Saturday, May 12, 2018

Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis

There are four novels in Connie Willis's Oxford Time Travel series and all of them are very long books. After reading Doomsday Book in November 2017 and To Say Nothing of the Dog in December 2017, I put off the last two, Blackout and All Clear, until later in March. The two books are really one book in two parts so I did end up reading both of them together, between March 24th and April 6th. It was a wonderful read, very emotional at the end.

The story is centered on three time travelers. They are historians who have assignments to go back to specific events in World War II in the year 1940. The time and place they come from is Oxford, England in 2060.

Rather than focus on the story. I am going spend more time on the characters.

  • Eileen O’Reilly (real name Merope Ward) works as a maid in a manor house in Backbury, Warwickshire. Her assignment is to observe children evacuated from London.
  • Mike Davis (real name Michael Davies) is sent to Dover, to observe the evacuation of servicemen from Dunkirk. He has been implanted with an American accent for a trip he planned to Pearl Harbor but his assignment is switched, so he poses as an American reporter.
  • Polly Sebastien (real name Polly Churchill) works as a shopgirl in London during the Blitz. She has been supplied with lists of places that were bombed during the Blitz over a specific period of time so that she can avoid those locations.

The story revolves around these three people and they eventually meet up in London. There are three other characters with smaller but important roles that I enjoyed:

  • Colin Templer previously appeared as a young teenager in Oxford in Doomsday Book. At the time the book begins he is a bit older, 17, and has a crush on Polly. 
  • Mr James Dunworthy, who is on the teaching staff of Balliol College, Oxford University, provides tutoring to the historians prior to their assignments, and appears in all of the books in the series. He is in charge of making the time travel assignments and has been moving them around for a reason that has not been shared with the historians or the reader. When things start going wrong, Mr Dunworthy decides to go to 1940 himself.
  • Sir Godfrey Kingsman was not a time traveler but one of the "contemps," a person who belongs in the time that the historians are visiting. Sir Godfrey is a classically-trained Shakespearean actor who befriends Polly in an air raid shelter. They develop an attraction and affection for each other even though there is a very large age difference.

There are confusing elements: The historians have multiple assignments in the past, and in each trip to the past they have different names to fit in with the time period. Throughout the book we read about various time travelers and in some cases the real identity of the time traveler is not clear. This did not bother me, but it could be confusing and frustrating. I also think it was intentional, so I just went with the flow.

I liked All Clear better than Blackout, and it wasn't just because Blackout ends with a cliffhanger and there is a real ending to All Clear. In the first book there was too much repetition of and emphasis on the thought process of the historians, a quibble I also noted in my review of Doomsday Book. They worry all the time about the predicament that they are in AND they don't tell their fellow historians their concerns. It is like a soap opera. And both parts were too long. But I have no regrets about the two weeks I spent reading these books.

Those are my only criticisms of Blackout / All Clear and overall I loved the books. I think that the author does a great job with the characterizations. I was especially fond of the main characters but there are many, many small parts in these books and several of those minor characters still stick with me. I see Connie Willis's time travel series as re-readable and I am sure I will be doing that someday with these two books because of the picture of the UK during the Blitz. I will be able to slow down and savor them because I won't be worried about the fate of the characters.

The most important thing that I took away from this reading experience was its focus on the ordinary people in the UK during the war and the effect the war had on their country and their lives. I have always been interested in this time period, but I had no idea of the extent of the suffering and upheaval in the UK until I read two books by Juliet Gardiner, Wartime: Britain 1939-1945 and The Blitz. I was not a student of history and any history I learned came from the perspective of how the US fit into events. Whether the facts and the terminology are absolutely correct or not, you cannot miss the impact of World War II on the everyday life of people in the UK when reading Blackout and All Clear.

If you are interested in an overview of the mechanics of time travel in this novel, check out Alan J Chick's article on Connie Willis's “OXFORD TIME TRAVEL” SERIES.

See these links for more. Note that most of these reviews have quibbles but still like the book:


Publisher:   Bantam Books / Spectra, February 2010
Length:      512 pages 
Format:      Hardcover
Series:       Oxford Time Travel, #3
Setting:      England 
Genre:       Time Travel
Source:      Borrowed from my husband

All Clear

Publisher:   Bantam Books / Spectra, October 2010
Length:      656 pages 
Format:      Hardcover
Series:       Oxford Time Travel, #4
Setting:      England 
Genre:       Time Travel
Source:      Borrowed from my husband


NancyElin said...

I read Doomsday because C. Willis is considered one of the most sucessful SF female writers. I was not thrilled about the book. If I may choose, my preference goes to paranormal and not time travel.Your template and review of characters and not the excellent.

Kay said...

I'm so glad you shared your experience with these books! I've wondered about them, but have not as yet picked them up to read. I especially like the idea of the time travel to wartime Britain. I may see if they are available as audiobooks. I recently read a new book set in England during WWII, Dear Mrs. Bird. It was lovely and has rekindled my curiosity about that time. My review of it will be up in a couple of weeks. Much lighter, but with poignant elements.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad you had such a good overall experience with these books, Tracy. It's not easy to write time travel books and have the characters be authentic. I'm glad you thought that happened here, and they do sound like interesting people. That, to me, is at the core of a good story.

TracyK said...

I do remember your post on Doomsday, Nancy. I liked Doomsday Book a lot, but it had some of the irritating elements of Blackout, and it is a darker book. Willis does get a lot of praise but there are many readers who don't like her books. It would be hard to recommend them to anyone because of the different reactions and the length.

TracyK said...

It would be interesting to see how these are done as audiobooks, Kay. Thanks for telling me about Dear Mrs. Bird, I look forward to your review. Last year I read Their Finest by Lissa Evans set in 1940 in the UK (also a movie) and loved it. Still haven't reviewed but I must, because it is very good.

TracyK said...

I haven't read a lot of time travel books, Margot, but those I have read I have enjoyed. Connie Willis does a good job with development of characters, in my opinion.

Susan D said...

I've no doubt commented here on Blackout/All Clear here before. I love these books and when I felt the need to re-read them, I bought used copies, for future reads. More discovery with each read.

A note to Kay: I recommend paper over audio book if possible, because you find yourself flipping back a lot to check what happened before.

J.P. Choquette said...

This sounds intriguing. I love time travel books and am smitten with WWII-set-in-England books at present. Thanks for the good review and the feedback. I hadn't heard of these before.

TracyK said...

I think you have commented on those books before, Susan, and you were probably one of the ones whose comments encouraged me to get over my reluctance to start such long books. And I am grateful. I am sure I will come back to them.

TracyK said...

I like time travel too, J.P., but I cannot remember that many time travel books that I have read. I do have a huge book of time travel stories to read... another book my husband bought.

col2910 said...

Glad you enjoyed it mostly, but not one for me to worry about reading.

TracyK said...

I can understand that, Col. This is the time period I love to read about, though.

NancyElin said...

Thanks for the feedback, Tracy!

Clothes In Books said...

I am forever dithering about this! I too am fascinated by Homefront books, and those characters sound so interesting - but the length of the two books is putting me off...

TracyK said...

I quite understand about the issues related to length, Moira. This book (or set of two books) is doubly long. Some reviewers have said one could read the 2nd without the first but so many relationships are built up in the first book. And I don't have any idea if there are serious flaws in usage of words etc. that might take you out of the story. Jo Walton's post mentions such but she did not feel like they ruined the overall experience.