Saturday, June 30, 2012

Doomsday Book

Title: Doomsday Book
Author: Connie Willis
Genre: Science Fiction
Published: 1992

Recommendation: Fun read for those with a taste for snarky humour.
Rating: 8.5/10

Summary: Kirvin is sent back to 1324 to observe medieval England where no other historian has gone before (since it might be dangerous!). Mr. Dunworthy can't stop worrying about all the possibilities of what can go wrong. What he doesn't guess is that the Doomsday is coming for him and for Kirvin both.

Reactions: I've read To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis earlier this year and was really impressed with her writing and sense of humor. Doomsday Book seemed to be mentioned quite often as one of her best, so I decided to continue exploring Willis's writing. Since I expected this book to be enjoyable, I suggested to Chad that we do a group read of this book. You can find his thoughts on it here.

The book is set in the same world as To Say Nothing of the Dog. It's mid-21st century Earth where historians use time machines to travel into the past and spend time there undercover to learn how the contemporaries lived. Scrapes and adventures ensue. In this case, the book carries two parallel story lines. One follows an Oxford professor Mr. Dunworthy and the other follows a young historian Kivrin that travels to medieval England.

Both main characters have their own set of troubles, adventures, and new friends that they make. The book's plot is fairly straightforward, but it sucked me in early and I stayed up late reading to find out what happens next. The book turns much darker than I expected and I felt quite emotionally involved with the story towards the end of the book, especially when it came to the Kivrin's plotline. Somehow I didn't feel the same connection to the characters surrounding Mr. Dunworthy (with the exception of Colin, I liked him a lot).

The main strength of the book is the variety of quirky characters, funny conversations, and absurd situations that abound. It strikes a good balance between serious and frivolous and yet there's more to the story than just the events on the surface. At the same time the book is really easy to read and enjoy.

One of the themes Chad suggested when we were discussing the book was how ignorant we often are (and just as often unaware of it). I tend to agree with a sentiment as a whole -- you finally know something when you realize how much you still don't know. In the book this is particularly evident in Kivrin's handling of her trip to the past. She can't speak the language she thought she knew and many other details are not as they seem. I think the best judgement you can make of the person is from the way they handle the situation and we do learn a lot about Kivrin this way.

Moving on to the futuristic part of the story, I find the depiction of it somewhat funny since the book was written 20 years ago. There are a number of things that I can see as an inaccurate prediction now, but generally this didn't bother me. It is rather surprising how un-advanced their state of technology is, but I suspect it's a result of trying to provide the reader with a "familiar future", one they can easily relate to with only minor changes. Other reviews mention historical inaccuracies in depicting medieval England, but these didn't bother me either. Altogether it was a really solid and enjoyable book for me. I expect to read more Connie Willis.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Fire Watch

Title: Fire Watch
Author: Connie Willis
Published: 1982
Genre: Science fiction

Rating: 8/10

Thoughts: I've been on a bit of Connie Willis streak (thoughts on Doomsday Book are coming soon!). This is actually the first novelette to introduce the time-travelling history department in Oxford. A graduate student, Mr. Bartholomew, travels back in time to be part of the fire watch in St. Paul's Cathedral during WWII. There he learns some unexpected lessons.

Overall, the story is told in first-person narration and structured as a diary that Bartholomew keeps during his stay in the past. The format works well for me, even though the main character can be extremely dense at times, it's a type of situational irony that I enjoy. It also tickled me that the character named Elona in the story is the word alone spelled backwards.

Overall, it's a pretty representative of Willis's writing that I've encountered so far and overall I enjoyed it even though I could see through some of the "twists" they were planning. The novelette won both Hugo and Nebula when it was first published. I would definitely recommend reading it, and if you like it, read the rest of the books in the same universe.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

May Recap

June is underway and I am not entirely satisfied with May's reading. On one hand, I finished a non-fiction book which is somewhat of a feat for me, on the other hand, I've only read three books this month and I am way behind on my year end goal. The most amazing part is probably the fact that I liked my non-fiction read of the month better than anything else I read. Here's what I finished:

  1. Acacia by David Durham
  2. Royal Blood by Rhys Bowen
  3. The Inmates are Running the Asylum by Alan Cooper
Now, I have very little hope that June will be the month where things pick up. Summer is generally a slow time for reading. Even though all the TV shows are now on hiatus, I somehow don't get any extra time to read. But at least I'll try to keep the pace.