Review: All Clear, Connie Willis

Both these things are true: I liked and felt satisfied with All Clear, the second of two books about time-traveling Oxford historians who get stuck in Britain in World War II; and, it is perfectly possible I will never read another book by Connis Willis.

Blackout left us on a cliffhanger. Eileen, Polly, and Mike, three Oxford historians from the future, are trapped in London in World War II. Their drops did not open to return them to Oxford, and their Oxford retrieval teams never showed up. They have begun to fear that they have accidentally changed history, that England will lose the war because of changes they inadvertently made while time traveling. All Clear picks up right where Blackout left off, and we’re off and running.

First, the good stuff. Though the central characters aren’t always hugely interesting, many of the secondary characters are. I could have spent every minute with Sir Godfrey and the Hodbins. Whenever Willis gave her characters a stake in the contemps, the book took a turn for the better. I wished we’d seen more of Michael’s relationships at Bletchley Park, as these felt like all plot and no character work. But Polly and Sir Godfrey, Eileen and the Hodbins, those were real relationships and I cared what happened to them in the context of those relationships.

Oh, and Colin. I cared about Colin too. But there wasn’t enough of Colin, and this brings me to complaints. One of my problems with Blackout was how unbelievably frequently Connie Willis felt she had to hit the same beats; in particular, the fact that the historians knew things the contemps didn’t know. There’s less of this specific thing in All Clear, but the problem persisted. I lost count of how many times one of the characters thought “How all occasions do inform against me”, because they had just barely missed getting in touch with someone who could get them home. I get that this was a plot point in the end, all the coincidences, but I got so fed up with it. Willis does the same thing, on a smaller scale, with Colin. He’s an excellent character, and we all want to see him show up, but — SPOILERS HERE ARE SPOILERS SPOILERS ARE HERE — when he does, it’s only very briefly, and Willis spends every minute of Colin time telling us how sad Polly was that Colin sacrified so much for her and spent so much time, etc., etc., etc.

I don’t need to be told the same thing that many times. These books would have been so much better if Connie Willis had trusted her readers to get the point without beating it into the ground. I know they would have been better because when Connie Willis does let implication do some of the work for her, the books are really fun. I like to feel like my participation is necessary for a book to work.

Fortunately — coming back around to good stuff, and the reason I felt satisfied with the book as a whole — as a period of history, the Blitz is rock solid. It is difficult to screw up a book set during the Blitz. The Blitz is one of those few times in history where you can quit worrying about whether the bad guys were actually as bad as they’re painted (yes; cf. Holocaust), and whether the good guys were actually as keepcalmandcarryony as they’re painted (yes; cf. I was in London for the 2005 Tube bombings and everyone kept totally calm and carried totally on and it was weirdly inspiring). Thus I enjoyed All Clear and rooted for the characters I was supposed to root for. It’s just, I don’t think a book should coast on its setting, especially if the author didn’t invent the setting.

Review: Blackout, Connie Willis

Okay then, Connie Willis. Maybe we can be friends after all. Maybe.

Connie Willis writes books about Oxford historians who practice their historianship by going time traveling in their period of interest. I read The Doomsday Book a while ago, and did not care for it because I was bored by the characters, and I hate the Black Death, which is the protagonist historian’s period of interest. Yawn. I regretted not liking it better, because the premise felt like gold. Time-traveling and academics at Oxford? Gold.

Blackout has been garnering rave reviews all over the place, with warnings about the cliffhangery ending that it ends on, and I am as fond of the Blitz as the next person (okay, maybe a little more). I thought if I was ever going to be friends with Connie Willis’s time traveling historians, it would be because of Blackout (To Say Nothing of the Dog could have been great but Jerome K. Jerome and I are now enemies so I feared that would mess things up for me). And indeed, Blackout was a corrective emotional experience for me and my girl Connie. (Mostly.)

There are three main characters in Blackout: Michael, who is studying heroes in several different theaters of the war, accidentally winds up on a boat to Dunkirk, a crucial war divergence point that he’s not supposed to come anywhere near; Polly, who is meant to be a shop girl during the London Blitz but not for too long because she has to be gone by VE-Day (or else she will die because she’s already been to VE-Day); and Eileen (Merope really but she’s going by Eileen), who is studying children’s evacuations and is stuck with two truly dreadful London brats. They all, as it goes in time travel novels, get stuck there. The novel goes around between the three of them.

I am of two minds here. Primary Mind loved the administrative mix-ups in Oxford and couldn’t wait for the sequel so it could see more of adorable, love-struck Colin. Primary Mind, no matter how much it tries to convince itself that it has become cynical and cannot be affected by the magnificence of Blitzed London, always discovers in the event (and Blackout was no exception) that Blitzed London is magnificent enough to break through the most determined of cynicism. Primary Mind liked the plot and felt sad, when the book ended, that it didn’t have the sequel sitting right next to it. Primary Mind wanted every single page to be full of Sir Godfrey.

But Secondary Mind had some complaints. Secondary Mind didn’t like all the skipping around between characters who were always just missing each other and never connecting, and it made it hard to focus on worrying about any single set of characters. Secondary Mind got frustrated with all the times the contemps (contemporary citizens) would say “I wonder if we’ll all live through this night!” and the historian characters would think, You will. But sixteen people on Oxford Street won’t. Their bodies will be found tomorrow all shredded up, and Hitler will compose another verse in his crude parody of “Rule Britannia.” Secondary Mind was like, YES. We GET IT. You know the future and the contemps DO NOT. Secondary Mind couldn’t help thinking the book could have been better.

(Tertiary Mind meekly pointed out that Secondary Mind had cranky nitpicks about Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin too, a book about which Primary and Secondary Mind were in similar disagreement, and Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin now has an only slightly guilty place on the regular rereading circuit.)

And that’s how it all went down. My critical faculties and my heart were at war, but my heart is winning out insofar as I cannot wait to read All Clear, and probably To Say Nothing of the Dog as well. Maybe a couple of times. Maybe enough times that Connie Willis will be one of my favorite rereadable authors someday. You never know.

For more, I refer you to the Book Blogs Search Engine. Beware you do not accidentally click on a review that tells you what happens in All Clear. I know the big thing but you may not want to. Cause yeah. There’s a big thing. Library, come on! Send my book! I want it more than those other fools ahead of me in the hold line!

P.S. Speaking of mixed minds, I have watched this commercial six times this evening (twice by rewinding my television, and four times after finding it on YouTube). It infuriates me because I am still mad at BP and will never not be mad at BP; it causes me to hunger for shrimp etouffee even though I am full from eating the awesome pesto-spinach-ricotta-mozzarella stuffed shells I made myself for dinner; but mainly it makes me miss home. Dudes up here do not talk like that.

Doomsday Book, Connie Willis

Recommended by: Between the Covers

Ah, time travel books.  You are so numerous, and yet you so often do not want me to love you.  It doesn’t have to be this way.  The Time Traveler’s Wife and me are buddies.  Time at the Top makes my life happy by its very existence.  It can be done.  Apparently with Time in the title.

(Just so I don’t feel like a big meanie when I complain about Doomsday Book, I’ll say that Diana Wynne Jones, whom I love more than my luggage, wrote a time travel book that I didn’t much care for either.  It’s one of my least favorites of hers, not quite down there with The Time of the Ghost, but still very not my favorite, maybe even less favorite than Hexwood which I also don’t like as much as her others.)

I don’t know.  I read this over a long period of time, much longer than is normal for me, and at no point did I feel the slightest interest in what was going to happen to anyone.  For this book to have worked, the characters would have had to be really vivid –

Er, P.S., this is a book about a girl from Oxford in the future, called Kivrin, who goes back in time to 1320 in order to study the Middle Ages and she gets there and lives with a family there and meanwhile back in future-Oxford a bunch of stuff goes wrong and everyone gets sick with a weird virus that came from they don’t know where.

– as I was saying, the characters would have had to be really vivid, because Kivrin doesn’t ultimately have much to do in the past.  In fact, no one does.  I’m so glad I didn’t live back in the day because I would have caught plague and furthermore it was obviously AMAZINGLY BORING, because nobody in the past did anything until they all caught the plague and died.  These things kept coming up, and I’d be all, Aha, a plot! and get set for that to be the important thing, like Kivrin crushing on the Manly Priest, or the lady’s husband’s vassal having a big crush on the lady, or the daughter’s engagement to the big old creepy guy.  These were not the important things.  They weren’t anything.  God, it was boring.  And then it would cut to chapters set in future-Oxford where everyone there was bitching about futurey things and asking each other where, oh where, could this mysterious deadly virus have come from?

(The past, as it goes.)

And I’m not saying it couldn’t have worked, this nothing happening thing, because there are books in which the characters are just so vivid and interesting that there doesn’t have to be a lot of action. You’re just content to lie back and watch these interesting characters go about their daily lives doing regular interactions and nothing out of the ordinary.  Doomsday Book does not achieve this effect, and blah, I just couldn’t be bothered with it.