Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Fiction Review: All Clear

Once again, author Connie Willis has leaped onto my Top Ten Books of All Time list (which is constantly changing) with her novel All Clear, winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards. It is book two of the two-book series that started with Blackout, which I read for Big Book Summer 2021. Both books are part of Willis' Oxford Time Travel series (hear more about it in this video), about a group of historians--grad students at Oxford--in 2060 who travel back in time in order to witness historical events firsthand. Since this is part two of a two-book series, I won't go into much detail with my plot summary, to avoid spoilers--I'll stick with the set-up.

In this two-book series, many of the Oxford historians have all been sent back to World War II in England, each with his or her own assignment in different parts of England and at different times during the war. So, Polly is in London in 1940 to witness the early days of the Blitz. She finds a job as a shopgirl and rents a room (both in locations that she knows from the historical record won't get bombed). Her goal is to see firsthand how ordinary citizens reacted under such extraordinary circumstances. Merope--who is using the name Elaine to fit in-- has also gone back to 1940 but to a rural part of England, where she is helping with (and observing) the evacuation of children from London to the country, including a particularly mischievous pair of siblings, the Hodbins. Meanwhile, their colleague, Michael, is posing as an American reporter named Mike, and has been sent to Dover to witness the evacuation from Dunkirk. His graduate thesis is about ordinary citizens becoming heroes unintentionally, so he wants to see this amazing event where regular people took their own small boats across the English Channel to save soldiers from Dunkirk in the midst of heavy fire. Other historians sent back to WWII include Mary, who is working as an ambulance driver in Kent in 1944, and Ernest, in the same time period but posing as a reporter working undercover as part of Fortitude South, a massive (and successful) undertaking by the Allies to fool the Germans into thinking they would attack at Pas de Calais later in the summer (as opposed to their actual goal of Normandy in the spring). All of these characters are introduced in the first book, where the time travel technology begins to glitch. By the time this second book opens, most of the historians have realized they are stuck in the 1940's and are unable to get home to their own time. This not only puts them each at great personal risk, but they worry that their longer-than-expected stays could have unintended consequences on history, perhaps even on the outcome of the war.

All of Willis' Oxford Time Travel series is outstanding (I especially enjoyed Doomsday Book during Big Book Summer 2020), but these two books--and especially this final volume--just blew me away. All Clear is 640 pages, and it never lagged for a moment; I was sorry when it ended (though it is an excellent ending). Willis has a talent for combining the mind-bending fun of time travel and the potential to change the future with intricate historical detail and gripping suspense, and all of that is in top form here. I sometimes think I've read everything about WWII, but I learned so much reading this novel! The courage and level-headness of regular British citizens in the face of nightly destruction of their city and homes gives a whole new meaning to the phrase, "Keep calm and carry on." And I was absolutely fascinated to learn about the massive effort to fool the Germans, with thousands of people in on it and managing to keep it secret. I am always up for a good time travel tale, and this one, especially in this second book, features all of the thought-provoking features I love about time travel. It's mind-boggling (in a good way) as the characters begin to think about how their actions might be changing the future. And the suspense! Wow. Almost every chapter in All Clear ends with a shocking twist that made me gasp aloud ... but then the narration moves to a different character in the next chapter, making the reader wait several chapters to find out what happens next. So, I was eager to read every single chapter and could not stop turning the pages, staying up much too late every night. And with all that peril, this book has a sense of humor, too! What more could you want from a book? In short, this was a nearly perfect reading experience. I wish I could experience it all over again, for the first time. This is a must-read.

641 pages, Ballantine Books

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Listen to a sample of the audiobook here, a section with Polly musing about the possibility of changing history through time travel, and/or download it from Audible.


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Or you can order All Clear from Book Depository, with free shipping worldwide.


  1. I wonder if my dad would enjoy these books. I'll share your reviews with him to see if they could be his birthday presents.

    1. What a great idea! If he likes suspense and/or history, he'll love them! Now, you've got me thinking how much I would have enjoyed sharing these books with my own Dad :) Really great suspense, especially in this 2nd one, and amazing historical detail throughout. My husband hasn't read All Clear yet, but Blackout was also one of his top reads of 2021!