Not Quite a Top 10 List, or In Defense of Dan Brown (Sort of)
The question made me pause. I was sitting across from another business professional in a “speed networking” event as we got to know each other. Neither of us knew how to answer.
I mentally reviewed the apps I use most frequently, but they fell more in the “necessary” category than the “fun” category. Right before settling for a rote answer, it hit me: my favorite app, by far, is Libby.
The service Libby provides isn’t new. In fact, it’s probably old hat for most of you. But as someone who is historically behind the times, I’ve only started taking advantage of technologically-enhanced reading aids this year. Libby allows me and my wife to borrow audiobooks from the library and listen to them while doing dishes, folding clothes, driving, or performing other mindless tasks. It’s free and fun, and why haven’t I been doing this longer?!
If not for Libby, I would have only gotten through two fiction books this year. With Libby’s aid, however, I completed ten fiction books—something I haven’t done since 2011.
So what are those ten books, and what did I think? And why in the world would I want to defend author Dan Brown (as my blog title suggests)? I’m glad you asked. Let me walk you through this year’s reading/listening list.
1. Artemis, Andy Weir
Shannon and I thoroughly enjoyed The Martian, so we were stoked to read another novel by Andy Weir. Artemis is not as good as his debut novel—which, for those of you who haven’t read it, is far superior to the (fairly good) film—but it’s still an engaging read. I liked it much more than Shannon did, but that’s because of two reasons.
First, the sexual innuendo. As the person who read the book out loud, Shannon was able to skim over much of this needless material, sparing me (but not herself).
The second reason Shannon didn’t like it as much is closely related to the first: Weir paints the main character, Jasmine “Jazz” Bashara, as more of a perverted teenage boy than an actual woman. Not being a woman myself, I don’t fully understand how women think; Shannon says women don’t think like Jazz—especially when it comes to sex.
Even with the above problems, Weir did a great job of world-building, and his plot include some wonderful set pieces. I’m still excited to see what Weir comes up with next.
2. A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L'Engle
I didn’t not like this book. (How’s that for faint praise?) Certain parts seemed weird, other parts slow and bordering on boring. I couldn’t help but compare it to C. S. Lewis’ Narnia books. L’Engle spent a lot of effort attempting to create a sense of transcendence, but Lewis did so much better with far fewer words.
3. Dragon Teeth, Michael Crichton
An earlier work by Crichton that only recently saw the publishing light of day, Dragon Teeth is a more novice, but still decent, story. It’s a modestly interesting western, teetering on the edge of boring in a few places. The highlight for me was the inclusion of Wyatt Earp, especially the sequence in which Earp instructs the main character on how to win an upcoming gunfight.
4. Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton
Years ago, this book was my introduction to Michael Crichton, and he has remained my favorite sci-fi author ever since. This time around, Shannon and I listened to the book using Libby, and it was still a great read. (It certainly didn’t hurt that Scott Brick does phenomenal voice work for many of Crichton’s books.) The ending is a bit lame (as is often the case with Crichton’s works), but not nearly enough to ruin the story.
5. The Lost World, Michael Crichton
This is one of those rare instances where the sequel is superior to the original. The Lost World has a more cohesive plot, better action sequences, and greater character development. The ending, while not amazing, is a huge improvement over the first book. The Lost World is the best dinosaur-related story I’ve ever read, and it’s a shame that Spielberg jettisoned almost the entire plot in favor of a new storyline when he directed the disappointingly inferior cinematic adaption.
6. Mistborn: The Final Empire, Brandon Sanderson
This book was my first foray into modern high fantasy, and while I’m not a fan of the genre in general, I can readily admit that Brandon Sanderson is a gifted storyteller. His magic system for the Mistborn trilogy (of which The Final Empire is the first) is creative, lending itself well to several excellent fight scenes. I’m still not in love with fantasy, but this book made me want to learn how the Mistborn trilogy turns out.
7. The Well of Ascension, Brandon Sanderson
The sequel is much slower than the first entry. While Sanderson demonstrates great aptitude in crafting a multilayered politics-heavy drama, I’m not too interested in fictional poli sci. The ending delivered some heavy and delicious pathos, and it was worth the read (albeit, by the skin of its teeth).
(In case you are curious, Shannon and I are currently listening to The Hero of Ages, which is a huge improvement over the second installment.)
8. Dread Nation, Justina Ireland
I didn’t intend to listen to this audiobook, but after overhearing less than a chapter while Shannon washed the dishes one night, I was hooked. An alternate history in which the Civil War is interrupted by a zombie apocalypse, Dread Nation follows the exploits of a young girl trained to serve society through formal zombie combat training, only to find herself caught up in a conspiracy that threatens her plans for the future. The voice work by Bahni Turpin is outstanding, and the writing style effectively transports readers/listeners back to the time period in which the story takes place.
The main problem I have with this book is its structure. The setup takes longer than it technically should, and while the setup is thoroughly interesting, it falsely set my expectations for the rest of the book. When the inciting incident finally takes place, it dramatically shifts the tone of the story (almost as if it had switched genres). A couple plot threads are left unresolved at the end, but it’s still a well-told story, with a climactic battle that feels epically cinematic.
9. The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown
My first exposure to Dan Brown was when I read The Da Vinci Code in 2004. (I wanted to be able to address the controversy surrounding the book with an informed perspective.) At the end of 2004, I noted in my book-reading tracker that Da Vinci Code was the most engaging fiction book I had read that year (except for the crummy ending and atrocious theology).
I could summarize The Lost Symbol in an almost identical fashion. It is an engaging thriller informed by a horrible (and sometimes laughably ignorant) worldview. In my opinion, the best way to approach Dan Brown’s books is to treat them like alternate history narratives. Within that context, they provide solid entertainment.
Sure, the main threat at the climax of The Lost Symbol lacks the gravitas Brown intended, and the ending of the book takes some of the wind out of the story’s sails, but I almost didn’t mind since the rest of the book was so awesome. (Did I just use that word? Yes, I guess I did.)
10. Monster, Frank Peretti
This was my first Peretti book in years, and my first experience listening to an audiobook version of one of his stories. I found this fairly interesting—never boring, but rarely edge-of-your-seat exciting. The climax definitely upped the emotional and dramatic ante, and Peretti’s narration made this much more interesting—especially since one of the main characters is a stutterer, and she stutters all her lines, dragging them out uncomfortably, which I would have rushed through if I had just read the book myself.
Now that I know the true nature of the plot, I think the book title should have been less generic and more specific (Sasquatch, perhaps?). Overall, I’m glad I listened to it, but moreso because I have a personal goal of reading all of Peretti’s adult fiction. (Just one more book to go!)
STORY OF THE YEAR?
So what is my favorite read (or listen) from 2018? Not Brandon Sanderson’s claim to fame, nor my childhood hero’s monster tale. It really wasn’t even a contest, to be honest. (The only other real contender was Artemis.) The Lost Symbol entertained me far more than any other book this year. Yes, Dan Brown has proven to be something of a guilty pleasure.
In fact, as some of my readers may remember, I gave The Da Vinci Code a (dis)honorable mention when compiling my favorite fiction books of all time back in 2006. (My tastes and preferences have somewhat changed since then, but my commentary on Dan Brown has not.)
Say what you will about Dan Brown (and yes, there are many legitimately negative things to say), he is a skilled storyteller. He gets more flack for his writing style than his historical/theological research, whereas I find the latter much more troublesome than the former. In any case, Brown knows how to craft a genuinely engrossing thriller. He’s found a formula that really works, weaving together puzzles and clues and revelations into a sensational tapestry that is pure fun to behold.
Of special note: The Lost Symbol includes what may perhaps be the best chase scene I have ever encountered in a story. It involves just two people on foot, in a vast warehouse shrouded in complete darkness. This sequence is nothing short of masterful.