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The Cloud Atlas [Paperback]

Liam Callanan
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (98 customer reviews)

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Book Description

October 26, 2004
Set against the magnificent backdrop of Alaska in the waning days of World War II, The Cloud Atlas is an enthralling debut novel, a story of adventure and awakening—and of a young soldier who came to Alaska on an extraordinary, top-secret mission…and found a world that would haunt him forever.

Drifting through the night, whisper-quiet, they were the most sublime manifestations of a desperate enemy: Japanese balloon bombs. Made of rice paper, at once ingenious and deadly, they sailed thousands of miles across the Pacific...and once they started landing, the U.S. scrambled teams to find and defuse them, and then keep them secret from an already anxious public. Eighteen-year-old Louis Belk was one of those men. Dispatched to the Alaskan frontier, young Sergeant Belk was better trained in bomb disposal than in keeping secrets. And the mysteries surrounding his mission only increased when he met his superior officer—a brutal veteran OSS spy hunter who knew all too well what the balloons could do—and Lily, a Yup’ik Eskimo woman who claimed she could see the future.

Louis’s superior ushers him into a world of dark secrets; Lily introduces Louis to an equally disorienting world of spirits—and desire. But the world that finally tests them all is Alaska, whose vastness cloaks mysteries that only become more frightening as they unravel. Chasing after the ghostly floating weapons, Louis embarks upon an adventure that will lead him deep into the tundra. There, on the edge of the endless wilderness, he will make a discovery and a choice that will change the course of his life.

At once a heart-quickening mystery and a unique love story, The Cloud Atlas is also a haunting, lyrical rendering of a little-known chapter in history. Brilliantly imagined, beautifully told, this is storytelling at its very best.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews Review

In his gorgeous debut novel, The Cloud Atlas, Liam Callanan merges fact and fantasy in a dual narrative set in Alaska amidst the waning days of World War II. In a hospice care facility Louis Belk is an aged priest providing religious comfort and confession to a dying friend, a Yup'ik shaman named Ronnie. But, as Ronnie reaches the final stages of life, Belk begins a confession of his own.

The narrative turns back to young Belk's career as a bomb disposal specialist during the war. When Belk witnesses a bizarre balloon explosive kill several soldiers at Fort Cronkhite outside of San Francisco, he is summarily shipped to Alaska to join a top secret military unit dedicated to uncovering the mystery of what turn out to be Japanese balloon bombs (Callanan based this story on an actual Japanese program that was largely covered up by the US government during the war). Belk's commanding officer, Captain Gurley--a cross between Conrad's Colonel Kurz and Melville's Ahab--is a disgraced former OSS man with a Princeton pedigree and an artificial leg. The leg is a permanent reminder of his failure to defuse his first balloon bomb, and it fuels an obsession to discover and collect all such bombs in the future. In possession of a captured leather-bound atlas filled with maps and neat Japanese script, Gurley is also convinced that the Japanese are about to launch far more deadly cargo on the balloons, perhaps spies or plague virus. Meanwhile, Belk and Gurley become embroiled in an explosive love triangle with the local fortune teller, Lily, a woman with an uncanny ability to read people's lives but unable to understand her own destructive passions or escape her demons.

In unfolding this complicated story, Callan manages to keep the development of Belk, Lily, and Gurney in an almost perfect balance with the telling of a well-paced and compelling war-time narrative. Callanan enriches the novel with details of 1940s bomb disposal procedures and provides a thorough anatomy of Japanese balloon bombs. He also establishes Alaska--a place seemingly caught between American and Yup'ik culture--as a space for American magical realism, where spirit animals and Catholic mysticism can cohabitate. As a first effort, The Cloud Atlas is all silver lining. --Patrick O'Kelley --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

The unlikely adventures of an 18-year-old soldier trained in bomb detection and disposal during World War II are painstakingly rendered against an Alaskan backdrop in Callanan's richly textured, sturdy debut. In the mid-1940s, Sgt. Louis Belk's main mission is to seek out and detonate Japanese hot air balloons that have been armed with explosives and deployed over North Americaan unusual but deadly war weapon. The slightest rumor of the balloons' existence might have a disastrous effect on American morale, which makes the job of Belk's bomb disposal unit even more critical. The unit's commanding officer, the eccentric, unbending Capt. Thomas Gurley, is a veteran spy hunter who lost a leg in an explosion and is on the verge of losing his mind. Both Gurley and Belk are smitten with Lily, an enticingly beautiful Yup'ik-Russian Eskimo seer whose great love, Saburo, a Japanese spy, is Gurley's nemesis. When the three go out in search of Saburo, they find something even more dangerous and puzzling: a booby-trapped balloon carrying a young Japanese boy. The narrative flits back and forth from Belk's harrowing exploits as a soldier to his present-day life as an Alaskan missionary tending to his friend Ronnie, who lies on his deathbed in an Alaskan hospice. Shadowed by the darkness of "arctic hysteria," the novel is brightened by crisp descriptions of bomb mechanisms and deactivation, as well as by Belk's offbeat, lyrical narration. Atmospheric and moving, this is an impressively assured debut.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Dial Press Trade Paperback; Reprint edition (October 26, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385336950
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385336956
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.7 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (98 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #455,542 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars fantastic first novel February 9, 2004
By A Customer
It's refreshing to read a first novel by an author who isn't trapped in his own insular world. This isn't yet another novel about a confused twentysomething trying to make it in the big city. It's a big, brainy, heartfelt novel, set during World War II, that is unashamedly exciting and fun to read. Big ups to Liam Callanan.
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Up, Up and Away February 4, 2004
By A Customer
I loved this book. It was haunting and moving, while at the same time telling a fascinating and exciting story from our country's wartime past. It's clear that the writer very thoroughly researched many elements of the novel, including its setting, Alaska, and the audacious attempt by Japan to float bombs to U.S. soil. But Callanan knows another subject even more intimately -- the human heart.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A great start for the author February 9, 2004
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I was initially attracted by the subject of balloon bombs and the Alaskan setting. The author's excellent research would have made this book worthwhile for just those two items; however, the plot and the characters are what made this such a treat to read. Callanan has done a masterful job weaving a rich tapestry of human emotion, religion, and mysticism against a fascinating historical background. I hope I do not have to wait too long for his next novel.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Don't Miss This One February 27, 2004
do yourself a favor and read this one. Everything about it: the setting, the characters, the language, the love and the tragedy are executed to perfection. I cannot wait to see what this author comes up with next because this is just a unique read. It makes you long for an adventure/experience such as that lived by the characters of the Cloud Atlas.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A great read! March 16, 2004
Picked this up just because its subjects were both of interest -- WWII and Alaska. Thought I knew everything about the former and always wanted to visit the latter. Turns out this is an intriguing and thoroughly researched novel about a little known but shockingly successful Japanese effort to terrorize the US in late WWII with paper "balloon bombs" -- set in Alaska -- a genuine American frontier. Its got history, mysticism, adventure, interesting characters and Alaska - a hard to beat combination. Highly recommend it!
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The best book you'll read in 2004 February 5, 2004
By A Customer
Wow!!! What a tremendous book! I have read and re-read Cloud Atlas and have thoroughly enjoyed each and every page of this compelling novel. Cloud Atlas is as intriguing and bold as its Alaskan setting and masterfully twists the rigors of the Army and Catholicism with Yupik mysticism and the Northern Lights. Somewhere entwined therein lies the truth. Dare to soar with Cloud Atlas.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
All the accolades I have read about Liam Callanan in the dustjacket of his literary debut, "The Cloud Atlas", are well deserved. This is one of the most impressive debuts in contemporary fiction which I've come across. Callanan deftly weaves an engaging story within another, equally memorable, tale. While elderly Roman Catholic priest Louis Belk watches his friend Ronnie, a Yup'ik Eskimo shaman, die, he begins to reflect on his own experiences as a U. S. Army soldier in the waning days of World War II. He stumbles inadvertently upon a new Japanese secret weapon and is sent to a top secret bomb disposal unit in Alaska. Its commander, Captain Gurney, is a brilliant cross between Conrad's Colonel Kurz and Melville's Captain Ahab, and like both, soon descends into madness. Belk is swept eventually in an intricate, dangerous love triangle with Gurney and Lily, a half Russian, half Yup'ik, fortune teller, with an uncanny ability to see the fate of others, while forsaking her own complex emotions and past lurking within her mind. Callanan is an engaging storyteller and a writer capable of crafting elegant, lyrical prose. I eagerly await reading more of his fiction.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fabulous Read January 12, 2005
Through the twists and turns of the Alaskan tundra-I honestly didn't know where this book was leading me until the last moment. It was a brilliant story about love, war, and the bargains we make with ourselves and others to survive life's tragedies and travails. I found it an especially poignant and engaging work but what distinguishes it as literature and not just another Oprah's book club selection (no offense) is that the it truly resonates and stays with you. The character development is subtle and well crafted. While I didn't appreciate the varied tempo of the plot while reading it, in retrospect, it adds an additional depth and timbre to the book I had missed at first read. I picked up the book on a lark at an airport but am now planning on hosting a book club in an effort to glean new insights and further explore the many layers of this debut novel. But I would have to say that the most moving aspect of this book is the enduring message of pragmatic optimism it espouses which is so hard to find in modern literature. In the interweaving of so many tragic stories and lives broken by war and circumstance, the author magically communicates a message of hope and peace which is a precious treasure in times such as these. I am dying to discuss this book at length with friends and would highly recommend it to anyone.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars
Beautiful and evocative with an interesting plot. However the spiritual theme was somewhat muddy.
Published 10 days ago by sep
3.0 out of 5 stars Good detailed information about the balloon bombs (which is why ...
I thought that it was a strange book. Good detailed information about the balloon bombs (which is why I was interested in this book originally) but it had strange way of telling... Read more
Published 11 days ago by Ronald N Stout
4.0 out of 5 stars Not the cloud atlas I was looking for, but excellent story all the...
Bought this thinking it was the OTHER Cloud Atlas, but read it anyway - and it is a great story :)
Published 2 months ago by Maggie O.
3.0 out of 5 stars The wrong Cloud Atlas
Unfortunately I ordered the wrong Cloud Atlas. Had no idea there were two books with this title.
Published 3 months ago by Jan Hellsund
5.0 out of 5 stars Nice relationship story
Nice relationship story, good characters, good description. Covers an 'area' of WWII not normally dealt with--the balloon bombs the Japanese sent over. I found it quite compelling. Read more
Published 5 months ago by Leslie
3.0 out of 5 stars Ambitious, Mystical, But Often, Tedious
The Cloud Atlas is an ambitious book albeit quite often tedious ad nauseam and convoluted. Brilliant passages peak out at times as if the sun were breaking through the very clouds,... Read more
Published 7 months ago by Tigerlily64
5.0 out of 5 stars Imagine my confusion when it was NOTHING like the movie
I read this because I thought it was the book the movie was based on. Imagine my confusion when it was NOTHING like the movie. Read more
Published 7 months ago by Kristin
5.0 out of 5 stars Really good book, enjoyed it very much
Really good book,enjoyed it very much.
Published 7 months ago by Amazon Customer
3.0 out of 5 stars Not to be confused with Cloud Atlas: A novel ...
Not to be confused with Cloud Atlas: A novel. The Cloud Atlas is NOT the book made into the movie.
Published 7 months ago by potter
4.0 out of 5 stars good book found it a little hard to
good book found it a little hard to follow
Published 8 months ago by Patricia J McManus
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More About the Author

I'm the author of two novels -- The Cloud Atlas (um, not that Cloud Atlas; you can read about the merry confusion here: and All Saints -- and a forthcoming short story collection, Listen and Other Stories. I teach in the English department of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, which hosts an awesome creative writing program (to judge from its students, anyway).

I also write shorter things, including essays, short stories, and public radio commentaries (listen in at I don't write poetry, but envy those who do, and am generally a big fan, which is how I came to create and co-executive produce the Poetry Everywhere animated film series, which you can view on iTunes and Youtube, and found the Eat Local::Read Local program, which distributes local poets' poems to diners at local restaurants during National Poetry Month.

I was born in Washington, DC and grew up in Los Angeles, but now call Wisconsin home, and root for every last one of its teams, especially the Brewers.

That about covers it, but there's more about me, my writing, and even a literary children's guide to Paris at Happy reading!

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