Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Doomsday Book

Doomsday BookDoomsday Book by Connie Willis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

3.5 stars

This is another time travel book from Connie Willis. It takes place, chronologically, before the events of Blackout/All Clear, with a couple of the same characters. Like those books, we switch back and forth between the 'present' (Oxford University in our future) and a time period in the past, in this case, the Middle Ages. As with Blackout/All Clear, the historic period depicted reads like historic fiction, with great care taken in depicting the life and society of that era. I didn't find this book quite as compelling as Blackout/All Clear, but it was also much less confusing, with only a single character in the past that we had to follow. Nevertheless, it was a good story, with a bit of a mystery of sorts, and interesting characters.

The historic portion of the book follows a female historian, Kivrin, who goes back to the middle ages to observe how people lived. In the 'present', Professor Dunworthy - the top historian - is opposed to sending her, because he doesn't think enough research has been done to ensure the 'drop' is safe. But the head of the department is off on holiday, and the professor left in charge okays the drop - in fact, he is in charge of it and dismisses Dunworthy's fears. So Kivrin goes, and when she arrives she is very sick, with a high fever, and cannot remember the location of the drop, for when it's time for her to go back.

Meanwhile, back in Oxford, there is a flu epidemic and the drop technician who sent Kivrin falls deathly ill, but not before he reaches Dunworthy to say only "Something's wrong." Dunworthy has to deal with his colleagues falling ill, housing a team of American bell ringers on holiday to England (who are quarantined along with the rest of Oxford), desperately trying to find his missing department head, and fretting over Kivrin.

Kivrin is dealing with her own issues, once she recovers from her own illness. It seems that other people are also falling ill, but they have different symptoms than what Kivrin had, and she struggles to come to grips with what is actually happening. And, she still has to figure out some way of finding the drop site, so she can return to her own present time.

One of Willis' fortes is her ability to weave humor throughout the book, even in the midst of tense situations. She does so perfectly in this book. There are several characters at Oxford that provide some much needed comic relief, including the bell ringers, and Dunworthy's secretary (who is massively concerned about the lack of supplies, especially 'lavatory paper.')

There is no real comic relief in Kivrin's part of the story, but there are sympathetic characters that we come to know and love. There are also some not so sympathetic characters. All are very believable. Again, Willis does a masterful job of capturing the living conditions of the era, as well as the language difficulties - people back then didn't speak English as we know it (read Chaucer in the original, and you'll see how incomprehensible it is!) The descriptions of the home and the village reinforces my belief that I'm glad I didn't live then! Dark, cold and smelly pretty much sums it up.

Fans of time travel stories will enjoy this, and even fans of historical fiction should find the Kivrin-based story enthralling.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good

Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good (Mitford Years, #10)Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good by Jan Karon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In this, the tenth book in the Mitford Series, we are back in Mitford, shortly after Fr. Tim & Cynthia return from their trip to Ireland (as related in In the Company of Others.) Tim is still trying to figure out how to be retired, Cynthia is working on a new book, and there are the usual struggles with the Barlowe kids. There is also, of course, the usual cast of colorful characters in the town of Mitford, with their own ups and downs. Reading one of these books is like a family reunion - there are the relatives you love, the ones you think are kind of quirky, and there are always those for whom 'drama' is a lifestyle. But they are all your family, and you wouldn't trade them for the world.

As usual for these books, there are several story arcs that weave their way through the narrative, some of them heartwarming and some of them heartbreaking. But the tone of the book is never depressing, even when dealing with some of the harder issues. There is a sense of 'everything will be all right' even when things don't work out. Since this is pretty much my philosophy in life, these books really resonate with me. And this one is no different. Despite the hard situations (Sammy, Hope's baby, Fr. Talbot), Tim & Cynthia face life with courage and hope. (No pun intended.)

The ending of this one makes it seem like the next book will be about Dooley and Lace, but there are still some loose threads that need to be addressed (Will Hope and her baby survive? Will Fr. Tim be able to publicly acknowledge his black half-brother?? Will Sammy ever fully come around?) which I really want to see wrapped up, so I hope we will still have more Fr. Tim books.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

A Fatal Grace

A Fatal Grace (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache #2)A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

3.5 stars

This is the second book in the Inspector Gamache series. (The first was Still Life.) Like the first, this one involves a murder in the quaint Quebecois village of Three Pines, and Inspector Gamache once again finds himself observing the villagers in order to find the killer. I love his style of investigation, which is to watch and listen. This makes the ambiance of the book quite delightful, as we are treated to many little vignettes of him interacting with the residents of Three Pines - often over food, so be prepared to be hungry while reading this!

As with the first book, I had quite a bit of the mystery solved before Gamache did, which is one reason I didn't give this 4 stars. The mystery of 'B KLM' and the bag lady was very obvious to me. But the real joy of reading this series is the wonderful characters that populate Three Pines, not so much the mystery to be solved. The people seem very realistic - not always likable and often with not the purest of motives. Each person is distinct, and has his or her own foibles.

Another carry-over from the first book is Gamache's team. Once again, Gamache brings on a rookie, to try to help him become a better investigator - this time it's a local officer. Thankfully, he turns out to be a better choice than the nasty Nichol (from the first book), who returns to the team (assigned by Gamache's boss) and does her usual bit of in-fighting and muddying up the investigation. Nichol brings a bit of an edge to the overall tone of the book - she's not likable and is quite underhanded. We also learn a bit more about why Gamache is not universally liked by his superiors, which made me like him even more.

But the real star of the book, like its predecessor, is the village of Three Pines. It's a storybook locale, especially during Christmas, which is when this book takes place. But, like its populace, it can also be quite unpredictable and even deadly, with terrible snowstorms and frigid temperatures. Ms. Penny keeps it from being too perfect, with her quirky characters and their all-to-real issues.

I will definitely be reading the rest of this series!

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Blackout/All Clear

All ClearAll Clear by Connie Willis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is also a review for Blackout, as the two books are really one long story. The end of the first isn't really even an ending - the story stops, and is immediately picked up where it left off in the second. Don't read Blackout unless you have a copy of this one at hand!!

These two books tell the story of several time traveling historians, from the year 2060, as they observe events in Britain during WWII. Each chapter follows a different time period and different characters - sometimes it's a single character, sometimes it's a group of them. (PAY ATTENTION AT THE BEGINNING OF BLACKOUT!!!! The first few chapters are kind of confusing, but lots of very important things are said and done - or not said and not done - which you have to know for the rest of both books.) The tension in the plot comes from both the circumstances the characters are in (the London Blitz, the evacuation at Dunkirk, driving an ambulance), and also the fact that there seems to be something going wrong with the whole mechanics of time travel. (I won't get into specifics to avoid spoilers.)

We end up following three main characters, Polly (observing the Blitz, driving an ambulance), Eileen (observing evacuated children in the north of England) and Mike (observing the evacuation at Dunkirk.) Each of these characters is fairly well-developed, with their own personalities and motivations. (Personally, I think Eileen deserves sainthood for not killing the Horrible Hodbins!) It can be a bit confusing, however, as the historians don't always use the same name in each time period. Again - pay attention.

As we observe each historian, we also get to observe the events in which they are embedded. This history is wonderfully researched and presented to the reader. I really felt as if I were there during the bombings! (In fact, at one point when I was reading outside, a prop-plane flew over the house, and my first thought was that it was the Germans!) These books would be perfect for anyone who wants to know what it was like living in England during WWII.

At times, I was a bit confused as to what was happening (I didn't pay close enough attention at the beginning), and the time travel sometimes made my brain hurt, trying to keep it all straight. And, I did feel as if the pacing was on 'full speed ahead' the entire time. Even the humorous bits with the Hodbins or the acting troupe all came during fairly stressful events, so there didn't seem to be any let up in tension or action. However, all that notwithstanding, these were two very enjoyable (and educational) books. Willis knows how to write!!