44 of 44 people found the following review helpful
on 24 March 2004
This book is a hoot! Time-travel romantic comedy, with literary allusions stirred in to taste. Most of the characters are stereotypes, but not badly-done, and I'm glad she's rationed the effusions of the mawkish Victorian maiden.
I could guess some but not all of the plot, and when I realised who the Victorian maiden was going to fall in love with—and why she had an aesthetic epiphany about the bishop's bird stump—I was hugging myself with delight as I saw the plot unreeling before me. In fact, like the ideal of a Golden Age mystery novel, it's very fair in putting out the clues, but for a lot of the time the reader is as bemused as the characters.
There are a succession of very Wodehouse-esque butlers who manage to be entertaining (in a dignified manner) throughout.
Animal-lovers will also enjoy this story; Willis has a light but accurate touch with both the dog and cat characters, and the reaction of the time-travelling protagonist to hearing his first purr is particularly nicely done.
There is only one thing that seriously annoys me about this book, which is the poor use of British English. It won't necessarily annoy the sort of Americans who aren't aficionados of British culture, but I'm not sure if they're the intended audience. Also, younger British people may well have watched enough American films and television that American turns of phrase come naturally to them. Any Brit of 30 or older, however, may be slightly jolted out of the willing-suspension-of-disbelief approximately once per page by the American usages (and let's face it, in this sort of fantasy-pastiche-comedy the w.s. of d. needs careful handling). I spent the first half of the book wondering if the protagonist was meant to be an American, then decided that the language was meant to be future-UK-English-more-influenced-by-American-than-at-present, and finally realised that she hadn't quite got it right when, in the Victorian setting, the peppery old Colonel, the credulous matron and the eccentric old Professor all use American turns of phrase. It's distracting because, in a time-travel story, anachronisms and social or verbal details are often part of the plot. She's done very well with a lot of it: verbal tics appropriate to the ex-military old gentleman, the Professor with a monomania, the poetic young gentleman and the mawkish maiden are all put in—which means it startles the reader when they all use 'gotten' and 'go [verb]' instead of 'go and [verb]'.
I don't think it's the business of the writer to Know Everything, of course, but it's sad to see a flaw like this getting in the way when a decent copy-editor could and should have fixed it—and God is in the details, as one of the characters remarks, and the writer should be aiming at affectionate-hommage rather than a theme-park version of British culture.
I'd give it five stars (not timeless-lit-classic but excellent-example-of-its-kind) if I wasn't so annoyed by the distracting language.
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on 12 March 2003
This book is good fun. I do not normally read science fiction but I enjoyed exploring some of the implications of time travel with Willis. It is a bit slow to get going and I nearly gave up a couple of times, but it is worth hanging in there as once it does get going it sweeps you on at a rollicking pace. I get the impression that Willis did some pretty extensive research into Victorian England, and on the whole it is convincing. At the same time I think some of the characters are stereotypical caricatures of the English as seen by Americans, but this is a humourous book so why not? Occasionally their language sounds more central USA than central England - such as Baine the butler using 'momentarily' to mean shortly, not the English usage of the word. Some of the antics of the animals are also a bit fanciful, but the story is probably more fun for it. On the whole a very enjoyable read that will certainly make me look out for more by Willis.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 18 May 2014
It turns out that if you want to write a thoughtful and deeply moving book about the philosophy of history, its importance in the affairs of mankind and the meaning of time and loss then the best way to do it is to write it in a style that blends equal parts of Jerome K Jerome, Kurt Vonnegut and P.G. Wodehouse. It's also important to throw in a little time travel and a Bishop's Bird Stump.
For quite a while, I thought I was reading a very good emulation of a Wodehouse novel - To Say Nothing of the Dog made me laugh the same way Wodehouse does (embarrassingly, uncontrollably) - but there are humane touches that lift it out of knockabout comedy and slowly draw you into the lives of the characters. This is where the time travel is handy. The characters from the future dropped into the middle of Victorian England give a perspective on the lives of the Victorians that Wodehouse never provided for his 20th century gadabouts. Slowly, one gets an inkling for what it might have been like to live back then.
The mechanics of the time travel aren't very important, which is a blessed relief. Sci-fi can get a bit tedious in the presence of time travel. One gets thrust into po-faced considerations of the paradoxes caused by the ability to kill one's own grandfather. The deal here seems to be that that kind of stuff isn't allowed. If one tries it on, the universe intervenes in ways that make one suspect that it might have a sense of humour. Indeed the whole notion of time travel gets a gentle ribbing with the paraphernalia of time travel being eerily reminiscent of the trappings of a Victorian séance. There is a séance, which, of course, unwinds amusingly, but it also underscores an interesting point: given the chance to meet your own grandfather back in the day, wouldn't you rather have a nice chat than shoot him?
Instead, time travel is a Heath Robinson engine that drives the magnificently daft mystery plot and, whilst the characters bimble around history with a little H, there are some interesting observations about History with a big one.
The mystery plot revolves around Lady Schrapnell’s obsession with creating in 21st Century Oxford a perfect reconstruction of Coventry Cathedral as it was on the eve of its destruction during the Second World War. Almost every piece is in place except for one: the Bishop’s Bird Stump. The Lady’s hapless minions are thrust backwards in time again and again to find the Stump, an item of almost zero historic consequence.
Through this seemingly tiny hole in history, we are led deep into the intricately tangled lives of a forgotten Victorian family and reminded quite clearly that History is far more than a picture perfect reconstruction of a single moment in time. We are also reminded that any History is necessarily built up from almost nothing. A single line in a Parish register is forced to stand in for a time, a place, a whole society. Here we are dealing clearly with fiction, but any History worth reading requires the same imaginative effort to breathe life into the facts and figures.
That sounds heavy, but it’s not. The skill of Connie Willis is that the whole skips lightly, effortlessly across deep waters. As two Oxbridge dons argue by the riverside about their theories of history and Darwin, we feel the brief shadow of the totalitarian nightmares of the twentieth century, then one don pushes the other in the water and we laugh.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 15 March 2012
"To Say Nothing of The Dog" by Connie Willis is a novel that was recommended to me last year after I read and enjoyed another of Willis' novels, "The Doomsday Book". However, as with many other books, I have never found the time to read it. So when I found out that I had to read a Hugo award winner as part of an online Sci-Fi Reader Challenge I jumped at the chance to read this novel.
The story itself is set in the same universe as "The Doomsday Book" although I wouldn't really call it a sequel, even if a few characters do show up again. The reader once again follows a group of time travelling historians from Oxford University as they investigate the past. The main protagonist is called Ned Henry and he has been involved in a project to rebuild pre-WWII Coventry Cathedral and in particular he has been tasked with trying to identify the missions "Bishop's Bird Stump". However, due to his many trips to the past he begins to suffer "time-lag" which is a form of severe disorientation and confusion. So that he can recover and avoid the project manager who doesn't believe in time-lag, he is sent to the rural countryside in Victorian times for a vacation. However, his time-lag affected behaviour and the time-line altering actions of another historian results in a rather comic and enjoyable adventure.
Whilst I have mentioned "The Doomsday Book" as being within the same universe it is important to note for anyone who has read it that the difference between it and "To Say Nothing of The Dog" is like the difference between night and day. Whilst "The Doomsday Book" was dark, sad and depressing at times, "To Say Nothing of The Dog" is funny, light and merry. It is a testament to Willis' ability that I have loved both books hugely and they are written superbly well despite the differences in style.
I found myself smiling and laughing multiple times as I followed the travails of the historians trying to deal with time-lag, the missing "Bishop's Bird Stump" and correct various issues within the time-line. Willis has weaved a very eclectic mix of amusing events and people that kept me thoroughly entertained. In addition, whilst events such as jumble sales in the 1940s and the antics of a goldfish eating cat in the 19th century can appear to be random and unrelated they actually all resolve into quite a clever and well thought out conclusion.
The novel isn't just farcical comedy however; there are some interesting elements towards the later half of the novel regarding paradox and time travel that should appeal to most science fiction fans. What impressed me the most however about these elements was the way in which Willis used her enjoyable and humorous story to make what could be quite a complex subject into something that most people should be able to follow and understand.
In summary, I can't really think of anything negative to say about the story. I found it funny, clever, entertaining and full of enough surprises to keep me hooked from start to finish. If you want to have a good laugh with the underlying seriousness of a well thought out time travel novel then you won't go wrong in picking this book up. Personally, I am going to make sure I go and read the remaining books Willis has written about her time travelling historians. Even if the style is different again, I have a lot of faith in her ability to entertain me.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 9 November 2010
Connie Willis has produced an intelligent, very entertaining time travel mystery story.
The book is set in a near future where time travel is possible but is used only by historians for research purposes. Her protagonists have been conscripted by the overbearing American wife of a peer into a project to recreate the Coventry Cathedral destroyed in the Blitz. When one of them inadvertently causes a potential interference with the timeline in the nineteenth century, they must try to restore the position, and identify what damage may have been done. Ultimately, thanks to causality, it is possible they will change the course of history and allow the Nazis to win WWII.
Ms Willis writes extremely well. She combines various literary styles, from Victorian comedies of manners, through Sherlock Holmes to Dorothy L Sayers. The title is, of course, a reference to Jerome K Jerome's "Three Men In A Boat", although that forms a very minor part in the book.
The book is deftly executed. The pace is maintained, the plot twists neat and introduced carefully and the characters engaging. In the best tradition of whodunnits, the reader gets to the plot points smugly ahead of the protagonists right up until the last one.
My only gripe is that the author is occasionally careless with detail, which detracts from the novel. The odd stylistic or social slip is understandable (She uses "school" to mean university - an Englishman in the 1860s asked his school would name his public school, not his college). However, there is one egregious one. On p.118 she refers to Pearl Harbor happening three weeks after the destruction of Coventry. In our reality, Pearl Harbor came a YEAR and three weeks after 14th November 1940. I expected this to be a key plot point, but it wasn't, just a mistake. A foolish one given her readership is likely spot it and be confused, as I was.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 26 July 1999
This is one of the most interesting literary mixes I've ever come across, all the more surprising as it appears in the form of a science-fiction time-travel book. The book itself is a mix of hard sci-fi, Victorian comedy of errors and manners, and cozy mystery. Literary homages (most notably to Three Men in a Boat) and references abound, including P.G. Wodehouse's Beeves books, Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, not to mention Tennyson's poetry and Herotodus (who are both quoted throughout). The story has to do with a project in 2057 to rebuild the Coventry Cathedral, and time-traveling historians sent back to study its contents prior to the bombing of 1940. The story is set in motion when one of the historians somehow brings a Victorian-era cat through the time-travel "net", contravening the natural laws governing time-travel. The heroes must then return the cat in order to correct any "anomalies", but this gets them enmeshed in a matchmaking fiasco with loads of fun and well-drawn archetypes of the era (the ditzy girl, the absentminded Oxford don, the seance-loving matron, and miscellaneous butlers). And of course, by the end, all mysteries are revealed, everyone is paired off, and everything neatly dovetails. Truly a wondrous feat of writing and imagination.
17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on 2 July 2004
In the 2040s, time traveller Ned Henry has been charged with the unenviable task of helping to recreate old Coventry Cathedral, which was destroyed in the Blitz. He has to search for a bizarre object called the Bishop's Bird Stump, an ornately carved font, which is vital to the recreation of the cathedral. Complications arise when a fellow time traveller, Verity Kindle returns from the Victorian era inadvertently bringing a cat with her (cats are extinct in the 2040s).Ned has to jump back to Victorian times to help her put things right before history is irretrievably altered. Things get even more complicated when a charming but exasperating young Victorian lady called Tossie becomes engaged to the wrong person, and Ned and Verity have to try and get her matched up with the right one. But who is the right one? This book has a very complex and ingenious plot, interesting characters, and lots of humour. Will you guess the identity of Mr C before it is revealed? utterly gripping from beginning to end. i dropped my copy of this book in the bath and ruined it, I had to order another one, but it was well worth it. And I wish I had a Bishop's Bird Stump!
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
This is the second novel by the author based around a time travel facility in Oxford in the mid twenty-first century. However, while Doomsday Book had a very strong historical element set during the Black Death, this had a rather ridiculous storyline set in the Victorian era and satirising Three Men in a Boat. I found the main characters mostly rather irritating with the exceptions of the dog Cyril (a lovely depiction) and the long suffering manservant Baine. The convolutions of the time distortions were extremely complicated and not really worth trying to follow as the whole thing revolved around events so inconsequential - why would the timestream choose such a ludicrously convoluted way of correcting an incongruity? The author's imagination is vivid and I kept turning the pages, but ultimately this was rather a disappointment.
15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
As Ned Henry is sent back to victorian times to right a wrong (one created by the people of the future), he is highly time-lagged. As the traits of the that time-lag include a tendency towards flowery speech and hearing impairment, it is felt that he will fit right in. At least there he will be able to recover from his all-too-many trips back into the past.
The nyiad of his heart Verity turns up there as well. Things could not have been better for good old Ned. But not so.
Connie Willis manages to enthrall her reader (ie myself) all the way through the book. This is not a high-action book with explosions and death on every page. Instead it manages to gently make fun of people in all eras. There is action and tension and that too is kept well within a gently comedic sphere.
I loved this book and have read it before. It was not lessened by a second reading, unlike too many of the other books that I have read.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 31 May 2009
WHAT A HOOT!
Having read so many time travel novels I approached this comedy caper with more than a little trepidation.
What FUN! ....What LARKS!
Time travelling between the 1940's and the 21st century, backwards and forwards, is enough to send you giddy.
And the explanations of time incongruities and slippages will have you signing up for the funny farm!
But, HEY, it was a very entertaining read and the 1940's chit chat will have you in stitches.
What's it all about, you ask?
Alright, it's about Coventry Cathedral and rescuing the Bishop's Bird Stump from the Nazi air raid and .....oh, just go and read it .....and titter .....