Review 1638: Utopia Avenue

I always look forward to a new book by David Mitchell. So, I read Utopia Avenue almost as soon as it arrived at my house.

Dean Moss has had a bad day. First, he is robbed of his rent and the money to reclaim his pawned guitar almost as soon as he leaves the bank. Then, his landlady threatens to throw him out. When he asks for his pay a few days early, his boss fires him. He is out on the street wondering where to go when Levon Frankland introduces himself. Levon is a manager who has heard him perform. He wants to build a band from scratch and takes him to hear a guitarist and drummer perform at a nearby club. The two are the only good things in an act headed by a washed-up performer. They are Jasper de Zoet (Mitchell fans will know that last name) and Griff, a drummer.

Elf Halloway has a popular folk EP out, but the EP she recorded as a duo with her boyfriend Bruce has not done so well. Then Bruce dumps her, a fact she’s so ashamed of that she lies to her family about it. The three musicians invite her to join their group, which will have an eclectic sound.

This novel follows the band’s adventures as it attempts to gain enough recognition to cut an album. It reflects the love of music that is apparent from most of Mitchell’s novels and also features the reappearance of some of his recurring characters.

Utopia Avenue vividly evokes the heady days of the rock scene in mid-1960’s England and the United States. It features encounters with numerous pop culture figures such as David Bowie, John Lennon, Leonard Cohen, Mama Cass, Brian Jones, and many others.

If I fault the novel at all, I feel it salts these famous characters in a little too freely. Also, there are a few too many scenes where friends or complete strangers say exactly the right thing to a troubled band member.

However, the novel has a gripping subplot involving an invader into one character’s consciousness and overall, I enjoyed it.

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Day 1095: Number9Dream

Cover for Number9DreamI usually enjoy, on one level or another, everything David Mitchell writes, and I consider a couple of his novels to be really excellent. I wasn’t as fond of Number9Dream, however.

Eiji Miyake has traveled from his home on a southern island of Japan to Tokyo to find his father. He and his twin sister were the product of an illicit relationship that their father abruptly broke off, and Eiji and Anju have never known his identity. They were raised by their grandmother with only infrequent visits from their mother.

When Eiji was eleven, his sister drowned. We are supposed to believe that he ran away on that day and lived in the mountains by himself.

The book begins with a series of unlikely daydreams that Eiji has about meeting his father as he sits in a cafe looking at the building where a lawyer representing his father has an office. When he finally meets the lawyer, she refuses to give him any information about his father or even to give his father a message.

Eiji begins a series of attempts to find his father, involving some unlikely and almost surrealistic adventures. He journeys to the city’s underworld, visits brothels, gets involved with the Yakuza, and has other adventures, all while working a series of low-wage jobs.

This novel is Mitchell’s second, and it seems more juvenile than the others. I don’t think I’m giving away too much, considering the quotes on the jacket cover, when I say that it’s difficult to tell at times whether the protagonist is dreaming or not or whether the entire novel is a dream. There are varying opinions about whether using dreams in novels is effective, or whether they simply stall the plot. I am usually bored by them.

Like some of Mitchell’s other novels, this one also involves several voices. One chapter interjects a series of children’s tales in between sections of the main story, and I found these frankly tedious and unlikely to amuse children. In another section, Eiji receives a diary of his uncle’s life during World War II. This manuscript is interesting inasmuch as it tells about a Japanese program to send manned torpedoes against the American fleet, a suicidal mission that proved more costly to the Japanese than it did to their enemies. This section had some appeal but didn’t seem to have anything to do with the rest of the novel.

So, this novel was not to my taste. I felt it was disjointed and occasionally uninteresting. Although it uses techniques that Mitchell employs in other books, it doesn’t use them as skillfully. It was shortlisted for the Booker prize, though, so I guess I’m in the minority.

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Day 1068: Cloud Atlas

Cover for Cloud AtlasBest Book of the Week!
Cloud Atlas is a reread for me, and I think when I first read it, it was my first postmodern fiction. I found it, and still find it, astonishingly inventive and compelling.

Like its namesake, “Cloud Atlas Sextext,” the musical composition that recurs throughout the book, Cloud Atlas is composed of six stories, but with various themes and motifs linking them. Each story is set farther into the future. A story begins and is cut off at a climactic moment until we get to the sixth, which is complete. Then, going back toward the past, the stories are completed.

“The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing” is the journal of a man traveling in the Pacific in the 19th century. On his travels he observes the shameful treatment of the natives by missionaries, rescues a native from slavery, and encounters a series of scalawags. A quack befriends him and begins treating him for a supposed worm.

In “Letters from Zedelghem,” Robert Frobisher writes his dear friend Rufus Sixsmith about his adventures. Frobisher is a gifted composer but impoverished and a bit of a scalawag himself. In 1931 Belgium, he talks his way into a position of amanuensis for a great composer. While there, he begins writing the haunting “Cloud Atlas Sextet.” But he finds he is not the only con artist in the house.

“Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery” is a manuscript mystery novel about a reporter who finds out about safety hazards in a nearby nuclear power facility. Her informant is Rufus Sixsmith, now in his sixties, a Nobel winning scientist. After Sixsmith is murdered by the corporation that employs him, Luisa begins trying to get a copy of the report he wrote, which is being suppressed.

“The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish” is a movie set in the present or near future. In it, a publisher in debt is being threatened by thuggish clients. When he goes for his brother’s help, he is tricked into committing himself to a home for the aged.

“An Orison of Sonmi-451” is an oral history dictated by a fabricant from prison, some time in the future. She relates how she became enlightened and got involved with a revolutionary movement against the corprocacy  that controls the 12 cities still habitable on the planet.

“Sloosha’s Croosin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After” is a story told to listeners in the far future. By now, most of the world is living as primitive tribes, and Zachry’s tribe lives in Hawaii as farmers and goat herders. But a Prescient named Meronym comes to live in the village. These people are the only ones who have kept the scientific knowledge of the time before. Zachry suspects her of motives for being there that she has not told them.

Each of these stories is written in a different style reflecting its time period and with language evolving in the future. The stories share thematic threads and invoke each other’s characters, mixing together the “fictional” characters with the “real” ones. Luisa meets Sixsmith, Robert Frobisher finds Adam Ewing’s journal, Zachry’s tribe worships Sonmi as a god, Sonmi watches the movie about Cavendish. Intricately plotted and fitted together like puzzles, these stories comprise an amazing novel.

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Day 932: Black Swan Green

Cover for Black Swan GreenJason Taylor is thirteen years old in 1982, the beginning of Black Swan Green. He is somewhat of a misfit, obviously bright and interested in poetry, a stutterer, but he spends most of his time hiding his true self to be more acceptable to his schoolmates. Still, acceptance is fleeting. One year he is on the margins of popularity; the next, he’s a pariah.

His parents have some problems he doesn’t understand. His older sister Julia can’t wait to leave home for university. The economic climate is grim in the wake of Thatcherism.

Black Swan Green seems to Jason to be the most boring village imaginable. Still, he manages to have some adventures, visiting a strange old lady in the depths of the woods, taking poetry lessons from Madame Eva von Outryve de Crommelynck, literally dropping in on Gypsies, all the while trying to avoid the popular bullies in his class.

Although I sometimes wondered where this novel was going (and for a while wondered if any time travelers were going to appear), it eventually got there. More importantly, it features a distinctive voice of a bright, funny, sometimes naive boy. It has a unique notion of character that to me makes the novel stand out.

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Day 796: Slade House

Cover for Slade HouseBest Book of the Week!
I haven’t read any ghost stories lately, so David Mitchell’s Slade House will have to do for a first nod to Halloween. Fans of Mitchell know to expect something unusual from his work, and Slade House is no exception. This novel features a series of characters over five decades all about to set foot in the mysterious Slade House.

Nathan Bishop, a nerdy teenager perhaps on the autism spectrum, is on his way with his mother down Slade Alley looking for Slade House. In the alley they meet a workman and ask him directions. He has never heard of it. They find the small iron gate leading into the gardens, and the workman is the last person ever to see them.

Nathan has taken a little of his mother’s Valium, so he thinks the drug is affecting his vision when the scenery in the Slade House garden fades. But something more sinister is happening while his mother is in the house attending a concert.

It’s difficult to say much more about this novel without revealing too much. Suffice it to say that people are in peril and the suspense builds accordingly. The book is divided into six sections, beginning in 1979, with each one set nine years further on. Each time a person is drawn into the house, never to be seen again.

link to NetgalleyReaders of Mitchell will pay attention in the last section when the name Marinus is mentioned, for they know that a few of the same characters appear in his books, sort of. Let us say that characters with the same names appear in his books. Slade House continues the complex story of horologists that came to the fore in The Bone Clocks.

As usual with Mitchell’s books, Slade House reflects exciting writing, a complex back story, a large creep factor, and a battle between good and evil. What more could you want?

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Day 607: The Bone Clocks

Cover for The Bone ClocksBefore I get started on my review of The Bone Clocks, my friend Ariel of One Little Library has put together a survey on reader’s interests. If you would like to participate, please do.

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Best Book of the Week!
David Mitchell’s most recent book is another fascinating novel that reminds me a bit of his Cloud Atlas. It explores themes of temporality, life after death, and the human soul and ends in a near-future dystopian vision. Unlike Cloud Atlas, though, The Bone Clocks takes place completely within the course of one woman’s life.

The novel begins in 1984. Fifteen-year-old Holly Sykes has had a fight with her mom after staying out late with her 24-year-old boyfriend Vince. Determined to leave school and move in with Vince, she packs her things and goes, but not before being spotted by her seven-year-old brother Jacko.

She marches over to Vince’s, only to find him in bed with her best friend. Devastated, she flees her home town of Gravesend, not knowing where to go. Later that day, she meets Ed Brubeck, a boy from her school, who helps her find shelter for the night in a church. Taking the idea from a story he tells her, she decides to travel to a nearby island where he worked the summer before picking strawberries.

Holly heard voices when she was a child, and she called them the Radio People. But after her mother became worried about her, a Dr. Marinus stopped them simply by touching her forehead. Since then, her life has been perfectly normal.

But that afternoon several odd things happen. First, she thinks she sees Jacko go into a pedestrian tunnel ahead of her, but when she gets there, she can’t find him. Then a couple pick her up hitch-hiking and take her to their home for a meal. There some events occur that make it clear to readers that some kind of supernatural war is going on involving her. But Holly remembers nothing of this.

Holly goes on to work at the strawberry farm. But the second day, Ed arrives to tell her that Jacko has disappeared.

The narration continues in stories told by other characters, but Holly appears in all of them. In one, Hugo Lamb is a college student who seems to be genial and caring but is actually a sociopath who tries to lure his more wealthy friends into deals he will profit by and steals rare stamps from a senile old man. He meets Holly on a skiing trip in Switzerland and honestly falls in love with her. But fate and a mysterious group called the Anchorites have other plans for him.

We follow Holly through her life as she marries Ed, writes a book called The Radio People, and gets old. At each encounter, inexplicable things happen until Holly is pulled into a battle between the Anchorites and the Horologists.

David Mitchell is a master storyteller. Although I do not consider The Bone Clocks a masterpiece, as I do Cloud Atlas, it is almost as rewarding—at times comic, at times suspenseful. Mitchell likes to tease us, too, by repeating characters from book to book. In this case, Dr. Marinus also appears in his wonderful historical novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet. Time spent with Mitchell is well spent.

Day 163: Ghostwritten

Cover for GhostwrittenBest Book of the Week!

Ghostwritten, one of David Mitchell’s earlier books, is about the nature of fate and the strange interconnections between people and events in the modern world. In this unusual novel, Mitchell illustrates his points through the narrations of nine different characters, who at first seem only vaguely connected.

The novel begins with the crazed Quasar, a member of a religious cult who has fled to Okinawa after placing poisonous bombs in the Tokyo subway. As his sect falls apart, he waits for word and instructions from his leader, His Serendipity.

In Tokyo, Satoru, a teenage employee of a record store, falls in love with a pretty customer. In Hong King, Neal Brose, a financier who has conducted some shady business with a mysterious Russian, is letting his life fall apart after his wife leaves him.

In China, an old lady lives through the various upheavals of the 20th century while she tries to keep her tea shop on a sacred mountain from being destroyed, again. In Mongolia, an entity that can move from one human being to another tries to find out what it is and where it came from.

In Russia, Margarita Latumsky, a woman who has made her way in life by seducing powerful men and has landed a job at the Hermitage, is plotting with her gangster boyfriend to steal a Delacroix. In London, Marco Chance is a drummer, ghostwriter, and womanizer whose day isn’t going very well.

Mo Muntervary is a world-famous physicist who returns home to a remote Irish island after fleeing from the CIA for several months. Her decision to stop running has fateful results. Finally, Bat Segundo is a late-night DJ in New York who begins getting annual phone calls from the mysterious Zookeeper.

As these characters pursue their own activities and thoughts in a way that seems completely organic to their natures, Mitchell slowly and skillfully weaves their stories into a dystopian nightmare that works in actual events from the late 1990’s, when the book was written.

I am continually amazed by Mitchell’s imagination and intellect and his ability to write novels that are completely engrossing. Although not every technique he uses is completely successful–for example, there are real and metaphorical ghosts in the novel (in addition to the entity, whatever it is)–his approaches are all still interesting. Ghostwritten reminds me a bit of one of his later books, Cloud Atlas, which I admire very much.

Day Five: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

Cover for The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De ZoetTie for Best Book of Week 1!

I have read two books by David Mitchell and they were completely different. The first that I read, Cloud Atlas, was a stunningly unusual science fiction novel divided into sections, where each section was much farther in the future and was narrated by a character speaking in a patois of English that got a little harder to understand. Eventually, the sections all fitted together like a puzzle. It was fascinating. Others apparently thought so, too, because it was short-listed for six awards, including the Man Booker Prize.

But this review is for The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, a historical novel about late 18th Century Japan. Jacob is a clerk for the Dutch East Indies company who arrives in Japan in 1799. An honest, hard-working young man, he has signed on for a six-year term so that he can earn enough money to go home and marry his sweetheart, Anna.

Jacob finds that foreigners are only allowed to live on an island called Dejima in the Nagasaki Harbor and they cannot set foot on the Japanese mainland. Only certain Japanese, some interpreters and court officials, are allowed on Dejima. But the Japanese students of a Swedish physician are allowed, and one of them is the midwife Orito Aibagawa. Jacob is fascinated by her and ends up falling in love with her.

Jacob’s boss claims to intend to clean up the rampant corruption in the company, so he sets Jacob the task of reconciling the books from the previous years, which makes him some enemies. When Jacob refuses to sign a bogus manifest, he is left on the island with only his enemies as his boss departs.

Orito’s father dies, and her stepmother sells her off to a mountaintop shrine where sinister rites are being performed.

The story was full of interesting descriptions of the customs and laws of 18th Century Japan. And this reminds me that I need to pick up another David Mitchell book soon and read it.