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Utopia Avenue

Narrated by: Andrew Wincott
Length: 25 hrs and 10 mins
4.5 out of 5 stars (125 ratings)

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Summary

Utopia Avenue might be the most curious British band you've never heard of. 

Emerging from London's psychedelic scene in 1967, folksinger Elf Holloway, blues bassist Dean Moss, guitar virtuoso Jasper de Zoet and jazz drummer Griff Griffin together created a unique sound with lyrics that captured their turbulent times. The band produced only two albums in two years, yet their musical legacy lives on.

This is the story of Utopia Avenue's brief, blazing journey from Soho clubs and draughty ballrooms to the promised land of America, just when the Summer of Love was receding into something much darker - a multi-faceted tale of dreams, drugs, love, sexuality, madness and grief; of stardom's wobbly ladder and fame's Faustian pact and of the collision between youthful idealism and jaded reality as the '60s drew to a close. 

Above all, this bewitching novel celebrates the power of music to connect across divides, define an era and thrill the soul.

©2020 David Mitchell (P)2020 Hodder & Stoughton Limited

Critic reviews

"One of the most brilliantly inventive writers of this, or any country." (Independent)  

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  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars

Bland On The Run

For me, every book by David Mitchell is an event. I love his writing and the worlds he creates, and I really didn’t want to be writing a negative review today. Over the years all I’ve found in Mitchell’s works are positives. I disagreed entirely with the professional critics who found fault in the supernatural elements of Bone Clocks, personally I found the strange alternate existence he conjured, quite brilliant, and I was happy to read that Utopia Avenue would continue with these Atemporal parallel lives. News that he’d chosen to set Utopia Avenue in the mid to late 60s and to focus on the brief life of a band that almost made it, had me genuinely excited for this book. I preordered the hard back (it’s still not arrived), but I wasn’t too miffed, because I had a credit, so I got the audiobook too. And I listened. Almost immediately I was aware that the choice of performer was a problem. He’s a very decent performer, but for me he delivered a tone that gave the characters and situations within the novel , a ‘young adult fiction’ style, cartoon like quality, and I think this was one of the reasons I found it difficult to ever feel there were multidimensional characters peopling this book. That’s the real magic that great fiction can give us, the belief that something exists where there is absolutely nothing, but sometimes the spell gets broken.
He also read very slowly. About two thirds in, I actually chose to speed the book up, and that helped a little.

It would be too easy to focus on the performer when picking out the problems with the novel though, and as i mentioned above, I really didn’t want to be finding the negatives in this book, but I’d prefer to be honest, and honestly, there’s a lot wrong. At roughly the half way point, I started to wonder if Mitchell had sent an early draft of the book to the publisher, accidentally because that’s what the novel had begun to feel like. Something that in two drafts time, might well be a proper David Mitchell novel, but which, as it is, is a collection of scenes and situations that need to be worked on and worked out, in order to hold together as a substantial piece of fiction.
There’s definitely something there, but nowhere near enough. It’s a decent sized novel (500 plus pages/25hrs plus, audio) and that’s enough space, to draw and develop interesting central characters and in theory, the band members of Utopia Avenue , Dean, Elf, Jasper and Griff, should have been a very interesting bunch, and the set up - a band of very different personalities and class experiences - could and should have been blue touch paper, for someone with the skill and wit of Mitchell, but somehow, by the end of the book, I’m back at the beginning. I’ve no idea who those characters are. Throughout the novel, they experience some real highs and lows, but I honestly can’t think of anything that explores their development as characters, because of these experiences. And that surprises me. Mitchell is usually peerless in this regard. Holly Sykes, in Bone Clocks, for example - we travel across decades with her, and her changes are the actual architecture of the book, they’re real, they feel authentic, but more than that, even within the first day we spend with her, her character has begun to evolve, and reveal new elements of its self and by the end, Mitchell somehow has managed to make her barely recognisable in old age as the person we first meet as a teen, and yet, be completely coherent and consistent with the experience and development her character has endured. It’s quite a feat. In Cloud Atlas, he was able to do similar, with an incredible array of characters, over massive spans of time. He is such a skilled and sensitive writer, usually, but in Utopia Avenue, I struggled to find actual character in the characters. They seemed more like a set of actions ascribed, nominally, to characters, in order to move a narrative on, in a most mechanical way. Elf, for instance, experiences various changes, and yet, by the end of the novel, I’m no further forward as to who Elf is, what she feels or believes. She’s just that character who did those things and had those other things happen to her.
Mitchell also reintroduces, characters from previous novels, Esther Little, who in Bone Clocks, is entirely fascinating and who, within two lines, was an entirely multidimensional character, to me, reappears in UA, and if I’m honest, I can’t remember what she did or why she was there. Similarly, Cloud Atlas’s Luisa Rey - so well drawn in her previous outing - here, again, I’m struggling to work out why she was there, or even who she was. She just didn’t strike me as the same Rey.
And that, really was the struggle I had. Characters, (many of them now real life, legendary rock stars) appear, say things, and leave, and I’m none the wiser as to what their purpose was. “Lenny” Cohen, is a bit suave, Hendrix a bit vague, Brian Jones, a bit stoned, but they’re worryingly anemic. There’s zero rock n roll, in them. They move through the book like those life sized cardboard cut outs, you used to see in HMV, when new product was being pushed.
The same is true of our guys, Utopia Avenue. They’re quite nice, have a few issues, and they’re in a band. That’s it. Griff, the drummer, gets injured a fair bit, (as drummers are supposed to), and has two girls in the same bed at the same time, a fair bit, but they could have been three way knitting, for all I know. It’s hard to credit that this is the same David Mitchell, who came up with that visceral “what the fuck?” birth scene of A Thousand Autumns ... and I miss that David Mitchell.
The novel felt rushed, I wonder if he was writing to a deadline that was unrealistic, or if he simply lost sight of where he really wanted to take us with these characters, maybe he’s even feeling a little bit too much pressure to throw us those Mitchellian narrative pyrotechnics, he’s become famous for. He shouldn’t. His least “wow” book, in that sense, Black Swan Green, was also his most moving, in many ways but that’s because he gave us a small cast of characters and filled them with detail, that led them to feel real. The folk of Utopia Avenue, meet upheaval, revolution, calamity, death on stage, death in their personal lives, beings from another realm, and Jimi Hendrix! How can they not be interesting?
Towards the end of the novel, I did feel a bit of the David Mitchell I so admire, it was during an episode specifically detailing Jasper’s struggles, and part of me wondered if the literally lost soul that is Jasper, was something that Mitchell, might be feeling a little more in common with than any of us would like to imagine. Jasper struggles to connect with his art, with his band mates and with his existence, and is unable to comprehend or control his own genius, and so his genius flashes according to its rules. There’s a problem even with this comparison though. On the page, I never once felt convinced that Jasper even possessed a guitar, never mind genius with the instrument in hand - Mitchell though, I have several books on my shelf, that I know prove he is possessed with that quality, it simply doesn’t show up this time around.

13 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Not your usual D Mitch

I came into this book in a very excited state expecting a repeat from David’s usual psych bending storyline. So I was disappointed when it was a story of a band in the late 60s as advertised with all the extras of mind altering substances accompanied by stars of the day with no sign of ghosts past. At times I felt like abandoning the book and maybe get my credit back from Audible for the fluctuating level of my appraisal. But I stuck with it hoping it would go all Mitch, which happily it did. I’m glad I carried on with it because apart from the fact that he is my favourite author after Murakami and Eco, the book brought back so many memories on a personal level of appreciation of the music of the day and it had me reaching for Amazon Music to find solace in my search. For the die-hard DM fans, some might be disappointed as I was at first, but for the story value itself it deserves 5 stars and the narration deserves 5+ as it was a good all round listen.

3 people found this helpful

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    3 out of 5 stars
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A song without a hook

So that’s 25 hours that I will never get back. Save for a brief detour down a rabbit hole into one character's mind, 20-odd hours in, this really is just a straight narrative about a made up band.
They have unremarkable encounters with everyone from Bowie and Bolan to Jimi and Janis, yet giving voice to these legendary folk is rather like watching Val Kilmer pretend to be Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone’s film.
And the nods and winks to the author's previous works are equally gauche.
Considerable time is spent repeating made up song lyrics and describing melodies in prose - but unless you understand what a blues riff A G F back to A sounds like then these passages are in turn toe-curling and dull.
Having eventually finished the book, what’s strange is that there’s no real narrative arc. It’s essentially just a litany of events, some good and some bad, but without the insight given by a truthful account or the satirical chops of Spinal Tap.
And while the narration isn't awful, it is rather hammy in places.
One character suggests that “a song’s only as good as its hook” however Utopia Avenue is a book which lacks this vital spark.

1 person found this helpful

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    3 out of 5 stars
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Maybe it needs a remix?

Plenty of good stuff, it's well written, narration is decent enough. But... I didn't find Dean or Elf interesting as characters so sometimes it was a slog and some sections (e.g. Bruce) felt like padding. Too many celebrity cameos too.

Maybe a shorter work, solely from Jasper's perspective, would have worked better and tied in more neatly to the wider DM universe.

If you're a fan it's definitely worth listening/reading, just don't expect a classic.

1 person found this helpful

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Dire!

I've read / listened to all David Mitchell's work over many years, and loved most of it, but this I had to quit. An author resting on some really rather disheveled laurels. Spare yourself!

1 person found this helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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Excellent as usual

David Mitchell can do no wrong. He keeps subtly expanding his universe with more beautifully imagined characters and nice references to his other books and to music history. I loved it. Nicely narrated.

1 person found this helpful

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    2 out of 5 stars
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Mitchell Uninspired

Sadly it looks like one of the literary world's most original and fertile imaginations has run out of ideas here. Were it not for the Marinus thread I would be genuinely asking if this was written by someone else. The characters are wooden and the events banal. If this were to be made into a TV show it would surely be on ITV on a Sunday night with Nick Berry playing Dean and some ex Corrie star as Elf. Fictional encounters with real life rock stars punctuate the story, and yet every one is no more than a dull stereotype of their famous persona. At one point Dean takes an acid trip with Jerry Garcia, which should have been memorable, but it was actually so dull and pointlessly obscure that it sent me reaching for the 30 seconds fast forward button. Mercifully that was near the end, or I may have just abandoned ship. I'm tempted to say it's worth listening to just for the tantalising horology thread, but it really isn't.

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Great 1960s Yarn

What a detailed escapade about this band - I ended up looking up to see if it actually existed! Fabulous revelation of the characters and their story and wow, how real they are!
Also incredible insight into auditory hallucinations that one character suffers with.

Slightly over enthusiastic narration but I got used to it as the book went on and didn’t mind.
Great accents and easy to differentiate characters.

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Brilliant!

Different, what an imagination! Excellent writing with great descriptions. Thank you David Mitchell for a wonderful story.

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    3 out of 5 stars
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This May Be The Corniest Book You'll Ever Read...

No rock cliche is left unturned in this book from David Mitchell. It is as if you are reading a novel version of one of those 60s Cliff Richard films where all the grown-ups are "squares" and only the kids know the truth.

All the characters (except maybe one) are caricatures, the loveable Cockney Dean (from Gravesend?!), the gruff Northerner Griff, Home counties wallflower Elf. Not to mention the supporting cast from 70s sitcoms including stuffed-shirt Fathers and untrustworthy Italians.

They are so obviously badly written that I (as a fan of Mitchell's previous books) can only assume that it is deliberate to give weight the the only part of the book the feels "real", that is the fantasy element (and continuation of the Bone Clock's story) featuring the returning member of the de Zoet family.

Once I'd decided that it was in the "so bad it's good" category I was able to enjoy it, although I am still not totally sure why and even if you are a Mitchell fan I could not recommend it to you without warning.

PS. Andrew "Warhammer" Wincott's narration is far too portentous and I had to listen on 2x speed to lighten the mood. Also the are a couple of really crude Jimmy Saville "jokes" that I am amazed got through the edit.

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  • M. Schmidtblaicher
  • 10-08-20

Great book, even if 60's rock is not your thing

For someone who does not see himself as a music fan, I was first dubious about the setting of the book. After listening to the audio book, I can say that it was surprisingly entertaining and moving, on the same level as my favorite books by Mitchell. The structure is well suited for audio. Most chapters are small stories in their own, connected by the overarching story of the band, so it is easy to listen to. The narration by Wincotts is superb, I especially like his impersonations of Dean and Levon. The Bone Clocks story is kept to mostly one chapter, about which I am glad, because that was not my favorite part.