‘Da Vinci Code’ author Dan Brown’s code for thriller novel success

Lately, Dan Brown has been writing his thriller novels under the forbidding eye of Zeus, the king of gods. Which is a bit ironic, given that Brown vaulted to fame, success and bestseller lists by being a bit of an iconoclast, employing faith-shaking premises challenging ideas about religion and God as plot devices. His first blockbuster, “The Da Vinci Code,” was a puzzle-filled thriller that introduced readers to the notion that Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene were married with children. His latest page-turner, “Origin,” goes even further, playing with the idea that science could ultimately triumph over religion by essentially proving the nonexistence of God. It’s true that the god that watches over Brown as he writes is actually a cat, a massive orange and white tabby that adopted Brown after it wandered over from the neighbor’s house near Portsmouth, N.H., five years ago and never left. But ancient Egyptians once revered cats as demigods, and since then, cats like Zeus have never let Brown and the rest of us forget it. “He’s very big. Very, very territorial. Does not like it when I leave. When my suitcase comes out, he actually gets quite upset,” Brown said of Zeus. “He sits on my desk for eight hours a day when I’m writing.” That’s why Zeus has been a muse of sorts for Brown’s latest book, “Origin,” which brings him to St. Paul next week for a sold-out appearance as part of the Talking Volumes book series.It’s the fifth thriller to star Robert Langdon, the tweedy but dashing Harvard professor of “symbology and religious iconology,” who was played by Tom Hanks in the movie adaptations. The book kicks off with Langdon present at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, when tech billionaire Edmond Kirsch prepares to announce a scientific breakthrough that will answer man’s “universal mysteries”: Where do we come from and where are we Continue Reading

Small town, big art: Mantua, Italy, holds treasures

Mantua. Another one of those Italian towns you’ve never heard of, right? Well, let’s start with the bedroom. A vast, dimly lit chamber with thick walls and bare tile floor, it is hardly cozy. More than 26 feet wide and roughly that tall, it is a chilly cube that nestles deep in the recesses of the Castello di San Giorgio. But since 1475, when its frescoed walls shone fresh, the chamber has been acclaimed as one of the world’s most beautiful rooms. Even now its imposing portraits of the Gonzaga family, with their elegant courtiers, handsome horses and sleepy dogs, stand among Italy’s most famous art treasures. While the bedroom is a cultural marvel, it’s just one of Mantua’s treasures. In their heyday, the Gonzaga, who ruled this city from 1328 to 1707, competed for top talent with the Medici of Florence, kings of France and assorted popes. Art stars who decorated their palazzos and churches include Caravaggio, Correggio, Mantegna, Raphael, Rubens, Tintoretto and Titian. Much of that art eventually found its way into museums around the world. One of the prizes, Correggio’s sensual painting of a nymph being seduced by a god disguised as a teddy-bear cloud, was even lent to the Minneapolis Institute of Art a few years ago. Having encountered Gonzaga art seemingly everywhere, last summer I decided to see firsthand what remains in the place they called home. On the plains of Lombardy in northern Italy, Mantua rises amid lush fields of maize, rice, sunflowers and wheat at a bend of the Mincio, a tributary of the Po River. Verona lies due north, and Venice is 60 miles east. Midday silence I arrived by train and hopped into a taxi. From the window, I spied a market plaza, narrow streets and tile-roofed buildings that seem largely untouched by time, as in Florence, Sienna and other ancient Italian towns. Mantua prohibits cars in the old town, so I made the final approach to my hotel, the modest Hotel Continue Reading

The second time is still the charm in the exquisite ‘Paddington 2’

At one point in the new film that (ahem) bears his name, Paddington Brown, the Peruvian-born, London-dwelling ursine hero with the blue coat and floppy red hat, rattles off the recipe for an unusually large quantity of marmalade. It would be criminal to say too much about the reasons for this impractical assignment, or the silly, utterly delightful outcome of Paddington’s rare foray into the culinary arts. Suffice to say that he will need a lot of help, a lot of sugar and about a thousand oranges to pull it off. This thoroughly delightful movie, for its part, always seems to be following its own carefully worked-out recipe to the letter. It does this not out of timidity or laziness — quite the opposite — but because the particular alchemy it’s attempting is so tricky. Arriving just in time to brighten a typically dreary post-holiday season at the multiplex, “Paddington 2” is a beautifully structured comedy of the old school, full of inspired blink-and-you-miss-it wordplay, intricate gags that build on each other, and narrative digressions that pay off in ways that feel inspired rather than predictable. It’s an exquisite reminder of the wondrous things that can happen when a storyteller of boundless imagination avails himself of some rigorous discipline. The storyteller is Paul King, back for more after writing and directing 2014’s hit “Paddington.” In this sequel, co-written with Simon Farnaby, he once again hurls the accident-prone bear (perfectly voiced again by Ben Whishaw) into a preposterous action-comedy plot without betraying the gently whimsical, thoroughly British spirit of Michael Bond’s original books. The presence of so many scheming super-villains in the otherwise quiet neighborhood of Windsor Gardens may admittedly defy logical explanation, even by the standards of a movie in which no one raises an eyebrow at a walking, talking CGI bear. But those baddies do what they’re supposed Continue Reading

Books: Favorite reads of the year from our Critics at Large and more book news

Greetings and salutations! I’m Carolyn Kellogg, Books editor of the L.A. Times with this week’s books newsletter.CRITICS PICKSThis week the entire Sunday Calendar section is taken up with critics picks for the year in film, television, theater, music, art — and books. Seven of our Critics at Large shared with us their favorite reads of 2017. Many named new works from this year; others reached back a few. Their picks include poetry, novels, essays, history, biography, short stories, works in translation, memoir and even a children’s book. They’re all included below (and make great additions to your reading lists).RIGOBERTO GONZALEZMy two favorite books of 2017: Achy Obejas’ superb story collection “The Tower of Antilles” (Akashic Books) deals with the conflicted relationships Cubans, exiles and Cuban Americans have with their homeland, with the U.S., and, more poignantly, with each other; Vanessa Angélica Villarreal’s stunning poetry debut “Beast Meridian” (Noemi Press) charts the emotional journey of a first-generation Chicana as she navigates her troubled family, cultural displacement and an “American dream” that excludes women of color.REBECCA CARROLL“We Are Never Meeting in Real Life,” Samantha Irby’s collection of candid, funny and deliberate essays will make you laugh until you pee and cry and ache in your belly. It’s like nothing you’ve ever read, because Irby is like no one you’ve ever met, although you will never really know, because I’m pretty sure the title of this book does not lie. Take heart, though, meeting Irby in writing is plenty rewarding enough. From the essay “A Case for Remaining Indoors”: “Picture it: you’re chilling in the corner at a party full of people you’ve never met before and hated on sight, humming the lyrics to a Coldplay song to yourself to drown out the Swedish death metal the Continue Reading

Best-selling books for the week that ended Nov. 19

Here are the best-selling books from Publishers Weekly for the week that ended Nov. 19. HARDCOVER FICTION 1. “Oathbringer: Book Three” • Brandon Sanderson 2. “Hardcore Twenty-Four” • Janet Evanovich 3. “The Rooster Bar” • John Grisham 4. “The Midnight Line” • Lee Child 5. “End Game” • David Balducci 6. “Origin” • Dan Brown 7. “Artemis” • Andy Weir 8. “Two Kinds of Truth” • Michael Connelly 9. “Typhoon Fury” • Cussler Morrison 10. “Every Breath You Take” • Mary Higgins Clark HARDCOVER NONFICTION 1. “Promise Me, Dad” • Joe Biden 2. “Obama: An Intimate Portrait” • Pete Souza 3. “The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Come and Get It!” • Ree Drummond 4. “Leonardo da Vinci” • Walter Isaacson 5. “The Wisdom of Sundays” • Oprah Winfrey 6. “Guinness World Records 2018” • Guinness World Records Limited 7. “Bobby Kennedy” • Chris Matthews 8. “Killing England” • O’Reilly/Dugard 9. “Grant” • Ron Chernow 10. “God, Faith, and Reason” • Michael Savage TRADE PAPERBACKS 1. “The Sun and Her Flowers” • Rupi Kaur 2. “Count to Ten” • James Patterson & Angwan Sanghi 3. “The Black Book” • James Patterson 4. “It” (movie tie-in) • Stephen King 5. “Instant Pot Miracle” • HMH editors 6. “Murder on the Orient Express” (movie tie-in) • Agatha Christie 7. “The Ultimate Recipes Across America Cookbook” • Cogin 8. “The Woman in Cabin 10” • Ruth Ware 9. “Behind Closed Doors” • B.A. Paris 10. “Lilac Girls” • Martha Hall Kelly Here are the best-sellers Continue Reading

France spurns war-zone refugees, but welcomes their art treasures

PARIS — While Europe balks at offering asylum to Syrians, Iraqis and other migrants fleeing war-torn countries, one of its top museums plans to provide a haven for their art treasures.The Louvre is preparing to offer asylum to artifacts endangered in war zones around the world. The treasures will be stored in a preservation center scheduled to open in two years in the northern French town of Liévin.The move is a response to the skyrocketing looting and destruction in conflict zones, said Louvre President-Director Jean-Luc Martinez."Faced with such an emergency, we asked ourselves, ‘What can a museum do?’” Martinez asked at this week's opening of an exhibition of ancient treasures at the Grand Palais. “We need an exceptional mobilization.”French President François Hollande and leaders from 40 governments and institutions approved a $100 million plan during a Dec. 3 conference in the United Arab Emirates' capital, Abu Dhabi. American representatives at the conference included the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian.“There had never been such an important summit bringing together so many heads of states,” said Jack Lang, president of the Arab World Institute in Paris and a former French minister of culture.The Islamic State and other Muslim extremists have destroyed much of the cultural heritage in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya and Mali on the grounds that non-Islamic art and antiquities are blasphemous.In the Syrian city of Raqqa, the Islamic State bulldozed a colossal, ancient Assyrian gateway on the banks of the Euphrates that featured eighth-century lion sculptures. In the ancient city of Palmyra — which the militant group recaptured this week after being driven out nine months ago — the Islamic State destroyed a 1,900-year-old Phoenician temple. In Iraq, the group destroyed Continue Reading

Prince William & Kate Middleton’s wedding sparks London fever: Your guide to city across the pond

Thanks to a couple of photo-ready royal lovebirds, eyes across the world are focused on one city: London. But there are plenty of reasons to visit besides Kate and William's imminent wedding. Brits have recently swamped Manhattan on shopping trips, lured here by favorable pound-dollar exchange rates. Now, the advantage has flipped. It's been a decade or so since the dollar was worth this much in Britain — $1.50-$1.60 to the pound. Add to that a slew of hotel openings, like the renovation of the iconic Savoy (fairmont.com/savoy), where modern cocktails were first popularized in Europe at the swanky American Bar. There's also a brand-new W hotel (whotels.com) that just debuted on Leicester Square. Plus, London is undergoing radical upgrades in preparation for the 2012 Olympic Games. Go this year, and you'll avoid the crowds but still enjoy a spiffed-up city. Here's a 10-part tip sheet for London. 1. DAY-TRIPPING: The NYC-London air route is one of the busiest in the world, so fares are competitive (around $750 including taxes). Check for flights that land at London's second airport, Gatwick (LGW), which isn't as swanky as Heathrow (LHR) but is equally handy. And if the red-eye prices are high, look for the morning departures. Operated by a few airlines like American and British Airways, these leave NYC at 8 or 9 a.m. and arrive in time for late dinner in the U.K. Business types rarely opt for them, so fares can be cheaper. Check airfarewatchdog.com (where real people trawl for deals that are emailed free to subscribers) and Kayak.com. 2. THE TUBE IS YOUR OYSTER: Don't pay cash when traveling on the tube (London's subway) or the big red buses. Cash fares are more than double what locals pay, equipped as they are with Oyster cards (tfl.gov.uk). Any tube station sells these stored-value swipe cards for a deposit of just 3 pounds; load them up at a ticket machine and fares are automatically deducted every time you ride (unlike in NYC, remember to tap Continue Reading

‘Warehouse 13’ has the goods for nifty sci-fi

"Warehouse 13" is the kind of science fiction where you don't have to be a techno-geek or analyze the weird powers of aliens to enjoy the ride. That's good. Warehouse 13 is a well-camouflaged storage facility under the Badlands of South Dakota. The government uses it to isolate objects that seem to have powers no one fully understands: Harry Houdini's wallet, a copper kettle with Aladdin's lamp-like qualities, an early electronic stun gun, a homicidal 15th-century comb, stuff like that. Secret Service agent Artie Nielsen, delightfully played by Saul Rubinek, has run the joint for the last decade. That includes dispatching assistants to hunt down and collect these objects before anyone gets too badly hurt. Now Nielsen has two new agents, replacing those who were killed, disappeared or went insane. Agents Pete Lattimer (Eddie McClintock) and Myka Bering (Joanne Kelly), who previously were on presidential protection detail, are about as happy with this new assignment as one would imagine. When Myka gets within range of the copper kettle, she silently wishes for her old job back, at which point a ferret pops out of the kettle. Turns out that when you make a wish that can't be granted, a ferret appears. His own first year at Warehouse 13, Artie recalls, "the place was crawling with ferrets." So Pete and Myka become a reluctant commando team, prodded by Artie's pep talks about how they're implementing a classic Jeffersonian principle: When you find something you can't explain, "You put it in a box until you're sure it won't kill you." The science-fiction angle here, obviously, is that these mysterious, potentially lethal objects exist and the government conspires to keep the citizenry from panicking or knowing too much. In that sense, "Warehouse 13" feels like a quilt woven out of familiar material. The coverup is straight out of "National Treasure" and "Da Vinci Code." The warehouse idea mirrors the Noah Wyle "Librarian" Continue Reading

SUMMER SCREEN SAVERS. ‘Pirates’ grabs the big booty in summer treasure hunt

In an April 30 preview of this summer's movies, I admitted to "a serious case of Cruise fatigue" that kept the season's first would-be blockbuster, "Mission: Impossible III," off the list of films I was most anxious to see. Obviously, I was not alone. "M:i:III," as the third film in the Tom Cruise series is abbreviated in Hollywood, stumbled through the early weeks of summer and ended up with relative chump change - $133. 4 million - in the box office till. By this time next week, "Talladega Nights" will have moved past it into eighth place among the season's top earners. The top seven: "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" ($407. 6 million), "Cars" ($240. 5), "X-Men: The Last Stand" ($234. 2), "The Da Vinci Code" ($217. 5), "Superman Returns" ($195. 4), "Over the Hedge" ($154. 8) and "Click" ($136). There were plenty of highlights to the season. Meryl Streep probably assured herself a 14th Oscar nomination for her deliciously wicked portrayal of an ice-goddess magazine editor in "The Devil Wears Prada. " Johnny Depp underscored the genius of his creation of Jack Sparrow in the first "Pirates of the Caribbean" sequel. Newcomer Brandon Routh proved himself an able replacement for the late Christopher Reeve in "Superman Returns," though the movie's length and complexity dampened its box office outlook and put the new franchise in jeopardy. Will Ferrell burnished his image as a leading slapstick comedy star in "Talladega Nights," and Jack Black did better than he should have with the misfired "Nacho Libre. " And though most of my colleagues didn't share my enthusiasm for the Vince Vaughn/Jennifer Aniston comedy "The Break-Up," it finished 10th in the season box office with $118. 6 million. The crop of summer failures was abundant: M. Night Shyamalan's "Lady in the Water" grossed a meager $41. 7 million; Michael Mann's high-profile "Miami Vice" sold $70 million in tickets, about half its budget; and the $160 million Continue Reading

HUNTING FOR ‘TREASURE’. Show ought to dig deeper

TREASURE HUNTERS Sunday night at 8, NBC 2 Stars The twin inspirations for NBC's new "Treasure Hunters" reality competition series are as obvious as they are derivative: equal parts "The Amazing Race" and "The Da Vinci Code. " The resultant series, which premieres Sunday at 8 p. m., could be a lot better - but also a lot worse. What the show (which settles into a Monday 9 p. m. slot after this weekend's expanded two-hour launch) has going for it is that real-estate mantra: "location, location, location. " The first "Treasure Hunters" starts in Hawaii and Alaska, then heads to the contiguous 48 states and winds up headed for Mt. Rushmore. Visually, it's a treat, as contestants rappel on glaciers, jump off ships into the ocean, and hike, climb and dive in search of clues. One drawback of "Treasure Hunters," though, is the same thing that slows down the movie version of "The Da Vinci Code. " Watching people go through the cerebral process of decoding clues isn't always as dynamic, or as clear, as it might be on the page. "Treasure Hunters" gathers five three-member teams (with names like "Ex-CIA" and "Geniuses") and sets them off to find and solve various puzzles. The stragglers will be ousted, and host Laird Macintosh adopts the same language as on "Amazing Race" to threaten - promise - that "one team will be eliminated. " The show's clever initial twist is that the players are unaware that a second group of five teams has begun the game from a different location. Not until they run into each other, almost literally, do they comprehend that the game is twice as difficult to win as they had thought. It's also, as a TV show, only about half as good as it could have been, at least at the start. There's not enough context to the settings or clarity of the assigned tasks (two things at which "The Amazing Race" excels), and the casting, so key in these shows, isn't that inspired. Team Wild Hanlons are fun because they're so clueless (in Continue Reading