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Review: Inferno by Dan Brown

I’ve reviewed several Dan Brown books on this site in the past. As I sat down to write this review, my memory was that I’d always pretty much laid into them with unremitting criticism. In fact, that’s not true. I was rather more positive than I remembered being.

Of Digital Fortress, I said:

One knows what one is getting into when one buys a Dan Brown book … Sometimes, it’s just what you’re after.

Of Angels and Demons, I said:

The storyline is good, and it’s an entertaining book.

Of The Da Vinci Code, I said:

It was a fairly enjoyable book … certainly worth reading, but don’t expect a masterpiece.

Looking through the archives, it seems I never got round to reviewing The Lost Symbol, though I remember – perhaps falsely – that reading it was a bit of a trial.

I mention all of this because I approached Inferno with the expectation that I would hate it. I wanted to be amused by Brown’s crazy use of language, and even crazier use of ideology. I wanted to find myself amused at the predictable structure of a art-themed treasure trail, which Robert Langdon would complete just in the nick of time. I was looking forward to writing a scathing and somewhat amusing one-star review.

But, as I read, I unexpectedly found myself enjoying this book. It isn’t high art by any means: Dan Brown’s amusingly clunky leaden prose retains its knack for destroying any semblance of atmosphere, the plot is described and recapped constantly for those who weren’t paying attention, and many of the events are predictable.

But Brown has fixed some of the problems that detracted from his earlier works. By and large, Brown has avoided having hero Robert Langdon deliver long speeches explaining points of art history when he is supposedly in a race for his life. Instead, these are accommodated through a combination of flashbacks, and through delivery by other characters who have no knowledge of the wider plot. This isn’t rocket science, but it does improve things considerably.

Brown also manages to deliver several plot twists in this volume that aren’t obvious from the start. The plot of his previous books is entirely predictable: not so this volume. This makes it far more engaging.

Yet not all of the problems have been solved. Brown still writes hilariously clunky prose:

He half wondered if he might at any moment wake up in his reading chair at home, clutching an empty martini glass and a copy of Dead Souls, only to remind himself that Bombay Sapphire and Gogol should never be mixed.

Brown is still utterly incapable of giving his main characters distinct voices. When he attempts to distinguish the voices of minor characters, he resorts to quite hilarious stereotype:

Sienna, eez Danikova! Where you?! Eez terrible! Your friend Dr. Marconi, he dead! Hospital going craaazy!

And yet, Brown builds an uncharacteristically gripping novel that kept me turning the pages, and had me genuinely surprised by the end. This isn’t a bad effort by any means, and probably reaches the uppermost quartile of “mental chewing-gum” novels.

Inferno is available now from amazon.co.uk in hardback and on Kindle.

This 2,032nd post was filed under: Book Reviews, .

Review: Digital Fortress by Dan Brown

‘Twas the week before Christmas… and doing a normal book review seemed a little anti-festive. So this week, I’m featuring a book by Dan Brown. He’s author who has been pretty universally panned by critics – including me – yet has sold millions of books that “promote spiritual discussion and debate” and act “as a positive catalyst for introspection and exploration of our faith”… according to him, at least. Whether those aims also apply when he’s pretending to be a woman, I’m not sure… at least cross-gender pseudonyms have a decent literary heritage.

So let’s turn our attention to Digital Fortress, Dan Brown’s first solo novel published in 1998. It has the geek factor in abundance – it’s about cryptography, tries to make arguments about government surveillance, and features a massive supercomputer. Given Brown’s ouvre, you’ll not be terribly surprised if I tell you it’s a codebreaking supercomputer. Called TRANSLATR. Yep, Dan Brown was missing out the final vowel years before Flickr and Tubmblr came along. But I digress.

This is a story about a code that TRANSLATR can’t crack, and a blackmail attempt on the back of that. It’s also about a frustratingly dim cryptographer who doesn’t know the etymology of the word “sincere”. And, this being Dan Brown, there’s a “dramatic” scene in a Catholic church. There’s no earthly reason why the scene has to be in a church, but I guess Dan Brown likes writing about them. And it does divert him for a little while from making irritating errors like confusing “bits” and “bytes”.

But, by some distance, the most irritating part of Digital Fortress was the final thirty pages, where the solution to the whole central conundrum of the book was glaringly obvious, and yet apparently the most accomplished cryptographers in the world were unable to work it out. And, despite having earlier demonstrated an intimate knowledge of obscure chemicals like freon (in a series of scenes that couldn’t have screamed “Chekhov’s gun” any louder had the phrase actually been included), the central characters are suddenly unable to recall basic facts about basic elements. For a military organisation, there’s an awful lot of insubordination and fraternisation – relationships which end up looking a bit freakishly incestuous (a fact that the characters appear content to ignore).

Now, without wanting to give the game away, how many top secret military installations do you know of which conduct their business under a glass roof? How many buildings do you know of which feature no emergency exits? How did the designers of a military base for cryptographers not see that securing the doors with passwords might be a little… insecure?

Look, I don’t mind suspending my disbelief to some extent when reading a novel. But the degree of idiocy in this book made me half-expect the final word to be “and it was all just a dream!”

Brown has a line he uses in interviews about readers “getting on the train”, by which I think he’s referring to suspension of disbelief. I sort of see where he’s coming from. I get that he tries to write forceful, driving plots where the facts around the edges don’t really matter. But in this volume in particular, the problems with the plot are so big that, to use his metaphor, my train was derailed. Repeatedly.

In the end, I guess one knows what one is getting into when one buys a Dan Brown book. It’s mind-numbing easy-reading tosh. Sometimes, that’s just what you’re after, just as sometimes, we all have a craving for a pot noodle. But good grief, you’re probably in as much trouble if you think this is good literature as if you think pot noodles are high gastronomy. But heck, it’s Christmas – and Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without one star.

If you have a masochistic streak, Digital Fortress is available now from amazon.co.uk in paperback and on Kindle.

Note: Next Wednesday is Boxing Day, when hopefully you’ll be having too much fun to read a book review. So the next one will be published in two weeks, on 2nd January 2013.

This 1,933rd post was filed under: Book Reviews, .

Summer Books: Digital Fortress by Dan Brown

Digital FortressIt’s the third week of this series of book reviews, and given that the two featured so far have featured uncontained vitriol towards the Satan of modern literature, Dan Brown, it seems only right that I should “get it out of my system” by doing a whole review of one of his “novels”. And so, without further ado, this week’s selecion has to be Digital Fortress.

As with all of Dan Brown’s “works”, Digital Fortress is by no means deep, considered, or erudite. It’s a shallow page-turner riddled with predictability.

The final thirty pages of Digital Fortress were, perhaps, the worst of Dan Brown’s “writing” I’ve had the misfortune to experience: The solution to the book’s central conundrum was glaringly obvious, and yet apparently the most accomplished cryptographers in the world were unable to work it out: Despite having earlier demonstrated an intimate knowledge of other obscure chemicals, they are unable to recall basic facts about the most famous of all elements.

In many ways, that’s the least of the plot holes: Why on earth would one build a glass-roofed dome to house a top secret military computer? Given the clear risk of dangerous chemicals sending this top secret computer into meltdown at any moment, why not have emergency exits in the highly secure glass dome? Why secure offices in a department housing the most accomplished cryptographers using security barriers protected with passwords, rather than, say, keys? Why, in a military organisation, is there so much unpunished insubordination? Why, in a piece based around NSA cryptography, does Mr Brown still feel the need to shoehorn in a scene set in a Catholic Church?

It’s all a little bit bizarre. There are so many gaping plot holes, I often wondered if I was about to plunge into one never to be seen again.

Mr Brown even throws some nonsensical romances into the mix, apparently attempting to build interest into which of his flimsy 2D characters would fall in love with which other. Without wishing to give away too much, the whole affair is verging on freakishly incestuous, yet that fact is utterly ignored.

Yet, my most major problem with this “story” is that it is genuinely gripping: It’s difficult to stop reading, because it is so utterly trashily terrible. It’s impossible to resist the lure of reading on to find out when characters are finally going to catch up with the bleedin’ obvious, and to enjoy skirting round the edges of another humorously improbable plot hole.

And so bizarrely, frustratingly, and somewhat disappointingly, I find it impossible not to recommend this “book” – at least on some level. Whilst it’s self-evidently one of the most terrible “works” of modern “literature” my eyes have ever wasted their time scanning, it was actually – secretly – quite entertaining.

Perhaps, in the end, provision of entertainment is the most important function of any novel. It’s just that I find it very hard to truly enjoy any book whose central storyline is rubbish, even if it is gripping. But maybe I’m elitist.

Hey-ho, I guess the best I can say is that you really need to read the thing to know whether or not you’ll like it – which, I guess, is true of any book, and leaves you no better informed than you were at the start of this review… Ain’t blogging great?

» Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell is available now in the sjhoward.co.uk shop

This review was originally posted here on sjhoward.co.uk in April 2005, and has been re-versioned for the ‘Summer Books’ series of reviews published on sjhoward.co.uk and Gazette Live.

This 1,346th post was filed under: Summer Books, , , .

Summer Books: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Cloud AtlasA bit of a change of pace for this week’s Summer Books selection – Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell, once featured as part of Richard and Judy‘s Book Club.

Confounding expectations for a book associated with a daytime chat show, Cloud Atlas soars to levels far above many of the books to be featured in this series of reviews. It has a wonderful central message, which is continually revisited and brought together nicely at the end, and the quality and style of the language over hundreds of years is spot-on.

The book is essentially constructed of six smaller books, each interrupted at a crucial moment in their story – one even midsentence – and returned to later. The story spans from the 1800s right through to a distant future, with each of the different small books being about a different time period, and written in the style of that time period. Because of this, the book could have been enormously gimicky, and been very poorly written, but it wasn’t. Mictchell clearly has the amazing talent required to construct such a story of such amazing ambition, and to transcend both styles and genres.

Whilst this is a marvellous book in itself, it reminded me of Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller in several respects, especially since both are essentially collections of stories-within-stories. However, whilst Traveller was an excellent novel which pushed the boundaries of the genre, Cloud Atlas is far more accessible, much more populist novel that one can just sit down, read, and enjoy, whilst still maintaining a number of worthy themes and messages. This is accessible literature, without descending to the level of Dan Brown.

Cloud Atlas is a very clever novel; in fact, it is so clever that you end up forgetting just how clever it is, and just run along with the story. There aren’t many writers about who can achieve this delicate balance of being smart whilst resisting the temptation to show off and overshadow their own story. That said, I found the first 100 pages or so quite hard going, as I tried to get used to the format of being cut-off mid-flow with no immediate explanation, and some of the stylistic leaps are large. Still, once you get into this book, you won’t come out until you’ve finished.

I highly recommend this book, and if you haven’t read it yet, this summer might be the perfect time to tackle it.

» Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell is available now in the sjhoward.co.uk shop


This review was originally posted here on sjhoward.co.uk in April 2005, and has been re-versioned for the ‘Summer Books’ series of reviews published on sjhoward.co.uk and Gazette Live.

This 1,344th post was filed under: Summer Books, , , , , .

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