Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

PAPERBACKS: Mind-bending Cloud Atlas (now at a theatre near you) impossible to stop reading

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BRITISH writer David Mitchell's 2004 novel Cloud Atlas (Vintage, 514 pages, $23, has been reissued to capitalize on the new Hollywood movie, and if you like mind-bending fiction you ought to give it a look.

The book tells six stories, set in six different time periods, ranging from the 19th century to the far future, that, taken as a whole, represent a sort of literary rumination on the endurance (but also the fragility) of the human spirit.

Each story is connected to the next (the first story's unfinished diary is referred to in the next story; a character in one story watches the previous story, told as a dramatization).

But here's the really nifty thing: about halfway through the book, Mitchell turns the chronology on its head, moving back through the six stories, completing each of them, taking us right back to where we started.

It's the kind of massively ambitious novel that could have collapsed under its own weight, but instead it soars, capturing our imagination and making it impossible for us to stop reading.

-- -- --

The Demi-Monde (Morrow, 516 pages, $19), by Britain's Rod Rees, is mind-bending fiction of a different sort. In the near future, jazz singer Ella Thomas is recruited by the U.S. government to go inside the Demi-Monde, a virtual-reality computer program designed to train combat soldiers, and bring out the daughter of the U.S. president, who has become stranded inside the program.

Ella encounters simulacra of historical characters from various eras (infamous "Nazi butcher" Reinhard Heydrich and Aleister Crowley, the notorious practitioner of black magic, are the book's main villains), and she also discovers something terrifying: the line between reality and the simulated world is blurring, and some of the Demi-Monde's residents are making plans to step out into the real world.

At once wildly implausible and completely believable, the novel ends on such a whopper of a cliffhanger that you could turn blue as you hold your breath until the sequel arrives.

-- -- --

Here's a unique way to beat the recession: kidnapping. Some university buddies, sick of contemplating a life in dead-end jobs, decide, what the heck, let's kidnap somebody.

Not somebody important, just a mid-level exec somewhere, ask for a hundred grand or so, collect it, and move on. And it works, so they do another, and another.

In The Professionals (Berkley, 486 pages, $11), by Toronto's Owen Laukkanen, we see what happens when these amateur kidnappers happen to come to the attention of some seriously motivated criminals, not to mention a rather bored sheriff's deputy who's paired up with a gung-ho FBI agent.

It's a well-written novel, becoming darker and more violent as the naïve young kidnappers begin to realize that, now that they think of it, they maybe should have left crime to the professionals.

-- -- --

The always dependable Michael Connelly turns in another excellent performance with The Drop (Grand Central, 414 pages, $11), in which LAPD detective Harry Bosch -- who's been through a lot since his first appearance in 1992's The Black Echo -- is handed a pair of especially tricky assignments: a new and baffling link between a current case and a 1989 homicide, and the apparent suicide of the son of Harry's frequent antagonist, city councilman Irvin Irving.

Connelly, who lives in Florida, has a couple of big surprises in store for Harry, including the revelation that a murderer has been operating undetected in L.A. for 20-odd years. But Harry, as usual, doesn't let anything distract him from his relentless search for the truth.

Halifax freelance writer and book lover David Pitt's column runs on the first weekend of the month.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 3, 2012 J9

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