Welcome to my blog. If you're addicted to books, like I am, then you've come to the right place. I mostly write about books and my experiences reading them. These are very personal book reviews. (If you can even call them book reviews...) I’m a true believer that none of us lives in a vacuum. When you read a book, watch a movie, listen to a song, etc., you absorb that art form into your life experience, and it changes you. But you also change it, because no two people see anything the same way. The way I interpret a novel may be totally different from the way you will. It’s still the same novel, but the meaning for each of us is unique. Once you express that meaning, it changes the art. So these posts are about how these books fit into my life. I’d love to hear how they fit into yours. Please make comment and share your experience.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Review of Blackout by Connie Willis

There is nothing like an incredibly long business trip to help you catch up on your reading.  I just recently returned from a trip to the UK and while I was there I was able to finish three books.  In fairness, I was mostly done with two of them, but it still felt good to cross three off the list.  I found it incredibly interesting, however, to be finishing Blackout by Connie Willis while I was in London, because much of it is set in London, so that made it fun to be walking the streets in which part of the story takes place.

Big Ben & The Houses of Parliament, Feb 2012-JJWBaker
Connie Willis is an award winning Sci-fi author that I first learned about from Grigg, the sci-fi loving character in The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler.  I trust his recommendations, having read two Ursula LeGuin books because of him, and Connie Willis was one of his favorite authors.  Turns out, she’s also won the Hugo award a few times, among other awards.  Blackout is the first volume of a two volume novel, All Clear is the second volume and together they won the Hugo for best novel in 2011, so I figured they were worth a look.

Westminster Abbey, Feb 2012 - JJWBAKER

Blackout is the story of three historians from Oxford, England in 2060.  In Willis’ world, time travel is possible and historians regularly travel back in time to observe history as it is happening.  They have quite a complex theory about this, and genuinely believe that they cannot affect history as long as they stay clear of “divergence points,” which are critical times in history when a small change could have a big outcome.  These three historians are studying what seem to be mundane aspects of the war.  One is working as a shop girl in London during the Blitz, to study how Londoners cope during the air raids.  One is a maid in the countryside studying the evacuated children.  And the third is posing as an American reporter, studying the evacuation of Allied soldiers from Dunkirk, France.  One by one these historians encounter unforeseen problems and slowly come to the realization that despite the time travel theory, they may have altered the course of the war and their way back to the future may no longer exist. 
Fountain in Trafalgar Square, Feb 2012-JJWBaker

It seems I’ve read a good many World War II books recently.  I hadn’t realized it until one of the BABBs was complaining that we’d picked too many WWII books and she hates that time period.  Consequently I’ve added it as a label for the blog because I do have quite a few WWII stories in here.   What I found particularly interesting about this novel, however, is that all 3 of these time travelers are studying areas of history that you don’t normally hear about.  I’d never thought much before about quotidian life for Londoners during the Blitz, sleeping in Tube stations and the camaraderie that would engender.  Same thing for the life of a maid taking care of evacuated children.  They were unique perspectives on the war, and it was a nice change to get a new perspective.    
The London Eye, Feb 2012-JJWBAKER

While there is a lot of action in this story, it didn’t leave much room for serious character development.  Honestly I didn’t really miss it until I started writing the review…  The secondary characters I found more interesting than the three main time travelers, which make sense in retrospect as the time travelers are forced to blend into their surroundings, so aside from their inner monologues, you don’t see them doing many unique things to set themselves apart from their subjects.  The WWII contemporaries, however, are quite interesting:  The elderly boat captain with delusions of grandeur, determined to do his part in the Dunkirk evacuation, the mischievous Ralph & Binnie, evacuee children wreaking havoc on their country safe house, and the eccentric Londoners trapped in the Tube station during air raids with their attempt to put on a stage play underground to pass the time. 
Liberty Department Store, London, Feb 2012-JJWBAKER
This is a pretty good page turner, but at some point, I did feel like the story was dragging a bit.  About ¾ of the way through the novel, I thought—all of these characters know something is wrong, but they didn’t seem to be moving on to the next part—I felt like, let’s get on with them finding each other and fixing it already and it seemed like it took forever to get to that point.
Westminster Abbey, Feb 2012, JJWBAKER
One thing I really enjoyed about the time travel perspective was how these historians are constantly trying to blend in and fit the WWII roll they are playing.  Imagine if part of your job entailed pretending to be someone else and do her job.  It’s like these historians are doing triple duty:  1-the historical roll, 2-the historical job and 3-the historian, and they have to do it in a war zone... of course the stress catches up to each of them at different points.   They have to call on their historical and cultural knowledge and sometimes common sense or modern ideas trip them up because they forget that something hasn’t been invented in the 1940s, or they have to recall historical dates or bombing data and then worry that their actions look suspicious and they might be hauled in for suspicion of being a German spy.  And in many ways they are spies, just from the future.  It made for added complexity in the story.    

I think this is Whitehall, but I really don't remember. London Feb 2012 - JJWBAKER
Overall, this was an enjoyable, entertaining read, I’d even go so far as to categorize it as historical fiction as well as sci-fi. 

1 comment:

  1. I found this unique novel to be utterly riveting. Connie Willis in "Blackout" combines two of my favorite topics, time travel and WWII, in a spellbinding story of suspense. I knew going in that it was part one of two, so I was prepared to be left on the edge of a cliff at the end. I have October 19th marked on my calendar for the "All Clear" resolution to this wonderful story.