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Blackout by Connie Willis

01/03/2010. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts

Buy Blackout in the USA - or Buy Blackout in the UK

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pub: Bantam Spectra/Random House. 491 page hardback. Price: $26.00 (US), $32.00 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-553-80319-8).

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Having another Connie Willis book out is always good news, especially so long after the last one. Having it involving people from her future historians who visit the past even more so. Coming to Britain in World War Two becomes a little more iffy as it's on home territory that I have more than a passing knowledge of. I might have been too young for the war but my parents weren't but more on that in a while.

The story is really split three ways into 1940 as Merope posing as Eileen O'Reilly is in the sticks seeing how young evacuees coped before unexpectedly becoming quarantined when they get measles. Before she can return home, her access to the future in the nearby woods is blocked off when it becomes a rifle range. Polly Churchill becomes Polly Sebastian for rather obvious reasons and is in the middle of the London blitz with a job at a clothes shop and to see how people coped during the air raids. Michael Davies merely become Mike Davies, with an American accent implant, and was supposed to be in Dover briefly to watch the Dunkirk evacuation before moving on but inadvertently gets caught up in the evacuation, seriously injured and hospitalised for three months. By the time he can find his portal to return home, it's been covered by an artillery gun. Ultimately and independently of each other, Davis and Merope head to London to find Polly, who has trouble getting to her own portal.

'Blackout' is the first part of two books, the second 'All Clear' coming out in the autumn. Actually, it is one big book but wisely split down the middle. There are clues to the solution throughout but it still depends on the retrieval team finding them when none of them are where they are supposed to be.

Connie Willis has done a lot of research in getting things right. Some errors I found are only minor ones like its 'St. John Ambulance' not 'St. John's Ambulance' but even my own countrymen get that wrong today or can't read the signs on their ambulances as my Mum, who belonged to it during the war, would have said. Also it didn't take long for our lot to put up a blanket curtain in front of doors to stop light showing at night. If nothing else, my people are resourceful using nothing at all than what they had about them.

However, the Jubilee Line wasn't built until the 1979, named to celebrate the Queen's jubilee, and is the most recently opened underground line. In the 40s, few people had telephones in their homes over here unless they were rich, and phone kiosks weren't very abundant cos you had no one to phone. As to taking grapes to hospital patients, I think Ms Willis forgets there was a war on and such foreign fruit wasn't available and if it was, extremely expensive and certainly outside of a barmaid's wages. Indeed, it wasn't until the 50s that foreign fruit like oranges and bananas were readily available over here. None of this is difficult to check up on. It's very easy for American writers not to understand ration books and limited availability, even back in the 1940s because they had no such restrictions to compare it to. A shilling back in the 40s was a small fortune to a child let alone an adult, even in my time when we counted money in pounds sterling. If it was the time travellers themselves making the mistakes from unfamiliarity, fair enough but I wasn't really looking for mistakes and this was in the main text.

Having said that, Willis does capture much of the flavour of the time and avoids attempting cockney or things that would really catch her out. You can really feel the blitz a lot of the time. Her flair for character writing makes for interesting personalities of all, right down to the minor players. As to what happens next, time and eight months will tell.

GF Willmetts

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