentless, was the 8th best-selling paperback, and the best-selling thriller in the UK in 2007.

[Update: seems this book cover controversy has really taken off, with several blogs and newspapers reporting it.  Turns out Kernick knew about it from the start and is quite relaxed about it – because the book was only supposed to be given for free when pre-ordering Brown’s new book, and not to be sold individually.  But what do you expect when the book is placed amongst the other Dan Brown books on the shelves?  Sure, Kernick’s sales have gone up since this promotion (good for him) but as a writer I thought he would have been against it, or at least the way in which it was placed in stores.]

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!

Thoughts on Dan Brown’s latest: The Lost Symbol!

April 22, 2009 in Book Reviews, Entertainment

[Update: I have read the book and my review can be found here!]

Dan Brown’s latest: The Lost Symbol!

I just read that after six long years following the controversial best-seller The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown is finally going to be releasing his brand new book, titled The Lost Symbol, in September 2009!

Has it been that long already?  The movie adaptation of  Angels & Demons, the prequel to DVC, is only being released next month.  All indications are that it will be a vast improvement on the DVC movie.  At least they fixed up Tom Hank’s hair this time.

Apparently, Brown’s publisher Knopf DoubleDay, has already ordered 6.5 million copies of The Lost Symbol to be printed in its maiden run.  The question is – will it be enough, considering DVC sold over 80 million copies worldwide?

I thought THIS was the 'Lost' symbol...

I thought THIS was the 'Lost' symbol...

So, what’s it about?

According to reports, the book is another Robert Langdon adventure, this time taking place in Washington DC over the course of 12 hours, and will involve Freemasonry (for those who don’t know what that is, here’s the Wikipedia entry).  So expect another fast-paced, page-turning thrill ride with some interesting bits of thought-provoking information (that may or may not be controversial) tossed your way throughout.

Expectations?

I have relatively modest expectations for The Lost Symbol.

To begin with, everyone that has read more than one Dan Brown novel knows that he is (or at least has been thus far) a bit of a one-trick pony in that his story structures almost always follow the same broad methodical formula: a mysterious prologue (usually involving a death), kicking off a whirlwind series of events that revolve around a secret or artifact of monumental importance; an intelligent hero trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together in limited time while being pursued by a sinister (faceless) enemy; and a twist at the end that reveals all.

It’s difficult to feel sorry for someone who has sold hundreds of millions of books worldwide, but it’s frightening to think about the amount of pressure Dan Brown must be feeling.  Just how to you follow up one of the most popular books of all time?  The way I see it, there are two general possibilities for this book.  Brown can either go with the formulaic structure that has served him so well in the past (leading to a stinker), or he can try something new and completely different and surprise everyone.  I have a feeling that after so many years since the success of DVC and the weight of an entire generation of fans on his shoulders, Dan Brown will choose the latter path and surprise us this time.  Hopefully.  Why else would he take so many years to finish it?

I remember years ago (could have been 3 or 4 or more) when it was first announced that Dan Brown’s new novel was forthcoming.  It was called The Solomon Key, and it got everyone extremely excited for a while.  I particularly recall seeing whole books written by other losers predicting what The Solomon Key was going to be all about, based on a couple of random clues given by the author.  How ridiculous is that?  Well, I’m sure Mr Brown has learned his lesson and won’t be too keen on spilling the beans on his future novels too early from now on.  I thought The Solomon Key was eventually dumped (as we never saw it), but as it turns out, it was just the ‘working title’ of The Lost Symbol, so it will be interesting to see whether those losers were correct in their guesses.

I must say though, The Lost Symbol isn’t a name that instills a lot of confidence in the book itself.  I actually prefer The Solomon Key.  After all these years of waiting, couldn’t they have come up with something better?  Something a little less generic?  Maybe they did it on purpose to protect the plot.

In any case, there is one thing for sure – The Lost Symbol is going to be nowhere as controversial as DVC.  I don’t think Dan Brown can make it more controversial even if he wanted to.  I’m personally expecting it to be an exciting read, but certainly not on the mindblowing level of DVC, simply because I can’t imagine Freemasonry capable of being a topic that is more explosive than Jesus.  Judging from the information we’ve been given so far, I’m guessing that The Lost Symbol will be something like a dramatization of half a season of 24, with Robert Langdon as a wussy, intellectual version of Jack Bauer.

Final thoughts

I have a lot to thank DVC for because it got me back into reading.  I remember when word first started spreading about the book.  At the time, I was doing some reading, but it was pretty sporadic; I’d probably read 2 or 3 books a year, if that.  Anyway, I was in Hong Kong on a legal clerkship and one of the partners just kept raving on about the book, so I decided to buy it – and it blew me away!  Of course, I then went and got the rest of Brown’s books, and things just snow-balled from there.  Before I knew it I was reading 10 books a year, mostly on the train to and from work (and if it was good I’d read more at home).

Needless to say, we also have a lot to hate DVC for because it kicked off an avalanche of shithouse copycat books that tried to cash in on the book’s success (that is, mixing facts and legend in a fast-paced action story), not to mention those annoying ‘guide’ books that attempted to ‘unveil the truth behind the myth’ by dissect every line of the novel in excrutiating detail.  Even now in book stores I see a lot of similar novels with similar covers and storylines, and they all have something to do with a race against time to find some mythical artifact or unveil some deep-hidden mystery that’s been lost for centuries.  I’m sure some of them are good, probably even better than what Dan Brown has to offer, but the market is so saturated with these books now that it’s hard to separate the pretenders from the contenders.