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The Cloud Atlas


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About the Author

Liam Callanan teaches creative writing at Georgetown University and frequently appears on NPR's Morning Edition and in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and a number of other publications. This is his first novel.

From the Hardcover edition.


"Everyone in Alaska had a secret in World War II," explains Catholic priest Louis Belk, remembering his early days as a bomb disposal sergeant in the U.S. Army Air Corps. "Most, like me, still do." As an innocent 18-year-old, Belk was sent to the wilderness to discover and destroy giant Japanese paper balloons loaded with explosives-possibly biological weapons-before word of their existence terrorized the American public. Entranced by Lily, a beautiful, half-Yup'ik, half-Russian prostitute, and browbeaten and taunted by Captain Gurley, his violent and increasingly erratic commanding officer (and Lily's lover), Belk is compelled to a dark and deadly discovery-a plague-ridden Japanese boy inside one of the balloons. Told in a series of confessional flashbacks to a dying Eskimo shaman, this remarkable first novel mixes ethereal and haunting native folklore with vivid bomb-diffusing scenes. This little-known chapter of American history will entice the book club crowd; the strong characterizations and moral dilemmas will leave them with plenty to discuss. Highly recommended.-Christine Perkins, Burlington P.L., WA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.

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 America-an 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. (Feb.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

"Atmospheric and moving, this is an impressively assured debut."--Publishers Weekly

"First-time novelist expertly fictionalizes one of WWII's least-known stories...a haunting story that will remind many of Ondaatje's The English Patient-and that merits the comparison."--Kirkus Reviews

"A poignant and lyrical first novel written with the assurance of a master--Alaska is beautifully realized in all its harshness and native magic."--T. C. Boyle, Drop City

"A gifted and interesting writer, a writer to notice, a writer to watch, a writer any reader of serious fiction will be proud to have read."--Alan Cheuse, NPR's All Things Considered

"Beautifully written and astonishingly well researched.... It was the setting that swept me away, but the characters that I will remember."
--Mark Johnson, The San Jose Mercury News

From the Hardcover edition.

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