Reviews

Cynical Review: Dream London

I have a confession to make. It is a thoroughly underwhelming confession about something self-evident, but it’s a confession nonetheless: Sometimes, in my reviews on this blog, I exaggerate the negative aspects of books and downplay the positives. If I didn’t, it would kind of undermine the whole point about looking at books cynically. However, if this comes as a shock to you, and you are appalled by my dishonesty, I guess I have taught you a valuable lesson about what a cynical world we live in, and I think there’s a certain poetic balance to that.

Why am I bringing this up? Well, I realise that I have been setting myself up to be the boy who cried wolf. For example Inverting The Pyramid is a perfectly decent read, despite its flaws (I hope I’ve been pretty clear about what those flaws were), and my review of it is not necessarily a completely fair and unbiased description.

So if I’m so critical of books that are quite average, how to react to a book that genuinely is a complete and utter unbridled shitshow from page one to page three-hundred-and-make-it-stop? Needless to say, this is the case for Dream London.

Sometimes, you can tell by the opening line whether a book will be good. For me, opening Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to the words “We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold” was a literary experience in itself. Some people feel the same way about opening lines in A Tale of Two Cities (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”) or Anna Karenina (“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”). The first line of Dream London is “CRUNCH CRUNCH CRUNCH. Mmmmm, mmmmm. Crunch crunch crunch”. It only goes downhill from there, somehow.

Here’s the premise: London has been taken over by unknown supernatural forces. The geography and structure of the city changes every day, as do the inhabitants, not to mention the very laws of physics. Our protagonist is James Wedderburn, a disenchanted former military officer who earns his living as a pimp, and who generally exploits whoever happens to be standing within exploiting distance. Can this uncompromising antihero become a hero when the city depends on it?

That sounds pretty intriguing, right? That’s what I thought when I read the back of the book, anyway, and it’s what I have to keep thinking in order to forgive myself for having decided to read it. Because whatever you’re imagining based on the above – it’s not like that. Imagine instead that you tell an ADHD-suffering 13-year-old boy that he has to write 347 pages that fit the above description before you give him his Ritalin back. That’s what the book is like.

Everything about this book is so over the top, from the sexuality of the female characters (Either non-existant or extremely aggressive), through the menagerie of absurd creatures that would have made Salvado Dali stab both of his eyes out due to an overdose of surrealism (Including an orange frog-man who becomes Mr Wedderburn’s sidekick, but whose origins are never truly accounted for), to some unnecessarily obscene events (First and foremost one scene in which Mr Wedderburn gets anally raped by Mandrill monkeys in front of a cheering crowd).

I normally have a high tolerance for the macabre, but I think there should always be a point to it beyond just shock value. Dream London is at its core a Rivers of London on steroids meets 1984 on acid. You’d think that was weird enough, you don’t need to season it with Chuck Palahniuk on laxatives. A 45-year old man (That is the demographic identity of Tony Ballantyne, author of Dream London) should not feel like he has to make graphic references to monkey sperm inside people’s bums so that the other kids will think he’s cool and edgy. Furthermore, on two separate occasions, the odour of human excrement in a crowded city is described as a “sweet” smell, without any elaboration. I don’t even want to know what that’s all about.

To end things on a less disgusting note – the book is also very poorly edited, so the depths of shame to which I condemn this work of awfulness belong not only to Mr Ballantyne, but to the entire terrible publishing team. Their deadly sins are somewhat more innocent though, such as overlooking clear factual mistakes, for example when two characters are studying details of London in a photograph supposedly taken from 22,000 miles away. Maybe it was meant to be a different number. Maybe it was meant to be a different unit. But it was not meant to be what it is, and someone should have fixed that. Similarly, when the author writes nonsensical things like “She managed to look completely naked beneath her clothes”, someone needs to tell the dude that he’s not making sense. But come to think of it, if sense-making was a criteria in the first place, this book would have been stopped dead in its tracks, I would never have picked it up, and right now you would instead be reading my snarky monologue about a perfectly OK book.

Reviews

Cynical Review: Inverting The Pyramid

The prologue of Inverting The Pyramid mentions the genesis of the book occurring in a bar in Lisbon in 2004. England had beaten Switzerland 3-0 in the Euros the day before, and a group of journalists were discussing the England setup, and how it could be optimised. An English journalist then exclaims “Oh, what’s the difference? They’re the same players. The formation isn’t important. It’s not worth writing about.” These words changed Jonathan Wilson’s life, if we are to believe his account of things. He set out to write the ultimate tactics book about football, and presumably sent a copy to the gentleman who uttered the unfortunate words, I assume with a post-it note attached saying “So… I guess it IS worth writing about”.

I get that the prologue is most likely put in there for narrative purposes, and that the journalist is meant to represent the wider English mindset of anti-intellectualism in football. I also wholeheartedly agree with Wilson in that anyone whose brain-to-mouth filter does not stop comments like those of his fellow journalist “shouldn’t be allowed to watch football, let alone talk about it”. However, I’m not sure if Wilson knows how he’s coming across when he’s implying that he responds to drunken discussions by going away for four years to write a 450 page book about why he’s right. You should know that I myself have been described as “punchably argumentative”, yet this is the most strenuous effort I’m willing to go to in order to score a point after an alcohol-fuelled debate:

With that in mind, the desperately sad thing is that he kind of misses the mark. The book has the subtitle “The History of Football Tactics”, it aims at being a tactical book, but it is first and foremost a history book. Namedropping of absurdly obscure characters and descriptions of their backgrounds take up way more of the word count than discussion about the merits of formations. Actual tactics are generally limited to unhelpful visualisations of football fields, with tactical descriptions ranging from the mundane to the incomprehensible, sometimes even in the same diagram:

No wonder England found it harder to score, with all those arrows in the way.

Another clear sign of why this is a history book is the ridiculous amount of index fodder. There is a long index of names at the end of this book, containing pretty much every single internationally influential football manager in history. It also contains a lot of other names. This is largely due to Wilson pulling out sequences like this one:

(…) Zajec as the libero, with Hadzic to his right and either Srecko Bogdan or Borislav Cvetkovic to his left. Gradually [Blazevic] replaced the full-backs, Zvjezdan Cvetkovic and Milivoj Bracun, with more attacking players, Petar Brucic and Drago Bosnjak, creating the 3-5-2.

Did that excerpt intrigue you? If so, I can reveal that it is in fact a description of Dinamo Zagreb’s backline of the early 80s, including two separate Cvetkovices. Also, I can reveal that you are very likely somewhere on the autism spectrum.
Marathon namedropping sections like that are not unusual throughout the book, and it’s clear that Wilson somehow gets off on having a big, thick index, possibly the strangest form of penis size compensation I have ever encountered. But the epitome of indexing weirdness is reached in this section:

(…) the debate about the relative merits of beauty and success came to Sweden. Peterson compares it to listening to Charlie Parker after Glenn Miller or viewing Picasso after classical landscapes

So this is a quoted metaphor about American music from the 1940s. The absurd thing is that this digression gets an index entry for Glenn Miller, but not for Charlie Parker (Or Picasso, for that matter). I find this so strange that I’m actually struggling to get past it. What was the thinking there? Is it based on which obscure and outdated musician is more likely to be searched for in a book about football history?

Actual tactics are clearly secondary. There is a chapter on Catenaccio, but predictably, it is more concerned about which short and tempered Italian got an epiphany from which nautical metaphor, rather than how Catenaccio looks in today’s game. Specifically, how it looks when adopted by a dreadful Portuguese man currently in the Manchester area, who have spent most of his professional life trying to be the Darth Vader of club football.
Though truth be told, I mostly enjoyed Inverting The Pyramid. It’s informative, and it does provide a historical context for why the game looks like it does, and why centre backs are occasionally referred to as “centre halves”, which I’ve always found weird. It’s still weird, as it turns out this is a remnant of a “halfback” position that hasn’t been used a whole lot these past 90 years, but now I have a context for why it’s weird. The biggest problem of the book is that it doesn’t live up to my expectations, as it was sold in to me as the definitive book on football tactics. But occasionally, it does feel like the importance of tactics are undermined somewhat by the book, as it clearly doesn’t matter where on the pitch you put your players, they’re just going to run pointlessly around anyway.

Reviews

Un-cynical Review: It Can’t Happen Here

This is the book that overnight became the most important novel in the world, more than 80 years after it was written. I’ve seen some claims regarding so-called predictions of the Donald Trump presidency in literature, including both Brave New World and 1984 (Which is strange, seeing as the two governments in those books are pretty much complete opposites ideologically). I was impressed with the parallels found in Black Mirror’s The Waldo Moment episode, but felt that the most striking prediction was George RR Martin’s obscure short story And Death His Legacy. That was until I read It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis, a book that I must admit I hadn’t even heard of until everyone started talking about a 1935 American politics novel that had predicted the least predictable presidential candidate in modern times 80 years later.

The thing is, with all these claims being made about Lewis’ prescience, the oppositional and argumentative part of me (Which is most of me) wanted to call this book out on not being all that accurate before I’d even read it. However, it’s actually pretty bloody accurate. Naturally, there are some obvious shared traits that you would attribute to any totalitarian leader, such as demonisation of the free press, xenophobia and general demagoguery, but the really eyebrow-raising similarities are in the details:

I am of the opinion that a good book is enjoyable, a great book is profound. As it happens, most good books aren’t that great, and almost no great books are particularly good.

This is also true of It Can’t Happen Here. The premise is great, the themes speak to something fundamental in human nature, even the main character is a more or less likeable person. But the storyline is very much lacking, placing it firmly on the right hand side of the venn diagram of literary priorities.

The book is written from the perspective of Doremus Jessup (I have no idea how “Doremus” is supposed to be pronounced, but he dislikes it when his wife calls him “Doormouse”, so that’s not it). He works as an editor for a local newspaper in a town in Vermont whose name I’ve already forgotten because I don’t care. I think the choice of profession was a good move on Lewis’ part, as Jessup is well-informed about what is going on around the political scene and can provide a perspective on it for the reader. The problem is that whenever something does happen, it’s as if the book is interrupted by a loud voice-over going “MEANWHILE…” and we suddenly have to deal with another chapter about the goings-on amongst Doremus and his posh friends in Whogivesashit, Vermont. Perhaps there are readers who feel sympathy for Doremus as he is trapped in an unhappy, but functional marriage with a woman who calls him Doormouse. Maybe these same readers feel moved by how Doremus’ daughter endorses his affair with a mistress he is much more compatible with. Could be that these hypothetical readers are simply more endowed with empathy than I am. But it’s also possible that these people simply lack any sense of perspective, as while this is going on, President Windrip is throwing his political opponents into concentration camps and can we get back to that bit, please?

However, for nuance, I will say that the greatest moment of the book takes place in one of these mostly tedious breaks from what happens on a macro level. Doremus’ son Philip is a young lawyer who has been persuaded by his establishment-friendly colleagues that Windrip is enforcing positive change. The heated discussion between Doremus, naturally very anti-Windrip, and his son is one of the best literary conversations I’ve ever read, even beating the climactic honesty of Winston and O’Brien’s post-capture exchanges in 1984. The way it explores the line between healthy ambition and toxic opportunism makes the whole book worth reading alone. If you can’t be bothered to do that, it’s on chapter 24. You’ll be missing out on a lot of context, but I still really think you should read it.

All in all, It Can’t Happen Here is not a page-turner, you will not cancel any social plans in order to go home and read it, and truth be told, it felt like an effort at times to pick it up and keep reading. Come to think of it, this is not even the best novel on 1930s American politics I’ve read so far this year, as All The King’s Men was actually more enjoyable. So it is not a very good book. What it is, is a great book. A book written by a Nobel Literature Prize winner, exploring in a very realistic way how in certain conditions, human howler monkeys can win democratic elections. The fact that he was proven right as much as 80 years later somehow only makes it greater.

Awards

Cynical Awards: 6 Most Cringey Quotes from I Am Pilgrim

In my recent review of I Am Pilgrim, I briefly mentioned my annoyance about author Terry Hayes’ apparent overconfidence in his own phrasing abilities. The outcome of this is a lot of cringe-inducing quotes, of which I have taken 6, and put them in a ranked order (I believe the technical term is list). I’ve decided on 6 partly because I felt that it was mainly these 6 moments that were in serious need of public shaming, and partly because 6 feels like a suitable number for a list like this. A top 5 of something feels very natural. It’s halfway to a top 10. It fills the podium and then gives honourable mentions to an appropriate quantity of entries that didn’t quite make the top 3. 6 is a weird, awkward number of items to put on a list, and so it matches the content of the entries. Right now, you probably feel like this justification is quite forced, and you are absolutely right. But I felt like it would be irresponsible of me to unleash these levels of cringe without a little warm-up first. Now that that’s done, be aware that I accept no liability for whatever injuries your palm might inflict on your face as a result of the following contents.

Number 6: Weird Titanic reference

Being on board a speeding cigarette boat meant that my situation had improved – but it was also true that the starboard side of the Titanic initially held up a bit better than the port side.

This takes the spot as the least cringey quote within the selection, as I kind of get where the writer is going with it. It’s something like “Don’t get overconfident even if things are looking good to start with”, I guess. But how appropriate is it really? Did the passengers on the starboard side of the Titanic actually go “Ha! Look at those losers on the port side, they’re totally sinking. So glad that we here on the cool half of the ship are going to make it to New York!” Has Hayes put this strange line in there because the main character (Who is probably named Scott, but nowhere in the 888 pages does he find it relevant to confirm this) is on a boat and therefore in need of a nautical reference? Regardless, it’s pretty forced.

Number 5: Holiday tip for when you’re in a bit of a mood

I had been to Jeddah on my previous trip, so I knew it well enough. There was only one thing to recommend it: Say, you wanted to commit suicide and couldn’t quite find the courage, two days in Jeddah would do the trick.

I would have cringed at this one if I saw it in a TripAdvisor review, never mind in a bestselling novel. It gets me because I think the sentiment is worth putting in there, but it’s been phrased in such an incredibly awkward way. That sentence could have read something like “Jeddah – a place so depressing that recommending it to someone is a form of assisted suicide” and it would actually have been a half-decent sentence, a semi-elegant way of stating an opinion on the Saudi city of Jeddah. But of course they went with a phrasing that has a damn colon in it, for the simple reason that Terry Hayes was so bloody satisfied with himself when he thought of this punchline that he felt the joke deserved an introduction. I have an opinion about that assessment: It doesn’t.

Number 4: The least interesting opinion in the world

“Here in the provinces, without the wealth of a Caesar, it was mostly gladiators and re-creation of famous myths. Of course, those stories were wildly popular too – lots of violence and killing, but not much plot.”
“Sounds like a Hollywood movie,” I said

Is this meant as a commentary on the universal nature of humanity? A thought on how some fundamentals are always present in different cultures despite the countless generations and enormous cultural shifts that separate them? Probably, but it really doesn’t work. And again, it’s because of the inherent smugness there, as Scott-esque (I wanted to call him Scott-ish, but felt that would be confusing) is presenting this as if it is an original thought. Remember, this is one of the leading investigators in the world. I would expect slightly higher levels of observational prowess than the most basic and obvious cliche in western culture.

Number 3: Shameless audience-pandering

After prayers that night the men, so happy for him they took him to a cafe fo dinner, told the Saracen about the remarkable working conditions he would enjoy: the on-site health care, the subsidized cafeteria and the beautiful prayer room. What none of them mentioned, however, was that all the jobs had once been held by Americans.

One of the many things I took issue with in my review of this book was the blatant Americanism, including a portrayal of the entire Muslim world as western-hating, and the implication that if you don’t repeat three times daily that 9/11 was the worst thing in the history of humanity, you’re basically a terrorist. Terry Hayes is actually Australian (Look at me, doing research and everything), and I’m unclear about whether these overtones are there because he wants to appeal to a mainly American audience, or if he just is one of the non-American westerners that fetishise American culture. I’m leaning towards the former, but I’m not sure which one would make me lose the most respect for him. The above excerpt is from a part that has nothing to do with America or its job market, it is about the novel’s antagonist, who gets a job at a factory in Karlsruhe, Germany. But Hayes might have been worried that American readers were losing interest when they hadn’t read anything patriotic in a few paragraphs, so he inserted a few injections of Donald Trump and South Park.

Number 2: How to make a very short sentence seem like too much

Anyone who didn’t need a white cane could see that I had very little.

From a scientific perspective (The science in question being cringeology), you have to admire this sentence. It is only 13 words long, conveys almost nothing, and yet it manages to be overtly superfluous. Hayes decides to write the word “blind” in an absurdly long-winded way, and gets weirdly specific while doing so. Surely, not all of those canes are white? And if you’re going to get that bogged down in details, what about blind people that use guide dogs? I have to stress that this is the only mention of blind people or white canes in the entire book, so there is no context here that mitigates this sentence. If Hayes, the editors, and everyone else who approved this book before publish looked at this sentence and saw nothing wrong with it, they should be sent some white canes themselves. Then they should be savagely beaten with those canes.

Number 1: Terrible, terrible banter

In real life, it might not be a requirement for a secret intelligence operative to have good banter. But we have come to expect from fictional agents that their punchlines are as good as their punches, that they can navigate a good burn as well as a burning building (As you can tell, I’m not going to become a fictional superspy anytime soon). Our hero Schrödinger’s Scott must have been off the day when they covered The Art of Proper Banter at Fictional Agent Academy. When he is interrogating two attactive women (While going by the name Wilson), they start taking jabs at his supposed sexual fantasies:

“Mr Wilson here was just asking if you were bisexual.”
“Oh yeah?” Cameron replied. “And what did you tell him?” She pulled out a seat and sat down. She had no apparent anxiety either, and I had to admire their self-possession.
“I said you were – but only with black chicks. I figured as we were dealing with a male fantasy we might as well go the whole nine yards.”
Cameron Laughed.
“Murder isn’t a male fantasy,” I said.

Yeah, you tell’em, Scott!

Reviews

Cynical Review: I Am Pilgrim

At the end of I Am Pilgrim, author Terry Hayes has put in a note entitled “Dear reader”, which essentially apologises for why the book is so long. Indeed, it is a very long book, 888 pages in the edition I just finished. However, length is not one of my main problems with it, and I feel someone who apologises for the page count of his work is someone who has written for an audience who don’t really enjoy reading. I mentioned this in my review of Dan Brown’s Inferno – I’m not going to judge anyone’s book preferences, but if you’d rather be watching a movie, you should go and do that. This is not an intellectual judgement, just some friendly advice on how to best enjoy your own existence.

I Am Pilgrim revolves around a retired intelligence agent/super-investigator who is probably named Scott, but who uses the codename Pilgrim because of security reasons, and because it sounds cool in a book title. His deduction skills include things like looking at a hotel room and concluding it’s been rented by a female, because milk has taken priority over beer for fridge space. Clearly, Pilgrim and I spend time with very different types of women. Also, we have different opinions on what constitutes conclusive evidence in a police investigation.

We live in a time so saturated with action heroes that it feels a bit unfair to accuse any new protagonist within the genre of being derivative. It’s a bit like blaming the odour of a festival toilet solely on the last guy who used it. On the other hand, my posts are kind of reliant on visual props, so here’s a pie chart:

Maybe-Scott is dragged back into the intelligence world when it is discovered by chance that a lone Islamist terrorist has developed a vaccine-resistant form of smallpox with the very likely intent to share it with the western world without telling us. Our hero’s pilgrimage goes to southern Turkey, to find a woman with whom the fundamentalist chemistry enthusiast has been having phone conversations. He manages to identify this woman, thanks to a coincidence that some might describe as “astronomically unlikely”, but which I personally would describe as “just plain dumb”. Like I have mentioned in previous posts, I don’t rate books, but if I did do a 1-10 scale thing, this lazy writer’s shortcut on a crucial plot point would have subtracted nine points from my rating alone. Seriously, it’s unacceptable.

The book is drenched in something slightly suspiciously ideological, with countless suggestions that the end justifies the means, as long as the end is AMERICA! Our antagonist, known throughout the book as “The Saracen” (Because Terry Hayes thinks that sounds cooler than it actually does), looks like a caricature made by Marine Le Pen when his internal monologue turns into gloating over the lack of border control throughout Europe. The Muslim world in general is portrayed quite one-dimensionally, but that’s fine, because Hayes has made all the people of this world one-dimensional too, so that they’ll fit in. That being said, all the anti-western sentiments, Muslim supremacy ideas, cartoonish oppression of women and general arseholery across around 6-7 different Muslim countries would have seemed a lot less problematic if there had been a Muslim good guy or two involved. But really, the only semi-likable adult from the Middle East we encounter is a hotel receptionist whose English has an amazing vocabulary, but absolutely no sentence structure. This leads to linguistic absurdities like “The company of great thievery called Digiturk, which gives us the channels of crap”. You would think that someone familiar with the word thievery in English would also have a basic idea of how adjectives work.
Finally, the book suffers from a few instances of the author thinking he’s more clever than he actually is, leading to a lot of cringey quotes that are worthy of a blog post in themselves. So I expect to be writing something of that nature within the relatively near future.

Opinions

Cynical Opinion: Why I don’t rate books

I’m a nerd

I keep detailed records of the books that I read. Very detailed records. I have a self-made spreadsheet that if you saw it, you would very likely get mixed feelings about the concept of me as a person. Every time I read a book, I use the spreadsheet to fill in the basic information about it, such as title, author and genre (Fiction/Non-Fiction), but also more granular stuff like original publishing year, number of pages, and on which exact date I started reading the book. After finishing, I fill in the date on which I completed it, as well as a short note on the content, to record my immediate reaction.

records-of-books

The hypothetical elephant missing from the metaphorical room of this spreadsheet is some sort of rating system. If you disagree with that, you might not be as into numbers as I am. Anyway, I don’t engage in that kind of behaviour. No 1-10 scale, no number of stars, no throw of the dice, no thumbs up, no meowmeowbeenz. How can this possibly be, considering my clearly compulsive need to categorise everything with figures and data?

books-dashboard
The dashboard here is slightly ruined by Jonas Jonasson and his refusal to come up with book titles that fit in the allocated cell for books that I’m currently reading.

Surveys are rubbish

In my work as a data analyst, I strongly prefer behavioural data to surveys and other self-reportig tools. The premise of a survey is to quantify people’s thoughts and opinions. The problem is that people in surveys don’t actually report what they think, they report what they think they think, which is something very different, because people are dishonest morons.

In a 2015 study conducted by YouGov, the ambition was to find out which demographic segments people had prejudices about in the UK. I won’t bother you with the methodology beyond saying that it was actually quite clever, and recommending that you check it out if you’re interested. The link is in the bit of this paragraph that is clearly a link. The results show that Britain’s most heavily judged demographic are… White men in their 20s! Now, I actually am a white man in my 20s, living and working in Britain. If we indeed suffer the worst prejudices, then the rest of you lot have got a pretty sweet deal. Clearly, these results don’t really reflect people’s actual opinions, as much as the opinions people will admit to or feel like they should have.

So what does that have to do with rating books? I may consider myself more or less superior to most people in a lot of respects, but I don’t think I’m immune to the lack of self-awareness that the rest of humanity also suffers from. So how I think I feel about a book I just read, might actually really be how I felt about my life in its entirety while I was reading it, or how my mood was when I delivered the verdict.

rating-influencers

The Solution

So I avoid rating books. However, I do split my reviews here on Cynical Bookshelf into two categories – Cynical (Such as the review of Dan Brown’s Inferno) and Un-Cynical (Such as that of Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational). This boils the rating down to a simple question of whether the book deserves more criticism (I.e. cynicism) or praise (Due to a lack of decent alternatives labelled Un-cynicism. For all the merits of the English language, I do wish that it had a proper antonym for cynical, so I wouldn’t have to make up words).

So how do I decide which category a book falls into? Where do I draw the line? That’s very simple; at Dave Eggers’ You Shall Know Our Velocity, a book that is aggressively average. For all the irrational subjectivity that goes into making a call on the quantifiable quality of something, I believe that the averageness (Look, English language – see what you made me do!) of this book is an objective fact in the same category as the velocity of light in a vacuum. So whenever I review a book, I ask myself whether I enjoyed it more or less than I did Eggers’ literary manifestation of mediocrity, hoping that such a specific question might reduce the influence of human stupidity that I so futilely try not contributing to. I hope this clears things up.

Some more or less useful notes

On my goodreads.com account, I actually do rate books according to the site’s 1-5 star system. This is mostly out of obedience to the creators of the site, and their opinions on how it should best be enjoyed.

The Excel document that I use to keep track of the books that I read only contains books consumed from 1st Jan 2016 onwards, as that was more or less when I got the idea of keeping records. So the data is unfortunately only partial.

The aforementioned document allows me to look up the exact details about my reading of the epitome of average – You Shall Know Our Velocity. It’s 350 pages long (Which you may notice is almost the exact average length of the books I have read over the last 14 months), I started it on the 19th of June 2016, and finished it 16 days later, on 5th July. This makes for a 22 pages per day average, which is actually quite low for me, but this is mainly because I at the time was busy watching EURO 2016 in a series of London pubs, fuelled by an excessive amount of beer.

Reviews

Cynical Review: Inferno (Dan Brown)

I’m slightly uncomfortable about admitting publicly to having read a Dan Brown book as recently as over the last couple of days. Needless to say, I did not buy this book for myself or take any initiative whatsoever with the purpose of reading it. As a matter of fact, it was a gift (Well, I don’t care if you don’t believe me – it fucking was). Specifically, it was a Christmas present from my mother, which means that I had the ultimate to-read obligation on my hands. That being said, I’m not blaming my mother at all. Like she said: “I know you liked some of his other books”. And I did. When I was thirteen. I guess the subject of Dan Brown just hasn’t popped up in any of the conversations we’ve had since 2005. As a matter of fact, I liked a lot of things when I was thirteen that I currently (Age 24) have less enthusiasm for, including Family Guy, Eminem, and porn actresses with big fake plastic tits. This was not what I told my mother, as I felt that a “Wow, you remembered that? That’s impressive, thank you so much Mum!” was more appropriate.

me-and-13-venn

I want emphasise that this is not at all a judgement on people who do like reading Dan Brown. But it is hard not to interpret that as a symptom of someone who would much rather watch a movie than read a book. Which is absolutely fine, I just think people should be honest about these things.
This is Inferno in a short summary: A possibly deranged genius biologist (Who dies) has developed something that might or might not be a big deal, but it probably is, and we’ll definitely find out within the near future. For some reason, he has also left a series of esoteric clues and riddles around some of Europe’s most prominent classical art centres, leading to where his possibly dangerous thing can be found and hopefully destroyed. Enter Robert Langdon, Harvard professor with a photographic memory and a pornogaphic obsession with the type of cultural artifacts that he keeps running into during his geographically convenient adventures. This time around, he suffers from amnesia and can’t remember what he’s been up to for the last few days, or why he’s in Florence. Of couse, the reason he is in Florence is that Dan Brown needs antique and artsy scenery to describe in painfully slow and condescending detail. Langdon teams up with Sienna Brooks, the mandatory Dan Brown character with extremely exaggerated traits. She’s a former child prodigy with a vague brain condition that gives her an IQ of 208, and yet she makes most of her decisions based on emotional whim rather than her brilliant mind. Also, she’s involuntarily bald, so she wears a wig. Together, they try to solve the riddles and stop the mysterious biologist, which they probably would have a better shot at if Langdon didn’t constantly get distracted by the renessaince props around him, pointlessly describing their aesthetics and origins to himself.

In an even shorter summary: “This episode of Dora The Explorer for adults has been brought to you by Visit Italy.”

Inferno is Dan Brown at his most danbrownian. The book actually deals with some really interesting themes, mainly the ethical problems around solving the overpopulation problem as well as transhumanism. I think you can bet your testicles and/or ovaries that he’s actually taken an excessive bit of inspiration from George R.R. Martin’s sci-fi masterpiece Tuf Voyaging, one of my favourite books of all time. Note that I, in all my benevolence, am calling it “inspiration” rather than plagiarism, when both could reasonably apply. But whereas Martin can deal with any issue through the medium of an unprecedently good story, Brown desperately hurls a series of fast-moving objects at the reader, hoping to distract them from the complete lack of sense in between.

Dan Brown checklist

  • Start off with a theme that’s actually quite interesting
  • Introduce characters with absurdly hyperbolic features
    • You know, self-flagellating religious fundamentalist albino assassins, that kind of stuff
  • Insert as many obscure riddles with references to European classical art as you can (NB: These do not have to serve any purpose for the story whatsoever)
  • Make sure that the pace of the action camouflages the ridiculousness of the plot
  • IS IT HOLLYWOOD-FRIENDLY?

At this point, you might very reasonably ask why this book is called “Inferno”, a reference to The Divine Comedy. Well, Dan Brown. That’s why. You see, there is absolutely no reason for why the ethically ambiguous antagonist would leave a series of clues around the city of Florence leading to the planned ground zero of his creation. No reason. Except of course, for the fact that Tom Hanks brings in some serious box office moolah. Therefore, Robert Langdon must be in the book. And therefore, the author needs to shoe-horn esoteric riddles in a renaissance city into the story to justify why Robert Langdon is in the book. And therefore, Dante Alighieri. And therefore, Inferno.

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