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Blackout Paperback – September 14, 2010
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"Rebound" by Kwame Alexander
Don't miss best-selling author Kwame Alexander's "Rebound," a new companion novel to his Newbery Award-winner, "The Crossover,"" illustrated with striking graphic novel panels. Pre-order today
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Oxford in 2060 is a chaotic place, with scores of time-traveling historians being sent into the past. Michael Davies is prepping to go to Pearl Harbor. Merope Ward is coping with a bunch of bratty 1940 evacuees and trying to talk her thesis adviser into letting her go to VE-Day. Polly Churchill’s next assignment will be as a shopgirl in the middle of London’s Blitz. But now the time-travel lab is suddenly canceling assignments and switching around everyone’s schedules. And when Michael, Merope, and Polly finally get to World War II, things just get worse. For there they face air raids, blackouts, and dive-bombing Stukasâto say nothing of a growing feeling that not only their assignments but the war and history itself are spiraling out of control. Because suddenly the once-reliable mechanisms of time travel are showing significant glitches, and our heroes are beginning to question their most firmly held belief: that no historian can possibly change the past.
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I don't know how this book would appear to someone who has never read Connie Willis before. But to someone who has read all of Willis' solo writing, both novels and short stories, and some of her partnered books, it just appears tired. Willis covered the Blitz so movingly in her short stories "Fire Watch" and "Jack," and is capable of creating books that can make you cry ("Doomsday Book") or laugh ("To Say of the Dog" and "Bellwether"), but here manages to be neither moving nor amusing. There is such a host of characters at the beginning, that it's hard to keep them straight. Eventually, we figure out that we are getting the viewpoints of three main characters, historians Polly, Elaine and Mike, all time traveling to WWII England for first person experiences: Polly as a shop clerk in London during the Blitz, Elaine as a maid in the N. of England to observe child evacuees from London, and Mike to Dover to observe ships returning from the evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk. But the characters are poorly drawn, and we never get a feel for them. They are just people who know what's going to happen next, and worry incessantly about whether what they've done has changed history. It's hard to illustrate how tiresome this gets without writing spoilers -- suffice it to say that manic thoughts about "but if they'd done X, then that means that they would have missed Y, and then Z couldn't have happened..." etc. etc. from all three characters gets first boring, then downright annoying.
Then there's also Willis' blind spot about telecommunications technology, which has plagued her writing from the beginning, but without which characters would have no excuse for running frantically from one place to another just missing each other and unable to get messages to and from one another. The introductory action is supposed to take place in the year 2060, but not only do people have to run around looking for each other, at one point a character has to put down the receiver to see if another character can come to the phone. A RECEIVER?!?!? In 2060? At least in WWII England, the inability to connect makes some sense, but there's still this sense of everything being oddly frenetic and the characters acting illogically all the time. Not what you'd expect from historians, especially ones approved to go to such a dangerous place and time.
This book is also a major disappointment in how little we care for the "contemps". In "Doomsday Book," when bad things happened to the non-time travelling characters, it was heart-wrenching. Here, it's like "oh... the little girls you thought died in the bombing last night are okay? That's nice." The book is just too emotionally shallow for anything that happens to people to resonate.
And finally, there's the fact that other reviewers have noted, that this and the book's "continuation," "All Clear," which will be published in the fall, were written as one book, but the publisher decided to divide them into two books. So the book just ends, awkwardly, and with no sense of any kind of resolution. There's no cliff-hanger, no closing of one chapter and tantalizing beginning of another... it just ends.
I normally love Connie Willis, and this subject matter is clearly near and dear to her heart, so I was expecting so much more. It's entertaining, and a little bit informative, but it could have and should have been hugely moving and the publisher should have made Willis take out the filler and keep it as one book. As it is, I doubt too many people will come back for part 2.
BLACKOUT takes several time travelers (most notably Polly, Elaine, and Mike) from Oxford in 2060 back to WWII Britain. The Oxford time travelers are historians, there to bring back data for the historical archives, adding to knowledge in 2060. The science and mechanics of time travel theory tells us that it is impossible for these observers to change history. But...something has clearly gone wrong. At the end of their assignments, neither Polly, Elaine, or Mike can get back to 2060. Their "return drops" fail to open; they are all stuck in 1940. Now they must find each other, survive the London Blitz, and figure out a way home...if home still exists.
BLACKOUT is a wonderfully atmospheric novel. While I am more a fan of the time travel aspect than the historic aspect, I found myself transported to 1940's Britain. The horror and the emotions of what the British endured during WWII were very real - the sights, the sounds, the smells, the fear. Connie Willis provides vivid details full of depth and realism, creating a strong sense of WWII without bogging down the story, and reader Katherine Kellgren really transports the listener back to that time period. The plot moves along at a nice pace, and the reader uses memorable voices for each character. At first, while listening to this audiobook, it is a bit confusing (more than reading, I think) to figure out all the unusual names, who is who, and where we are in time and space, but everthing eventually all falls into place.
BLACKOUT is a lot of fun, really interesting, and even educational. I really enjoyed this book, and I learned a lot about the history of Dunkirk and the Blitz (and history has never been my strong suit!). My one frustration is that after three plus months of listening, BLACKOUT ends in a cliff hanger! AAAAHHHHHH, the agony. I immediately went online and purchased the sequel for my Kindle. Now it won't take me another 3 months to reach the conclusion of this story. Hopefully, it will only take about three days! Whew!