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All Clear by Connie Willis - Helen's journal and online home
In which an old dog attempts to learn new tricks.
All Clear by Connie Willis
All Clear (All Clear, #2)All Clear by Connie Willis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this much more than Blackout, though really the two books are one long story, so I suppose ought to be judged as a whole, in which case my star rating for the pair is probably 3.75. By the way, if you're thinking of reading this, you need to bear in mind that there isn't even a properly formed cliffhanger ending to Blackout; it just stops, so you either need to have All Clear already to hand or easily available or you are likely to go, "Aaaaarrrrgh!!"

Anyway, either there weren't so many annoying little slips in this part, or I was so thoroughly immersed in the story that I happily galloped right past them. and "gallop" is definitely the operative word. The first half of All Clear pulls like a train. I found that I was reading faster and faster and fastnerandfasterandfaster. And then had to stop for a breather because I was gulping pages so fast I wasn't taking it in properly. Then I'd start again and I'd found myself accelerating once more. Once the climax passes, the pace slows and things finally being to resolve, not always happily, though the ending is satisfactory. It is a war, after all, not everyone is going to make it to the end alive. But there are no pointless and futile deaths solely to illustrate the pointlessness and futility of life. (One of my pet hates in fiction.)

I do think this book could have been usefully shortened by removing a lot of the characters' repetitious agonising over the possibility that they had altered history. There was enough genuine story there that it didn't need padding and readers didn't need as much rehashing of the plot as there was.

There are a lot of things I could take issue with generally regarding the time travel, from the usefulness of a single historian going back in time to become just a single eye witness without any way of recording what they are seeing (The characters don't even appear to take notes, so must be purely relying on memory. Not a good research technique at all!) to the way the administration of the time travel trip was handled in the Oxford of the book. There is no way a British university would allow students to go on a trip abroad without filling out all sorts of health and safety audits and consent forms, let alone send them off into a war zone in the past. In the chaos at the start of Blackout, everything seemed to be done very casually on word of mouth, which has never been the British way in official institutions where you can't even order a book without filling out an order form in triplicate. However, because they are enjoyable stories, I deal with all these issues by assuming that it is in fact an alternate history. That also neatly deals with the absence of mobile phones in a world that has tissue regeneration and any slips in the world building, like having a centigrade thermometer in the 1940s or one of Agatha Christie's best known novels being published in Britain under a different title.

The story did leave me feeling rather melancholy, but I think that was me rather than the book. It stirred a lot of memories. Not that I'm old enough to remember the war, I was born some years after, but it made me think about what my parents must have gone through, living with the uncertainty of not knowing whether Britain would survive or not, trying to cope with the transition to young adulthood in the midst of war. Also my mother was involved in Ultra. Not at Bletchly Park, she was one of the many young women who listened to the radio transmissions from German ships and transcribed them, gathering the raw data that went to the code breakers. Sadly she died before the secrecy on Ultra was lifted, so I never knew exactly what she did in the war. People genuinely never spoke about it, but when I was small she could sometimes be persuaded to listen to the radio on short wave and write down the Morse code. I just assumed everyone's mother could do that. :)

Overall though the thing I liked best about the book was that the characters just quietly did their bit, very much in the British wartime spirit. None of them were Heroes with a capital H, winning the war single-handed, Hollywood fashion. They didn't always do the right thing, but everyone muddled through in the end. Persistence paid off.

View all my reviews

Current Mood: calm calm

11 comments or Leave a comment
sartorias From: sartorias Date: July 3rd, 2011 01:43 pm (UTC) (Link)
That is so cool about your mom!
heleninwales From: heleninwales Date: July 3rd, 2011 02:46 pm (UTC) (Link)
Thanks. Her best friend from her wartime days is still alive, but as she lives in the farthest north of Scotland, I've only met her a couple of times. We still exchange Christmas cards though.
gillo From: gillo Date: July 3rd, 2011 02:51 pm (UTC) (Link)
I enjoyed the books, though I rather feel they could have been edited down to one volume to their betterment. The research slip-ups grated with me increasingly - how could contemporaries talk about "V-1" bombs when they couldn't have known there would be a V-2? And a "candy-butler" on a wartime train? I agree with you about the strange casualness of Oxford, too.

She has some very intriguing ideas but I wish she'd set it all in the US, except for time travel to the distant past.
cariadwen From: cariadwen Date: July 3rd, 2011 04:50 pm (UTC) (Link)
"a candy butler" that is such an alien phrase to a Brit. Does it mean someone who brings a refreshment trolley around?
heleninwales From: heleninwales Date: July 3rd, 2011 05:03 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think that's what she meant, but the phrase is totally alien to me.
muuranker From: muuranker Date: July 3rd, 2011 08:34 pm (UTC) (Link)
When she makes slips in post-now settings, it's fine, because my mind says 'ok, then we will speak more American' (on facebook just now, for example, I was told that 'doing the maths' dates me).

Why can't she get me (or someone like me) to beta? We did pull a couple of errors out of the first chapter of To Say Nothing of the Dog because she read it to an audience we happened to be in (in the US).

hairmonger From: hairmonger Date: July 3rd, 2011 09:04 pm (UTC) (Link)
Also to me, and I road a lot of US trains in my youth. I think she meant (or perhaps wrote, and someone edited it strangely) "candy-butcher," which was an old-fashioned phrase even in the forties (before I was born) but which I've come across in early twentieth century American novels. Never in real life, and according to my parents, only certain railroad companies had them at all.

Mary Anne in Kentucky
heleninwales From: heleninwales Date: July 5th, 2011 06:36 pm (UTC) (Link)
Thanks for the explanation. Actually, I just checked and Willis did write "candy butcher" (in Blackout. One advantage of reading the Kindle version is the search function. :)

gillo must have rationalised it/misremembered it as "candy butler".
heleninwales From: heleninwales Date: July 3rd, 2011 05:03 pm (UTC) (Link)
I agree that editing it down into one volume would have improved it tremendously. Also, I really wished that she had got a few older Brits to beta read it. There were lots of things like the "candy butler" that could so easily have been weeded out before publication.
mjlayman From: mjlayman Date: July 4th, 2011 09:04 am (UTC) (Link)
I do think this book could have been usefully shortened by removing a lot of the characters' repetitious agonising

I think this is because they were a single book and when they were torn apart, the second one needed more to be the same size as the first one.
heleninwales From: heleninwales Date: July 5th, 2011 06:39 pm (UTC) (Link)
I would have preferred to buy it as one long volume, but doorstop sized books don't seem to be produced any more.

This is actually where ebooks are an advantage. Shorter or longer books are much more easily accommodate because you don't have the problem of binding the giant volumes or having the slim volumes look too thin on the shelves.
11 comments or Leave a comment