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Review: Inferno by Dan Brown

Dan Brown Inferno [ This Post Contains Spoilers & Extreme Snarkiness ]

 So I finished Inferno by Dan Brown, finally.

What I expected would take me two days ended up taking me closer to two weeks, and I’ll tell ya, I’m not super pleased about it.

Now, I’m not usually a Dan Brown basher. I know he isn’t a great writer, but his books sell. And I enjoyed his previous books. You can’t hate a guy just because his books make money. But now, after reading this book, I think I officially give up on trying to defend him.

I originally picked up Inferno because I was interested to see how Brown used Dante’s Divine Comedy as a backdrop to a thriller plot. I mean, levels of hell? Come on, it’s ripe of interesting conflict! Sure, I knew there would be another scavenger hunt of historical clues and some ridiculous melodrama – that’s exactly what his other books had, so I figured I knew was I was getting into. But what I really got was a book full of tired cliches and exhausting repetition.

The book opens to Robert Langdon in a hospital room in a foreign country with amnesia having just suffered a bullet wound to the head. Okay, interesting! I mean, it felt a little forced, and the visions/hallucinations were kind of lame, but it still an interesting, page-turning way to start a story. But as soon as we cut to the spiky-haired woman in an all-black, skin-tight body suit garnishing a gun with a silencer, I wanted to throw the book across the room. So freaking cliche. Why was she wearing a body suit? What is this, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? And then we meet the beautiful blond doctor who saves his life and also happens to be an incredible super genius with an IQ over 20o. Groan.

We then spend the next half of the book basically catching up to where Robert Langdon was before the “head injury,” following clues focused around Dante and his famous works in the Divine Comedy. This was pretty standard in comparison to the previous books. Find ridiculously obscure clue, try to figure out what it means, be baffled, then suddenly remember something from a lecture ten years ago and then find the next clue. Rinse and repeat.

Did I mention that he is being chased by a ton of people with guns and drone planes? But he just keeps giving them the slip….

Eventually we learn the underlying plot to this story, which is actually not that bad. Apparently there is a famous doctor who has been concerned about the world collapsing due to overpopulation to the point where he sort of goes mad and creates a super virus that will kill a big chunk of the world’s population similar to what the Black Plague did to Europe, paving the way for a Renaissance.

Considering over-population is a real concern, I was intrigued. Why the doctor felt the need to go all Dante on us is not certain since the only real explanation we get for that is because no one would have a meaningful discussion about a solution with him so he felt angry and isolated, thus driving him insane. Oh, and he sort of jumped off a building and killed himself before all of this nonsense even really got started. But not before planting a super virus to be released on a certain date and time. Cue ticking time bomb plot trope.

In all seriousness, seeing how Brown was going to tackle the whole over-population thing is what kept me reading this book. There were so many times I wanted to put it down and never finish, but I was determined. Sure I could have just skipped to the end, but I consider reading to have a code of honor – and skipping to the end is just not allowed.

So around 75% of the way into the book, we are still chasing down clue after clue, following Langdon and his brilliant, sexy blond doctor all over Europe. The thing is, they don’t exactly know why they have to solve this mystery. As far as they know, some Dante man has hid a bunch of clues and the woman from Langdon’s visions is tied up in the back of a car. Otherwise, they are flying blind. The only real pressure on them to keep moving is that this mysterious group of people might catch them so they have to get to the end of the bread crumb trail to figure out what they are even looking for…because as I said, THEY DON’T EVEN KNOW.

There is one specific thing about this book that I really, really liked. But it is a HUGE spoiler and reading this will ruin the effect should you choose to read this book. DO NOT READ BELOW THIS LINE IF YOU DON’T WANT IT SPOILED FOR YOU. Simply skip this section and get to my take on the book in general.

———

The best part about this book was the one major twist that I did not see coming. And it was because the setup was actually pretty well done. Brown essentially introduces a new character to the bread crumb crew while the B-plot characters realize that a specific character is actually a bad guy. Cut to a phone call we don’t get to listen to and a chapter entirely in flashback about meeting the crazy Dante scientist and becoming his lover. So logically, we assume that this new character is evil (and infected with a plague), which colors our reading of him for the next few chapters. Then, after Langdon is picked up by the B-plot people who were chasing him, and who are actually good guys…sort of, we find out that the flash back we saw wasn’t from the new character’s point of view…but actually from Langdon’s hot blond doctor! And that it was actually her who was the doctor’s lover. And that, GASP, she is a bad guy! The old switch-a-roo!

I thought this was actually pretty clever on Brown’s part. It was the one twist I didn’t see coming and it was a pretty cool realization to come so late in the book since it completely changed the playing field.

(Except not really because we find out that she was never really a bad guy at all…. which is a whole other issue with this book that I’ll talk about later.)

Then they head to the end of the trail only to find that the specific date on which the virus was to be released was not the release date, but instead it was the saturation point for the plague to have affected everyone on earth. Okay, Interesting!

And then we find out what the virus does. Apparently, it manipulates the human DNA to make people infertile, meaning no more babies, thus curbing human overpopulation. But it doesn’t happen to everyone! It only works on 1/3 of the population (a number taken from Dante and the Black Plague). So it is just this DNA defect now built into everyone so some people can have babies and some can’t. No one dies, they just stop having kids.

Okay, this might sound horrible, but my first reaction when reading this was, “that’s not a the worst solution to global overpopulation…” I know, that’s an awful thought, but after spending the entire book thinking people were going to die horrible deaths, things ended in sort of a “could be worse” type of situation.

Oh, and since everyone was infected, the book just sort of ends with “guess we’ll just have to deal with it.” What? Okay… I guess…

It was the first time one of these books felt separated from our reality.

———

I found the book’s ending to be really interesting, but not satisfying at all. It felt like we had departed from our reality and now Robert Langdon is part of a completely different universe. It just took away some of the “oh cool, maybe that’s true” from the story.

5 thoughts on this book:

1) Cliches. Cliches everywhere. Seriously, assassins in tight body suits brandishing guns. Hot blond brilliant doctors. Epiphanies for every single clue. It felt tired, old, and not original at all. I mean, it’s the same story over and over again, and I knew that going in, but it got to the point where it just felt so forced and contrived. Couldn’t he have tried to do things differently at all?

2) Repetitive. Repetitive. Repetitive. I swear I did more skimming in this book than actual reading. Brown kept telling me the same things over and over again, as though he were trying to reach his word count through repetition. A video was a critical part of the story, and every time we sat down to watch it with a new character (which was like, 4-5 times), we sat through almost the entire script of the video again. And just constant reminders about the plague and Dante and amnesia, etc. etc. etc. I know that emphasis is important, but I don’t need eight different instances of contemplating the exact same thing.

3) No one was actually a bad guy. So the woman trying to kill Langdon is the bad guy. Oh wait, no, she’s not. Must be the other guy trying to catch him. Wait, no. Maybe the guy ordering those two people around? Nope, he’s not so bad either. How about this random new character? He must be evil. Okay…how about this other character who is clearly made out to be the villain. Nope, not that one either? Okay, crazy doctor guy for sure. Well, he didn’t really…er….okay, who is evil here because seriously, I feel like that was a lot of work and effort for nothing.

4) Not enough Dante. I don’t think Brown did as much research for this book as his others because the interesting Dante facts were few and far between. There just weren’t as many clues or steps to take before reaching the end of the trail. In fact, once they reached the location of the virus, it felt like all of the tension was pulled out of the story. And anything related to Dante felt like an afterthought to the actual bio-terrorism plot that was actually kind of interesting.

5) A little bit of interesting character work and a lot of running around for nothing. Some of the characters had potential to be so interesting but then twists upon twists made them lame again. It just sort of felt cheap at the end.

Overall: Don’t read this book. Seriously, it took way too much of my time to force myself to read this book and it was mostly skimming anyway. It would be a waste of your time to pick up this book. There isn’t all that much Dante so it’s not like you’ll learn anything and I’m pretty sure any summer blockbuster movie would be better than this — and that’s saying something.

Sorry Dan Brown. I tried, I really did. But this book was bad and you should feel bad (while you roll around in your piles of money.)


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Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

  [ This Post Contains Spoilers ]

Gone GirlA friend and I decided we would do a two-person book club since all of our friends are in school and don’t have time to join with us. The first book was my suggestion so I figured, why not read the book everyone is talking about? Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn has won a number of accolades including Goodread’s Reader’s Choice for 2012 in the mystery/thriller category.

But I was particularly drawn to read it because during a trip to Michigan with some girlfriends, one of the girls spent the entire weekend plowing through this book rather than carrying on with the rest of us. And I thought, if she can’t tear herself away from that book, it must really be good!.

So I set to reading.

The main thing I hear from people who talk about this book is how they read the whole thing in one sitting, how they just couldn’t put it down. That is definitely the case. The only reason I stopped myself from reading was because it was midnight and I was only halfway through the book. I honestly had to tear myself away so that I wasn’t a zombie at work the next morning. But I will say that it took me about a week to pick it back up again. I really had to set the time aside to make sure I wasn’t interrupted because I knew once I started again, I HAD to finish.

And by the time I turned to the last page (on my kindle), I was literally sick to my stomach.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn is about a husband and wife who have quite possibly the most toxic relationship possible for two human beings who claim to have been in “love.”

On the day of their 5th wedding anniversary, Nick returns home to find his wife, Amy, missing, and the house a mess. She’s gone. Then begins the police investigation, making Nick the primary suspect, a development not unheard of in cases like this. As the reader slowly learns what has happened through Amy’s diary entries and chapters in Nick’s point of view, it become clear that things just don’t add up.

The best part about the first part of the book is the reader’s uncertainty about Nick, especially when the diary entries and his thoughts contradict each other. The unreliable narrator is used perfectly in this instance, especially because we aren’t completely sure when Nick is lying, when he is telling the truth, and when he just isn’t telling the reader something–something important–like his affair.

And then we get a chapter from Amy’s point of view.

Without giving too much away, because I’m already shared plenty, I can say that this book is just full of “WTF” moments. More often than not, at every turn of the page, I was saying out loud, “WHAT?” and “ARE YOU KIDDING ME?” You are certain that each development can’t be topped with something more outrageous, but you are always wrong.

I can’t decide if I was satisfied with the ending of this book, or just so disturbed that I was glad it was finally over. There were times when I really wanted to put this book down and walk away, but I simply had to know how it all ended. And yet, the end, though not all that exciting, seems like it’s the only way things could have gone for these characters.

Some things I really liked about this book:

  • Great Pacing: The chapters never felt too long, I learned things exactly when I needed to, and I was pulled through the story with ease.
  • Unreliable Narrators: This is one of my favorite narrative techniques, and it works perfectly in this book. Every character is the worst and you don’t want to trust what any of them say, but you don’t have a choice because no one else is telling the story….so as a reader, you really have to draw your own conclusions.
  • Realism: The first part of this book reminded me a lot of the highly publicized Scott Peterson murder case, and something about that kind of realism made the beginning of this book especially creepy.
  • Evoking feelings: When the characters felt trapped, the reader felt that just as profoundly.

One thing I didn’t like about this book was some of the blatantly stupid decisions the characters made. Like smiling like an idiot when your wife is missing or carrying on with your mistress when YOUR WIFE IS MISSING AND YOU’RE A SUSPECT. I mean, come on. Sure, they were characterized in way that sort of explained this behavior, but half the time, they just ignored basic logic, and it drove me nuts.

I am also unsure about my personal feelings about the book about 3/4 of the way through. At many times, I was tempted to just free myself from this book and read the end, but thanks to having a kindle that wasn’t an option. But there were times where I was so desperate to know what was going to happen next that I didn’t care what was happening on the page I was reading. However, this may be my own fault more than a fault of the book.

With all that said, I am in awe of Gillian Flynn. This book is incredible and I can see why so many people enjoy reading it. While the plot is definitely front and center, there are some elements of craft that are really quite impressive. And to those who complain about not liking this book because they didn’t like the characters, I think that was the point, and it was very, very well done.

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The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti

[ This Post May Contain Spoilers ] 

 I purchased The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti after seeing Tinti on a panel at the 2012 AWP conference this past year. (I talked about the awesome experience in this post.) And I finally got around to reading it last week. Only took me six months, but who’s counting?

It was a strange experience to read this book after seeing the author in person. More often than not, I found myself imagining the author writing the words as I was reading, making the choices about what the characters would do and eat in any given scene. Maybe it was because I first “discovered” her at a writing conference that my focus was very different from say, picking up  something I saw on the NYT best-seller list. From a craft standpoint, it was really cool. From a reading standpoint, it sometimes got in the way of me enjoying the story. Just something I noticed. Now onto the book!

The Good Thief is the story of the one-handed orphan, Ren, who is adopted by a thief, Benjamin, to be a pity-magnet in order to trick people into offering them handouts such as money, food and shelter. There is a cast of very colorful characters, including a drunken schoolteacher, a murderer-for-hire, and a dwarf, who get mixed up in a grave-robbing scheme under the nose of the local crime syndicate in a small New England town. Once the group is discovered, they are taken prisoner, beaten and threatened with death. Then things take an unusual turn and Ren learns about his family, his past, and who is real friends really are.

As I was reading, some definite comparisons come to  mind in terms of subject matter. Dickens and Twain, being significant ones with the whole orphan-thief thing going on. You’ll see this pretty frequently if you read any of the  Goodreads reviews or even the back cover. It is a pretty heavily-invited comparison, one that the author doesn’t shy away from, nor does she have to. While some of the tropes are familiar, Tinti definitely adds in a few of her own twists to make the story feel unique.

In terms of plot, t’s hard to discuss what happens in this book because of the unusual structure. I struggled to really get into things for the first 150 pages because it seems very procedural: boy gets adopted, boy doesn’t like his new “father,” boy grows to love his new lifestyle. There wasn’t anything to really create conflict or plot aside from an uncomfortable boy feeling uncomfortable. That is….until a corpse seemingly comes to life. And even then, it’s a very small catalyst for action and doesn’t have much baring on what becomes the ultimate conflict–that some guy recognized the one-handed orphan as his dead sister’s son and is still pissed at the unknown father for knocking his sister up and wants revenge. And that doesn’t even come up until the last 50 pages or so. I guess the best way to describe this story is a “slow boil.” I didn’t necessarily dislike this because one the action started, I couldn’t stop reading, but getting there was slow-going and bit of a struggle.

I will say, however, that the characters drew me in much more than the plot. This is classic of what many dub “literary fiction.” The character drive the story for the first part of the book, and then slowly the plot and conflict begin to move the reader along. It’s definitely an interesting cast, as I mentioned before. You’ve got Ren’s fellows, the Twins, and their newly adopted father, who as a group are probably my favorite. The murderer-for-hire and the dwarf play their parts, but they also seemed sort of tacked on to include interesting and different people. Nothing rang untrue about them, but their integration into the story didn’t feel critical, as though things could have happened just the same without them.

One character that stood out to me as really interesting but not on the page nearly enough was the doctor who paid the men to dig up corpses for him. He was a little scary, practical, but oddly trustworthy.  And then there is Ren’s “adoptive” father, Benjamin. He is an interesting guy as well, but his lies and deceitful stories are much more fascinating than his honest reveal at the end.

That’s another thing–the end. I just couldn’t get behind this coincidental situation where Ren learns about his family and how he lost his hand. There are so many places in New England they could have gone after picking this kid up from the orphanage. Why this place? To make the story work, of course, but still. Actually, this wouldn’t have bothered me so much except for the fact that for the first two parts of the story, I didn’t really care who Ren’s parents were or why he lost his hand. I was willing to just accept that he is a one-handed orphan that is good at stealing things, and so was he. Why did the big conflict of the story surround him learning his past? There didn’t seem to be a good reason for it aside from it was a question that could be answered, not one that had to be answered.

That being said, this book is absolutely beautiful. Tinti is a fantastic writer. Her scenes really stand out as authentic and provide a conscious portrayal of details using all the senses. Even in the beginning when I was craving plot and slugging along, I could appreciate the words on the page as being carefully chosen and expertly arranged. This book is a really nice mix of YA historical fiction, classic themes, an exciting plot (once you get there) and literary awareness.

I’m looking forward to reading Tinti’s collection of short stories, Animal Crackers.

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Reading List: Along for the Ride by Sarah Dessen

[This post is a summary and evaluation, and definitely includes SPOILERS]

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the newest addition to my graduate reading list was Along for the Ride by Sarah Dessen which of course was the first thing I picked up when I started my winter break. It didn’t take me long to finish for a number of reasons, but overall I found it a pleasant read.

When I started reading this book, my first thought was along the lines of “this is not as good as what I’ve been reading,” or at least, it’s very different. What struck me right away was how simple and mediocre the style of writing is, but I think this is pretty standard for YA literature when you compare it to a recent National Book Award winner or literature in general. So while it stood out to me, I was able to look past it. The quality of writing was not why I read this book–I was looking at the content.

That being said, I would have had a much harder time getting through Along for the Ride if not for the characters. There was the pretentious, judgmental and incredibly successful mother who made a habit of sleeping with her grad student and forcing her daughter to be an adult throughout her entire childhood. And then there is the father, divorced from the mother because of his personal failure to put out another book 10 years after his first novel was up for The National Book Award. He is now the director of a Creative Writing department and married to a woman the complete opposite of his ex-wife with a newborn baby, and still the same self-involved, inconsiderate and stubborn asshole he was when he lost his first wife. Then there is the protagonist, Auden, named for a poet (at the insistence of her father) who developed insomnia when her parents started fighting at night during her childhood. She is social awkward, quiet, addicted to coffee and looking for something more from life right before she heads off to college to further bury herself in academics.

The interaction of these characters alone was enough to make me want to finish this book, partially because of my own current involvement in academia. But these characters frustrated the hell out of me, which I see as a positive in this case. None of them seemed to do what I wanted them to, they continued mess up every situation they were in, and it was fantastic to watch. I felt extremely sympathetic for Auden as she watches her father’s second marriage fall apart, bringing up old memories of her parents and how that all went down. She begins to discover the faults in her parents which she never saw when she was so close to them, but now seem so glaring as she creates more distance. The family dynamics are what kept me going in this book and are what I found to be the biggest positive.

Of course, there is also a romantic thread–of course, it is a YA novel. And because it is a Sarah Dessen novel, I already knew the (tried and true) formula that their romance would take. Girl meets boy, somehow they connect, girl screws it up with boy, girl mopes, and they resolve it and are happy together. In that sense, I was extremely frustrated because I knew what was going to happen so I was just waiting for it, and then it did happen, but I didn’t feel any frustration or worry because I knew they would get back together in the end. I really do wish YA would switch it up a bit, but I guess that’s a trope I have to live with.

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