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.

  • I can’t decide if I like Willis personally. I sort of liked To Say Nothing of the Dog, but I expected to like it more…

    • I think, based on all two of her books I’ve read, that her ideas are maybe better than her execution. It’s always sad when this happens, because I start hoping that an author I love better will steal the ideas and do them better, and I feel like that’s not a nice way to read a book.

  • I haven’t ever read any books by Willis, but it’s probably just a matter of time…it seems like I see her name everywhere lately!

    • Well, only because she tantalizingly wrote one book in two volumes and made everyone wait and wait for the second one. :p

  • I just read my first Willis a few weeks ago and am eager to read more. I started with To Say Nothing of the Dog and found it fun but not earth shatteringly brilliant. Still, fun is good. Very good in fact. But I know that if I start Blackout without having All Clear ready to go immediately after I will cause myself unnecessary pain and angst. Which would be sad. So I shall not. I shall just have to be patient with the library hold system – not necessarily something I excel at.

    • I am awful at waiting for library holds! I want them to come in RIGHT NOW and I feel like I should get to keep the books forever once I have them and read them over and over if I want to. I need to lose this attitude and build up library-hold karma by reading my hold books quickly and returning them for other patrons.

      I hope you get Blackout and All Clear soon!

  • I would certainly like to be able to time travel. We’ll be really annoyed at Cambridge if Oxford has managed to crack this before us. Perhaps it’s only a stunt open to historians? That would be mean – I would SO like to meet George Sand.

    • Hahahahaha, I didn’t think of that! I wonder if they mentioned Cambridge in Doomsday Book and I forgot about it — I’m pretty sure they didn’t say anything about in it Blackout. Maybe Cambridge has a similar set-up in the world of the book, and the Oxford historians don’t talk about it because the Cambridge one worked better and the Oxford historians were jealous.

  • I hope primary mind will win in the end 😛 I haven’t read this or All Clear yet, but I’m hoping I’ll love them when I do. Also, I have somehow also established a mental connection between Jo Walton and Connie Willis, and I have no idea where it came from.

    • I expect part of it is the fact that they both wrote speculative fiction books set in World War II, and their names both begin with W and they’re both chicks. Maybe that’s all there is to it.

  • Aww, Sir Godfrey. I wanted every single page to be full of him, too. And yeah, I am kind of of two minds about Blackout and All Clear as well – mostly I decided I am OK with liking them for being plot-driven and emotional and exciting, and trying not to dwell on my quibbles (except oh my goodness, the phrase “but this was time travel!” and how it keeps coming up – enough! enough! more than enough!).

    • Did they keep saying that? I didn’t even notice. But I bet now that you’ve mentioned it, I’ll notice it in the sequel.

      SPOILERS I AM ABOUT TO SAY SPOILERS

      I was so upset when Sir Godfrey was supposed to have died, and I was sure it was a false alarm so I flipped forward to see and I couldn’t find his name anywhere and I was saaaaaad! (Until it proved he was alive, and then I was massively happy.)

  • Mumsy

    I heard on NPR that time travel is the superpower most requested by people surveyed. Seems like students of literature deserve some of this action, too, though. Nymeth could visit Haworth Parsonage and get a job there (as scullery maid? I doubt they had any well-paid positions to offer) for a couple of weeks – and then let us all in on the young ladies’ strange quirks. I myself am heading for the Globe to make ABSOLUTELY SURE that the Bard is really the Bard.

    Yeah, I caught that self-compliment. I am in awe of your new skills. Who are you, and what have you done with Jenny??

  • Oh good I thought I was the only one who thought things like the Blitz could be described as magnificent. I mean, it was awful and the fact that we live in a world that can produce World War literature is terrible, but at the same time there’s kind of a gorgeous artistic feel to so much of that lit. Kind of a new version of gothic? I feel guilty about liking it so much.

    I hope primary mind wins, primary mind sounds like it likes to party and I want it to have fun.

    • Oh, Jodie, you have to hunt down Joan Wyndham’s Love Lessons. It’s the diaries this seventeen-year-old girl kept during World War II in London, and it is the best Blitz thing I’ve ever read in my whole life ever.

  • I would probably agree with Secondary Mind on the skipping around between characters who were always just missing each other and never connecting, but that’s sort of her metier. I loved that in Doomsday, that Kerin and Dunsworthy seemed to communicate better across the centuries and without *actually* communicating than Dunsworthy and his contemporaries. In any event, after reading All Clear, all my objections to Blackout melted away.

    • I can’t remember what happens with them in Doomsday, although this comment is stirring faint memories of leaving things for each other to find…

  • O dear, you didn’t like Doomsday Book? and it’s my favorite Willis (which isn’t hard, I’ve only read two). So as you like this one more than Doomsday, I’m hoping it will be great for me!

    • I, well, no. I didn’t like it at all. I liked it almost zero. What’s the other Willis book you read? Maybe we have opposite Willis tastes and I will love the one you hated.

  • …I really need to get around to Willis.

    • Do it. Time travel!

  • Amy

    I haven’t read any Willis yet (meant to, didn’t happen though) but now that I know time travel is involved, I may have to change that.

    • Did you not know about the time travel? I will read almost anything as long as it’s got time travel in it.

  • I really like Willis’ books, and have quite a few of them on my shelf that I haven’t gotten to yet, but want to soon. I have read some really great reviews of these two books and want to add them to my shelf very soon. Even though you were of two minds about this one, it seems like in the end you really got on well with it. Have you ever read Coventry by Helen Humphreys? I think you would really like that one.

    • It’s on my list! Did you recommend it to me in the first place? It looks really good.

  • I’ve been wanting to read this for a while, and knowing that it was good enough to change your mind about Willis makes me want to read it more, but then I look at the two (or three?) unread Willis books making sad eyes at me from my TBR pile and feel bad about wanting to hopscotch over them to pick up her new(er) books.

    • What ones do you have? I only know about Doomsday, the two World War II ones, and To Say Nothing of the Dog. What else is there?

      • I’ve got Bellwether and Lincoln’s Dreams on my shelves – I don’t really know anything about either of them except they’re thinner than the four you listed, and I don’t think they involve the Oxford time-travelers.

        She’s also got a pretty extensive list of other works that I have yet to get my hands on: http://www.librarything.com/author/willisconnie

  • Jenny

    Yay! Hooray! You liked it! And I had many of the same reservations about Blackout (even more, indeed) but I thought most of them were resolved when I read All Clear. I’ll be interested to see what your reaction is when you read it.

    Oh, I am so pleased that you have mostly forgiven Connie Willis.

    • So apart from All Clear obviously, what book of Willis’s should I read next?

    • Jenny

      Ummm um. Let’s see. Bellwether is very good. I personally adored Passage but you might possibly find it boring. Try To Say Nothing of the Dog. After all, it’s not BY Jerome K. Jerome.

  • This does sound very tempting. I have yet to read any Connie Willies but I’m dying to read To Say Nothing of the Dog 🙂

    • It does look good! I just don’t want it to be too full of Jerome K. Jerome love.

  • This is sooo tempting . . . curse the TBR Dare, I cannot bring myself to read any library books except for book groups. I think Connie Willis will be the first thing I read when it’s over.

    • When is it over? Over soon? Over very soon?

  • My favorite Willis to re-read is perhaps Bellweather, but the ones that socked me with the greatest emotional punch were Lincoln’s Dreams and Passage.

    • Ha! That’s useful information. Where are they all set? I’m assuming Lincoln’s Dreams is American Civil War?

  • Connie Willis and Jo Walton, both of them are unashamed of being smart and showing it and tackling grand-scale projects.

    The difference: I will walk a mile on a blister for a Jo Walton book, but I have been sitting by in quiet perplexity while bloggers love Connie Willis, wondering where all the other people who don’t. (They are mostly sitting by in quiet perplexity, I suppose.) I will have to look up your review of Doomsday, because I don’t remember your not liking it!

    • WORD. I would not walk a mile with a blister for either Jo Walton or Connie Willis, but I’d walk farther with blister for Jo Walton than I would for Connie Willis.

      • trapunto

        Sensible of you. It’s been a while since I had a blister, which makes it easy to be glib.

  • *sits by in quiet perplexity*

    • Because you dislike Connie Willis?

      • I started To Say Nothing of the Dog, got 32 pages into it, and wasn’t interested enough to pursue it, at least not right away. Haven’t read anything else by her. Perplexity at her popularity seems the right choice for now.

  • Sigh, if only libraries awarded holds first to those who want the book most. I kind of like when books skip from character to character. Maybe I would like this.

    So, another successful cooking adventure?

    • Another successful cooking adventure! This time with pesto! 🙂

  • I’ll read this when I have a chance to do it and All Clear back-to-back (or nearly so). It’s actually nice to have waited and not have to be annoyed by the cliffhanger.

    And I need to know what happened with J.K.J.!

  • I had started listening to this audio book and I had really enjoyed the story but had a hard time with how it kept switching from character to character. I decided to give up on the audio book and see if I have more success reading it, though I haven’t had a chance to give it a try.

  • I really liked this book, and I have All Clear waiting on my shelf for whenever I get around to it. 🙂 I know what you mean about all the switching among characters though. It probably could have been handled more smoothly.

  • Why are you enemies with Jerome K. Jerome? (I haven’t read his book yet, though I did read Willis’ To Say Nothing of the Dog and loved it.)

  • I love the concept of Primary Mind and Secondary Mind. Reminds me of Terry Pratchett’s First Thoughts, Second Thoughts and Third Thoughts 🙂

  • I need to read Willis! And soon! Somehow I did not realize that all her books are about time travel. That’s exciting. I might have to start with To Say Nothing of the Dog, only because I love the title.