Book Review: To Say Nothing of the Dog – by Connie Willis

I picked this book up after a coworker recommended the time travel books Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis. When I read the Amazon reviews, I came across To Say Nothing of the Dog, and its reviews were consistently better. So I chose the safe way and picked it first.

When I buy a book in the bookstore, I always read a few pages, the first page, and a random one in the middle, to see if I am going to like  the style. Many a good-looking book does not pass that test and I put it back on the shelf, unpurchased.

With the Kindle, while it is possible to download a sample, I tend to not to do that, and buy books outright. I need to stop that. Rule 1 when buying eBooks:

Read the sample chapters before buying.

As I read the first chapter I discovered that I didn’t like Willis’ dialog heavy and somewhat rich style. There was so much going on, so much dialog, right in the first few pages, that I was thoroughly confused, and I started just skimming forward with the expectation that I would  not make it very far. Then things get clearer in the second chapter, so I continued, faithful reader that I am, and I lumbered forward into Chapter 4, 14% into the book. That’s when I gave up.

If you like time travel, this is a great, colorful, sometimes funny and probably very fulfilling story. It’s pure time travel, no doubt. But there were some things going on that seemed so dumb, so farfetched that I simply could not ignore them and I got yanked back from the world of  the book into the world of the book critic.  The book didn’t capture me, it kept pushing me out and then yelling “Look at me!”

For instance, fairly early in the story the protagonist Ned Henry is sent back to June 7, 1988 to Victorian England, near Oxford. He prepares for the trip in a rush, being outfitted with the right period wardrobe, luggage and money so he could pass for a “contemp” when he got there. In the hurry of the preparations, however, he misses the details of his actual mission, and when he get there, he does not know where he is and what he is supposed to do. This is good for interesting plot development and conflict initiation, but it’s just too incredible that an outfit designed for time travel with the technology and infrastructure to send countless agents into the past for many different missions, would not have a better process in place to brief its agents on the mission.

Ultimately, I am sure I could have finished reading the story with enjoyment, but with a reading list as large as mine and so little time, I decided to say bye to the writer Connie Willis right here.

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