Monday, 13 September 2010

Blind Review: the Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

So, would you follow an investigation through to its conclusion if it became gradually more apparent that everybody who had previously followed the same path had vanished, or changed so drastically that they no longer seemed to be the same person? This is Robert Langdon's dilemma.

The Da Vinci Code is a conceptual, existential, conspiracy thriller.

A student brings it to Langdon's attention that several of Da Vinci's works seem to have hidden symbols in them, concealed in a variety of fashions, whether simply visually or through more cunning methods. This is nothing new to Langdon, however the student also demonstrates how these symbols appear to relate to a new encryption technique developed (apparently) only the year before.

Could Da Vinci have left a message for the future, knowing that in all probability a more advanced civilisation would increase its manipulation of information (its need to manipulate information) to the point where they could decipher it?

Having posted hints at this idea on her blog, the young student is murdered. Langdon is framed as both having an affair with her, and for her murder.

From here on in the book becomes a frantic race for Langdon to both clear his name and crack the code. As he proceeds down this path he uncovers evidence that others have been there before him, with similar theories. No one ever published a conclusion though, either way.

Langdon begins to feel as if he is being led as well as pushed. Behind everything seems to be the shadowy organisation known as the illuminati, and their master, rumoured to be Da Vinci himself. But how can he still be alive?

As Langdon unravels more and more of Da Vinci's code he finds thoughts coming to him unbidden. Knowledge of more of the code than he has discovered, and more of the key. He begins thinking in different ways, becoming more and more obsessive over the puzzle to the point that clearing his name takes second place. Something is driving him to reach the final conclusion, something is taking shape within his mind...

Bit of a spoiler now, so stop reading if you're already excited enough to go grab the book...

The biggest suspension of disbelief this book asks of you is if Da Vinci could really have constructed a memetic virus, delivered in packets and reconstructed in an intelligent mind. Is that concept too advanced for renaissance thought?

I don't think it's so far beyond the realm of disbelief. Were such a thing possible (imagine a tune that you just can't get out of your head, now add in more ideas that you can't stop thinking, now how far is that from a whole person taking root in your head), then why shouldn't one of the greatest, most advanced minds of his time have observed the behaviour of his fellow humans and devised such a thing?

This also raises the question of whether Leornardo has truly found a kind of immortality or just a soulless recreation of his mind, a process, a clone if you like.

The Da Vinci Code is a rare thing, it's an action thriller that makes you really think. Its so well-handled though, think of the matrix: high-concept, simple delivery. I think that's the secret to its popularity; it does make you think, but it doesn't confuse you. It's a great thriller too.

It's only a matter of time, I suppose, before someone makes a movie.

Monday, 2 August 2010

Blind Review: Paradise by Katie Price

I can't work this one out, really, I can't. I think in its attempts to be brilliant it is unintentionally so. Let me explain.

Paradise is kind of a companion piece to Yasutaka Tsutsui's Hell, although I don't for a second think Katie Price or her ghost writer have ever heard of him, let alone been near a copy of Hell. In Tsutsui's book when people die and go to hell it is not so dissimilar from the life they led while alive. Paradise explores the notion of celebrity, and the celebrity scale (A-list, B-list etc.) as heaven.

Think of Dante's circles of hell, but upwards.

The protagonist is a girl called Angel. A name that must have taken all of a second to come up with. I will grudgingly admit though, it is a name which is appropriate to the books intent as a fable for our times. It is demonstrative of the character, and the celebrity world she inhabits.

For me though, Katie Price's vision is all of the tedium of celebrity laid bare. The gossip, the intrusion, the expectations (the shopping) all dressed up to seem desirable. Not unlike celebrities themselves, then.

And so it displays a fine (if unintentional) irony. Angel is in her heaven, but I don't think it's so far from hell for some people. Appearance, social prowess and inanity rule the day, and Angel is possessed of all these assets. She seems blithely ignorant that all around her the other characters are suffering for her rise to the top. Kindness has no reward, selfishness and personal gain are the name of the game, and Angel plays it so very well (although not through any 'evil' intent, she is not intentionally cruel as a character, just ignorant in pursuing the paradise fortold of in the holy tabloids. And this is important because the character is not evil, as such, she is just living her dream).

I say this is unintentionally brilliant because the main story is bland wish fulfilment, but behind that is the story of the supporting cast. Blissful ignorance is essential to Angel's Paradise, and those around her suffer in spectacular and often humiliating ways... Throw a mirror up to hell and it rises rather than falls, with one person laughing cruelly at the top. In Angel I see a kind of platinum blonde Lucifer. A fallen angel... with a boob job.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Blind Review: Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

I was pleasantly surprised by Twilight. Given the hype around it and the predominantly teen female readership I was expecting something vapid and Mary-Sue-ish. Instead I got a touching and sentimental tale with just a touch of darkness. It is a beautiful book, but is it deserving of the hype?

Bella and Edward are an elderly couple living the twilight of their lives, in more than one sense. Twilight is the grey, unreal-seeming time between night and day, as the sun's light creeps into the world, but before it has risen; it is also the time when the day falls to night, and light fades all too quickly.

A chance encounter with a filthy and unkempt homeless man, Jacob, leads to some surprising revelations. Both Edward and Bella had known Jacob but neither had ever spoken of him. As they lie in bed, waking into unsure light or drifting to sleep with the departing sun, they talk. They recount hazy memories from their youth, when childhood became adulthood, when they both knew Jacob but not each other; stories neither of them had been able to tell before. Defining moments, but not always ones to be proud of.

Woven into these early biographies is evidence of their current lives, subtle mentions of the many ways in which a human life eventually fails as old age takes hold. Both Bella and Edward's grip on the world is fading, but will their grip on each other remain strong as each threatening truth is compulsively recounted?

In my opinion the books main failing (although a minor one) is its male characters. While Bella completely and believably came to life for me, from her fatalistic youth to her caring, compassionate elderly self, Edward just didn't feel as deep. It's a minor criticism and many people will disagree with me because the character is still rich, but for me, compared to the perfectly three dimensional character that Bella is, he just didn't sparkle. Jacob is much less interesting than either of them, he really isn't more than a cipher, which is a shame because some more detail on how he fell from the person in Edward and Bella's memories to the person they encounter would have been welcome; although then I might have complained that his story interfered too much with Edward and Bella's own.

Twilight eloquently demonstrates how a person's past inevitably colours who they become but shouldn't wholly define them. It is a well-handled look at human nature and the essence of blame and accusation... can redemption survive revelation? Maybe that makes it seem a little more hard-hitting than it is; those elements are there, but the main thrust of the book is about the tenderness and trust a lifetime together breeds, and the strength true love engenders.

So does it deserve the hype? For a book with real depth, real characters and such gentle (but perfect) pace to capture the hearts of so many younger readers - usually obsessed with cheap romance and obvious tension - is a truly promising occurrence. Twilight certainly deserves to be lauded, but it is an unusual target for hype as we usually understand it.

So, no, I don't think it deserves the hype. Because 'hype' implies sensationalism, which belittles the true literary worth of this book.

Right, I'm off to not buy New Moon.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Blind Review: The War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts by Louis De Bernieres

Complex and insightful, the War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts is as much about the frictions that strain familial loyalty as it is about the politics of nationalism and ownership. (Although don't let the word 'politics' put you off, they are merely the wrapper for the human drama.)

The book is set on a fictional peninsula in southern Spain - the metaphorical nether parts of Don Emmanuel. Two branches of the Emmanuel family claim ownership of the land (another clever play with the title, of course, referring to the progeny of his loins). The current owners of the land, the Garcias, seized it during the troubled period of the Spanish civil war, having been long looking for an opportunity to oust the Emmanuels, whose claim they see as illegitimate.

These two families are both descended from the original Don Emmanuel. The Garcias through his mistress, who they claim was his true love and to whose descendants, so they say, he promised the land. The Emmanuels hold a more direct claim, being the get of the Don's wife. However, there is doubt cast upon her faithfulness and whether they were truly the Don's children.

Like a modern day Romeo and Juliet, this book is about the tension between the two families or, more accurately, the more strident members of those families and the conflict, sometimes quite brutal, this tension causes within their community. Particularly telling is how the relationships between the younger members of the families, who are more willing to forgive, anger the older generation and ultimately exacerbate the situation.

Where the author's brilliance shines through is in demonstrating how this generational gap shifts and history repeats itself when the damaging effects of the civil war (and their own conflict within it) turn what was the younger generation during that time period into the same kind of narrow-minded, confrontational older generation they themselves railed against.

As that suggests the book is set between two time periods, that of the modern day and of the Spanish Civil war (the thirties), with Don Emmanuel himself being revealed through a series of letters uncovered in the latest bout of explosive violence. The different strands are well-handled and never confusing. The letter device may be a little disappointingly uninventive, but these letters also serve to reveal the true legitimacy of the two sides of the family and ultimately dictate how the book is resolved, so they are integral to the story and justifiable.

It is also worth mentioning just how remarkable Louis de Bernieres' evocation of Spain is, given that he is a Frenchman, writing in English. There are little touches in the culture and habits, little tweaks to the Mediterranean landscape, that position the reader exactly where he should be.

Both tragic and redemptive in conclusion, the War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts is a heartbreaking journey, but one well worth taking.