6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on 19 January 2014
Oh dear - have to agree with the one star reviewers - half a book and not an enlightening one either, though I'm intrigued by one of the reviewers who says "All Clear" (the other half) gets better half way through, as I had both as a present and probably am obliged to read it. To be fair (and answer the criticisms of the absence of inevitable technology from 2060) she does explain early on that cellphones (known as mobiles in the UK of course) have been found to be toxic in 2060 at one point (when she mentions the cargo kilt) and I thought the reveal would be some time slip that had made them so and totally changed our lives, but of course there is no reveal - the book just stops without any conclusion whatsoever.
I could add to the lists of inaccuracies and plot errors that have been spotted, though why bother? Its full of them and clearly the publishers don't feel a little thing like that matters if you are selling a pot-boiler. It just reminded me of the story that Lord of the Flies, having been initially rejected for publication was seriously cut and reorganised by Golding's editor with his blessing. There is probably enough in ideas, plot and research to make one better novel about a third the size. It just seems the skill of editing a book to make it cogent, tighter and more accurate seems to have been lost or abandoned in favour of what can only really be classed as bulk.
If you love the first couple of chapters you are in for a treat - if not don't persevere
18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on 3 December 2011
Loving alternate and speculative fiction and being a historian by education, I seized on this book: time travel, history, an ensemble cast, a promise of something going spectacularly wrong. Yum!
The first chapter didn't seem to get going, but it set up a number of scenarios and characters, so let's be patient, I thought. Half-way through my patience was pretty thin, but I struggled to the end.
Ms Willis has done intense, detailed research; that shows. All the time. And that's the big problem. She lists and describes things (sometimes inaccurately), but doesn't use them to drive the narrative.
Oh, yes, the narrative. Three main characters, who have little gumption and less intelligence, bumble around pointlessly. Entry requirements to Oxford colleges have obviously declined by 2060. Although a bit wet (as 1940s speech would have it) when we first meet them, I did expect the characters to change and grow as they faced and dealt with a difficult environment. But they still hadn't sharpened up or learnt anything by the end of the book.
Tension was injected in drips and drops, not racheted up to a crisis point. You knew the three would meet - that was the only plot coherence in a book that sorely needed it.
I couldn't believe the abrupt non-end. I felt angry and cheated. I regret buying this book and will not be shelling out a single penny for any other of her books.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on 5 June 2012
...this book seriously failed to live up to its potential. The premise is interesting and there's no doubt that Connie Willis can write engagingly but that's where the good stuff ends, I'm afraid. It's awful to speak negatively about the hard work of a talented author. I blame my need to do so entirely on the fact that someone failed to sack this book's editor (and appoint a competent one) prior to publication.
I read other reader's reviews before buying this book but I found the free sample intriguing enough to override my good sense. Don't make my mistake - the other reviewers are telling the truth!
The amount of obstacles put in the way of the three historians who are trying to return to their drops is insane. It starts out believable but ends up as a bad case of 'oh, for crying out loud - not again! Have you no other plot device in your bag of authorly tricks?'. Towards the end of the book, Polly is trying to convince herself that the Oxford staff will rescue her. She uses the phrase 'this was time travel' so often that I started to think her last name might well be 'Parrot'. Lazy, lazy, lazy.
The books ends so abruptly and without any real resolution of the narrative arc that it is
Yep. Like that. Irritating in a review sentence but infuriating in a novel. This is not a two book story. It is a poorly edited single book that is made all the worse by glimpses of the great story that it could have been and it gives me absolutely no pleasure to say so.
29 of 33 people found the following review helpful
on 23 February 2010
I am a great fan of Connie Willis, and Doomsday Book has to be my favorite book of all time, so I'm sad that I'm not giving this book a five star review. There are a number of problems. Firstly it is only half a book. It ends at a sort of cliff hanger point and won't be completed until volume 2 All Clear comes out in the Autumn. This would be OK but actually not much happens in this (quite long) first half. The story really doesn't move on much. Secondly the book suffers from the kind of anachronisms and cultural errors that were also present in Doomsday Book (we all remember the mufflers!) Doomsday Book had a gripping enough story line to allow one to ignore these - this book, I'm afraid, hasn't.
Also (and I know this is not the authors fault) what on earth is going on on the cover? Why are there a squadron of American B17's on the cover of a book set in the Blitz (before America entered the war) and why are they bombing London? Also, if you read the notes at the back St. Paul's - which is regularly referred to in the text of the book - is called St. Patrick's! Oh dear.
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
Oxford, 2060. Thanks to the invention of time travel, historians are now undertaking field trips into the distant (and not-so-distant past), blending in with the 'contemps' to study history in motion. The laws of time travel prevent history from being changed: major 'divergence points' in history are unreachable and history will always course-correct. At least, that was the theory. When a historian visiting World War II Britain makes an unexpected side-trip to Dunkirk (one of the divergence points), something does change, and he and two other historians working in the same period find themselves unable to get home. Increasingly worried that they may have altered the course of history, they try to find one another and pool their resources...but in the chaos of the Blitz, that's easier said than done.
Blackout is the first half of an enormous single novel written by Connie Willis over a period of about five years. The second half is published under the title All Clear. The two books are set in the same 'future history' as Willis' Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog, though it is not necessary to have read those books to understand this one. Blackout has been well-received, and is the favourite to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel this year.
Reading the book, it's hard to see why. Blackout and All Clear should have been a brilliant, compelling and tight 400-page or so page single novel. At almost 1,300 pages (between the two volumes), it's instead a massive, bloated and swollen book so packed with filler and minutiae that it's hard to plough on through the novel. The author has spent weeks and months researching the Second World War in extreme detail and by God, every single last bit of that research is going in the novel whether you like it or not.
Which of course is an immediate problem when some of the research turns out to immediately be wrong. The novel takes an astonishingly Anglo-centric view of the war. The historians from Oxford fifty years from now constantly make ludicrously inept statements along the lines that Hitler could have won the war if he'd achieved his objectives in the Battle of the Bulge, or that Dunkirk was one of the single most important moments in history. It takes two-thirds of the novel before someone even grudgingly admits that the Russians may have played some role in the defeat of Nazi Germany. The WWII contemps taking this role would be fully understandable (most of the book takes place during the Blitz, many months before the USSR enters the war), but the supposedly educated and expert futuristic historians making these claims is just bizarre.
Furthermore, one of the conceits of the entire 'time-travelling historian' series is that Oxford in 2060 is very much like Oxford in say 1955. The conceit is, by now, tired and twee, and fortunately one of the benefits of the structure of the novel is that we pretty quickly leave 21st Century Oxford behind. After the historians 'change history' (or the point where they think they did) we stop getting scenes set back in 2060, so we're as much in the dark about what's happened as the characters are. This is one of the book's better notions and does introduce some narrative tension towards the end of the novel. However, Willis' research again seems to have failed when a character discusses how it's illegal for a 17-year-old to have sex. Not in the UK, it isn't (the age of consent here is 16). I suppose it's possible the law changes between now and then, but the utter lack of expansion on the statement (whereas every single other thing in the book is explained twenty times over) leads to the conclusion that the author didn't bother with some rudimentary fact-checking.
Once we get to World War II and the Blitz, things pick up a lot. The Blitz has a romantic image in the eyes of many people, but the reality of dealing with the threat of death on a daily basis was rather uglier than the popular myth shows, and Willis, to her credit, engages with these themes and ideas straight away. For every person showing the 'British bulldog' spirit and a stiff upper lip, there are more who are so traumatised they flee the city altogether, or suffer from severe stress-related issues. People had to develop psychological defences to deal with the situation, focusing on routine or distractions, and these ideas come across very well. The depiction of life in war-torn Britain is refreshingly real and grim rather than the more traditional and cliched view seen elsewhere.
Character-wise, the book has problems. First of all, the POV system is a bit odd. Several characters with POVs at the start of the novel - other historians visiting 1944, later in the war when the V1s started landing - abruptly vanish with no explanation a few chapters in, leaving their stories hanging. Even if they are revisited in All Clear, it'll still be many hundreds of pages since they last appeared. A bigger issue is that our three principal POVs - Eileen, Polly and Michael - are all rather bland and lack defining characteristics. When they eventually meet up, this gets worse with Eileen and Polly becoming almost indistinguishable, and Michael only being defined by a foot injury he sustains early in the novel in Dunkirk. Oddly for a novel using the limited third-person perspective, it's actually the secondary and supporting characters who really come alive in the novel. The people who share Polly's bomb shelter and decide to form an impromptu acting troupe are a highlight, as are the ridiculously destructive children Eileen has to look after in a stately manor.
The pacing can best be described as torturous. It's not enough to be told that a character takes a ride in a train. We must be told that they have difficulties getting a ticket, and once they get a ticket there is then tension over whether the train is going to turn up or be cancelled. When the train does arrive, we are told about the character's difficulty in securing a seat and then their observations on the countryside as it passes. When another character steps off the train to talk to a station master and takes slightly too long, it's a spellbinding moment of drama and tension in comparison. Characters also have a habit of repeating the same thing to themselves fifty times over per chapter, usually as they're doing something gripping like trying to buy some stockings and musing on how soon Londoners will have to go without. And people talk about the plot far more than they actually do things to advance the plot.
The overall feeling of reading the book is one of wading through treacle. Yet, there are moments that make the pages upon pages of filler worth it: the more visceral and harrowing account of the Blitz than we are used to in modern depictions, the solid and intriguing cast of supporting characters, and the overall mystery behind the closure of the time drops (the portals leading back to 2060). For all that it seems to take forever to get there, Willis does at least make the book's basic premise and story interesting, interesting enough that you may be inspired to read on (or at least look up the plot summary on Wikipedia, which may be less rewarding but also considerably less frustrating).
Blackout (***) is a book with enormous problems that almost sink it completely, but the author battles back into the 'worthwhile' category with impressive period research and some genuinely interesting ideas. But for many readers, the bland lead characters, tweeness of the futuristic setting and immense amounts of filler may prove too much of an obstacle. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on 10 July 2011
I found this book really disappointing. It had a promising high-concept premise and has been praised by some reviewers but it is so badly written in terms of character and plot that I found it hard to follow. The characters all seem the same and they just bumble around having the most trivial of adventures. The writer has obviously done a lot of research but seems unable to use it as believable background so it ends up sticking out in awkward ways. Its like going on a guided tour of a WWII museum with an over-rehearsed librarian.
There's also a strange moral dilemma at the heart of the book. The story seems to want to celebrate the lives of "ordinary" men and women who were so important in the war but at the same time there is the idea that only certain events are important as "history" and these cannot be changed by time travelers. So most of what these people do ends up being seen as irrelevant and the telling of their stories, so obviously based on research, end up seeming patronizing. Who, or what, is deciding what constitutes proper "history" that must be protected from being changed by time travelers is an interesting question that is completely ignored by this book.
I sense the book has its heart in the right place but it has neither a captivating story nor a logical premise to make it worthwhile reading. I hope the second book tackles some of these problems and maybe does something interesting with the story but I won't be reading it to find out.
27 of 31 people found the following review helpful
on 6 February 2011
I really did want to love it - Connie Willis is a talented writer with a splendid imagination. However, the book(s) is/are full of howlers - Mary is told to get stretchers from Edgware and two inches down the page refers to the bandages she has to get. Has the publisher actually got an editor?
Worse, though, are all the little details - the Underground lines which didn't exist, the use of Americans terms ( a "candy butcher" on a train from Warwickshire to London in 1940?), the sloppy use of American language (June fourth) alternating with British terms, the characters referring to "V-1" bombs - how did they know they were the first when they didn't know there would be V-2s? That's right - they didn't.
It's depressing to see reviews quoted as praising her superb accuracy, because it just isn't there. I don't really understand why she sets books in England - why must time-travellers go from Oxford in 2060 rather than, say, Harvard? She would save herself - and poor British readers - so much trouble.
I like the characters. The concept is intriguing, and I don't object to the leisurely pace. But I find myself thrown out of the story so often it's uncomfortable to read. A fanfic author would get a friend to "Brit-pick" a story in which a British setting is important. I so wish Ms Willis had done the same.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 2 January 2014
What a terribly long and pointless novel this is. For the first three chapters, I found myself wondering if there had been a prequel which I should have read prior to Blackout in order for it to make sense, but sadly not. It is stuffed full of jargon terms which the author has invented to describe the time travel process, but most of them never get explained and you have to try to work out what she's talking about from the context. But then on the other hand there are pages and pages of exposition in which characters just go from place to place having nearly identical conversations with each other, and trying to arrange paperwork, and expressing their frustration with the changes to their schedules. Even though they're talking about freaking time travel, it's still like listening in on a prolonged whinge amongst a group of office workers complaining about the fact that HR messed up their pensions.
I also can't understand why an American author would set a story like this in a country that she obviously doesn't know - she either needed to do a lot more research, or just set the 2060 parts in America and have done with it.
I don't care nearly enough what happens to the characters to seek out the sequel, so that's that. It's sad to see such an interesting premise being squandered on bad writing and dull storylines.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on 15 June 2013
I bought this as I thought Hugo and Nebula Awards equal rip roaring science fiction. Never having read Connie Willis before, it was a punt in the dark. A mistaken punt. I got a World War 2 observational novel with a superfluous time travel pretext that added zero. It seemed highly detailed but some really stupid and obvious factual errors show very sloppy fact checking. Nelson's Monument in London. You mean Nelson's Column. Nelson's Monument is in Edinburgh. Nelson holding his hat - check the bloody photo, it's on Wikipedia. The 'at is on 'is bleedin' 'ead. Quote from Queen Mary that came from Queen Elizabeth (mother of Elizabeth II). What the heck is a train butcher. Turns out they sold stuff on trains. In the USA not England. Tokens to access the London Underground? Nope, never. 5 minutes on the Internet tells you there were no automatic barriers until at least 20 years later. The Notions Department? What? Chiefly US and Canadian English for Haberdashery it seems.
If you are not going to bother with minor stuff like facts and words then do some whopping big changes to create an obvious alternate history novel that is proper sci-fi and you can get away with the wrong landmark, Queen, and the stuff others have picked up on. You can also get away with a Year 2060 where it seems no-one has invented the mobile (cell in American-speak) phone, text messaging, the Internet or email, and Oxford sounds like it might have been pre-1960. This isn't alternate history, just plain wrong history.
Inflation calculators are easy to find online so there is no excuse for a plain black skirt supposedly costing the equivalent today of £275, over $400, a pair of stockings inflated by 400% to £60, $90, and a weeks double bed and board being around the same price as the stockings with a single room being less than 1 leg's worth. For goodness sakes, basic stuff to look back a few pages to check for inconsistencies. I only bothered to check because I remembered the bed and board price.
Saltram. Amidst all the real places we have a fictional town. There is a real Saltram but it is an historic estate 250 miles away. Makes no sense. This is also a town with apparently no transport, 30 miles from anywhere, yet has 2 postal deliveries a day so how do letters get in and out?
There were other inconsistencies that caused me confusion until I remembered not to expect consistency and moved on. One character who has never learned to drive gets in a vintage car and off he goes wishing he'd taken some lessons. How long did it take you to coordinate clutch and gear lever? A bit more than 5 minutes I'd say even with an instructor. Did you know that Dunkirk is on the other side of the Atlantic to Dover. That was one hell of an evacuation.
I struggled with this complete tripe of a novel that is neither compelling sci-fi nor accurate on the historical facts that are critical to a novel about wartime London and England involving historians trying to observe events as they unfolded. Perhaps because my own childhood was dominated by the war stories of my parents, who were evacuees, and grandparents who lived and worked through the Blitz, I actually find the lack of proper research on content clearly intended for the reader to take as factual, offensive. I think a decent author of this genre should either put the work in or do alternate history in an obvious way and it may have worked. Or better still, as an American author, choose an American subject you can't botch.
I would not recommend this book, especially to British readers with some personal connection to the era, events, places and landmarks being described. It will irritate the hell out of you. For non-Brits or younger readers, take the whole thing as fiction and don't be fooled into thinking Ms Willis has done her homework thoroughly or properly.
I did get to the end but only due to curiosity about how may more pieces of misinformation might be passed off as factual. Masochism basically. At least I knew this was half a book in advance and bought the second tranche at the same time. Stupidly. Half a very long book that is 1/3rd story and 2/3rds interminable padding. Some books bore me but this is the first book ever that has made me angry as well as bored. I can see why other people are fuming about where the book ended. Abruptly on the closest Willis gets to a cliffhanger. With a notice saying you've got to wait and buy another book to find out what happens. Disgusting tactic to sell a second book. No sympathy for Ms Willis' long suffering secretary in the acknowledgements; at least she got paid to suffer.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 27 January 2012
As my teachers sometimes said at school! An interesting premise, although I personally doubt that if time travel had become the frequent possibility that Connie Willis presents by the mid 21st century, it wouldn't be left in the hands of a group of university historians to deal with as they like, but would be subject to tight government and likely military control; so few stars for that! However, the first half of the story moves along reasonably ok and is interesting; then for the next couple of hundred pages it gets bogged down and to be honest, rather boring. Instead of writing a sequel it would have been much better in my opinion to bring the ending into this novel and leave out so much of the characters agonising about what the hell is happening, and all the rather banal detail of their lives during the war. I expect I shall read 'All Clear' to find out what does happen, but I shall borrow it from the library and save my money. Oh for a good book!