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Archive for the ‘Connie Willis’ Category

crosstalkWhen I picked up Crosstalk by Connie Willis from the library last week, it was a leap of faith.  Willis is an author who I always think I should like but, in reality, I find most of her books incredibly frustrating.  Of the five I’d read, the only one I’d really loved was Doomsday Book and, to be fair, I really, really do love it and spend a significant portion of my time trying to push it on unsuspecting acquaintances.  My love for it almost makes up for how disappointing I’ve found most of her other books.  I’m still disgusted with the lazy mediocrity of Blackout and All Clear, books that felt so promising and delivered absolutely nothing.

But I remain hopeful. And this time I am happy to say that my optimism paid off: Crosstalk was delightful.

Set in the near future, we meet our heroine Briddey Flannigan just after her boyfriend of only a few weeks has proposed they undergo the very trendy EED procedure, which purportedly allows couples to feel one another’s emotions and use this as the basis for building deeper, more emotionally transparent relationships.  It is, her gushing coworkers remind her, a very big and very romantic gesture.  Only C.B., the office tech geek and communications skeptic, seems to think it is a bad idea.

All too quickly, Briddey finds herself undergoing the procedure.  But when she wakes up, it is not Trent, her boyfriend, whose emotions she can sense.  It’s C.B.  And more than that, she finds they have a telepathic link.  But soon it’s not just C.B.’s voice she hears in her head and, rather than a blessing, the ability to hear other people’s thoughts quickly comes to seem like a curse that could drive her mad.

There are a few trademark weaknesses in the story.  It is overlong, like many of Willis’ books.  Some of the plot twists are so clearly flagged beforehand that you almost become impatient waiting for the reveal.  And it gets a little too wrapped up towards the end in the imaginary structures created by each of the telepaths (there is in fact no need to invite a fellow telepath over to explore your imaginary garden when you are both physically standing in the same room.  Just saying).

But those are minor quibbles.  The most important thing about Crosstalk is that it is gloriously fun.  Fast-paced and full of delightful banter, it is a wonderful romantic comedy wrapped in a sci-fi plot.  The best of all possible combinations.

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I loved Doomsday Book by Connie Willis and am so relieved to be able to say that.  After being amused but not impressed by To Say Nothing of the Dog and incredibly disappointed by Blackout and All Clear, I was ready to write Willis off completely.  But not before reading Doomsday Book, which has been on my TBR list since I was fourteen.  That is twelve years.  I may have taken my time to get to it but it was worth the wait.

All Kivrin Engle wants to do is visit the Middle Ages.  In 2054, Oxford is sending historians back in time to all sorts of events and periods to observe history first hand.  But not the 14th Century, the period Kivrin is so anxious to visit.  Her tutor, James Dunsworthy, reminds her over and over of all the reason it is unsafe – widespread disease, lawlessness, etc – and how difficult it would be for a 21st Century woman to blend in – she would need to grow her hair, to be familiar with religious customs, and understand contemporary farming practices, among other things – but none of it persuades Kivrin.  She devotes herself to studying everything she could possibly need to know, gets all her medical inoculations, and prepares to go back to 1320 in a drop run by the – in Professor Dunsworthy’s opinion – criminally irresponsible Medieval department.  Dunsworthy may be plagued with worries but Kivrin, with the energy and optimism of youth, can’t wait to begin her long-anticipated adventure.

But something goes very wrong.  The technician who set the drop coordinates, Badri Chaudhuri, is able to tell Professor Dunsworthy that much before falling deathly ill.  And then others begin to get sick, one after the other, and it is not long before all of Oxford is under quarantine with everyone trying to figure out what the illness is and where it came from while Professor Dunsworthy goes half-mad trying to figure out what went wrong with Kivrin’s drop.

All of Kivrin’s preparations, her carefully prepared backstory about being robbed on the road, prove useless once she is dropped in the 14th Century.  By the time she passes through the net, she is delirious, struck down by the same illness devastating modern-day Oxford.  She awakes to find herself in the household of Lady Eliwys, whose reasons for being in this remote house outside Oxford with her two daughters while her husband and sons are back in Bath it takes Kivrin far too long to piece together. After she is fully recovered and has befriended both of Lady Eliwys’s daughters (five year old Agnes and twelve year old Rosamund) as well as the local priest, Father Roche, Kivrin begins to notice the inconsistencies between her studies of the period and what she is witnessing.  Some are scholarship issues, sources having been few and inconsistent, but she eventually realises that something went seriously, disastrously wrong with her drop.  She is in the wrong year: it is 1348, not 1320.  The year the plague arrived in England.

As two mysterious and deadly diseases progress in both time periods, Professor Dunsworthy struggles to find out what happened to Kivrin and to reach her while Kivrin, inoculated against the plague, fights to save those around her from the disease that killed half of Europe, knowing that by staying to nurse them she has missed the net’s opening and her only chance to return to her own time.

This book got to me in a way that, based on my previous frustrating experiences with Willis, I would never have expected.  Certain sections gave me chills and I found myself in tears more than once.  Kivrin’s experiences of loss are more detailed and numerous than what Dunsworthy encounters in the 21st Century but somehow it was his sections that upset me the most.  Kivrin is equally helpless but at least she knows that those she loves in her own time are safe (even though the reader knows they aren’t).  Dunsworthy has no such comfort.  He is losing friends on a daily basis and knows that a student he loves is in danger, though, with Badri sick, he spends most of the novel not knowing what exactly that danger may be.  He lives in fear that she is sick and helpless, feeling abandoned and scared, lost to them forever.  Kivrin’s logs – her verbal recordings of her experiences – are all addressed to Dunsworthy and his thoughts are mostly of her; it is a very intimate look at their close relationship and it was the moments when Kivrin spoke directly to Dunsworthy, certain that she would die without ever returning home but wanting to make him understand that she regretted nothing, that touched me the most:

I don’t want you to blame yourself for what happened.  I know you would have come to get me if you could, but I couldn’t have gone anyway, not with Agnes ill.

I wanted to come, and if I hadn’t, they would have been all alone, and nobody would have ever known how frightened and brave and irreplaceable they were.

I loved every single page.

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It is my sad duty to inform everyone that I am officially not a Connie Willis fan, a revelation that is quite a disappointment to me.  After years of hearing how great her books were and of being intrigued by her time-travelling historians I finally started reading them, beginning earlier this year with To Say Nothing of the Dog and continuing on earlier this month with Blackout and All Clear, her two-volume World War II saga published last year.  If they were simply bad I think I would have an easier time reviewing them but there’s nothing glaringly awful in them.  The books are competently if unexcitingly written with characters who tend towards the obnoxious (being all-knowing historians who like to frequently – far too frequently – reference their detailed knowledge of wartime England) but inoffensive, with plots that seem promising but which never deliver.  More than anything, Willis’ books frustrate me: there is so much there, so many ideas that could progress in so many interesting ways, and yet she never quite elevates her material to where it needs to go. 

Of the two books (Blackout and All Clear), I far preferred Blackout.  The writing and plotting is no better or worse than All Clear but it is more exciting to read.  When I finished it, I at least had the hope that Willis would concoct an unexpected conclusion, that she would develop the characters, that something wonderful would happen.  I could sit there after finishing the last page with my mind racing through all the possibilities, hoping beyond hope that, like Willis’ adored Agatha Christie (and yes, even Agatha Christie references get tiring after the first half dozen or so), she was planning to masterfully steer the story in a novel direction that would amaze and reward her readers. 

Yeah.  Not so much.

All Clear was hugely disappointing.  I stayed up on midnight on Tuesday to finish reading it but, I have to say, it was not a worthwhile sacrifice.  I kept willing it to get better, to do something, anything, to surprise me but it never did.  I want Willis to be a more skilled writer than she is, I want her to be sparkling where she is dull, succinct where she is verbose.  She rambles on and on, seemingly determined to beat the reader into boredom with repetitive allusions to the works of Shakespeare and Agatha Christie, and is, in short, in need of a strict editor. 

The fates of the three main characters are exactly what you could have predicted them to be half way (perhaps even earlier than that) through the first book.  Satisfactory enough, I suppose, but still disappointing.  And since you’re never really in doubt that this is how things will end, the historians’ angst over their predicament and their anxiety over how they’ve impacted the contemps (‘contemporaries’ though if you add a ‘t’ in there it gives a pretty accurate idea of how the historians sometimes condescend to their new friends and work mates) seems tiresome rather than tense. 

To give credit where credit is due, Willis does do a good job of evoking the spirit and sense of London during the Blitz.  It might not be a particularly nuanced portrayal – everyone is public-minded and willing to do their bit – but it is historically detailed, an interesting fictional accompaniment to Juliet Gardiner’s fabulous history of those terrifying months. 

Overall, the story is muddled with too many storylines and too many characters, going into repetitive detail over things that mattered not at all or at least not enough to warrant so much explanation.  This tendency of Willis’ to treat her readers like idiots is not particularly winsome.  How many times do we need to have certain facts hammered into our brains?  How many pointless pages could have been saved if she had pared down the excruciatingly detailed sections detailing the covert activities of ‘Ernest’?  (Do not get me started on the pointlessness of referring to him as Ernest, when it is ridiculously clear from the very beginning exactly who he is – same goes for the ‘Mary’ sections).  Much like the books themselves, these passages seem to have been intended as cleverly intriguing but were instead frustratingly obvious.  But oh, what this tale could have been in the hands of writer with more skill and artistry!  Even after this disappointment, I’m still half in love with the concept at the center of it: of three time-travellers, stranded in wartime Britain with no way of knowing whether or not they’ll ever make it home.

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A bit of a catch-up/catch-all post today just to tidy up some of the odds and ends that have accumulated over the last month, books that I enjoyed but haven’t really been able to gather the energy to review at length.  So, here we are: 

Eating India by Chitrita Banerji
I never get tired of reading about India.  Histories, memoirs, novels, cookbooks…anything that educates me about this fascinating country I will try.  Here, Banerji, a Bengali-born food writer who now lives in the States, takes the reader on a culinary journey of India, introducing the specialties of each region as well as the customs and cultural influences that have shaped the gastronomic traditions of the areas.  None of the previous books I’ve read on this topic have ever gone into as much detail as Banerji did on the Portuguese influence, which was by far the most fascinating bit of the book for me.  Overall, I found it quite interesting but neither personal nor descriptive enough to be all that memorable. 

Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick
I can’t lie; this was a rather depressing read.  Very informative, absolutely, but super depressing.  Demick focuses on fifteen years in the lives of six North Koreans, all of whom eventually defected to South Korea.  This period saw the collapse of the Soviet Union (and the disappearance of the aid Soviet countries had been sending North Korea), the transition in leadership from Kim Il-sung to Kim Jong-Il, China’s shift towards capitalism, and, most importantly, the famine that plagued the country throughout the 1990s, killing an estimated two million people.  I never really connected with any of the people profiled.  What kept me reading was my interest in learning so much about such a secretive country and how quickly it went from being a Communist success story to a nation without electricity or running water: as Demick describes it “…North Korea is not an undeveloped country; it is a country that has fallen out of the developed world.”  Well-worth reading. 

Free for All by Don Borchert
Who doesn’t love reading about librarians?  This was certainly a light, fun read after the dismal prospect of life in North Korea!  As a devoted library user I’m always interested to hear more from the librarians’ perspective.  What they do in a normal day, what they think of the various users, etc.  From Borchert’s tale, I’m rather impressed by how frequently they have to interact with the police (though, given the number of times I’ve seen my own librarians call the cops, I don’t suppose I should be hugely surprised).  All in all, a pleasant read, amusing but not laugh out loud funny, an excellent afternoon’s distraction – just the sort of thing to check out from the library rather than purchase.   

To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis
My first Connie Willis and such fun!  Despite a rather dizzying beginning that felt more Fforde-like that Jasper Fforde’s own works, this was a genuinely pleasurable read.  It did not quite live up to all the praise that had been heaped upon it but it was a fun day’s entertainment and escape.  While I love time travel novels they can get overly clever in their mysteries, as I think happened here.  Too many different issues all intersected far too quickly and the conclusion felt a bit rushed and muddled.  Comprehensible, yes, but not as enjoyable as the rest of the novel.  I did adore the many mentions of Golden Age mystery novels though, particularly the repeated allusions to my favourite Gaudy Night.

Eucalyptus by Murray Bail
My attempt to expand my knowledge of Australian literature began with this strange novel, the story of a father who promises his beautiful daughter Ellen to the first man to name all of the hundreds of species of eucalypts on his property.  It’s a strange, dream-like novel that ably displays the art of story telling though perhaps focuses too much on the art of telling at the expense of the story itself.  Everything in this modern-day fairy tale moves slowly, achingly so, only increasing the tension felt first by the reader and then, as she comes to understand the danger, Ellen herself.  It’s a very strange but absorbing novel with a rhythm and style completely its own.

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