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BLACKOUT--Connie Willis

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ecb

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Has anyone read this? I know it's not a children's book, but I know there are some Connie Willis fans among the Blueboarders, and I'm hoping someone else will have picked this up, because I am *dying* to talk about it... and it'll be about a year before my DH has finished reading it! :dr

This is Connie Willis's first novel since 2002's PASSAGE, and the third installment in her time-travel "series" (term used loosely--the book is set in the same universe as DOOMSDAY BOOK and TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG). It tells the stories of several time-traveling historians studying WWII who become trapped in the past. Unfortunately, it's only *half* the story--the rest is coming in September's ALL CLEAR.

I found it fast-paced and thoroughly readable, but I am left with questions at the end (as a reader) and some observations (as a writer).

Anyone else?
#1 - March 23, 2010, 02:49 PM

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*Raises hand*
#2 - March 23, 2010, 02:55 PM
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I'm reading it right now, but I'm not done yet!

Becky
#3 - March 23, 2010, 05:01 PM
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A new Connie Willis!!!!!! She of my absolute favorite writers. I like her so much I own THREE of her books, and I am a person who does not buy a book unless I have already read it and cannot live without it. After years of culling/resisting, I don't think I have three of anybody other author {goes off to reserve it at the library}.  

ETA: except Madeleine L'Engle's Crosswicks trilogy and Vera Brittain's WWI books...
#4 - March 24, 2010, 07:37 AM
« Last Edit: March 24, 2010, 07:39 AM by AnneB »

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Heh, AnneB--I have every Connie Willis, some of them in both hardcover and paperback.  And a signed copy of Uncharted Territory, which is one of the most wonderfully romantic stories ever.  Just a bit of a fan girl here.  :D

Testament of Youth made me cry.
#5 - March 24, 2010, 12:06 PM
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Testament of Youth made me cry. 

Me too, and I'd already seen the BBC series so I knew how it came out! And then I followed her daughter's Parliament career for a long time. {goes to Google to see whatever happened to Shirley Williams}

The thing I remember most, though? When Vera B and Winifred Holtby were rooming together and writing frantically, they had a woman come in every day and do the housekeeping and cook for them.

Sigh.

Okay, back to Connie Willis now...
#6 - March 24, 2010, 08:10 PM

ecb

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Ok, so now that we've gathered a couple of readers together... SPOILER ALERT.
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First my questions, then my observations.

Ok, so: What happened to the historian who was with the FANYs? Did she die diving to rescue her friend from the bomb? Who was trying to get to VE Day with the other female soldiers (were they the ambulance drivers?)? Was that Polly, using a different name? If not, did we ever see Polly at VE Day? I got confused at the end when she wouldn't tell Michael about being there--I didn't understand why she wouldn't mention it.

Speaking as a writer, I got about 100-150 pages into it and, while I was enjoying each character's plight, I really started to wonder where the throughline was. The plot doesn't really become apparent until the last chapter, and it made me a bit impatient. Not a lot, mind you. Just... curious about what the *story* was.

I also had trouble believing how ignorant these "historians" seemed to be about the time periods they were studying. I would expect a historian to have a conversant familiarity with the *entire* period she's focused on, not just the two weeks of her assignment. In DOOMSDAY BOOK, Kivrin is constantly mentioning facts about life in the Middle Ages (and I seem to remember Verity being an encyclopaedia of Victoriana), but anything beyond the scope of their memorized lists and implants utterly stymies the BLACKOUT characters.

...And speaking of ignorance, I could have used a little more help with mine. I wasn't familiar with the evacuation of Dunkirk *at all,* I have no clue what a V1 is... a little more telling by Willis would not have gone amiss here, particularly because the plot of the book hinges on the readers' knowledge of WWII, so we can see when things start to go wrong.

And as much as I love Willis's writing, I do find myself growing weary of her "shtick--" the constant miscommunications and interrupted phone calls and the confusing bureaucracy... I think it was handled much better here than in PASSAGE, but I don't remember any of that from LINCOLN'S DREAMS, and while I do see some of it in DOOMSDAY BOOK, it's not so slapstick-ridiculous. (To her credit, that very "shtick" shines brilliantly in BELLWETHER).

I read the book in about two days, so it was definitely wonderful fun and completely readable... but exactly the kind of thing you want to discuss with other readers as you're going on!
#7 - March 24, 2010, 10:50 PM

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V1s and V2s were rocket-propelled bombs, basically, developed by Werner von Braun at Peenemunde and deployed as a more or less last ditch terror effort at England in '44.  In later years, after von Braun was the darling of the American space rocket program and had been rehabilitated as a former Nazi scientist, he released a memoir called "I Aim for the Stars" to which some wag appended the qualifier "but sometimes I hit London."  :)

The evacuation of Dunkirk was more or less a miracle, as Willis describes it--the evacuation of so many thousands of British soldiers from the tip of France after a failed expeditionary mission.  Here's a link to the Wikipedia article--a good quickie overview: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunkirk_evacuation

And don't forget, "Polly" is a form of the name Mary.  That's why Polly's so worried about getting out--she'll create a paradox if she's still there when "Mary" is supposed to arrive, and Bad Things will happen.  And she's keeping mum about it because she doesn't think Mike and Eileen can handle one more problem piled onto their already fragile emotional states.  At least that's I figure.

Speaking of fragile emotional states...I wonder how much Willis wants to contrast their panic with the stolidity and bravery of Londoners watching their own world disintegrate...?

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possible spoiler alert

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I really get the feeling that a lot of the story is going to come together in the next book, and seemingly unimportant details will suddenly make sense and become important.  For example, the jacket text mentions spies--I'm sure the young man Mike meets in Orpington, Hugh Tensing, will turn out to be a German spy.  What effect will he have on everything?  And what about some of the other characters?  I'm willing to bet the Hodbins will figure in All Clear--their departure was too abrupt.  And something about the play Polly and the others are putting on--I haven't read The Admirable Crichton so don't know if there's a tie-in here...but she's built that part up too much not to do something with it.

I do agree that the miscommunications issue gets a little problematic.  Why doesn't anyone have a cellphone, for one thing?  I can't help wondering if in her own life Willis doesn't use one (I own one, but it lives in my purse and is rarely used, so if I wrote contemporary I might forget about them).  I also agree that their ignorance is a little odd,--not so much for the tiny details about what buildings get bombed when, but you'd think they'd know more broadly about what regions of England were getting hit at any given time.  I wonder if that issue is intentional and it turns out there was a reason they were ignorant...?

Also speaking as a writer, I have to say that I'm pretty disgusted by readers on Amazon giving this one star because they're cheesed off that it ends on a cliff-hanger, even if they enjoyed the book.  :(
#8 - March 25, 2010, 11:36 AM
« Last Edit: March 25, 2010, 12:12 PM by Marissa Doyle »
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{I will not read this. I will not read this. Blackout is "in transit" and with luck I will have it by the weekend...}  {there. I managed to post w/o reading anything since ecb's Spoiler Alert....}
#9 - March 25, 2010, 02:05 PM

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I am NOT reading this thread either!  You reminded me (thank you!) that I want to read To Say Nothing of the Dog first.  Then I'll pick up Blackout -- They both sound amazing!
#10 - March 25, 2010, 02:15 PM

To Say Nothing of the Dog has been on my list... so it'll take me a while to catch up to you all! By the time I do, maybe her next book will be out and I won't have to be in ecb's shoes, waiting to find out what happens next :)
#11 - March 25, 2010, 02:19 PM
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Well, not that you guys are going to even see this post, but there's really no reason to read TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG first, since this book is completely unrelated to that one (a couple of characters overlap, but nothing else)... if anything, you could read DOOMSDAY BOOK first, because BLACKOUT is *almost* a sequel to DB, but not in any meaningful sense. I hadn't read DB in almost twenty years.

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Thanks, Marissa.  That's really what I figured, but I think being left to puzzle over it was not a decision I'd make, as a writer. I know that technically this is only half the story... but if it's being published as a standalone, then it should be able to stand alone... and to me that means, spread the plot out through the first half a little better. :)

Now tapping foot impatiently until September.
#12 - March 25, 2010, 04:20 PM

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Thanks, Marissa.  That's really what I figured, but I think being left to puzzle over it was not a decision I'd make, as a writer. I know that technically this is only half the story... but if it's being published as a standalone, then it should be able to stand alone... and to me that means, spread the plot out through the first half a little better. :)

I'm dying to know just why publishing it happened this way...or why they didn't make the decision to wait on "Blackout" so that it could be released much closer in time to "All Clear".  I wonder if All Clear will be another 800 pages, and publishing such a behemoth as one volume just wasn't in the cards.  I get the impression that all did not run smoothly in the whole process.

Now tapping foot impatiently until September.

Worse than "who shot J.R.?"  :)
#13 - March 25, 2010, 04:43 PM
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Well, not that you guys are going to even see this post, but there's really no reason to read TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG first, since this book is completely unrelated to that one (a couple of characters overlap, but nothing else)... if anything, you could read DOOMSDAY BOOK first, because BLACKOUT is *almost* a sequel to DB, but not in any meaningful sense. I hadn't read DB in almost twenty years.


Oh! Thanks for the tip.
#14 - March 26, 2010, 01:15 PM
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My copy just came in at the library and I started to read, then noticed in the acknowledgments that she says the book is split in two. So I flipped to the end to see the notice about "the riveting conclusion" coming out in Fall 2010. Does this book end on a cliffhanger? Because if it does, I might have to try to wait until the sequel comes out to read it, since I'll forget all the important details over the summer. (Not that there's really any chance of me not reading it now that I have my hot little hands on it!)
#15 - March 27, 2010, 11:50 AM

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{Am only on the early chapters and I have been very, very good about not reading your comments!}
Here is the first thing that strikes me about the book: Connie, you have to start incorporating cell phones and the internet. The book is set in the future, 9/11 has happened, but the technology is still stuck in 1990!
#16 - March 27, 2010, 02:52 PM

ecb

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Maybe the Web was wiped out in the same terrorist attack that took out St. Paul's. :dr
#17 - March 27, 2010, 03:24 PM

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Quote
Here is the first thing that strikes me about the book: Connie, you have to start incorporating cell phones and the internet. The book is set in the future, 9/11 has happened, but the technology is still stuck in 1990!

Yes! I thought the same thing with all the phone messages in the beginning!

Becky
#18 - March 27, 2010, 09:01 PM
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I snarfed the book in one week; just finished it this evening. I started to figure out, about 20 pages from the end that this wasn't going to get wrapped up by the end because the Hugh Tensing character never reappeared and neither had Colin. Me, I'm hoping Tensing belongs to the SIS or MI5. Sir Godfrey might be the spy. Unless Sir Godfrey is Colin....?

Time travel is so darn confusing.

ecb said: And as much as I love Willis's writing, I do find myself growing weary of her "shtick--" the constant miscommunications and interrupted phone calls and the confusing bureaucracy... I think it was handled much better here than in PASSAGE, but I don't remember any of that from LINCOLN'S DREAMS, and while I do see some of it in DOOMSDAY BOOK, it's not so slapstick-ridiculous.

ecb, I agree wholeheartedly. If this was the first Connie Willis I'd read, I wouldn't notice it, but they all seem to be breathless or filled with miscommunication or the character is terribly sleep deprived. For an interesting movie involving Dunkirk, borrow/rent Mrs. Miniver (the 1942 version with Greer Garson).

I have a book of her short stories, entitled The Winds of Marble Arch, which deals with a lot of the same material. I'd love to know how she happened to spend all that time in England doing the research, and when it occurred. Some of that happens with in the short stories, but not so constantly. Of course, I was reading pretty swiftly, too, because it was a New Book with a one-week loan period! Have to return it tomorrow.

Marissa said: I also agree that their ignorance is a little odd,--not so much for the tiny details about what buildings get bombed when, but you'd think they'd know more broadly about what regions of England were getting hit at any given time.  I wonder if that issue is intentional and it turns out there was a reason they were ignorant...?

I'm guessing that all the rearrangement was put in place to skew events ever so slightly and prevent the bombing of St. Paul's that cost half a million people. And maybe that's why there are no cell phones. On p. 65 the tech brings out an i-com cargo kilt. "These are the only blacks I could find."  "No," Polly said.  "The kilt's cellphone's only a replica. It's not dangerous." But it also hadn't been invented until the 1980s, and the cargo kilt hadn't been invented until 2014. She made the tech put in a rush order for..... etc.

Although I also had the thought that Marissa did about Connie Willis living in a remote area of Colorado. But she travels widely and she has kids, I'm pretty sure. So I doubt she's not a luddite. I suspect she wove this thread in to give this book continuity with the universe of Doomsday Book, which preceded the cell era, I'm pretty sure.  (Isn't it a shame the title is Doomsday instead of Domesday? If Iever meet her, that's one thing I want to ask! How sick did it make you when the publisher did that?)

I knew about the evacuation of children because Anthony Lane (film critic for The New Yorker) was one and wrote a long piece about it ten or fifteen years ago; it stayed with me because he had been sent to Kettering, Ohio, which was not far from where I grew up, and stayed in the home of a family that I had heard of because they were prominent in the area.

I had NO idea the RAF was down to so few planes or that invasion was so imminent. So even allowing for the breathlessness of it all, it was a great read. It may be just another example of successful authors receiving little to no editorial guidance beyond copyediting.

And speaking of copyediting, what's with the Gwendolyn/he  Lady Bracknell/he material in Kent--April 1944 (p. 132-134)? As in, "I thought the tanks were Gwendolyn's job."  "He's in Hawkhurst. Dental appointments"  and "There must  be someone else who can do it. What about Lady Bracknell? He'd be perfect for the job. He's full of hot air." Is this just Brit humor, or did I miss something? I just loved the "blowing up the tanks" business, though.

OKay, back to real life. Thanks, Elizabeth, for starting this thread. It was a good book to have for a difficult week here!

#19 - April 02, 2010, 05:20 PM

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QUick response because it's midnight and I'm pooped...but I think Doomsday Book works as a title because of the subject matter of the book---the worry that a pandemic might be about to strike and spell doom for mankind...so it's a play on words on many levels.

I hadn't thought about the possibility of no cellphones because she didn't write them into Doomsday Book (published 1992) or To Say Nothing of the Dog (published 1998) and wanted to maintain consistency.

No, I doubt Sir Godfrey is Colin--he's well known, so that doesn't work--plus the age difference (Colin's like 16).  Just from the way she writes about Hugh Tensing made him seem "not quite right", which is why I suspect him.

And yes, a lot of the historians are sleep-deprived--or time-lagged, which supposedly has the same symptoms.  To Say Nothing of the Dog makes a lot of use of it.

I don't think they'd try to stop the bombing of St. Paul's--it's a cardinal rule not to change things.  It's got to have something to do with the research by the other scientist that time travel is inherently unstable and unsafe...

October is too far away!
#20 - April 02, 2010, 09:20 PM
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ecb

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Willis lives in Greeley, where there's a university and a population of nearly 100,000. I bet they have all sorts of newfangled things there... cars, electricity, phones, 'n' everything! :dr  (And, seriously: I have a friend who lives in--and gave birth in--a yurt in *truly* remote CO, where they don't have cell phones... and even *she* has the Internet! :dr).  So I stand my my original theory: they were all destroyed in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks.  Or maybe they're just so commonplace that she didn't need to specify?

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I'm guessing that all the rearrangement was put in place to skew events ever so slightly and prevent the bombing of St. Paul's that cost half a million people. And maybe that's why there are no cell phones. On p. 65 the tech brings out an i-com cargo kilt. "These are the only blacks I could find."  "No," Polly said.  "The kilt's cellphone's only a replica. It's not dangerous." But it also hadn't been invented until the 1980s, and the cargo kilt hadn't been invented until 2014. She made the tech put in a rush order for..... etc.

...And on that note, did anyone else wonder why Polly didn't just go across the street to one of the other department stores and *buy* a black skirt? Yes, I know we'd lose the wonderful moment of pathos when her boss gives her one, but really. If she has to buy food, surely she can also buy clothing.

All that aside (sorry, Connie!), loved the book. Want more. Now. (tappity tap...)
#21 - April 02, 2010, 11:36 PM

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..And on that note, did anyone else wonder why Polly didn't just go across the street to one of the other department stores and *buy* a black skirt? Yes, I know we'd lose the wonderful moment of pathos when her boss gives her one, but really. If she has to buy food, surely she can also buy clothing.

I think ecb is right: Polly probably didn't go buy a skirt for the same reason that Cary Grant didn't just get himself a good lawyer in North by Northwest! Reality logic sometimes does not ≠ plot logic and the author/director has to hope that we'll be too swept up in the fictional dream to notice.

Or, the book deadline is just too short and there's barely time to get the first draft out, let alone go back and fine-tune motivations, especially when you're doing all of WWII with half a dozen plotlines that need to be tied up at some point. 

Me, I'm going to skim through Blackout again in August (I hope it will be off the 7-Day Book shelf by then!) so I can sort the plotlines out at my leisure and see how CW ties them up.

For all the critiquing, she is my absolute favorite SF author and on my [unranked] Top Ten.
#22 - April 03, 2010, 09:34 AM
« Last Edit: April 03, 2010, 09:38 AM by AnneB »

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I'm not reading what's already been written so as to avoid spoilers, but I just have to say: I am on page 356 and this book is making me incredibly tense. And I get the feeling I'm not going to get even a tiny bit of closure until the sequel is published. True? Give it to me straight, I can take it!

Ok, other thing: I know there's been some disgruntlement over the lack of cell phones, which may or may not have been destroyed when St. Paul's went kaplooie. But is anyone beside me also a little disturbed by how nonchalant all these historians are about time travel--when the book makes it perfectly clear they shouldn't be?! (I think I felt this way about Doomsday Book, too, but it's been a long time.) Anyway, I've been trying to think of comparable contemporary things of major importance than certain groups of people don't take nearly as seriously as they should. Um, banking executives not paying attention to subprime loans? Is that comparable? Got others?
#23 - April 03, 2010, 05:51 PM

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True, Rebecca.  Sorry.   :cry2

Re not taking something potentially dangerous seriously: they predate me a by some years, but those x-ray machines that shoe stores used to have come to mind.   :ahh   

Their attitude doesn't bother me, though.  One, they're mostly young (grad students) who don't necessarily think of the possible dangers as something that applies to them, and two, it's been an accepted part of their world for a long time, so the thought of risk has probably worn off. 
#24 - April 03, 2010, 07:53 PM
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Stayed up late last night to finish it--I may have complaints, but was this ever a compelling read. Very hard to put down. And now I've gone back and read this whole thread, which has been helpful in answering some of my questions.

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I'm with Marissa on Hugh Tensing being a spy, unless we're being deliberately misdirected, which could be possible, given how huge the I AM A SPY clues were. The idea of Sir Godfrey as Colin is intriguing; whoever Sir Godfrey is, he does seem to be from the future, right? But I assumed that was Colin coming through in the last chapter. No? I'll have to go back for another look.

The fact that all the 1944 entries stopped shortly after Mike got injured suggests that maybe he's right; maybe he really did change events. Because those entries didn't stop right when he was injured, but a tiny bit later--when Hardy rescues all those soldiers, or maybe when Jonathan and his grandfather are killed.

I did NOT get that Polly and Mary Kent are the same person in two different years until I read it here. But what's up with those tank-movers? One of them is a spy or something, right? He's hiding some papers and he's writing things to be published in local papers that are coded messages to somebody, right?

Like others, I figure these historians would have a better general idea about the times they're visiting before they go visit them, but I loved it when Merope thought Andersen was a person, not a backyard shelter. That's just the kind of detail that wouldn't necessarily make it into the main historical sources. But when I was complaining about how haphazard and nonchalant people were about something as huge as time travel, I was thinking about the in-charge folks back in Oxford. All that changing of dates and places of a drop right when somebody was prepared with the information and implants and clothes, for a different place? That was hard for me to believe. I hope there's a good explanation for it in ALL CLEAR.

Somebody called the writing frantic, I think, or maybe breathless. Margaret Mahy does that sometimes, too, and while I often really like it, it can get tiresome when it's sustained over a long period. Here, that breathlessness, combined with the repetition, made all the characters (but especially Polly) seem a little OCD. I found it frustrating and felt like there could have been some compression of events or some chapters combined or deleted. Because sometimes I felt like screaming at these people!

But I also liked, as somebody already said, the juxtaposition of the 2060 people's anxiety with the contemps' stoic behavior. I wondered if either the Oxford people or Willis was trying to give these historians a more authentic experience of the war, of what it felt like to not know whether Hitler would win--or whether they, individually, would survive.
#25 - April 04, 2010, 06:47 AM

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The idea of Sir Godfrey as Colin is intriguing; whoever Sir Godfrey is, he does seem to be from the future, right? But I assumed that was Colin coming through in the last chapter.

OMG. I *just* got what you guys are saying!! Wow. I hope not, though. I love the attraction so much as it is.
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As for the techs' nonchalance, well, they're kind of like airport staff, right? That's a pretty dangerous responsibility, and you really hope everybody working in, around, on, or near those planes is paying 100% attention 100% of the time, but we've all been in enough airports to know how blase they can seem about herding people through security, checking boarding passes, making the safety announcements, rescheduling delayed flights, etc.
#26 - April 04, 2010, 02:53 PM

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Okay, my library finally got it and I just read it.

(SPOILERS)




Colin just HAS to be Godfrey. It can't be Colin coming through in the last chapter! Unless he came through and then couldn't find anyone and went back and THEN returned as Godfrey. Except that he's aged since then. (I don't have a problem with the age, because that's exactly what Colin was trying to do--go into the past and catch up in age to Polly. If something went wrong, as has been happening, he could have aged a lot more than he wanted to.) Which would mean the end of Godfrey? And his reincarnation, so to speak, as young Colin? I don't know. It just seems that Willis is hinting loudly that Godfrey is Colin, because every single time Polly interacts with G, he reminds her of Colin. What if the last chapter is Dunworthy? The character seems a bit lighthearted for Dunworthy (who, I may add, is never actually on stage in this book), but he DOES love St. Paul's. I can't remember from other stories if he has been there already or not.

I think Polly IS Mary Kent because towards the end of the book Polly says that she knows they won the war because she was there at VE day. And that's why she's convinced she's doomed unless someone rescues them, because you can't exist in the same place twice, and if she's not gone by the end of the war, her current self will...disappear?

I'm guessing Hugh Tensing is the last guy they're looking for, the annoying one? Unless Mike knew him--I forget. Otherwise, yeah, he does seem suspicious.

As to the historians not really feeling the danger, I think that's reasonable--they have immunizations the others don't, they have knowledge the others don't, and they have a Way Out. It's when their Way Out fails that they start to take everything much more seriously.

I should have waited until September to read this. It just...stops. And they're all stuck. And I'll be thinking of that until I get the next book. Grr.
#27 - May 07, 2010, 08:55 AM

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Nope, I still don't think Sir Godfrey is Colin.  He's too well-known to be--he's a world-famous actor--and he's elderly.  So unless Colin got himself sent back decades before...which makes my head hurt.

Hugh Tensing can't be Phipps--Mike saw him back in the lab, very early in the book.

#28 - May 07, 2010, 03:09 PM
The Leland Sisters series: Courtship and Curses, Bewitching Season, Betraying Season (Holt BYR/Macmillan)
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Ah, right. I'd forgotten that Mike saw Phipps.

Is Sir Godfrey a real-life famous actor? Or just in the book? (I obviously know very little about famous actors...)
#29 - May 07, 2010, 03:19 PM

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Just in the book, as far as I know. 
#30 - May 07, 2010, 03:26 PM
The Leland Sisters series: Courtship and Curses, Bewitching Season, Betraying Season (Holt BYR/Macmillan)
www.marissadoyle.com
www.nineteenteen.com

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