Blackout and All Clear really constitute a single book. Blackout leaves the reader without any resolution and All Clear has no back story (and hence makes no sense) without Blackout. Ms Willis, in the introduction to All Clear, says as much. However this review is only for All Clear.
Ms Willis seems to have had the goal of telling the story of the British civilian population during World War II and especially during the Blitz and to have used the characters in the book as the vehicle for doing so. In this she has succeeded brilliantly. Although I have read many books about World War II none have really told the story of the British civilians and how they coped with the violence and devastation of the war and especially what living through the Blitz was like. I have a much better idea of what people had to go through as part of their daily lives and what just getting through the day must have been like.
The main characters, however, seem like terribly flawed individuals. They are supposed to be professional historians but act as though they are continually on the edge of panic. At every step they make the wrong choices and assume the absolute worst about what is happening around them. During the hours of listening I wanted to just tell them to "get a grip" and stop acting so stupidly. I was going to title this review "Historians acting stupidly" or "These are professionals?", but the second half of All Clear, where Ms Willis began to put the pieces of the puzzle together, was so well done that I felt the book was rescued from a 3 star rating.
The narration was very well done with many characters having such distinctive voices that I could tell who was speaking without having to be told.
I would recommend this book with the caveat that the reader might want to listen to the two parts of the book separately. Together they are 41 1/2 hours and that was just too much of these characters for me to listen to at one time. Perhaps if I had separated the two parts of the book I would have had more patience with the characters. As it was I ended up having to stop listening to All Clear about half way through and read an entirely different book before I was able to go back to All Clear and finish it. Still, having said that, I must credit Ms Willis with enough misdirection to credit Agatha Christie (who makes a cameo) appearance in this book.
This is a joint review of Blackout and All Clear. They must be considered together as one long novel, as neither one can stand alone. Basically, the books are follow the same concept as "Doomsday Book" and 'To Say Nothing of the Dog", where in 2060 time travel exists, and Oxford University sends historians back in time to observe. Here, our historians are visiting various destinations in World War II, but mostly in London during the Blitz. The length allows the author to pull you deeply into the story and the setting, You really get a sense of what it must have been like to fall asleep in the shelter or the tube station at night listening to the bombs, and then surface in the morning, stop at home if you're lucky (and if your home was still standing) and hurry off to work despite the destruction in whatever neighborhood was hit the night before. I was moved by the story, and I've been drawn into learning more about the Blitz due to this novel. The characters are not perfect. Yes, they sometimes whine, or make foolish choices, or hide things from others that they should reveal. However, they are caught up in a terrifying situation and can be forgiven their mistakes. Connie Willis' time travelling setting needs to be your cup of tea. If you don't want to hear anything about time travel, this is not for you. There is also a "comedy of errors" aspect, involving misunderstanding, mistaken identity, just missing someone at a critical moment, or being delayed at an inconvenient time. It happens a lot, and some people find this repetition annoying. I find it amusing, at least the way Willis does it. For instance, they have time travel in 2060 but no cell phones, so in Oxford there's a lot of running around trying to find people who are running around trying to find other people. You also meet a lot of characters and you don't know where they fit in. You just have to lose yourself in the setting. For most of the second book, I could not put it down. Well worth the credits.
If you want a semi-documentary history of WWII London Blitz seen from the point of view of three fictional characters, please read this book.
IF you want a tightly paced, suspenseful novel full of sympathetic, engaging characters trapped in history (as in her previous Doomsday Book), do not read these books.
I loved the previous Oxford Time Travel Historian novels, and was strongly looking forward to the release of these two. I purchased them both before even reading the first one.
They fail miserably as stories. The characters, supposedly intelligent, highly trained time traveling historians, act like idiots with no common sense. The plot is meandering The point of view switches back and forth between characters and timelines and was completely confusing. Entire chapters could have been totally excised with no loss to the plot. She could easily have compacted both books into one. A fabulous, tightly woven, suspenseful novel would have resulted. THAT one I could see winning an award. I'm not sure where all the favorable reviews are coming from. I finished Blackout from sheer perseverance and reluctance to waste so many invested hours without reaching the end, plus I am an inveterate optimist. I could not summon the enthusiasm to read AllClear.
I've listened to a number of Connie Willis' books before and really enjoyed them. My experience with these two books was decidedly more mixed. Much was very enjoyable; however, I got sick of the interminable self-recriminations about whether one action or another had changed history. Also, one character or another would go haring off on some errand and immediately the others would wonder why he/she was late in returning despite the fact that all their experience told them that delays in travel in war disrupted England were business as usual. It also seems to me that time travelers would have standard strategies for making it easy for their retrieval teams to find them. Gawd! Don't we tell our kids to either stay put or go to some previously specified place if lost. These people would have made the task of finding them very difficult indeed.
I guess the main complaint is that the same two or three devices were used to excess. This is one book (or rather one pair of books -- they must be reviewed together as they aren't stand alone books) that lends itself to abridgement -- and I don't listen to or read abridged books! There are extremely tedious passages as they moan about whether or not they have changed history by some action forgetting, of course, that not acting can have ramifications, too.
Still Ms Willis paints a wonderful picture of war time England with only a few major historical mistakes.
I love listening and usually get in at least three hours a day. I like fiction, biographies and medical non-fiction.
I really liked the characters in this book. We came to know and care about many of the people stuck in the London blitz. There was a lot of excellent history, and I think the author did a fabulous job letting us experience the terror of constant bombing, the privation of constant rationing and the courage shown by much of the population.
The cutting back and forth between different centuries and different locations was a little harder to follow in an audiobook than in print.
What made me subtract a star from the overall score was the constant repetition of the same themes - "I'm stuck, no one can rescue me", "I may have changed history" and "I'm not going to tell my friends what's really going on because I don't want them to worry."
The six parts that make up the two books in this series were probably twice as long as they needed to be.
I'm no stranger to, or enemy of, extremely long books, but I do want the story to keep moving. The same thoughts kept running through the characters' heads, and it was tiresome to hear them over and over.
We also got to hear slightly humorous or sarcastic thoughts, almost never voiced, which was also annoying. One character might say, "That's a dangerous job" and another would think "Not as dangerous as rescuing prisoners from Dunkirk".
I wondered why the characters couldn't occasionally voice their thoughts. It also occurred to me that characters, like people, probably only think interesting thoughts a small percentage of the time. Listening to every boring thought that anyone might have in a day is almost torture.
Perhaps this review is more negative than I intend, but I like Connie Willis' work in general, and I liked the characters and theme of this book. If the redundant thoughts were eliminated, I think this would be a great read for lovers of history, sci-fi fans and those looking for an exciting listen.
Writer, Reader, Former Bookseller (RIP Borders)
I loved Doomsday Book. Loved it. One of my favorite books of all time.
I enjoyed Black Out.. mostly. Until it abruptly ended halfway through the story line (about the time I started getting bored) and told me to "tune in next week". So I did. Silly me.
All clear was boring from the first line until the point about four hours in when I said "enough!".
The characters are petty, unbelievable, and one dimensional. Their silly daily dramas aren't interesting enough to engage a sewing circle, and the main characters behave like school children. Their dilemmas and schemes are recycled over and over and over-- like from all the back in Doomsday Book. (How many drops have been obliterated or just misplaced... really?) And then they went on and on and on and on, and around and around and around....
The random second chapter where we skip to the end goes beyond foreshadowing to just plain spoiler, and was really just thrown in all slapdash like it was a horrible printing error that just stuck the end in the beginning.
The mythology fell off the rails back in Blackout and is only getting further into the mud in All Clear, in Doomsday, it worked b/c the mythology wasn't the point of the story. But in Blackout/All Clear it has become integral to the story, and now all of its unexplained, unrealistic, quasi-magical, dysfunctional quirks are in the spotlight.
Overall, it had less depth and attention to detail than a piece of flash fiction. Essentially, its an amazing historical account of an often glossed over experience, with some really annoying characters with no direction and even less of a clue getting in the way. Willis is typically a great writer, it just seems like she didn't care this time around, or got lost in research.
Sorry to Alf and Binny, they were the only ones I liked in the end, and would have liked to see what became of them.
I enjoyed hearing how things work out for our heroes and found the ending satisfying. And as with Blackout, the details of wartime London and environs make for interesting listening.
However, this book is easily 25% longer than it needs to be. The early and middle parts are filled with loooong passages in which our heroes agonize over the things they are keeping from one another. After a while, this made me nuts and I wanted to scream at them to stop lying or at least stop ruminating on these lies and just move on already.
I value intelligent stories with characters I can relate to. I can appreciate good prose, but a captivating plot is way more important.
I'm constantly surprised that I enjoy this series because it is so far departed from what I expected it to be, and what I would normally listen to.
Willis has created a unique historical fiction, that is only superficially sci-fi. At times this is a bit annoying, as a more interest in the mechanics of time travel would have made the plot much more interesting. As it is, this series remains 99% character driven.
These books were captivating enough, but not particularly memorable. I enjoyed the journey but will soon forget about it and will not come back to revisit it.
I ended up completely immersed in this book, despite at times being annoyed by its faults. Most of the criticisms others have made of this book are at least partially accurate and yet it manages to be a wonderful experience. Katherine Kellgren is a very accomplished narrator, and although once in a while her pronunciations were a little disconcerting, she differentiates the characters very well and her voice is lovely to listen to. This book has given me many happy hours.
I am a blind lawyer and aspiring writer, trying to read a little bit of everything but partial to sci-fi and military fiction.
After finishing the book, I had to look up the classification referenced in the title of the review. I won't spoil the scene from which it comes; but I think it applies to the book as well as the subject of the conversation. It is that conversation among others, towards the end of the book that leads me to rate All Clear and Blackout as 5s, regardless of their shortcomings. Given that Blackout isn't even a complete novel, this should say something to you.
I was a bit taken aback by the radiant praise heaped upon Ms. Willis's writing when I glanced over the publisher's summary while waiting for the book to download. I mean sure, I'd been enthralled enough by the characters and world of Blackout to forge on (I'd bought the book long ago and just had to download it) but seriously, "uplifting and devastating?" Well, regardless of whatever else I might have thought then, the acclaim is worth it. This book brings to life the struggles of ordinary people by contrasting them with very extraordinary observers trapped by a very different sort of peril than the blitz. The author also uses time travel as a means to depict the depth of love represented by truly selfless sacrifice in entirely amazing ways. It is one thing to give one's life in a spontaneous act, quite another to devote what might very well be the rest of your life engaged in mundane tasks seeking the rescue of a friend you might, and probably will, never see again. At the same time, along with the time travelers, the reader meets any number of people "doing their bit," by putting out fires, decoding German messages, driving ambulances, putting on silly shows, and raising other people's children. Many characters embody a spirit that is often ridiculed or exploited, and through the magic of Ms. Willis's words, bring out its power and beauty.
There are a great many scenes in which characters deliberate, perhaps overly much, on the unique pitfalls of their situation, but I think it's generally relevant to the story, despite its repetitiveness. I also think it unfair to the characters to dwell overly much on how often they worry about delayed arrivals, given the very uncertain dangers and the singular nature of the people involved, the only person who knows who you really are is going out into a city regularly beset by aerial bombardment on top of every conceivable "normal" hazard of urban life; I actually worried every time the characters separated.
I've come to think of the degree to which I miss the characters of a story as a measure of just how much I enjoyed it; I think I'll be carrying around memories of Polly and Merope's triumphs and tragedies with me for quite a long while.