Connie Willis,
Lincoln's Dreams
(Bantam, 1987)
Doomsday Book
(Bantam Spectra, 1992)
To Say Nothing of the Dog
(Bantam Spectra, 1998)
(Bantam Spectra, 2001)

Shortly before Christmas I found myself in that most agonizing of positions (outside of yoga, of course), I had nothing to read. There is a dicey proposition to be considered here; should I tough it out and count on my family to ante up the goods? It is, in my opinion anyway, reprehensible to shop for yourself when you ought to be acquiring gifties for the loved ones. After all, what would Jesus do?

I decided to follow Ben Franklin on this one: "God helps them that help themselves." It's a good thing I did too. I received not a single book for Christmas, not even that lame collection of world records I can always count on from Dad.

Thus began my obsessive collecting of Connie Willis books. Although I'd been a fan for years, I only owned one of her novels, Passage. It could be because it was the last book I read before going on my shopping quest, but I think it was that incomparable style, and ultimate believability with which she can always be relied upon to draw a reader that caused me to crave another, and then another....

I believe that Willis is one of the great writers of all time, and it isn't only because her stories are so engrossing. It's her versatility that catches me up every time. In the way that John Grisham will create a believable legal plot, Willis can make you believe she must have been in the field about which she's writing for years to have become so informed. From doctor to secretary, from clergyman to time traveler, her facts appear flawless, her research inarguable. As Willis herself might say, no anachronisms are created.

How can one person do the immense quantity of research required for this effect, and still manage to have time to write so prolific a collection of works? In the introduction to the final short story in her collection Fire Watch, Willis states, "That's what I want to do ... make it look easy." Indeed, I think she accomplishes that task without falling into that trap of so many prolific writers -- letting it become actually easy.

Following is a summary and teaser of the works I have so far acquired. I intend to continue collecting, and without reservation encourage you to do the same. (Because some of these books have previously been reviewed by other Rambles.NET writers, links are provided to those reviews where applicable.)

Passage: A work of haunting believability, with a fast-paced, hurried feel that echoes the speed with which events in the story take place. Reading so many of Willis's books in a row, I have discovered a trick she often uses to convey a sense of urgency, that of sending her characters on whirling wild goose chases to locate something that often was right under their noses the entire time.

Drs. Joanna Landry and Richard Wright collaborate on a project to discover the source of near-death experiences. Grounded in absolute science, they reject the constant interruptions and pestering of those who would convince them the cause is purely spiritual. The irritating and pompous Mr. Mandrake is a constant obstacle, to be avoided by dashes down stairways, shortcuts and eventually a full-scale mapping of the hospital in desperation to escape him. Mandrake's conviction of the spiritual nature of NDEs, and his best-selling books on the subject, prove one of the biggest hindrances to the research, but also provide some comic relief to a deadly serious story.

A tool of Willis' I love are the spunky, resourceful children so often to be found. In this case it's Maisie, a 9-year-old girl who suffers from cardiomyopathy, a serious heart condition, whom Joanna has used in her research of NDEs. After Maisie's experience they form a bond, and Maisie proves indispensable to Joanna and Richard's research.

While Joanna and Richard pore tirelessly over brain scans and patient transcripts -- and seem to have no social life whatsoever -- Joanna is plagued by a feeling that the answer lies somewhere in her memory, just out of reach. Can they find the answer in time to fulfill her driving quest to save Maisie, always just at the edge of death herself?

Lincoln's Dreams: This is one of the only Willis books I had not previously read. I picked it up because of that, though I can see how I missed it before. It's Willis's first novel, and while I'm glad she chose to move out of the short-fiction genre, this isn't her finest example. It's still a good book, but is overshadowed by the more powerful works she's produced since. I'm also unsure why she chose to title it Lincoln's dreams, when his dreams are really more of a sub-plot.

Jeff Johnston is a research assistant to a famous historical novelist. In the process of researching the latest novel Jeff contacts a former college buddy who is now a psychiatrist in the field of dream research. Richard reluctantly agrees to see him, and brings along his new girlfriend, who proves to be the source of the reluctance.

Something is very wrong with Annie. She cannot sleep without dreaming of horrific, realistic-feeling Civil War battles. Richard seems inordinately protective and is clearly out of the bounds of appropriateness, as Annie is his patient. Jeff is both concerned and intrigued by this mysterious woman, who appears precariously balanced on the edge of sanity. He is compelled both to save her from Richard's clutches and determine the source and cure for her unusual sleep disorder.

Escaping to Fredericksburg, Va., Annie and Jeff set out on a physical and emotional journey to uncover the truth about the dreams, Ulysses S. Grant, President Lincoln and themselves. In the end, what is true and what conclusions can be taken away is really up to the reader. Perhaps it's best to base it on your own belief of reality.

Doomsday Book: Although previously reviewed here, not to include it in this review would be for me like missing teeth. You can eat, but you'll never really chew meat.

Absolutely, unquestionably my favorite of Willis's novels, it's my first recommendation to anyone who has never previously read her. In the 21st century at Balliol College, England, time travel is an ordinary part of life. Historians go zipping between the centuries the way we might hop on an airplane.

Each century is marked with a danger ranking, 10 being extremely dangerous and off limits. For historian Kivrin, there's no way a number will stop her from her dream of visiting the Middle Ages, which receives a blanket 10 ranking, making the entire era off limits. Kivrin battles the authorities and gains permission to go despite the objections of her mentor, the venerable Dunworthy (whom I'm sure must have an official Balliol title, but I can't seem to find it). Kivrin may feel she's prepared to go, having spent several years in intensive Middle Ages study including everything from language to mannerisms and social dictums, but Dunworthy remains unconvinced as to the safety of her mission.

"I can't conceive of the History Faculty opening a century that had not only the Black Death and cholera, but the Hundred Years War," he tells Kivrin. She remains undeterred, replying, "But they might, and if they do, I want to go."

And she does. But it isn't anything like she'd expected. For starters, her time-travel drop is in the middle of a forest, not just to the side of a heavily traveled road as planned. And when she does make it to the town, no one speaks the language she's spent so much time studying. And then there is the manner of her arrival, unconscious and burning with fever, strapped to a horse that seems to be led by a murderous highwayman. Of course, precautions had been taken to send her to a year well before the Black Plague arrived in England and she's received immunizations against it as well as any other common illness of the time. But even with an immune system enhancement, Kivrin remains ailing -- she even receives Last Rites. Although it seems impossible, Kivrin is undoubtedly dangerously ill. Could the tech at the college have sent her through to the wrong year? Is Kivrin destined to die of plague eight centuries before she will even be born?

Back at the lab, Dunworthy is convinced this is the case. Although he doesn't even know that she has fallen ill, he can't shake the feeling that she is in great danger. He is determined to pull her out immediately, but unfortunately the only available tech has come down with a disabling virus. While Dunworthy searches for a replacement, the virus spreads until the entire Oxford area is quarantined, making help impossible to reach. Dunworthy must instead help the sick and dying with only the assistance of a young boy named Colin. Colin is another one of Willis's spunky youngsters, the nephew of Dunworthy's colleague Dr. Mary Ahrens. When Mary is called to serve at the hospital, Dunworthy becomes responsible for Colin -- who at times can be a burden, but proves out to be the most helpful person in Dunworthy's association.

Meanwhile, Kivrin is alone in a century where no one understands her, it's freezing cold, she's deathly ill and she has no idea where the drop is to return home. She must rely on the kindness of her saviors, a family of two young girls, an impossibly young mother and the mother-in-law (who has no kindness to spare). Thankfully, between the family and the under-appreciated village priest, she is able to recover her health and eventually picks up the language, but she remains lost. There are even more serious challenges to come.

There is simply too much to tell. And in this complicated a plot, telling almost anything is like telling everything. It simply must be read. The experiences change the characters in ways they couldn't predict, and it changed me, too.

I first read this novel when I had the flu, several years ago. I was looking for some light reading, and after To Say Nothing of the Dog, I assumed Willis would make a good choice. Not so, I found! Reading it between slipping in and out of fever dreams, reality and fiction blended, and for a week I was tortured by images of myself and my family dying of the Black Plague. This was quite an introduction to Willis's darker side.

To Say Nothing of the Dog: Fun, just really enjoyable to read. I'm a big fan of the Victorian era, with all its pomposity and cluttered decorating and restrictions and formal language, and simply everything that makes it the most gauche era in history.

Again set in 21st-century Balliol and the time travel lab, this time we're searching for the bishop's bird stump, a horrendously ugly object that seems to have been destroyed in a World War II bombing raid on Coventry Cathedral. Despite its lack of aesthetic appeal to any sane person, the imperious Lady Shrapnell will not rest until it has been found or duplicated. Historical objects cannot be removed from their era of origin, but such scientific laws are just obstacles to be overcome to Lady Shrapnell. She has decided it or its replica will be on hand for her completion of the restoration of the cathedral, which was bombed and destroyed by communists in the early 21st century. Beyond a pet project, the cathedral is a pure obsession for Lady Shrapnell and she will stop at nothing to restore it to perfection -- including recruiting every historian on Balliol's staff to plunder the previous two centuries for artifacts.

Ned Henry has suffered far too many drops to the WWII era and has an advanced case of time lag. Forcibly pulled out of the past, he is ordered to 14 days of uninterrupted bed rest. But that proves to be an impossibility with Lady Shrapnell on his tail.

The wonderful Mr. Dunworthy reappears and concocts a plot to hide Ned in the 19th century. As long as he can accomplish one mission -- "a perfectly straightforward job," says Dunworthy -- he's free to do whatever he likes with the rest of his stay. Visions of boating down the Thames filling his confused mind, he sets off to June 1888 with his instructions, a preposterous amount of luggage and a wicker basket.

Immediately upon arrival he loses pretty much all of them. Although he is able to recover the luggage and basket, he is unable to retrieve any sensible portion of the instructions from the muddle of his memory. There was something about fish forks, he's sure. Unfortunately, the "straightforward mission" is actually a matter of such monumental importance that the entire future could be altered if Ned does not succeed. For now, though, Ned's just hoping to hire a boat.

Enter Verity Kindle, a fellow time-traveler posing as a proper Victorian lady and chaperone to her "cousin" Tossie. Tossie is in fact Lady Shrapnel's "great-great-something grandmother" ( no one seems sure on this point) and the cause of everyone's troubles. It was she who sighted the bishop's bird stump and, so enamored with its beauty, wrote gushingly in her diary on the subject, later to be read by Lady Shrapnell. Actually, Verity herself is the cause of quite a few troubles as well, most specifically Ned's mission. Something she has done in 1888 has caused far-reaching consequences that threaten every drop to the past, as well as the future of the world.

How can a wicker basket, a cat, a seance and a trip to Coventry determine whether the Nazis will win the war? It's a mystery, it's comic and it's sublimely Connie Willis. Inspired by Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat (also a good read), this novel is convincing, endearing (but never sentimental) and ultimately satisfying.

- Rambles
written by Katie Knapp
published 4 September 2004

Buy Doomsday Book, Lincoln's Dreams, Passage
& To Say Nothing of the Dog