Friday, May 30, 2014

To Say Nothing of the Dog: A Review

To Say Nothing of the Dog
Written by: Connie Willis
Paperback: 493 pages
Publisher: Bantam
Language: English
December 1998
Genre: Science Fiction/Humor

From Connie Willis, winner of multiple Hugo and Nebula Awards, comes a comedic romp through an unpredictable world of mystery, love, and time travel...

Ned Henry is badly in need of a rest. He's been shuttling between the 21st century and the 1940s searching for a Victorian atrocity called the bishop's bird stump. It's part of a project to restore the famed Coventry Cathedral, destroyed in a Nazi air raid over a hundred years earlier.

But then Verity Kindle, a fellow time traveler, inadvertently brings back something from the past. Now Ned must jump back to the Victorian era to help Verity put things right--not only to save the project but to prevent altering history itself.


Time travel is hard to do. Even Doctor Who tries and fails a lot of the time and I am a hard core Whovian. It’s a tricky subject and quite often there are lots of problems. It’s not like time travel is new to the world of fiction. In 1895 HG Wells’ came out with the Time Machine and let’s face it we’ve been hooked ever since (though time travel in fiction has happened long before that titular title). It’s hard to make both time travel seem realistic without falling into some familiar tropes. You know the ones that I am talking about.

But I really like the whole time travel shtick. It’s fun. I like that killing something in the past can make the Nazi’s win World War II (egads). I like when things fall into place and you realize that the seemingly insignificant object at the beginning was put there by the guy in the end in order to save the world. I like seeing the past and the future in ways that no one expects. I like the idea of being able to put $200 in that little known tech company and then coming back to the present and realizing you are a billionaire. I like doubles and paradoxes. I like the snippets of moments. Time travel is just cool. But like I said it can be messy and problematic as well.

This month for book club Jordan decided to go with To Say Nothing of the Dog and indulge not only the humorous thing we have going with our selections of late, but time travel. You see Ned Henry is a 20th century historian in the future. His task is to recreate a historic church before it was bombed because a very rich lady told him to. He and so many more members of his team have been searching for the elusive bird stump, but he needs a break. Ned has time lag and not only is it muddling his brain, but he’s just tired. He thinks he is taking a well-deserved vacation in Victorian England with parasols and lovely girls in boats far away from Lady Shrapnell’s demands. Good news he does get to Victorian England. Bad news, he is still on a mission to correct the little bit of a hiccup that occurred when someone brought back something they should not have.

Enter Verity, fellow time traveler. She wants to help Ned too because she happens to be the one who brought the incongruity into being. Ned is happy for the help as he is still too time lagged to remember exactly how to solve the problem. Will the time problems solve themselves? Will Ned buy yet another penwiper at a Jumble Sale? Will Cyril the bulldog learn to talk? Enter into a world of friendships, loves, cats, dogs, séances, butlers and fancy Victorian ladies, exotic fish, croquet, naiads, and more.

Things I loved: As I said I am a fan of time travel, mostly when it is neat and tidy, but sometimes when it is messy. Ned and Verity’s time travel is a bit messy. But in being so it is funny. I love the idea of some rich old lady hiring a slew of people just to recreate a Cathedral (that has been replaced by a shopping mall) down to the last detail before it was destroyed. Why is Lady Shrapnell doing this? Because she can. Since the Time Travelers cannot bring anything back they become the ultimate historians, documenting every little thing so that they can return to the present and recreate it. That’s is a great idea that the time travelers are historians because not only does the time machine correct itself, but you can’t bring anything back so there go your dreams of riches and glory. Everyone other than academics finds it dull and boring. That is certainly a new approach.

Ned is kind of adorable is fumbling sort of way. In fact it is his charm that kept me reading. But my favorite characters weren’t even human. Cyril the bulldog is adorable as any canine companion could be whether Ned is anthropomorphizing him or not. He has an adorable personality and I just love him to pieces. In fact I think he and Princess Arjumand should have been the leads. "Dogs are supposed to sleep at the foot of the bed”. Cyril had never heard of this rule. Princess Arjumand paid no attention to the regulations of animals on the bed either”.

Things I didn’t love so much: It kind of reminds me of a BBC show, wordy, trying so hard to be witty, and yet confusing and muddled. There were so many references to classic literature, history, quips, sayings, and in jokes that you feel a bit overwhelmed and you kind of want them to stop. Maybe that is just me. It’s not that I didn’t find it clever or funny. It was, many a time. And I love satire, really I do (In fact the literary genre satire was quite amusing at first). It just never stopped for 500 pages. Anything can wear out its welcome eventually.

Oh dear god how many times did I want to strangle Tossy with her ridiculous baby talk and flighty princess personality. Ergh. I know she was written the way she was written for a reason but I could care less if Tossy and the mysterious Mr. C don’t hook up at the right place and time in 1888 then the Nazis, win World War II. As long as she wasn’t around anymore I would be happy.

The book is also incredibly slow as mad cap as it is. I took me more than 100 pages to get into the novel and then another couple of hundred to lose interest which is unfortunate. I think if the book were trimmed down by about 125 pages it would have done the story a lot of good. Not only would the sense of urgency…be urgent (instead it dragged on), but I might have been more invested overall.

Buy or Borrow: Borrow. Overall it was a so so book. Despite being well written and having a nice little take on the time travel genre, it just wasn’t for me. But it may be for you.

Part of: Series

Also Recommended: For more time travel please try: The Here and Now by Ann Brashares, the Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes, The Time Machine by HG Wells, Timeline by Michael Crichton, and Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

2.5 out of 4 happy bibliosnark bookmarks 

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