Monthly Archives: May 2014

Love him or hate him #DanBrown

I first encountered Dan Brown whilst at University.  I was discussing historical heresy and controversies of the Church with a friend. I should probably add at this point that I studied Theology and did my dissertation on medieval German heresy. Anyway the friend mentioned an American author that his mum had recently been raving about.

 

Following the recommendation I read Angels and Demons.

 

The writing wasn’t the best, slightly clumsy, a love affair with the ellipses, overly scripted conversations “Robert said” “Vittoria replied” “Cardinal Saverio Mortati interjected”.  His use of many words to say nothing and leave you with no real image was infuriating. And yet I couldn’t put the book down.

 

Dan Brown might not be a good writer but he is a fantastic storyteller!  To steal the opening lines from Jim Henson’s The Storyteller “When people told themselves their past with stories, explained their present with stories, foretold the future with stories the best place by the fire was kept for the storyteller”. Words have power and the best stories can live forever.

 

Dan Brown is a master of the tale, if he was telling you a bedtime story you would be on the edge of your seat, biting your finger nails and begging your mum to let you stay up for 10 more minutes to hear the next bit.  But like any storyteller he is only as good as his subject matter.  His first three books, Digital Fortress, Angels and Demons and Deception point sold fewer than 10,000 copies in their first print runs.  People weren’t interested in government surveillance, papal elections and aliens.  But then he hit the jackpot, he found the story to end all stories; The Da Vinci Code was published.

 

What was it about this tale that hooked the world? People who didn’t normally read were picking it up and finishing it in days.  Critics were prepared to overlook his clumsy writing style in favour of the thrilling chase to find out the Church’s greatest secret.  Could there be a holy blood line? 

 

As both a theologian and a catholic I’ve often thought why that particular conspiracy hit such a chord, why were people so quick to believe everything a fiction writer had written was true.  It can’t simply be about scandal, the Catholic Church is steeped in scandal. The only thing I could think of was a need in people for Jesus to be a fraud. Not the Church that was built on his words, but the man himself. We seem to accept that the Church has been led and controlled at times by unscrupulous men with motives above and beyond their calling to God. They’re human, they’re open to sin, they err but that doesn’t change people’s belief that Jesus was the son of God. But if Jesus had descendants? Would it change anything? Would his teachings have any less impact, would it undermine his instructions for Peter to build and lead his Church? Is that what made Brown’s 4th book such a success?

 

This blog has been prompted by my recent reading of The Lost Symbol. Brown’s venture into the mysteries surrounding the Freemasons.  Love him or hate him you can’t take away Dan Brown’s ability to make you turn a page.  Each chapter ends on a cliff hanger and his structuring of a couple of long chapters followed by a short one keeps us reading “just one more chapter”.  After the success of The Da Vinici Code Dan Brown has stuck to a very simple blue print, but in doing so the once unanticipated twists and turns in the plot are now visible from a distance like a juggernaut.  He may as well have put a flashing neon sign on the page.  Like all religious thrillers you know what the ending is going to be and I can say for sure it isn’t going to change your outlook on life, your knowledge of the world or your relationship with a greater being. 

 

Will that stop me reading Inferno? Nope cause whatever I think of his writing ability I still love his stories.

 

If Dan Brown opened your eyes to religious thrillers you may wish to also check out Steve Berry, Raymond Khoury, Chris Kuzneski, Kate Mosse and C.S. Graham

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Life after Life…#bookreview #KateAtkinson

I don’t judge books by their covers, although I do appreciate a clever design.  I also don’t judge books by the awards they’ve been nominated for and maybe won.  That said, when I book by an author I have previously read and enjoyed is shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction 2013 and wins the Costa Book Award I think I’ve got my hands on something special.  Was that the case with Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life?

 
Sadly no.
 
I bought this book in 2013 following the publicity that followed Atkinson winning the Costa.  Unlike most new books I buy this one then sat on the shelf for month after month, I would pick it up when ready for a new book, read the back of it, read the first couple of pages and think “hmmmmm not the right book for now” and slowly put it back on the shelf pondering when I would be in the mood to read this book.
 
In early 2014 I came to the conclusion that I would never be in the mood to read this book and in fact I should just start it and let the prose steal me away from reality.  There are things in life we’d never choose to do and yet when forced to by circumstances we never look back.  I was going to begin reading with that mentality.  My eyes and emotions open to the characters and stories waiting to be whisked away.
 
Life after Life became for me, page after page, week after week of dull grey lifeless reading.  I just didn’t care about Ursula. I wasn’t moved by each of her deaths.  In fact I was often relieved when the darkness came as it meant I’d finished a chapter and could put the book down till the next time I tried to tackle it (reader’s quirk in that unless absolutely necessary I can’t put a book down in the middle of a chapter). I definitely didn’t care for the forgettable, depressing, supporting characters that came into the many lives of Ursula.  Atkinson puts her main character through some really emotional and hard hitting lives, as a child she finds the murdered body of a childhood friend, she is raped at 16 and subsequently suffers blood poisoning from a botched illegal abortion, a victim of domestic abuse, friend to Eva Braun, starving in the ruins of Berlin. And yet, as quickly as these things happen, and they do Atkinson is unable to dedicate time to any one branch of Ursula’s lives, they are forgotten.  With few foundations laid for each storyline and with death coming so quickly what should be horrific emotionally punching events left me little more than a raised eyebrow. 
 
I never read other people’s reviews of a book before I read it, I don’t like to open my mind to influence preferring to go in as a blank canvas.  On completing the book I took at look at what people on Goodreads had to say.  I think it is fair to say there is a trend of “I wanted to enjoy this book but I couldn’t”.  No one disputes that Atkinson is a great writer but many talk of “floundering for weeks” clawing their way to the end.
 

Life after life didn’t work for me.  I love the concept of a “what if” book. But I think Atkinson tried to fit in too many.  In doing so I tired of the characters, I didn’t commit to the new paths and I found myself willing her to hurry up and bring the death about.  I’m sure there are many out there (some judges as a starter) who would disagree with me but in my opinion there was no wonder in this book, nothing clever about the plot lines and believe it or not the concept that we can live our lives again and again with different outcomes isn’t the most implausible thing in this book, but I won’t say what is as I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you.

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Making Reading #Grimm #PhilipPullman

When I hear about people struggling to get their children to read I often try and recall how my parents did it.  I spent my entire childhood with my head in a book and really can’t remember a time when I didn’t enjoy curling up either on my own or with a family member to be read to.  Was it a deep need for escaping, a sense of adventure, a thirst for knowledge that led me to give so much of my life to someone else’s story.  I think it was probably more the unnamed, unidentifiable magic of tales, a magic that I think you can’t be forced to find it finds you.  
 
Based on the success of Disney films it’s quite clear that every child believes in the magic of tales.  They sit and dream of being the princess, of fighting the monster, over coming the wicked stepmother, having a faithful sidekick.  Children love fairy tales so if you are going to try and help them find the magic in books what better stories to start with then the tales of the Brothers Grimm.  Not only are they magical and addictive but they are stories that are familiar and welcoming.  Have you ever read them? No? But I bet you can name at least five…
 
Little Red Riding Hood
Hansel and Gretel
Rapunzel
Cinderella
Snowwhite
Rumpelstiltskin
The shoemaker and the elves
 
I could go on. 
 
This blog was inspired by recent toe dipping into Philip Pullmans’ Grimm Tales: For Young and For Old.  Well the title says it all.  Even in my thirties I found myself absorbed by the stories.  Promising my boyfriend that I would put the book down and turn out the light after just one more story.  I’d forgotten how dark some of them were, how much death features in them, and how many lessons I probably learnt from them.
 
They don’t all make sense a fact I love about them.  It leads you to be inquisitive, even in my most recent reading of them I found myself asking why Cinderella was so easily tricked, why did the elves make the shoes, how is someone born with out knowing fear, how can a woman give birth to a half man half hedgehog and do witches and charms and curses exist today?  What better way to encourage someone to read more than to leave them with questions, a thirst for more.
 
Reading shouldn’t be difficult, it shouldn’t be a bore but in my opinion it should definitely be GRIMM!

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