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REVIEW:  To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis

REVIEW: To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis

To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie WillisDear Ms. Willis:

I believe I’ve been hearing good things about To Say Nothing of the Dog for about as long as I’ve been a part of the online romance community. TSNotD is not a romance, but it does contain a dash of romance as well as enough of an historical setting (it’s a time-travel fantasy) to make it appealing to those of us who like to live in the past when reading. It’s also one of the most delightful books I’ve read in quite a while.

The book’s present time is Oxford, 2057. Time travel technology was developed years before, but the practice of time travel itself has fallen out of favor somewhat. It was quickly discovered that it was of limited use, except perhaps for historians eager to observe events up close, as the universe had natural corrections that it could and would enact in order to, say, keep one from going back in time to pick the winning lotto numbers or to kill Hitler. Due to a factor referred to as “slippage”, a traveler will inevitably be sent to the wrong time or place to prevent him or her from taking any action that could change the past in any substantive way.

The story opens in 1940 with Ned Henry, a time-traveling historian (and our narrator), sifting through the rubble of Coventry Cathedral, which has been bombed by the Luftwaffe. Ned is on the hunt for an object called “the bishop’s bird stump”, which I assumed was some sort of obscure Britishism that this American couldn’t understand. In fact the provenance of the name is explained late in the book, and the object itself operates as a sort of MacGuffin throughout the story.

Ned’s mission is at the behest of a holy terror named Lady Schrapnell. Lady Schrapnell is an enormously wealthy American-born aristocrat who is behind the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral in the modern day (that is, in 2057). At some point in history the cathedral was razed in favor of a shopping mall. Its restoration is opposed by various groups, with many feeling that the enormous expense could be put to better use.

Lady Schrapnell is a perfectionist (to say the least) who has corralled the entirety of Oxford’s history department to aid in her quest to restore the cathedral to its former glory. Her motto is “God is in the details”, by which she means everything must be perfect for the consecration of the cathedral, coming up in a few weeks. Perfection in this case requires locating (somewhere in history) the bishop’s bird stump, which went missing after the bombing in 1940.

Ned, unfortunately, has made so many “drops” in the quest for this item (usually traveling back to attend innumerable jumble sales)  that he is suffering from “time-lag”. Time-lag is a phenomenon that can develop after multiple drops without sufficient rest; it’s a bit similar to jet-lag. It leads to confusion, Difficulty Distinguishing Sounds and a tendency towards maudlin behavior (“like an Irishman in his cups or a Victorian poet cold-sober”). He’s sent back to 2057 from 1940 with orders to get some rest (which cannot be accomplished unless he can avoid Lady Schrapnell, who is single-minded and doesn’t care much about time-lagged historians). When a possible crisis crops up – another historian accidentally brings a cat back through from the Victorian era, a calamity that should not be possible because of those natural corrections that are supposed to occur – Ned is hastily recruited to try to help fix the problem. The idea is that he can bring the cat back to where it belongs and then rest (and hide from Lady Schrapnell) in Victorian times for a few days.

Unfortunately, because of the time-lag (and resultant exhaustion and Difficulty Distinguishing Sounds), Ned goes through the net (the time-travel apparatus) with a less-than-complete understanding of where he’s going, who he’s meeting, and what exactly he’s supposed to do. He arrives in 1888 Oxford only vaguely remembering that he’s supposed to meet someone at someplace called “something’s end”, but that doesn’t narrow it down a lot for him.

Luckily for Ned, he quickly encounters an Oxford student, Terence St. Trewes, who is hoping to row up the Thames with his trusty companion, a bulldog named Cyrill. Terence lacks the requisite funds to hire a boat; Ned provides them (with a thought that this will lead to his contact), and off the three of them go. They quickly pick up Terence’s instructor Professor Peddick, after first rescuing him from drowning. Peddick is the very picture of an absent-minded professor, obsessed with various species of fish and his feud with a fellow scholar over theories of history. Off they set for the promisingly-named Muching’s End, where Terence hopes to reunite with Miss Tossie Mering, a young woman with whom he’s become quite infatuated.

Tossie is a spoiled and empty-headed young lady who had traveled to Oxford with her mother for a seance (clairvoyance and seances being all the rage in the Victorian era) to try to locate her missing cat, Princess Arjumand. Yes, Princess Arjumand is the self-same cat that Ned has been sent back to return to its rightful time and place. And the time traveler who inadvertently brought Princess Arjumand through, Verity Kimble, has infiltrated the Mering family and is staying with them, posing as a cousin (this was one detail I didn’t understand – wouldn’t these people know who their cousin was? If there was ever an explanation for this detail, I must have missed it). Ned has thus found his contact (and become a bit infatuated himself with the beautiful and clever Verity).

Once ensconced in the Victoria era and the bosom of the Mering household, Princess Arjumand back in Tossie’s indulgent embrance, Ned and Verity should only have to concentrate on finding any evidence of the bishop’s bird stump (they might as well, since they’re there), but it’s not that simple. When Verity came through with the cat, “slippages” in time and place began to occur; these slippages are assumed to be the result of the unusual occurrence (the cat being brought through time). But Princess Arjumand has been returned, and the slippages continue to occur, even getting worse in some cases and stranding other historians in their locations. Ned and Verity try to figure out just why history hasn’t corrected itself, but that’s easier said than done.

I loved so much about this book – for one thing, the animals are awesome. They include: Cyrill, Terence’s bulldog and faithful companion (much disdained by Tossie and her mother); Princess Arjumand, the cat, whose unexpected time-traveling precipitates Ned’s trip back to Victorian times; the Merings’ neighbor’s cat, whose obvious pregnancy is too delicate a topic to broach around the several maiden daughters of the house, and even the various fish that Professor Peddick and Colonel Mering swoon over (burdened with colorful names such as albino gudgeon, these fish, alas, all too frequently fall prey to Princess Arjumand). To Say Nothing of the Dog is a great book for readers who like memorable animals in their stories.

The human characters in the story are pretty great too. Ned is a real mensch of a hero, and Verity is more than his match, sensible and smart with a sense of humor. Most of the other characters function to some degree as comic relief or foils for the main characters; Tossie is particularly entertaining. She is quite dumb, rather mean and spoiled and given to vomitously inane baby talk with Princess Arjumand (and I say this as a cat-lover and occasional-baby-talk-to-cat-talker). But she ends up getting a satisfying and reasonable – well, I won’t even say comeuppance, since she isn’t really punished. The book has a fairly gentle attitude towards the foibles of its characters. Let’s just say she matures a bit in the course of the story, in a way that’s funny rather than treacly.

I also really liked Baine, the Merings’ long-suffering butler who possesses the patience of a saint. (at one point Ned wonders if Baine is reading Marx, before remembering that Marx was still unpublished at this point in history).

For reasons too byzantine (and probably spoilery) to go into here, Ned and Verity spend a lot of time trying to break Terence and Tossie up, but as with most of their exertions in the book, what needs to happen tends to happen almost in spite of, rather than because of their efforts. This fits in with the overall theme of time correcting itself, which itself fits into the larger theme of predestination vs. free will. As always, the humans believe that they have more control over their circumstances than they actually have.

The chief virtue of the book is its humor, though. A few favorite quotes:

The reason Victorian society was so restricted and repressed was that it was impossible to move without knocking something over.

“People will buy anything at jumble sales,’ I said. ‘At the Evacuated Children Charity Fair a woman bought a tree branch that had fallen on the table.”

“Come here, cat. You wouldn’t want to destroy the space-time continuum, would you? Meow. Meow.”

I’ll confess to being a tad lost on occasion in the course of the story about the time-travel stuff, and even though the author does a good job of explaining things in the end (without being too exposition-y about it), I was still confused by who took the bishop’s bird-stump, when and why. But I blame myself here; one of the reasons I don’t read much sci-fi is that I tend to run around in circles trying to make sure that I understand what’s happening, when I should probably just let the story unfold and not worry about it. I’ll give To Say Nothing of the Dog a straight A.

Best regards,

Jennie

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Dear Author

REVIEW: My Beautiful Enemy by Sherry Thomas

Dear Ms. Thomas,

Given the current (rocky) state of my relationship with historical romance, I approached your latest book with a certain amount of trepidation. When I’m in a slump, I’m always afraid that my mood will extend to the next book and jinx it somehow (while of course simultaneously hoping the next book will *break* the slump). I did have some hope in this case, though. If my issue with historical romance is at least in part that it all feels so same-old, same-old, I thought I was in safe hands here; a Sherry Thomas book is never boring.

The story opens with an action-packed prologue set on a ship crossing a storm-tossed ocean: Catherine Blade is waiting out the gale in her cabin when she hears an unusual noise, goes to investigate and finds an acquaintance, Mrs. Reynolds, bloodied and beaten. Mrs. Reynolds implores Catherine to go after her sister, Mrs. Chase, who has fled their attacker to the deck.

Catherine, who is more adept at dealing with mysterious assassins than your average Victorian heroine, vanquishes the villain on the deck and saves Mrs. Chase. In the course of a cinematic battle involving flying doors and improbably high vertical leaps, Catherine recognizes the attacker as Lin, an enemy whom she holds responsible for the death of her daughter. Catherine had believed Lin dead – beheaded – years before. Lin disappears over the side of the ship, presumably swallowed by the sea. (Am I spoiling anything if I add a skeptical “yeah, right?” Probably not.)

The next scene is marginally less dramatic, at least on the surface. Mrs. Reynolds and Mrs. Chase are being met in London by Mrs. Chase’s daughter, her daughter’s fiance and the fiance’s brother. Catherine is with them when she recognizes the fiance, Captain Leighton Atwood, as someone she’d known years before – a man she believed dead because she thought she’d killed him. (The first chapters of the book really give the impression that Catherine is really bad at knowing when people are dead, but it’s just a coincidence, I guess, that she happens to encounter two such people in quick succession.)

The story then switches to flashbacks. When Catherine and Leighton first meet, she is known as Ying-ying, though she does not actually give him that name or any other. Both are pretending to be someone else when they meet in a desert oasis in Chinese Turkestan. He sees through her male disguise and finds himself intrigued and attracted; they travel together for a short time, in spite of her wariness of him. They part, then meet again, eventually giving into the devastating attraction between them. But the differences between them and the secrets they keep from each other lead to distrust, a resolve on Leighton’s side that they must part, and finally Catherine’s admittedly somewhat rash decision to try to kill her lover.

Catherine began life in China as the illegitimate daughter of a Chinese woman and an Englishman who died before she was born. She is raised by her amah after her mother dies, and eventually by Da-ren, her stepfather and a high-ranking member of the Chinese royal family. She is in England (in the present storyline) on behalf of Da-ren hunting for two jade tablets, part of a triptych that are believed to contain clues to a hidden treasure (I wasn’t hugely fond of this rather silly aspect of the story). Catherine has been trained in certain arts that make her well-suited to the search. Further, the last possessor of one of the tablets was her beloved, murdered English tutor. She hopes to connect somehow with her memories of him while in England, as well as fulfilling her stepfather’s wish. She never expects to meet a ghost (never mind two) from her past.

As with most (all?) of the Sherry Thomas books that I’ve read, My Beautiful Enemy switches back and forth between two time periods, in this case 1883 and 1891. I recall being surprised to learn that many romance readers don’t like this device (of course, I was also surprised, once upon a time, to discover that a lot of romance readers HATED first-person narratives; I rather like them, at least if I like the narrator). I have to say, I’m not sure I quite get what the objection to flashbacks is. I think they function well in intertwining the meatiest parts of a story with the more prosaic parts, so that there aren’t many lulls in the dramatic tension. I don’t know; flashbacks usually work for me, especially the way this author does them.

The prologue of My Beautiful Enemy put me off slightly, for a couple of reasons. For one, I felt dumped into a chaotic scene with very little context (which may well have been intentional on the author’s part): we are introduced to a heroine who is unusual, to say the least, and shortly she encounters a mortal enemy whom she’d thought dead and we find that she’d lost a child in a horrendous way. It was a lot of pretty heavy information to have dumped on me as a reader before I’d gotten my bearings (and before I felt any connection to the characters). Also, I really didn’t love the martial arts fight Catherine engages in with Lin; it felt stagy and unrealistic, more suited to a fantasy-tinged kung fu film than to the sort of romance I favor (dramatic but rooted in reality). As well, it felt a little stereotypical: our heroine is (part) Asian; of course she’s trained to kill a man with her bare hands and her ingenuity.

But I came to realize that even if Catherine has some elements to her character that somehow manage to feel to me both high-concept and clichéd, she really is a unique and fully realized character. She was born into a world where her sex marked her as worthless, and her whole life is about proving her worth to those she loves: her mother, her amah, her tutor Gordon, Da-ren, Leighton. She has as strong a sense of duty as any romance protagonist I can think of. Once she was willing to give up everything for love, and that ended badly for her and it’s marked her life ever since.

Leighton feels a bit less finely drawn for much of the book; he’s closed up in both his past and present incarnations and even when we get his perspective it’s pretty opaque. For this reason, and a couple of others, I was firmly Team Catherine when they parted for the first time (even if her trying to kill him was clearly an overreaction).

One aspect of the story that I found strange was the role that Catherine’s racial heritage does (or rather doesn’t) play. There is no indication that Ying-ying’s being half-English/half-Chinese has any effect on her status in the household that she grows up in in China. I know nothing about that time/place/culture and so can’t say for certain that it would or should have been an issue, but it feels odd that it’s never even remarked upon. After her arrival in England, as far as I could tell, none of the people she meets are even aware that she’s half-Chinese, which again, struck me as odd. I sort of wondered – why make her biracial and then do nothing with it?

While we get plenty of flashbacks between the earlier meeting and the present day story, the details of both characters’ pasts only come out in dribs and drabs and really sort of have to be put together by the reader in the end; even then some holes remained. I have mixed feelings about that; on the one hand, I appreciate not having everything spoon-fed to me (when there is a bit of an info-dump concerning the reason for Lin’s enmity towards Ying-ying, it felt awkward and out of place). On the other hand, sometimes it almost felt like My Beautiful Enemy was a sequel to another book that better explained the h/h’s pasts. For Leighton, there is a lot of business having to do with his father, mother, uncle and brother, and I think I only ever understood half of it. For Catherine, there’s her relationship with her mother, her mother’s relationship with Da-ren, her amah (who apparently had some unique talents and a violent death that I didn’t really get), her tutor (his death was similarly murky), and an evil, lecherous stepbrother whose actions actually play a rather large part in Catherine’s life but who is otherwise only barely referenced a few times.

My Beautiful Enemy had some strong parallels to one of my favorite Laura Kinsale books, The Dream Hunter. Both concern an English hero in foreign lands meeting a heroine disguised as a boy, and switch back and forth between the past and a present in which the h/h must reconcile their misperceptions of each other with reality.  For reminding me of the Kinsale book (and not paling terribly in comparison), it qualifies as a strong success. My grade for this book is an A-.

Best regards,

Jennie

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