Tag Archives: Cloud Atlas

And So, the End is Near…

…of the year, that is. Not, like, of my existence or anything.

Hopefully, anyway.

Image: executiveresumeexpert.com

Image: executiveresumeexpert.com

Everyone who’s anyone in the blogosphere has started putting up their ‘best of’ lists for 2013 – their top 10 best books published in the last 12 months, top 13 best reads of 2013, that sort of thing. I, because I am chronically disorganised, have compiled a list – of sorts – of my favourite reads this year too, but where I differ from the others is that my list is made up of my favourite books read this year – but not necessarily published this year. I wish I was the type of reader who kept detailed start- and end-dates for my reading process, and filed the books away in a rational and ordered fashion on my shelves when they’ve been read, but I don’t think I’ll ever quite manage it. I’d also love to have the money to keep up with the flood of new books constantly being published – but sadly, that is another dream.

In any case, on with the show. Today’s post is going to look at books which I’ve slotted into the category of ‘General’ – i.e. not children’s books or YA books. I’m noticing a certain bent toward the SF end of the fiction spectrum, but heck. What can you do?

Favourite Books Read this Year (General)

The best book I read this year, I think, in the General category was Jung Chang’s Wild Swans. I’ve had this book for years, waiting for its moment in the spotlight, and I eventually managed to make time to read it a few months back. It’s been around for a long time, so chances are you’ve read it already, but if you haven’t – well. I can’t say I recommend it, as such, because it’s almost as challenging a read as Mao’s Great Famine (Frank Dikotter), and it is full of descriptions and testimony which will leave you literally unable to think or speak, but it (along with the Dikotter book) is a book that everyone should read. If it does nothing else but reinforce your desire to see that the events described never, ever take place again on the face of the earth, then it’s done its job.

Image: en.wikipedia.com

Image: en.wikipedia.com

I also read (and loved) Connie Willis’ To Say Nothing of the Dog, which is a masterclass in writing about time-travel – but also so much more than that. It’s 2057, and we’re introduced to Ned Henry, a professional time-traveller, and a wealthy woman named Lady Schrapnell (who would have been right at home in an Oscar Wilde play.) Lady Schrapnell is sinking millions into the exact reconstruction of Coventry Cathedral, which had been destroyed in the Blitz, and is causing a major headache for historians, academics and time-travellers alike with her painstaking and dictatorial manner. Everything is in place for the grand reopening – except, that is, for one mysterious object called the Bishop’s Bird Stump, which cannot be found. Ned is suffering from time-lag as a result of jumping back and forth between the 1940s and his own time searching for the Stump, but when another time-traveller appears to have broken the rules of the Continuum by bringing something forward through time from the Victorian period, he is the only time-traveller available to bring it back. Confused and addled, his adventures in the Victorian period begin… This book is huge, and though the plot is insanely complex, the reader never once loses track of where they are or what’s happening, because of the skill of Willis’ writing. It’s absolutely hilarious, as well as brilliantly plotted, executed and described. It’s not a new book, but it was one of my 2013 highlights for sure.

I also read Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon, another title that had been lurking on my ‘to read’ list for many years. It’s a rich and rewarding story filled with meditations on humanity, ethics and the rights of patients, the treatment of the disabled, societal distaste for anything which is ‘different,’ prejudice against those who are seen as ‘lesser beings’, and the morality of tampering with a person’s brain without their full understanding of what will happen to them. Charlie Gordon, our narrator, is a kind, hard-working and gentle young man who is considered to have sub-par intelligence. The book takes us through the experiments conducted upon him and a laboratory mouse (the titular ‘Algernon’) with a view to increasing their IQ, and we learn about the effects of the treatments upon Charlie first-hand, in his own voice. Chilling and moving in equal measure, it’s a book that will stay with me.

Image: sffmasterworks.blogspot.com

Image: sffmasterworks.blogspot.com

One of the very lovely gifts my husband gave me during the year was a book titled When God Was a Rabbit, by Sarah Winman. It wasn’t the kind of book I’d have picked up for myself, which is what made it such a great present, and it’s about a girl and her brother, and the relationship between them as they grow to adulthood. It doesn’t sound like much – but it is. This is a book filled with eccentrics and oddballs, touches of magic realism, the maddening, infuriating and ultimately precious links between family members and – most importantly – explorations of love, in all the forms love can take. I found the relationship between Elly and Joe (the sister and brother) extremely moving to read, perhaps because I only have one brother, and we are very close. This fictional sibling relationship reminded me, on some levels, of my own real-life one. It’s a strange book, and parts of it stretch the ‘magic’ of ‘magic realism’ a little too far (I’m thinking of a scene where one of the most odd of the oddball characters gets his sight back when he is hit on the head by a flying coconut), but overall it was one of this year’s memorable reads for me.

I’m trying to steer clear of books I’ve already reviewed, which means Cloud Atlas can’t be mentioned here. Oh – whoops! Look what I just did.

I find it really difficult to narrow books down to a ‘best of’ list; usually, there’s something worth liking in everything I read. Perhaps if I was to draw up this list again tomorrow an entirely different selection of books would present itself, but that’s your lot for today.

Later in the week: my top children’s/YA reads for this year… Get your breaths bated in plenty of time for that.

Image: thenakedscientists.com

Image: thenakedscientists.com

Book Review Saturday – ‘Cloud Atlas’

So, yes. ‘Cloud Atlas’. It’s far from being a new book, but it was a new book to me, when I read it a couple of months ago. I was warned, repeatedly, that it was ‘impossible’, ‘unreadable’, ‘too complicated’, and so on, so I did come to it with a certain amount of trepidation.

Also, a little bit of cold, hard fear.

Image: screencrush.com

Image: screencrush.com

Now, in the warm afterglow of having met the challenge of reading it, I wonder why so many people warned me off. It’s a big, whopping book – but it’s nothing to be scared of.

‘Cloud Atlas’ is a huge novel, full of characters and voices and ideas and time periods, but it is all connected. It’s connected through the plot that David Mitchell weaves around his characters, of course, but also through the larger ideas of shared humanity, the desire to live, the need for freedom, and the gaining of wisdom. All these things make the book easy to empathise with and understand, and they also keep you turning the pages.

Structurally, the book takes the form of six novellas, five of which are split in two; one half of these split novellas is told at the beginning of the book, and the other half (in reverse order) at the end. The middle novella, ‘Sloosha’s Crossin’ and Ev’rythin’ After’ is told in its entirety, like a ‘bridge’ across the middle of the book. The first story we come across is ‘The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,’ which tells the tale of a man on a nineteenth-century ship which is sailing around the Chatham Islands. The story takes in ideas of slavery, colonialism, brutal maritime history, and – overall – the ways in which people will use one another to get what they want. It is told in the form of a diary, and its dialect, language, and historical sensibilities are pitch-perfect in their accuracy. It reads like a long-lost primary historical document, and it’s engrossing.

The second novella is a total change. ‘The Journal of Adam Ewing’ comes to a sudden, and unexpected, stop, and the reader is flung into an entirely different world. We read about a young man named Robert Frobisher, who is extremely talented but utterly feckless, making his way to Switzerland to apprentice himself to the leading composer of his day because he simply cannot bear to do anything else. He is bisexual, louche, useless with money, and a total cad, but, somehow, we love him as much as the person to whom he is writing his letters – an old lover, Rufus Sixsmith – seems to do. We imagine Sixsmith’s pain as Frobisher details his conquests and his increasingly glamorous lifestyle, but – most interestingly – we read that he has found a manuscript among the papers of Vyvyan Ayrs (the composer with whom he is working) which is called ‘The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing’ – and it is torn in half. Finding the other half becomes an obsession. Ayrs also talks about a strange vision he has had of a futuristic society involving women who all look the same, and begins to write music based on his visions.

The next section is ‘The First Luisa Rey Mystery,’ written like a potboiler detective novel. A young woman in 1970s California discovers that a local power plant is not all it purports to be, and an eminent scientist – one Rufus Sixsmith – warns her of the danger before being murdered. In her investigation, Rey uncovers the letters from Frobisher which Sixsmith has kept, and becomes interested in his music. Her story ends abruptly – and frighteningly – and we do not know her fate as we move on to the next novella.

‘The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish’ is written in a highly comic tone, which is interesting as the story is quite frightening, in some ways. Cavendish is a publisher, who is always running short of money and who has now fallen foul of a criminal element. His brother tells him that he has booked him into a remote, and hence completely safe, hotel in order to get him away from his enemies, but this hotel turns out to be something rather different – a place he cannot escape from, no matter what he tries to do. He had to leave very quickly to escape the brutes who were after him, and – in his hurry – he forgot that he had a newly submitted manuscript in his briefcase, which he reads as he struggles to adjust to his new life in captivity. The title of the manuscript? ‘The First Luisa Rey Mystery.’

‘The Orison of Sonmi~451’ is the next novella, and it was by far my favourite. It tells the story of a ghastly futuristic society called Neo So Copros, but which seems very familiar to anyone who has ever been inside a large fast-food restaurant. The world is a totalitarian state, and the ‘people’ who work serving food and doing other menial tasks are ‘fabricants’, or clones grown for the purpose of being slaves. Their minds are manipulated by ‘pureblood’ humans in order to keep them down. The novella is written like an interview between one of these fabricants, Sonmi~451, and an archivist, and Sonmi gradually reveals her story. Led by one of her fellow fabricants, she stops taking the medication that keeps her mind enslaved and she becomes ‘ascended’, or conscious – a dangerous crime. She mentions, just before her novella breaks, that she loves a movie from the ‘old days’, which is called ‘The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish.’

‘Sloosha’s Crossin’ and Ev’rythin’ After’ is set far, far into the future, in an unknown year. A post-apocalyptic society – or, after ‘the Fall of the Old ‘Uns’, as it is put by Zachry, the narrator of this novella – we work out that the people are living on the big island of Hawaii, and that they are largely peace-loving, but regularly come under attack from their warlike neighbours. They worship a goddess called Sonmi. One day they are visited by people who are far more technologically advanced, who wish to observe their people and their culture, and Zachry becomes suspicious. Meronym, the woman who stays behind to live with his people, has a strange holographic device from which the image of a beautiful woman emerges, telling her story – Meronym tells Zachry that this is a recording of the long-dead Sonmi, who was not a goddess after all…

This only brings us up to the novel’s halfway point, but I hope, if you haven’t already read the book, of course, that I’ve whetted your appetite for what happens next. The connections between the novellas, and the vastly different – but each of them perfectly realised – styles of writing used to bring them to life, were nothing short of stunning. ‘Cloud Atlas’ is a work of genius. It at once made me feel like a wholly inadequate writer and a very connected human being – and I loved it. If you’re anything like me, you’ll try to spot all the connections between the novellas, from names to birthmarks to things being mentioned and referenced to the mind-boggling idea that, despite the fact that this book has a huge cast of characters, perhaps some of them are simply the same people, being reborn and reborn throughout the centuries. Perhaps that’s all any of us are.

Many, many Sonmis, all in a row... From the movie of 'Cloud Atlas' Image: filmschoolrejects.com

Many, many Sonmis, all in a row… From the movie of ‘Cloud Atlas’
Image: filmschoolrejects.com

Amazing.

Happy Saturday, and happy reading.