Blackout and All Clear, by Connie Willis

blackoutallclearIt’s been quite a long time since I read a Connie Willis book, but several years ago I read her two previous time-travel novels, The Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog, and another of her books, Passage, which was not about time-travel but which kept coming to mind as I read Blackout and All ClearIn Passage, I was frequently frustrated by what appeared to be endless running around, failed attempts to send messages, people just missing each other and never connecting. But in the end, everything tied together and paid off so beautifully that it took my breath away.

Blackout and its sequel All Clear (you can’t really read the two separately; it’s one long book in two volumes) grow out of the same premise as The Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog: in the mid-twenty-first century (so, in, like forty years or so), time-travel technology has been perfected, and is used by historians at Oxford University to travel back to the past and observe important events in history. (Historians in 2060 can also get packages of information about the past downloaded directly into their brains, which to my mind explained one of the major criticisms I saw readers make of this book — that the characters, though historians, seem frequently unaware of basic facts about the Second World War. I’m just assuming that now that these implants are available, people have gotten lazy about memorizing any information that’s not specifically included in their downloads).

Three students — Polly, Eileen, and Michael — all travel back in time to observe various aspects of the Second World War. Polly, after an earlier trip to 1944/45 to observe the VE Day celebrations, goes back to 1940 to study Londoners’ reactions to the Blitz. Eileen is in 1940 too, but outside London, working undercover as a housemaid in a stately home while observing London children evacuated to the countryside. Meanwhile, Michael, posing as American journalist Mike Davies, is trying to get to Dover to observe the rescue of British soldiers from Dunkirk. But time travel is not running as smoothly as it used to, and Polly, Mike and Eileen all find themselves trapped in 1940, unable to get back to 2060 Oxford.

Most of the story is taken up with their frantic attempts to find a way back home, which is usually interesting though sometimes frustrating (how many missed Underground trains, or roads blocked by rubble, do we really want to read about), though it’s set against the background of such an interesting time and place that it’s still enjoyable to read. As for the payoff — it’s not as satisfying as in Passage: everything does tie together, but not in as neat a package as I’d hoped. At the end of a convoluted time-travel story like this, I like to feel, “Oh, that could never have worked out any other way!! It all had to happen like that!” While the end of All Clear satisfied me, it didn’t make me feel like everything that had gone before was inevitable or the puzzle pieces fit perfectly. I wanted that “A-ha!!” moment, and never quite got it.

These were the kind of books that I raced through quite quickly, engrossed throughout and eager for the conclusion. After reading it, I read a few reviews by people who didn’t like the book, and while some of the things other readers pointed out — such as Americanisms that US writer Willis slipped into the speech of her British characters — didn’t bother me because I didn’t notice them, I did agree with some of the other criticisms. Connie Willis certainly hasn’t written the perfect pair of time-travel books here, but I found them a very enjoyable read and I would recommend them to anyone who likes time travel.

 

 

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Walt, by Russell Wangersky

waltI read Walt very quickly — finished the book in less than a day, so it certainly kept the pages turning. The style is pure Russell Wangersky — beautiful writing, perceptive descriptions, but the language is always made to serve the plot and characters rather than the other way around. The main character is the titular Walt, a nondescript middle-aged guy who works as a janitor in a St John’s grocery store. I couldn’t decide if Walt’s first-person narrative voice always felt authentic for the character Walt is supposed to be, but it certainly was compelling. There are other voices here too — a police officer trying to solve the disappearances of several women, including Walt’s wife Mary, and a young women, Alisha, who believes someone is stalking her.

Someone is, and that someone is Walt. The device that lets us into Walt’s head, and lets him into the lives of Alisha and the other women he stalks, is the simple grocery list — torn-off scraps of paper people leave behind in their carts and on the supermarket floor. Walt collects and analyzes these, putting together mental pictures of the shoppers behind the lists, and sometimes, as in Alisha’s place, even taking it so far as to actually follow them home and watch their lives through lighted windows. Sometimes, Walt goes farther.

But how far? It’s explicit from early on in the story that Walt is a stalker, but what else is he? Is he a home invader? (Yes). Is he a rapist? (Maybe?) Is he a murderer? (Hmmmm…) As he’s the first-person narrator for most of the book and relates his own stories, this also raises the question of how unreliable a narrator Walt is. He doesn’t mind relating tales of peering through women’s windows or pawing through their underwear drawers, but he’s evasive about other specifics, like what happened to the hitchhiker he picked up, or where exactly Mary went when she left him.Is this Walt being evasive with us, or Russell Wangersky, or both? This book raises a lot of questions, and they won’t all be answered by the last page — which will frustrate some readers who came to this book because they saw it described somewhere as a “thriller.” If it’s a thriller, the thrill is of a very literary type, and at the end of the novel you still may not know whodunit, or at least whathedun.

A friend of mine had a stalker in college, and it was creepy to watch the escalation of this guy’s obsession. Some time later, I tried to write a story from a stalker’s point of view, making his actions not at all excusable, but justifiable within his own head. The story was a disaster — I read it to a writing class I was taking at the time, and people actually started laughing out loud because the idea of this guy trying to justify these actions was so ridiculous, no-one could take it seriously. So I know from experience that it’s very hard to do what Wangersky does here — take a person who does inexcusable things, and bring us into his perspective enough to show how he is able to excuse them to himself.

The genius of using the shopping lists as a device is that that kind of fascination with other people’s lives is something most of us can relate to. Just as I was reading Walt, I heard another Canadian writer, in an interview, talk about her penchant for picking up other people’s discarded shopping lists in stores and perusing them (she wasn’t discussing Wangersky’s book, either — the topic arose completely separately from that). If we haven’t done that with shopping lists, we’ve certainly eavesdropped on other people’s conversations in the coffee shop (maybe even incorporating them into our novels!). Most of us have looked curiously at an attractive or intriguing stranger and wondered who they were and what they were like. And the vast majority of us wouldn’t take that curiosity to the next step of following the person home, much less peering into their windows or breaking into their houses. But what Walt, the novel, does so well is to show us how Walt, the character moves from the kind of curiosity we find acceptable, through the invasion of privacy we know is clearly “over the line,” to actions far more serious … and how, in his mind, it all makes sense. While this book may not have given the reader quite as much information as many of us will want, I do admire Wangersky’s brilliant ability to get inside Walt’s psyche and make it seem real.

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Lamentation, by C.J. Sansom

lamentationLamentation is another installment in the excellent historical mystery series about Matthew Shardlake, a London lawyer who finds himself unwillingly drawn into the webs of intrigue that encircle the court of Henry VIII. The setting for this latest Shardlake novel is the final months of Henry’s reign. The ailing king’s ever-shifting religious views have swung more to the Catholic side, sparking fears among Protestant reformers that he might even be willing to consider bringing England back under the wing of the Roman church. In this suspicious atmosphere, even Henry’s last queen, the deeply Protestant Katherine Parr, is under suspicion, and Shardlake’s respect for the queen brings him back into the dangerous world of court.

The premise of the novel is that a manuscript called Lamentations of a Sinner — a Protestant religious tract that Katherine Parr actually did write, though it was not published until after Henry’s death — has gone missing, and those close to the queen suspect it may have been stolen by enemies who plan to discredit her. As previous queens Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard could have testified if they still had heads to testify with, being “discredited” as one of Henry’s wives meant almost certain death, so the stakes are high as Shardlake sets out to find the missing manuscript, and uncovers a murder that spawns several more murders. This is one of the best historical mystery series I’ve ever read, and if you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you’ll like.

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Thinking About It Only Makes It Worse, by David Mitchell

thinkingaboutitThis book is a collection of comedian David Mitchell’s newspaper columns, and range widely across topics, giving the reader his opinions on politics, advertising, television, and many other topics. As a collection of columns, it lacks the cohesiveness and storyline of his memoir Back Story, which I loved, and is kind of hit-or-miss. Some columns don’t work well if you’re not familiar with UK politics or pop culture. The very first piece in the book, about the need some people in society have to constantly up the stakes of offending and being offended, may in itself be offensive (in the over-the-top examples it gives) to many readers. But despite some humour that didn’t work for me, I had many laugh-out-loud moments at David Mitchell’s collection. Many of the things that offend him also offend me, and he has a gift for turning a phrase in a hilarious way. He continues to be one of my favourite comedians, and I enjoyed this book.

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Arcanum, by Simon Morden

arcanumArcanum is a vast, sweeping fantasy novel with a brilliant premise. It reads, in part, like alternative history — it’s set in recognizable places in Europe, in the early medieval period — but in this version of history, the barbarians overthrew Rome because they had magic on their side. For hundreds of years, magic has made the principality of Carinthia function smoothly, its princes little more than ceremonial figureheads while a powerful cabal of magicians keeps would-be enemies at bay.

Then, suddenly, the magic stops working. This, to me, was the most interesting and chilling part of the novel, and it’s an obvious but not heavy-handed parallel to the possibility our own society faces of running out of fossil fuels: what happens when the magical power that everyone relies upon to run almost everything stops working? And what if there’s a way to bring it back, but the cost is horrifyingly high?

It’s intriguing to watch this scenario unfold and see how the many viewpoint characters react to the new challenges. These characters include the orphaned young prince of Carinthia, a hardworking librarian who realizes that books might hold the secrets to rebuilding a non-magical society, and a young Jewish woman who finds herself thrust, Esther-like, into a position of unexpected power (Arcanum appears to explore a stratum of history where Jews remain an oppressed minority, as they did within the Roman Empire, but Christianity never seems to have happened at all).

The story continued beyond the point at which I expected it would have been a good place to end, but it continued to hold my attention, and it was a good read throughout. I’d recommend it to anyone who likes epic fantasy.

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Tell, by Frances Itani

tell-coverThis novel is a sort-of sequel to Itani’s Deafening, which I didn’t read though I heard a lot about it. It’s not really a sequel, in the sense that Tell includes some of the same characters, but you don’t have to have read Deafening to appreciate Tell.  And I did appreciate it, but I didn’t find it as absorbing as I had hoped, and it’s hard to put my finger on why. It’s the sort of book I should love, because it includes so many of the things that interested me, and it is beautifully written.

Tell is set in a small Ontario town in the aftermath of the first world war. It focuses on a young war vet who has been left scarred both internally and externally by his war experiences, as well as several of the people around him. It’s exactly the kind of quiet, character-driven story I usually enjoy, and it is beautifully written, but it annoyed me that it took quite awhile for anything to happen, and when it did, the most interesting part of the story occurred off-stage, as it were, to be picked up on later in an epilogue. I would never discourage anyone from reading Tell, because it is a very well-written book, but it didn’t grip me as much as I’d hoped it would.

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Yes Please, by Amy Poehler

yespleaseMost people tend to mention Amy Poehler in the same breath as Tina Fey, and I’m here to tell you that Amy Poehler’s memoir Yes Please is every bit as funny and insightful as Fey’s Bossypants. It’s a great memoir about the comedy business, and specifically about a woman’s path through that business. It’s always entertaining, it’s fresh and quirky, and Poehler is loudly and unabashedly feminist. She’s also discreet about her divorce from Will Arnett, which I think is tasteful in this day and age. Her language is going to be a little raw in a few places for some people, but it’s a great read, and if you’re a fan of Poehler’s comedy, it’s a must-read.

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