Blackout by Connie Willis

WillisBlackoutWhy I Read It: Bubonicon is coming up and Connie Willis will be there. So I thought I should give her books a try – and I was not disappointed.

Where I Got It: The library.

Who I Recommend This To: Enjoy WWII stories? How about time travel? This is an excellent read if you have either interest.

Narrator: Katherine Kellgren

Publisher: Audible Frontiers (2010)

Length: 18 hours 48 minutes

Series: Book 1 All Clear series

Oxford University has been doing time travel for some time, providing the service to historians and students working on their degrees. Yes, it is hectic, getting all the right props and learning skills for the eras you will study, but well worth spending a few days to a few weeks in the actual times and places. Mr. Dunworthy runs his students ragged, and with his multiple demands nearly drives them to distraction. At the last minute, he rearranges Michael’s schedule to send him to Dunkirk, WWII first, when he has already gotten his American language implant to go to Pearl Harbor. Alas, now he must travel as an American reporter, Mike Davis. Polly Sebastien had the hardest time pulling everything together for her stay in London working as a shopgirl on Oxford Street during the Blitz. Meanwhile, Merope, studying under the name Eileen O’Reilly, has been in the English country side working as a servant in a large house tending to evacuated children. Each goes through a designated drop point with orders to check in periodically by going back through the drop point. If things don’t go according to plan, a retrieval team should come after them. Alas, things start to go awry with slippage – the drop point opening and depositing Polly a few days later than expected, and Mike a few days and a few miles of course. Oh well, it’s not unheard of. All should go well from there on out, right? Our unexpected heroes must deal with the unknowns of war, broken drop points, and the possibility that one of them altered the time line.

Let me start with a little confession: I don’t often read time travel books because 1) the time travel going on is usually for dramatic reasons; and/or 2) there is some utterly ridiculous method for the time travel itself. Connie Willis avoids both these pitfalls and makes time travel and exciting, fresh, and a rousing good story. In short, this is how time travel should be. She doesn’t get all caught up in the mechanics or theories of time travel, whether it is plausible or not. She doesn’t use some mystical rock or token to suddenly sweep our adventures up into another place and time. No. It is simply a tool used for years by researches, set in a future Oxford University. Our main characters set out to study small things, nuances of the WWII in England – evacuated children, the life of a shopgirl, the small heroes at Dover, female ambulance brigades, etc.

Some of my favorite characters were Alf and Binny Hodbin, two children that plagued Eileen in the countryside, often playing hookey from school, ‘collecting’ aluminum for the war effort by stealing cooking pans, and ‘practicing’ for a potential German invasion by leaving tacks at the start of the long driveway to the mansion. Quite charming, really. The Hodbins provided entertainment and drama, and were a challenging interaction for Eileen, and yet were still endearing.

Polly ends up working at Townsend Brothers shop by day and spending most nights in a small local shelter or one of the tube station shelters, instead of the boarding house where she rents a room. Over time, the small group of neighborhood folk she hangs with decide to form an acting troupe, complete with children and a dog.

Initially planning to go to Dover to witness unsung local heroes, Mike experiences the biggest slippage, placing him in the wrong place a few days ahead of schedule. Through a ridiculous set of circumstances, he ends up on a leaky tub captained by an aged lunatic who volunteers with the local ‘fleet’ to go to Dunkirk across the Chanel to rescue Allied troops. Of course, there are all sorts of things for Mike to be concerned about: the mined Chanel, enemy submarines, the seaworthiness of the vessel he’s in, fog, the knowledge of the captain, and of course enemy fire at Dunkirk. But he also has the added worry of Dunkirk being a time travel divergent point – basically a place he should not be just in case any action of his alters something that then changes the known time line.

So those three (Eileen, Polly, and Mike) are all researching WWII at about the same time on the time line. Meanwhile, we also get to meet Mary, who is studying a female ambulance brigade set a few years later and at the very start of the V1 and V2 rockets. We only get a few scenes with her, but I can see how she could fill a larger role in the sequel.

By now, you can tell that I was very taken with the characters. Well, I also loved the plot and the setting. Willis does a beautiful job of weaving in small historical tidbits all over the place, seamlessly integrating them with the story line. It was interesting and part of the plot, and when I finished the book, I felt like I had just lived through a  rather exciting WWII history course, I learned so much. And I will remember much of it because I was so attached to these characters that ‘lived’ through it. Connie Willis, you rock history!

The narrator was a great choice. Katherine Kellgren was able to do different accents and had a variety of male and female voices. I especially loved how she portrayed the Hodbins and Eileen’s perpetual gentle exasperation with them.

What I Liked: Everything; education without being dull; great characters; fascinating plot; precocious children; that distinct possibility that everything won’t turn out well.

What I Disliked: I have been staring at he screen for a good 2 minutes and can’t think of anything I disliked about this book. It was awesome.

What Others Think:

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6 thoughts on “Blackout by Connie Willis”

  1. Oh, good. I’m persuaded. I was charmed by her To Say Nothing of the Dog — same researchers, but a tone closer to The Importance of Being Ernest. Not everyone can use the same research to produce diffrerent flavors of entertainment. No wonder she was just made a Grand Master.

    1. I must live in a cave as I had not heard of Connie Willis until last year at Bubonicon. I am so glad I took the time to check out her work as it is very worthy.

  2. I loved To Say Nothing of the Dog and keep meaning to pick up her other books. Maybe a trip to the library is in order. I like the way she does time travel too, especially the educational aspect. I don’t need the reasons/explanations either, I just want to see when happens when they send people back in time. That’s when the fun begins!

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