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: Sky Coyote and Mendoza in Hollywood, Kage Baker

I was going to review Kelly Corrigan’s memoir The Middle Place, but then I realized that there is no particular value in reviewing things in the order you read them, especially when you are devouring a series like a wascally wabbit devours carrots, and each review you write that is not dedicated to the series in question is going to put you further and further behind on reviews.  So here we are.  My contention that Kelly Corrigan is mistaken in her book’s central claim will have to wait.

Speaking of sound effects, Kage Baker’s books are now giving me the mental sound effect of Cookie Monster eating cookies.  Ommmm narm narm narm narm narm narm narm narm.

Sky Coyote mostly ditches Mendoza in order to follow Joseph, the cyborg who rescued her from the Inquisition.  A century and a half on from the events of In the Garden of Iden (the characters haven’t aged, of course, being cyborgs), Joseph has been charged with impersonating a Chumash deity so that the Company can preserve one Chumash village and their culture entire, before white settlers come to wipe them out.  Joseph, a company man with wobbly morals from way back, is a perfect choice to impersonate the Chumash trickster god Sky Coyote.

Set to rest are my fears that the second book by Kage Baker would disappoint me, though now my fears are taking a longer view and worrying that the series will not be satisfactorily resolved in the end.  I was reluctant to begin Sky Coyote because I thought I might not enjoy all Joseph all the time, cynical manipulative trickster that he is.  Fortunately, as we learn more about his past, and particularly about his past with Mendoza, he proves to be a far more sympathetic character than I perhaps gave him credit for last time out.

Some intriguing things come to light in this book.  We learn more about the differetn brands of cyborg, and we hear about the fact that cyborgs are not given any history past the year 2355.  Why, we don’t know.  We also meet some twenty-fourth century humans, who have set up a fancy base in order to supervise the cyborgs’ handling of the Chumash project.  They are stupid, childish, and squeamishly averse to all forms of violence and vice, including smoking, drinking, and even eating the cyborg drug Theobromos (which is chocolate).  Joseph and the other cyborgs are mystified: Are all humans like this?  And if so, how did they ever manage to create the cyborgs?

Narm narm narm narm narm.

Mendoza in Hollywood jumps 150 years ahead again.  After spending the time since Sky Coyote in relative solitude, Mendoza is summoned to Los Angeles for a mission to save various species of plant from the drought that will occur.  She is based at a stagecoach inn with four other operatives of various disciplines, and she is haunted by nightmares of her past.  Time is acting strangely, and Mendoza is producing Crome’s radiation in her sleep, a kind of energy that gives psychic powers to humans and is not meant to be present, ever, in children chosen to be converted to cyborgs.  A lot of very bewildering stuff happens, stuff that according to all the laws the cyborgs know should not be able to happen.

However, this excitement does not last forever.  Mendoza runs out of plants to save, and just as she thinks she will die of boredom (highlight the white text for spoilers, which will spoil the entire ending of this book as well as the ending of In the Garden of Iden) a British man identical to her martyred lover Nicholas Harpole shows up pursuing a British conspiracy to take over California while the Americans are busy fighting the Civil War.  HIJINKS ENSUE but not for very long as Nicholas Harpole Mark 2 (he’s called Edward Alton Bell-Fairfax now) soon gets shot dead, sending poor lovelorn Mendoza into a killing rage.  The Company are not fans of killing rages in their cyborgs.

These books have been for the Time Travel Reading Challenge, and my list for that challenge has really been shot all to hell by now, but really, I could not have anticipated this sort of a bookish windfall when I made the list, could I?

As of this writing I am halfway through the fourth book, The Graveyard Game, and the plot, my doves, it is thickening.  It is thickening so much in fact that it is beginning to resemble the Candy Land Molasses Swamp.  By the time I post this review I expect I shall be ensconced most thrillingly in The Life of the World to Come, and I am expecting some serious payoffs for all this build-up.

When I asked y’all to recommend me fantasy books, this reading experience is exactly what I was looking for: tumbling headlong through a long, thrilling series with ever more mysterious mysteries about the world the characters live in.  HOORAY.  IT WORKED.

Other reviews of Sky Coyote:

Regular Ruminations
bookshelves of doom

Other reviews of Mendoza in Hollywood:

Adventures in Reading

Did I miss yours?

Edit to add: Clare has reminded me that “narm” means something else.  I don’t want to edit and change it and make her comment look crazy, and thus I will just say here that yes, nom nom nom nom is a better description of the sound effect anyway.

Review: King of Shadows, Susan Cooper

I read this for the Time Travel Challenge.  Yeah, I’m not adhering to my list.  TOO BAD.  I’m making King of Shadows part of a time travel mini-challenge that I call the Books I Like Because They Contain Time Travel and in Spite of Having Been Written by Authors I Do Not Like as Much as My Big Sister Does Challenge.  I shall include Time Cat in this mini-challenge too, because I can do that.

Nat Field, a twelve-year-old with a tragedy in his background, comes to London as part of a company of boys to perform at the newly constructed Globe Theatre.  One evening he feels slightly ill, goes to bed, and wakes up in 1599.  There he is recognized as actor Nathan Field, come from St. Paul’s to play Puck in a special production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream where Shakespeare plays Oberon; back in 1999, a young actor called Nathan Field is treated in a modern hospital for bubonic plague.

I never cared for Susan Cooper.  I didn’t like all that Dark Is Rising business, and I could have lived without The Boggart too.  But King of Shadows packs a hell of an emotional punch.  My eyes are filling up with tears right now, just thinking about it.  It’s difficult to tell why without giving away the whole plot of the book, but I will say that Susan Cooper writes the loveliest darling of a Shakespeare you ever encountered, and his relationship with Nat is genuinely touching.  She’s spoiled me for all productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I’m afraid.

This book may have faults, objectively speaking.  The plot may be predictable and the subplots insufficiently explored.  You read it, and let me know.  I can’t see any of those problems, because every time I read this book, it breaks my heart.  Read it!  If you do not love Shakespeare, this is still a good read; and if you do love Shakespeare, well, then, it’s like an extended edition of the best Shakespeare dream you’ve ever had.

Because it’s not just me, right?  Y’all dream about meeting Shakespeare too, right?

Other reviews:

Jen Robinson’s Book Page
Miss Erin
A Hoyden’s Look at Literature

Did I miss yours?

On another note, this is a video of three Supreme Court Justices in 1987 hearing evidence over whether Shakespeare wrote his own plays.  When I discovered that they had done this, it made me love John Paul Stevens even more than I used to, but then I discovered that he thinks the Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare’s plays.  STEVENS THINKS THE EARL OF – I don’t even care if he resigns now!

(I do actually.  I love Stevens and want him to stay, and he’s the only Protestant on the Court right now.  If he goes, and Elena Kagan gets appointed, as she is favored to do, it’ll be all Jews and Catholics.  I mean I like Jews and Catholics, but I think we should have some representation of other faiths too.)

Review: Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut

I should know better.  I very foolishly checked Slaughterhouse Five out of the library and brought it to read on our camping trip even though I suspected I wasn’t going to like it and I knew the person who recommended it to me was going to be on our camping trip wanting me to like it.  I read books when I’m given them, and when I don’t like them, I’m likely to say “I liked [specific thing],” or “It’s very well-written!”, rather than lying straight out with something like “Yes!  I liked it!”, and I had planned exactly what I was going to say when asked about it.  Only after I’d said all my evasive remarks, my sister said, “Did you like it?” and I felt too guilty to say no so I said yes but it was a tangled web of lies and if I’d had a second to think about it I’d have said something vague and noncommittal like I liked some things about it but I’d have to read it again to make up my mind completely.

Which wouldn’t exactly have been true either.  I have this blurry notion that lies are less wicked if they involve a lot of words and incorporate some elements of the truth.  Dear oh dear.  I feel sad when I don’t like other people’s favorite books, because I know how sad it makes me when other people don’t like my favorite books.

ANYWAY, Slaughterhouse Five is Kurt Vonnegut’s Masterwork, an anti-war novel that features the Tralfamadorians of whom I have heard (in my parapsychology class – I missed the final on account of writing down the date wrong, and our Vonnegut-loving professor was kind enough to let me take it the next day without penalizing me), and discusses the bombing of Dresden.  The protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, is a soldier who becomes “unstuck in time”, traveling back and forth between moments of his life – times with his wife and children, his childhood, his time as a soldier in the Second World War, his kidnapping by aliens in a flying saucer, etc.

It was clever.  I think that’s what I’d say about this book.  The business of being unstuck in time was interesting, and I wondered if that’s where Audrey Niffenegger got the idea for The Time Traveler’s Wife (hope so – it always cheers me up to see other authors stealing ideas because it makes me feel better about myself).  It was clever, but there was nothing underneath it.  All this weak-jawed fatalism – it was quotable (the phrase “So it goes” occurs whenever something bad happens), but it didn’t lead to anything.  Not for the characters, and not for me either.  It was clever, but there wasn’t anything underneath the cleverness.  It was just a lot of words.

I meant to give it two stars, but I like the book less and less the more I think of it.  I have very few one-star ratings, because I feel guilty being mean about books that I know other people love.  But it’s a new year and I’m going to be bloody, bold, and resolute (Macbeth is my favorite of Shakespeare’s tragedies.  When I quote that bit of it, though, I’m quoting Eliza from Knight’s Castle.  You can’t ever escape your childhood reading.) with my ratings.  One star it is!

What do you like or not like about Vonnegut?  Am I missing something vital about this book?  Anyone want to claim that Slaughterhouse Five is overrated and the real Vonnegut is only to be found through [one of his other books]?  I’m willing to try again…

If you haven’t read Vonnegut, don’t take my word for it; I know loads of people love him.  Other reviews of Slaughterhouse Five: things mean a lot, Becky’s Book Reviews, Just a (Reading) Fool, Rob Around Books, booklit, Bibliofreakblog, Rose City Reader, and you’ll tell me, won’t you, if I missed yours?

Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud

In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud writes about the structure, creation, history, and vocabulary (among other things!) of comics.  He does it, of course, in graphic novel form, with a little cartoon Scott McCloud telling us what is going on.  I love this because when he talks about a technique that graphic novels use, voila, he can show it to us too!  The book never becomes boring, which is partly down to the fact that it’s an interesting topic, but also partly because the form allows a lot of room for humor.  (I was going to write “and whimsy”, but I hate that damn word.  Though I like Peter Wimsey.)

I loved the section about the different transitions between panels.  Scott McCloud lists six categories of transitions between panels, and then does an analysis of how often different comic artists use each different transition.  He makes bar graphs.  I was so intrigued by the differences between how often American & European artists used each transition type, and how often Japanese artists did.  McCloud shows examples of each transition, and although he gives them a number, he keeps reminding you which type is which (through pictures!).  Fantastic.

My one little gripe was with the section on the (sometimes uneasy) marriage of words and pictures.  I am only griping about it because to me, the combination of words and pictures provides the most amazing and fascinating and incredible possibilities for comics.  (I like words.)  I just looked back at it, and that chapter is just as comprehensive as the transitions chapter; when I was reading it, I felt like there weren’t nearly enough cool examples.  I still feel like that actually, but you may want to consider the possibility that there are plenty of examples and I am just insatiable and can never have enough.

In other news, Scott McCloud referenced a painting of Magritte’s (“This is not a pipe”), which caused me to tell my sister “I really like Magritte,” which caused me to have to get up and bring her a book about Magritte because she couldn’t remember who he was.  And this in turn led us to find this painting, which is rather graphic so you’ve been warned, “The Rape”, which pleased me so much that I traveled back in time and thanked Magritte in pretty and fluent French for his getting a point about what it is like being a woman that people often seem to miss.

(No, you may not borrow my time machine.  I have destroyed it, along with all copies of the plans.  V. dangerous to have such a thing around the house.)

(I just found a woman called Eunice Golden who says she created (warning, this is fairly graphic too) this piece of art “in defiance of censorship (which I consider to be a rape of the mind), and as a response to Magritte’s mutilation of the female body in ‘Le Viol’.”  Am I misunderstanding her completely, or is she misunderstanding Magritte completely?  Or, possibly, am I misunderstanding Magritte?)

I have strayed from the Scott McCloud point.  I liked Understanding Comics!  I have Making Comics out of the library, and I want to get Reinventing Comics as well!  Other views besides mine:

Nymeth at Things Mean a Lot
Kim at Sophisticated Dorkiness
Rebecca Reads

Let me know if I missed yours!

Books from my childhood

Today I reread Edward Ormondroyd’s Time at the Top and Anne Lindbergh (daughter, not wife)’s Travel Far, Pay No Fare.  These were both favorites of mine when I was smaller, but in particular I liked Travel Far, Pay No Fare.  I loved it.  To me it was the most magical and amazing book of all time – twelve-year-old Owen moves to Vermont, where his nine-year-old cousin Parsley has a bookmark that allows them to go inside books.  They visit Little Women (nobody there is nice), Alice in Wonderland (ditto), The Fledgling, The Yearling, and even the volcano scene of The Twenty-One Balloons.  I read this book over and over and over as a kid.

Time at the Top was excellent when I was small too, though not quite as excellent.  A budding actress called Susan does a good deed for an old lady, and she gets rewarded with three trips backward in time, by going up the elevator in her building.  When she goes back in time, she meets Victoria and Robert, whose widowed mother is on the verge of giving in to the advances of an ungentlemanly bloke called Sweeney.  There is treasure, and a bad-tempered cat.

If you had asked me, I would have said that Travel Far, Pay No Fare was ten thousand bazillion times better than Time at the Top.  But actually, Time at the Top still delights me just as much, whereas Travel Far, Pay No Fare doesn’t have quite the punch that it used to have.  It’s sad.  When I was eight, Travel Far, Pay No Fare was the most magical book I could ever have imagined.  I would check it out from my school library and read it over and over and over.

This growing up business.  It’s tricky.

Kindred, Octavia Butler

Well, hmph.

Well, not really hmph.  I sort of take back my hmph.  It’s that expectations/reality gap again – I should just stop reading positive reviews of books.  If only there were some way of deciding what books to read without forming any expectations at all.  Wouldn’t that be nice?  But there are just some things that cause my expectations to become high, such as – let me think – okay, such as stories about children who go away to live with relatives/at a boarding school/with a bunch of strangers, and they have adventures.  Or stories with Catholic orphans.  Or stories about people with literary obsessions of some sort.  Or, relevant point here, time travel stories.  I’m an absolute sucker for time travel stories.  (Have you read Edward Ormondroyd’s Time at the Top?  You should, if you haven’t.  She travels through time USING ONLY AN ELEVATOR.  The sequel, All in Good Time, is very good too, as is the unrelated but charming David and the Phoenix.)

Anyway, I read so many nice things about Kindred, and although I definitely enjoyed it, and became very absorbed in it, and appreciated how Octavia Butler put the end at the beginning, for my convenience – in spite of all these things, I just thought it was going to be more thought-provoking than it was.  It’s all about a woman called Dana who starts traveling through time – inexplicably, unexpectedly – to save the life of one of her ancestors, a boy called Rufus who is a slaveholder.  And the question is, should Dana carry on saving his life so he can continue taking advantage of one of his slaves, Alice, and eventually produce Dana’s multi-great grandmother Hagar?  (She does.  Obviously.)

I am bothered by this kind of story.  History essentially seems elastic to me.  Like, say Marty didn’t manage to hook his parents up, and he never got born?  If he never got born, then he never travelled back in time, and he never saved his father from getting hit by his mother’s father’s car.  I can accept that he changed their outcomes, but I do not see how it is even remotely possible that he could negate his own existence.  It just couldn’t ever work.  The actual fact of time travel, of course, is totally plausible.

Anyway, I enjoyed Kindred.  I just didn’t love it.  (Spoilers, sort of.)  The ending seemed like a copout – the slave girl, Alice, tidily commits suicide, leaving Rufus free to attack Dana in a griefy haze, allowing Dana to finally kill his pathetic ass.  Plus, when she was back safe and sound with her husband, the story just ended BAM, on a note of “Well, hey, we’re glad that’s over.”  It just wasn’t a terribly reflective book.

The Juniper Game, Sherryl Jordan

“What I want to do,” said Juniper, “is an experiment in mental telepathy.”  She hesitated, waiting for his reaction.  There wasn’t one.  “I know I have some telepathic abilities,” she went on more confidently.  “I can go through a pack of cards, face down, and guess about fifteen correctly.  And I often know who it is when the phone rings before I answer it.  But I want to try mental telepathy with someone else.  I want to try giving someone else my thoughts.  Images are easier to receive than words.  They’re more intuitive somehow, not so tied up in logic and reason.  I want to see if I can send images to someone else and whether they can draw what they receive.  I need someone who’s sensitive and a good artist.”

Dylan’s gaze shifted, and his eyes met hers.  “Me, you mean?” he said.

She smiled unexpectedly.  “Who else, Leonardo?  You’re perfect.”

This is one of those books my mum picked up for no special reason for my sisters and me and it turned out to be really good.  Or maybe my sister picked it up for no special reason and it turned out to be really good.  Whatever.

It’s about a boy called Dylan (why Dylan? don’t ask me) who is a bit of a geek and a loser but he’s brilliant at art, that lucky duck, and one day this beautiful popular mysterious girl called Juniper (what a good name!) notices he’s good at art and enlists him for her private psychic image-sending project.  At first they’re just sending images of things she goes and sees, but after a while it turns out that her ultimate goal was to travel mentally through time and send him images from Back In The Day.  The witch-burning day, as it goes.  And things get very intense for everyone.

(I find it tricky to cast a critical eye upon books I’ve been fond of for a while.)

I really, really like this book.  Juniper is a good name, for one thing, and for another thing, I have always wanted to be able to do psychic things.  All my faintly-psychic family members, as well as this book, assure me that this is no desirable thing and in fact can be very annoying for your brain, but still, although I mostly believe them, I am always a teeny bit jealous and wish I were not so completely close-brained.   But I think Ms. Jordan does a good job of integrating the supernatural elements of the plot with Dylan and Juniper’s family lives and the effect of their relationship on everyone else.  And the supernatural elements are most interesting.

It just occurred to me Sherryl Jordan has probably written other books, and – hey!  the library says that indeed, yes she has.  Yay.  There are six books of hers at my university library, and six at the public library, and I forgot to pay attention to the titles, so I don’t know how much overlap we’re looking at, but anyway, there are definitely at least seven of her books that exist and are available to me and I haven’t read them yet.  Oh goody.

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.