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Cloud Atlas
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on 12 May 2017
The author presents us with a series of interconnected vignettes, which all sort of tie in loosely, though perhaps not positively enough to give a sense of satisfaction, and readers are left to draw their own conclusions about the meaning behind the birthmark. Breaking up the stories into interwoven episodes does result in a certain amount of scrabbling back to earlier chapters to remind oneself of how the story was left.
That said, it is a beautifully and sensitively written book, even if the author's prognostications about the future and human nature are somewhat cynical and gloomy. I like how the writing style changes from 19th century floral to present day functionalism, which not only allows the author to more fully exploit the joys of the English language, but gives a chronological identity to each of the stories.
The book came as a surprise to me, as I was expecting something quite different; it was quite hard to get into, but well worth the effort.
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on 31 July 2014
How do you even begin to review a book like this?

An absolutely fantastic, well written, creative masterpiece? That will have to do!

For me I cannot talk about the book without first mentioning the film based on it. It was through the movie that I cam to the book. Cloud Atlas was not received that well, and despite looking superb and boasting a stellar cast was considered average by most people who saw it. In this day and age of spectacle and action it was not surprising really. It is a film that you have to sit and watch, to concentrate on and perhaps watch a couple of time to really appreciate the complexities it holds.

I loved it, it seemed to be suited to the way my brain works and it was enough to make me want to read the source material.

The author has likened the book to matryoshka or Russian nesting dolls, each time you remove an outer layer there is another beneath. I can see what he means. Each shell reveals another until you reach the middle then put the whole thing back together again. You could equally claim it is like climbing a step pyramid. Each step takes you to the summit, before descending the other side, ultimately ending where you began.

What seems like a series of individual stories slowly becomes something more as you make your way through the words. Starting with Adam Ewing, a notary sent out into the Pacific to deliver legal documents in the (I guess) 1800's, each story moves through time, to the 1930's, the 1970's, Modern day, the near(ish) future and the post apocalyptic Earth of a distant time.

Each part is told in a different style, be it letters, Journal Entries, a recorded interview. The language changes with the time and the character, to something that is readable but has evolved from our own.

Each character is just that a character, a personality that leaps off the page, while the different stories flit within different genres keeping the pages turning with a life of their own.

Not only is each individual story gripping in their own right, the more you read the more obvious it becomes that they are linked in a multitude of different ways. From a recurring birthmark, to the use of the words Cloud Atlas, to character quirks that might be related to previous stories, and the way each story is enfolded in the next. I could list them all, but to avoid spoilers I'll just mention the first. In the second story, main character Robert Frobisher discovers a batter book, torn in two. It is the Journal of Adam Ewing from the opening part of the book.

There are also little tells, I'm aware of picking up two, but there are countless more, I'm sure waiting to be seen on second, third or fourth readings. (One I spotted is Frobisher has a seeming irrational hatred of doctors, by the time you finish the book it makes sense.)

It is a remarkable achievement of style and the imagination, well written, inventive and not in a manner that might alienate a reader. It is a story of wonder, mundane, of adventure and life, a story of what was and what might be, of lives intersecting, moving apart and coming together again through the generations, it is a story of loss and redemption, over generations. It is a book that looks seriously at the subject of reincarnation, and never once drops the ball.

For me, at least, a modern masterpiece and one of the best books I have ever read.
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on 25 June 2014
I loved the film and had to read the book. They are very different.
The film tells six stories in parallel and it is genius how the scenes switch back and forth between different stories and times. The book is arranged as a Russian doll. The first half of the oldest story is told, then the first half of the next oldest story and so on. half way through the book it changes and you get the last half of each story. I personally found that this did not work well and it seemed that too long was spent on each story and the many connections between them were lost.
The four stories that happened in the past were almost identical to the film, but the two stories that are set in the future are very different to the movie - strange that. On the whole I think the stories in the book were better but I can see why they had to change them and simplify them to make the movie.
The standard of writing is excellent.
The book is well worth reading, particularly for anyone who has seen the film and wants to get more detail and back story. If you can only get one then I would recommend the film, which for me at the moment is the best film I have every seen and I find myself drawn to watch it over and over - always finding something new in it.
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on 12 February 2014
The fact that I began recommending this book to people before I had even gotten halfway through testifies as to just how enraptured I was by it.

In my list of all time favourite books (and this list is not intellectually high brow, I warn you, but personally significant to me -to my mind that's the best basis for book ratings - importance to me on a personal level) I can place Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, the Harry Potter series by J.K Rowling, the A Song of Ice and Fire series of G.R.R Martin, The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R Tolkien and, now, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. As you can see I rarely become truly invested in single novels. In fact, as of Hilary Mantel writing a sequel to her Cromwell vehicle, Cloud Atlas is the only one on that list to stand alone. So the question I asked myself was this; why did Cloud Atlas leave me feeling so profoundly connected by its final page, in one five hundred page offering, whilst others take entire series of thousands of pages and millions of words, to achieve the same thing?

I think there are many answers to that. Cloud Atlas is vast; spreading across five different time lines, arching from the eighteen hundreds to a far flung, dystopian future, featuring a breadth of characters connected in infinitesimal ways, telling stories which are in turn banal and fascinating, complex and the essence of simplicity, harrowing and heart-warming. The depiction of humanity, of human thought as a whole, is there in all its glory and misery but accompanied by, at its root, good fiction and well told stories. I think that to call Cloud Atlas profound is only to take my own view and give it to you, the reader. Another person might find it merely to be a compilation of fantastical stories, whilst others still might find more fitting fare in the recent film version.

Which brings me to a comparison between the word and the screen. The Cloud Atlas film is undeniably an interpretation of the source. The film makers inject more romance into the cinematic version (in fact after seeing the film first and then the book I was surprised at how little a part romance plays in the novel). Both, I think, are majestic in their own ways. While the film portrays the reincarnations of lovers meeting again and again through different time lines, sometimes achieving togetherness whilst at other times missing one another, occasionally by moments, the book is more about the inevitable intertwining of people and how lives can effect one another, even once long finished. The film takes the bold option of using the same actors to play multiple races, genders and roles across various time lines. That, the acting itself and the cinematography is admirable. The book excels at enlarging the cast of characters, enriching each individual beyond the film's capability, and giving more strings to grasp whilst trying to plait everything together, simultaneously referencing the source of each piece. It was a challenge I found both compelling and enjoyable to see the fruits of. I would therefore recommend both film and book with no overwhelming preference for either over the other, merely adoration for the whole.

I write nothing about the plot here because I think it is something, whether through reading or watching, which should be experienced without spoilers or inference, but as a whole. Suffice to say that David Mitchell takes risks, reaches further with each turn of the page, and is a genuinely compelling author. Therefore we are left with a work of fiction which pertains more to fact than you might at first suppose. A true work of art and undeniably my read of the year.
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on 30 August 2016
There were probably only a couple of the chapters (there are 6 nested stories within the book) that I liked & enjoyed. One story in particular (Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After) is quite difficult to get into as it's written in a dialect I didn't recognise at all. The Sonmi tale seemed to drone on forever; a contrast to the fast paced tale of "The first Luisa Rey mystery".
There seems to be a lot of unnecessary narrative in some of the stories and overall found the book quite difficult to read at times and disengaging. Not what I was expecting and disappointed especially as a lot of people rave about it.
A book desperately trying to be something it's not and requires - no, demands, commitment from its reader but gives little back. I see what the author is trying to achieve but wish he'd cut to the chase a bit more. You simply cannot classify this book as science fiction, murder mystery, post-apocalptic futuristic or a thriller because it's trying to be a bit of everything. Personally, all a bit too much for me and couldn't wait to finish it.
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on 18 July 2014
I first read this book when it came out in the early noughties, and was blown away by both the inventive structure and compelling storytelling. I recently saw the film (a great adaptation, incidentally), which inspired me to do a cover to cover reread and it lived up to my memories.

I'm a big believer in not drawing too distinct a line between "genre fiction" (fantasy, paranormal, sci-fi etc) and more high-brow, literary novels. This book is one of the best examples of the idea that it's possible to write a novel that both tells a fantastical story and does amazing things with prose, structure and narrative. The fact that it was nominated for both the Booker Prize and the X prize tells its own story.

The book is almost a collection of seven short stories. With the exception of the one in the middle, which runs straight through, each gets to a halfway point and is then interrupted by the next story, which follows a character who is reading the text the reader has just read. Halfway through the book, it then starts working it's way back through the stories, completing each of them in turn. Throughout, there are hints that all of the stories' main characters may be reincarnations of each other (most obviously, they all have the same comet shaped birthmark, but there seem to be some overlap of memories and fears), but the author doesn't make it simple - the timeline doesn't quite seem to allow it, and some characters seem to be fictional within other character's universes.

It's the intricate way that the stories fit together that I really love about this book, especially the little clues and the self-references, whether its a piece of music composed by one character that has the same structure, a character dreaming about something that happens to another protagonist centuries in the future, or a character wondering whether the journal he is reading (which readers have also just read) is a forgery, on the basis that some of what is said seems to convenient. This is definitely a book that benefits from a re-read and some close scrutiny of the text.

That said, it's not just structure over substance. Each of the individual stories are beautifully plotted and written. The brilliant thing is that they are not only set in wildly different time periods (the earliest is in the 1800s, the latest in a far distant post-apocalyptic future) and geographical locations, they are also very different genres and written in a corresponding style. So the first story is meant to be the journal of a nineteenth lawyer on a sea voyage - it's written in diary format, and in the very mannered, formal language of the time, while a 1970s thriller is written like a pulpy novel, and so on. Mitchell masters all of these styles beautifully and has a bit of fun playing around with them.

Most fundamentally, however, when all the stylistic cleverness and post-modern twistiness is stripped away, there are still seven good, strong stories. Inevitably, in this sort of book, each reader, even if they love the whole thing, is going to find themselves enjoying some sections more than others. For me, a story (told in the form of letters) of a debauched 1930s musician and another focussing on a rebel clone in a futuristic Korea are up their with my favourite stories in their own right. In particular, I found the latter story reminded my of Never Let Me Go, which came out at more or less the same time, but I actually found the Cloud Atlas chapter to be better, even though it was only one small part of a much bigger whole. The seventies thriller and the modern day tale of a hapless literary agent were also genuinely enjoyable reads. Despite my love of the book, I have to admit that I found the sea journal and in particular, the post-apocalyptic tale (told as an oral history, in a made up pseudo-English reminiscent of that in A Clockwork Orange) to be rather heavy-going. In those cases, while I still admired the author's talent and the contribution they made to the whole, I struggled to actively enjoy them. Interestingly, I've seen other people who feel exactly the opposite way about which stories do and don't work - they are all extremely well written and imaginative, beyond that, it's really a matter of personal taste. I would, however, suggest that if the first story doesn't grab you, you still push on and see whether you enjoy the others more.

Finally, not content with both the stories and the metaphysics, the book as a whole has a lot of quite deep things to say about human nature, especially the destructive will to dominate others. As one characters puts it, "the weak are meat, the strong do eat." Various other interesting themes also flow through the book, enriching it without it ever starting to feel like a lecture.

It's by no means the easiest read. You'll have to work a little just to get through it, and to get the most out of it and make all the connections, it's worth going slowly and/or re-reading. There are also likely to be some sections that readers don't enjoy as much as others. Nonetheless, I'd hugely recommend this to anyone who wants to try something different, to have their mind twisted, and ultimately, to enjoy a good story and some seriously impressive writing.
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on 14 July 2016
It's a good book and a good film. It does often feel like you are reading a screenplay and the characters are difficult to really engage with and yet it makes you want to keep turning the pages.
I confess to having watched the film first and pretty much got to the end of the film and felt like I needed to replay it immediately to have some kind of understanding of the whole thing, I have watched it more than once since and it does always leave me feeling a bit befuddled. The book helped a bit with this feeling but I still feel like I need to reread (probably more than once)

And yet despite this general sort of fog of confusion about who these people all are and what the heck is going on I do really quite enjoy the journey.

Definitely recommend it if you like a challenging read.
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on 1 March 2018
This is a book worth sticking at, particularly if at first you are confused by the structure - jumping in time from the past to the future, across seemingly unconnected stories. But slowly, you start to see the connections, fell for the tragedies, and start willing on the heroes in the various timelines to a positive end. The stories twist and turn in many unexpected directions along the way, but this is a surprisingly satisfying and well crafted novel which I will come back to again and again. Recommended.
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on 29 October 2017
I read this after I really enjoyed reading Slade House and The Bone Clocks.

Unfortunately I didn't really enjoy this book. It was difficult to get into, grabbed my attention, and then lost it almost entirely before I got halfway through.

Finishing it was a real effort and I skipped through the final chapter as I may have been there until next year otherwise.

I like the unusual style but it just wasn't for me. Worth a go but it's going in the charity bag rather than the shelf.
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on 25 June 2017
The idea behind this story is excellent, and I really enjoyed three of the six "parts" (don't want to give away too much information in case of spoilers) but I really did feel that it was about 150 pages too long. The first half, in particular, was very slow going. However, I did enjoy the way everything tied up and it was a good ending as well - I'm always disappointed by cliff hangers, and I wouldn't say this book had any.
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