Connie Willis

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Connie Willis – Blackout

I have read several of Willis’ novels before, some of them set in a historical setting but from a modern angle (the main characters are time-travelling historians). This time, the historians get stuck in London during the Blitz, a very bad time to be stuck in indeed. As an historical novel, Blackout is great. It made the Blitz feel real and was genuinely interesting. However, the book is only the first of two, so let me finish my little review below.

Connie Willis – All Clear

Blackout ends in the middle of the story and All Clear is the sequel. Actually, it’s the story I like the least in this double-decker. The main characters are separated at the outset and way too much time is spent on people running back and forth trying to find each other. The overall plot is okay, but it takes too many pages to tell. In the end, though, I found both books enjoyable. Willis is a competent writer and manages to make the setting come alive. Four snails.

Charles Dickens – Oliver Twist

I have read a few books by Charles Dickens before, the most recent one being Hard Work, which I read as part of my studies in English literature at university. Dickens is an author I almost expect to be boring because of his fame and status, but really like when I get down to actually reading him (I remember feeling the same way when reading Hard Work). I love the narrator’s irony and the way the story is told. Dickens is also very, very good at describing villains, and although the overall story feels a bit contrived, the positive still easily outweighs the negative.

Rod Ellis – Second Language Acquisition

This is a basic introduction to second language acquisition that I picked up somewhere and felt like reading. It doesn’t contain much I haven’t already studied, but it doesn’t hurt to reread stuff like this. Rod Ellis is one of the major figures in the second language acquisition field, and this book, which is in the Oxford Introduction to Language Study series, works well as an introduction. The only drawback is that it was published in 1997, but most of the content is so basic that this hardly matters.

J. D. Salinger – The Cather in the Rye

This book has been on my ought-to-read list for a long time and now I finally got around to reading it. I must admit I don’t understand its greatness. It could be because I never felt alienated as a teenager and the setting feels distant (mid-century New York). It could also be because I seldom appreciate vernacular language in books (several “I really did” or similar per page or “that killed me” once per paragraph). As a window into teen alienation, I can see the value of reading this book, but I didn’t enjoy reading it much. I really didn’t.

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Title: Bellwether
Author: Connie Willis

Before reading Bellwether, Connie Willis was know to me as the author of To Say Nothing of the Dog and Doomsday Book, both high-quality works of fiction, but displaying different kinds of talent. With Bellwether, Connie Willis further proves that she is a very skilled author indeed, here taking on the satire/comedy genre. This was indeed apparent in To Say Nothing of the Dog as well, but here it’s the main theme instead of extra flavour.

In Boulder, Colorado, Dr. Sandra Foster is researching fads and trends, or, more precisely, what causes them. She is stuck in her research, but things in her environment (like a mail clerk from hell and a slightly neurotic management) keep her alert whether she likes it or not. She has to fight her way through a world ridden with fads, compulsive behaviour and outright madness, and, she has to make progress with her work in order to secure her research grant.

The problem with summarising the plot of this novel is that it completely misses the point. The main force behind this novel is Willis’ sharp sense of satire and irony, which almost miraculously never fails her. It’s not that the novel is funny in a way that can be quoted, but rather that each and every sentence carries the overall hilarity and truthfulness of the situation (for even if the story in Bellwether is exaggerated, it’s never too far away from the real world). Needless to say, fads are central both to the humour and to the plot, but Willis’ mastery of irony goes far beyond this, making each chapter interesting. This short novel contains no boring passages and no chapters that are simply there to get somewhere else.

Another merit of Bellwether is that it uses hilarity to discuss fairly serious (and sad) phenomena in human society; this isn’t simply a lightweight novel meant to be read only for fun, it actually has a message and a topic which it attempts to highlight and discuss. I think that personally I’m quite distanced to a lot of fads, but I still feel the weight of what Willis says in this novel. Fads are ubiquitous enough to be relevant for everybody, and so this novel should feel relevant for a lot of people.

Conclusively, I like this novel to the point that I’m close to giving it five snails. I won’t do that, however, because of some minor details i don’t quite like (such as the ending). Also, even though Connie Willis’ discussion of fads is highly interesting, the punch of the conclusion is somehow not commensurate with that of the discussion itself. However, four and a half snails is a good rating, increasing the authors average to above four over three books. Not bad, not at all.

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Title: To Say Nothing of the Dog
Author: Connie Willis
Narrator: Steven Crossley
Year: 1997

In To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis continues with the time-travelling theme developed in Doomsday Book, but apart from some of the minor characters, the two novels do not have much in common and are not dependent on each other in any way. Doomsday Book is a fairly serious story about The Black Death, whereas To Say Nothing of the Dog is a humorous mystery adventure set in Victorian Britain.

The fulcrum of the intrigue is hilarious in itself, since it consists of the search of an old relic called the Bishop’s Bird Stump, which is supposedly necessary to inaugurate a new version of Coventry Cathedral (which was demolished during the Blitz) built in 2057. Time travellers are sent back through time to search for the Bishop’s Bird Stump, but something goes wrong and the Net, which allows time travel, begins to fall apart.

In this confused and chaotic setting, the time travellers Ned and his female sidekick, Verity, like so many protagonists in mystery novels before them, try to unravel the tangled mystery surrounding the Bishop’s Bird Stump and repair whatever damage the Net has sustained. To Say Nothing of the Dog is an homage to many things, but mystery novels in general is perhaps the most obvious one. References to Agatha Christie, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and others are frequent, both implicitly and explicitly.

As with Doomsday Book, the novel is expertly written and I cannot find many flaws or things I do not like, in language usage or otherwise. However, even if I am interested in Victorian Britain, the story is simply not interesting enough earn my whole-hearted approval. At places, it moves to slowly and I feel that I am way ahead of the characters in solving the mystery.

Steven Crossley’s narration of the novel is simply brilliant. I very seldom come across narrators who master the whole spectrum of skills needed, and even if Crossley do not score full points in all possible categories, he comes very close. His English is a joy to listen to and his carefully controlled and relaxed voice works excellently.

By way of conclusion, I think To Say Nothing of the Dog is a good read, slightly better than Doomsday Book, in fact, but not enough to motivate a different grade. However, if you are in the least allured by what I have said in this review, I urge you to have a look at this novel, since I am pretty sure that you will like it even more than I do.

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Title: Doomsday Book
Author: Connie Willis

The habit of beginning to read book without knowing very much about them is sometimes very rewarding. I tend to avoid as much factual information as possible about the content of the book before I read it, including everything printed on the dust jacket. I like recommendations, however, and reading all Hugo Winners is one kind of recommendation, albeit not always a good one.

Therefore, I had no idea at all what Doomsday Book was about before I began, but it turned out to be a story split in two, one in early 14th century and the other some 700 years later. Kivrin, a novice historian at Oxford University, travels back through time to study the Middle Ages, but something goes terribly wrong during the drop. Instead of being sent to 1320, she ends up dreadfully close to the outbreak of the Black Death in 1348. Even if she is immune to the plague, she knows that it killed half of Europe…

Parallel to this, Kivrin’s teacher, Mr. Dunworthy, battles the administration of his own university to help his student, but a hitherto unheard of virus causes an epidemic and the neighbourhood is put under quarantine, further tangling the already difficult task of discerning what went wrong and what ought to be done about it.

I like Doomsday Book because it portrays a time in history which is very difficult to grasp by means of statistics and facts. I do not know how much time Willis spent on researching the Black Death, but everything seems realistic to me and she manages to convey much more than just information. The story and her descriptions convey emotions which opens a window to a view of the Middle Ages I had not experienced before.

However, there are certain blemishes, some of them more serious than others. To begin with, the story taking place in the 14th century is at least ten times as interesting compared to the other one, which makes me wonder if the book would not have been better if it had focused more on that. Sure, I agree that the parallel stories add suspense and depth to the novel, but the imbalance between the two parts hurts the novel as a whole.

In addition to this, the language does not earn my approval. It is far from bad, but it is also far from exciting, original and entertaining. Also, I do not like the pseudo Middle English which is used. Kivrin has some sort of translator, so I would have preferred if the dialogue was written in plain English, without the ubiquitous “nay”, “naught” and occasional change in word order. This is especially annoying when the rest of the sentences are in modern English. I assume the idea is to convey a feeling of times long gone, but to my mind it is mostly irritating.

That being said, Doomsday Book is, without doubt, an enjoyable read. Willis lets us come close to the characters as well as the story and manages to engage my interest, which is something that happens fairly infrequently. Kudos to her for succeeding.

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