Serena’s Review: “Doomsday Book”

Doomsday Book Book: “Doomsday Book” by Connie Willis

Publishing Info: Bantam Spectra, July 1992

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!

Book Description from Goodreads: For Kivrin, preparing an on-site study of one of the deadliest eras in humanity’s history was as simple as receiving inoculations against the diseases of the fourteenth century and inventing an alibi for a woman traveling alone. For her instructors in the twenty-first century, it meant painstaking calculations and careful monitoring of the rendezvous location where Kivrin would be received.

But a crisis strangely linking past and future strands Kivrin in a bygone age as her fellows try desperately to rescue her. In a time of superstition and fear, Kivrin–barely of age herself–finds she has become an unlikely angel of hope during one of history’s darkest hours.

Review: This book has been on my list for a long time. Connie Willis is regularly mentioned as one of the top women authors for science fiction, and “Doomsday Book” shows up on lots of “must-read” lists. So, when I spotted it as available when browsing my way through the library’s audiobooks a couple of weeks ago, it was as if the stars had aligned and it was finally, finally time for me to get to this one. And for the most part, it was ok? Sadly, it didn’t quite live up to all of my expectations.

For one, the story is told with alternating perspectives between Kivrin in the Middle Ages and her mentor, Dunworthy, in Oxford in 2054. My usual problem with this storytelling method was highlighted again here. One story almost inevitably is much stronger and more interesting than the other. While Dunworthy learns very quickly that something (he doesn’t know what) has gone wrong with Kivrin’s trip to the past and works to find answers while also handling a sudden mysterious disease crippling the city, there’s just no way for him to compete with Kivrin’s story, stranded in the past, with her carefully laid plans crumbling around her.

So, too, there were aspects of Dunworthy’s story that were incredibly frustrating as a reader. It’s hard to know whether, as a longtime reader of sci-fi/fantasy, I’m more familiar with the trail of clues laid out in these types of stories and can anticipate the final destination from long practice, or whether these clues have simply become more standard in the genre all together in the 20 plus years since this book was initially published. Either way, Dunworthy’s progress learning what had happened to Kivrin was so drawn out. At certain points in the story, the character would outright ask another character a basic question and then, bizarrely, the other character would change the subject or, what, pretend not to have heard him? It started to feel really contrived, and by about two thirds of the way through the book when he was still struggling to get basic answers to simple questions, I started doubting my ability to finish all together.

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Only, it was an audiobook, so there was no flipping, just sad, sad listening.

Unfortunately, this forced confusion carried over to Kivrin’s narrative as well. While the a large part of the story revolves around the incompetence of the current director who even allowed Kivrin’s trip to the Middle Ages (an era of time that had previously been rated a “10” on the “too dangerous to travel to” scale), Kivrin herself would at times come across as equally incompetent. I have to imagine that this was not intended.

Things go wrong for Kivrin from the beginning, and it becomes clear why time travel to this era was going to be a bad idea for a young woman traveling alone. Beyond the obvious factors, things that Dunworthy pointed out from the beginning in his effort to stop her from going, the fact that a woman in this time period has almost zero agency seems to be an obvious reason to avoid this. If everything had gone right, how was Kivrin, a young, unmarried woman, supposed escape the household she was in? Women didn’t go anywhere by themselves, let alone walk miles into the wilderness along strange roads! Kivrin’s struggles in this area seemed easy to anticipate. The book even discussed two-person drops in time, and I never felt like there was an adequate explanation for why things moved forward as they did. Like I said, a lot revolves around the new director being an idiot. But for something as important as time travel, it was a bit hard to swallow that a disaster like this could so easily happen due to one man’s ego and ignorance.

Here too, Kivrin’s confusion and inability to catch on to simple clues didn’t feel right for a character who was presented as supremely thorough in her preparation for this trip. She seems genuinely confused at one point to discover that a 13 -year-old girl is engaged to  a much older man, after many, many clues to this have already been lain out. This kind of bizarre storytelling was very distracting. I feel like Willis was trying to build tension in these choices, but all it did was make me question the sanity of her characters and wish things would just start happening already.

That said, Kivrin’s story was still a very interesting read. I would recommend this book for fans of history, however, rather than sci-fi fans. Time travel aside, the majority of the story is an intricate look at life in the Middle Ages. This is where Willis shines. Not only did the characters feel exactly right, highlighting the various challenges of people’s different roles, but the small details of the challenges of every day things were touched upon in a way that felt incredibly natural. What could have come across as a history lesson, instead felt like catching a glimpse into a beautiful painting of a small slice of time. But this glimpse is entirely honest, and with that honesty comes a lot of tragedy. This book was very hard to read towards the end, but I appreciate that Willis didn’t shy away from the realities of the world she brought Kivrin into.

All in all, there were parts of “Doomsday Book” that I really enjoyed, however, I also felt like the story could have used a heavy dosage of editing. It was’t a short story to begin with, and the continued delay of basic facts that readers could guess on their own, only made it feel longer. It was not a light read, but if you enjoy history and a richly detailed story, I would recommend “Doomsday Book.”

Rating 6: I enjoyed the historical aspects, but I also wanted to knock the characters’ heads together a few too many times to fully get behind it.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Doomsday Book” is included in these Goodreads lists: “Best Time Travel Fiction”  and “Books for a Pandemic.” 

Find “Doomsday Book” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “DC Comics: Bombshells (Vol.1): Enlisted”

25982692Book: “DC Comics: Bombshells (Vol.1): Enlisted” by Marguerite Bennett, Marguerite Sauvage (Ill.)

Publishing Info: DC Comics, March 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: The Library!

Book Description from GoodreadsIn these stories from issues #1-6 of the hit series, learn the story behind this alternate reality where the Second World War is fought by superpowered women on the front lines and behind the scenes! It all begins with the stories of Batwoman, Wonder Woman and Supergirl.

Review: Last year our friend Anita and I went to the local Wizard World Comic Con Convention. When we were walking around the merchandise area, we saw these really cute posters of DC superheroines drawn like retro WWII-era Pin Ups. I had no clue what the story was with them, but had to get the Black Canary one for my house.

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How could I not hang this up in the kitchen?

So when I got to work one day, I went to check out the new materials wall. And what did I see? “DC Comics: Bombshells (Vol.1): Enlisted”. Needless to say I ran over to the book and grabbed it for myself.

The Goodreads summary doesn’t really do this justice, so here is mine. Set in an alternate universe, “Bombshells” is a WWII era historical fiction arc starring a whole lot of DC’s superheroines and supervillainesses. Various governments and groups start recruiting these women so they can fight for their countries, or the group’s motivations. You have Batwoman, an All American Girl’s Baseball League player who is recruited to be an American Spy. You have Wonder Woman, a Amazonian princess who meets WWII flier Steve Trevor when he crashes near her home, and she and her bestie Mera decide to bring him home, but get the attention of American forces. Supergirl and Stargirl are living in Soviet Russia, who are discovered to have serious powers that can be used as Soviet Propaganda. Zatanna is being pressured into working with the Joker’s Daughter in Berlin, standing aside helplessly as Joker’s Daughter gives the Nazis magical, zombie making powers. And then there’s Harley Quinn, who has forsaken her medical prowess in London and flies into France in search of her boyfriend, only to find Pamela Isley, a possible French Resistance Fighter.

Does this sound amazing? GOOD, BECAUSE IT IS!

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(source)

There are many things to like about this comic. First and foremost, the concept is super creative. The idea kind of sounds like an alternate universe fan fiction idea, but Marguerite Bennett’s writing makes it work so well. She takes a lot of things from WWII history, like the All American Girl’s Professional Baseball League, or the Soviet Night Witches, and gives them a very cool platform to bring them to the forefront while producing some really intriguing storylines. While I loved all of them, I think that the one of my favorites was definitely that of Supergirl and Stargirl, as the story not only talked about the Night Witches, it also showed the brutal regime that the Soviets had in spite of the fact they were our allies. The part that punched me in the gut the hardest was when Supergirl and Stargirl realize that they are supposed to be attacking a camp that, while disguised as a Nazi Camp, is actually a Soviet Prison camp, with political prisoners of all ages being held there. It was super ballsy to address that and to give these girls a serious moral dilemma. And I also liked the Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy storyline, because if it does go the way of the French Resistance, that would be super cool. The Resistance is getting more play in literature lately, between “Code Name Verity” and “All the Light We Cannot See”, so if it gets a fun story in this comic I will be very happy. The banter is also quite zippy and fun to read, and the dialogue feels natural and not stilted. I found it very feminist and woman centric without being heavy handed or on the nose.

Another aspect I liked is that through this story, DC is giving a lot of great fun and great opportunities to their lady characters. While I love DC guys a whole lot too, the fact that there was no sign of Batman, or Superman, or any of the other heavy hitters, was very refreshing. You see a couple guys, namely Lex Luthor and John Constantine. But Luthor is a fellow spy who is teamed up with Batwoman and Catwoman, and Constantine is more of a sidekick to Zatanna.

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Also, he’s been turned into a bunny (source).

Like I said, I like the men of DC. But honestly, if they start to come in and play a bigger part I will feel a little miffed. This is the time and the series to let the ladies shine.

And the story is just fun. I was screeching in glee as I read this volume, and actually had to put it down and run off to tell my husband about a certain cameo that appears late in the game. No spoiling it. But it was a hoot to see this character, even if it was for just a moment.

“Bombshells” is a fabulous series and I need Volume 2 yesterday. It isn’t coming out until September, so I am just going to have to wait, I guess. Probably not at all patiently.

Rating 10: This comic is everything. I had so much fun while reading it and I cannot wait for the next one. Fans of comics, WWII fiction, and kick ass ladies need to pick this one up!

Reader’s Advisory:

“DC Comics: Bombshells (Vol.1): Enlisted” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Comics by Women”, and “Amazons, Female Warriors, and Wonder Women”.

Find “DC Comics: Bombshells (Vol.1): Enlisted” at your library using Worldcat!