9 Rated Books Book Reviews

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

Title: To Say Nothing of the Dog

Author: Connie Willis

Genre: Science Fiction (and Comedy; and Historical fiction; and Mystery; and Romance)

Publisher: Bantam
Publication date: 1997 (First Edition)
Hardcover: 493 pages

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.

Stand alone or series: Stand alone

How did I get this book: Bought.

Why did I read this book: It seems that every single blog I love, reviewed this book last year:

Things Mean a Lot
Calico Reaction
Books I Done Read
Jawas Read Too


Ned Henry is totally Time-lagged although he will tell you that he isn’t. He is above all most certainly NOT suffering of Maudlin Sentimentality. This is probably the cause of what came next though. Or was it before?

(What is the correct way to start a review anyway? Should I start by thanking all the lovely bloggers who reviewed it last year and put it under my radar? Or by doing that FIRST, will I be moving the attention from the focus of this review which is to talk about the book? I have done that before and to one extent or the other it worked but then again, is history repeating itself if I follow the same structure over and over again?)

Ned Henry is a historian slash time traveller from the year 2057 working for Oxford University under the orders of their sponsor Lady Schrapnell. Her ladyship is absolutely determined to rebuild Coventry Cathedral to its former glory before it was destroyed by German bombings during WWII. This means that everything must be reproduced to their smallest detail which is how Ned finds himself going back and forth in time trying to find the bishop’s bird stump which, for mysterious reasons, changed the life of Lady Schrapnell’s great grand-mother when she first saw it back in Victorian times when she visited the Cathedral (which was only a church back then). After making so many drops in such little time (and with no success since the bishop’s bird stump is as elusive as it is hideous), Ned is completely time-lagged although he will tell you that he most certainly isn’t…

(HEY, I am back to the start)

…although he presents all of the symptoms including lack of concentration (and Maudlin Sentimentality) which explains why and how he ends up in Victorian times with a new mission and little idea of how to go about things. All he knows is that Verity Kindle, another historian working for the same project, brought back to the future something she wasn’t supposed to and now Ned needs to prevent it from happening as to not cause any incongruity that could affect the space-time continuum.

(Time and history are such funny little things….if I had read and reviewed this book last year would it have changed the course of my year? I could have gone on a glom of Connie Willis’ books and then that would have prevented me from reading other books and then maybe my top 10 would have been completely different altering the course of The Book Smuggler’s history FOREVER. But what if that’s what is happening RIGHT now?)

Which is how, he finds himself going up-river in a boat with two other fellows he just met (and who might or might not be from the future) to say nothing of the dog, Cyril. And that’s only the beginning of what proved to be one of the most clever, hilarious, romantic reads and I loved this book with the force of a one point twenty-one giggawatts-powered flux capacitor.

To Say Nothing of the Dog is a mixture of science fiction (although not hard Scifi, it is easy to follow everything that is happened and there are no in-depth explanations as to how exactly time travelling works but that is not the point so it didn’t bother me) , romance (as Ned falls in love), adventurous romp, mystery, and comedy. The comedic elements of this novel in fact, made me laugh so hard I cried – it is just the sort of British humour I love and it’s smart and subtle and not overly explained. Plus, those crazy VICTORIANS! Séances! Princess Arjumand!

To me though, the best thing about the novel is how it intelligently examines the idea of time and history and these become part of the structure and narrative themselves. Two secondary characters argue about what drives history i.e. a Grand Design or Grand Characters and Ned’s narrative is constantly incorporating those ideas when thinking about what is happening because they actually make sense when combined. Say for example that an important outing is cancelled by rain: that would prompt Ned to think about how Weather (good or bad) can affect events (for example, Fog diverted the Lusitania into the path of a German u-boat). I promise, it is not as info-dumpy and dry as I make this sound. Quite the contrary; plus it’s fascinating, interesting and often hilarious. Another familiar theme of time travelling stories is the idea of free will x determinism and although I can’t dwell too much because of spoilers To Say Nothing of the Dog opens a veritable can of worms close to the end of the novel and sent me out for a loop. I thought about this for days after reading the novel.

As you can probably tell I loved this book. The only thing that would come close to a negative element is how little I knew about Ned – for a character that narrates and carries the story I felt oddly detached from him (even when rooting for him to hook up with his love). Perhaps that is part of the point in how little individuals matter in the grand scheme of things? But they matter to me when reading a book. It says a lot about how the plot, the ideas, the comedy in the book, are so good that even a reader such as I, who loves character-driven novels was not bothered too much. Still, it is the one little thing that prevents me from giving this a rousing 10.

(And I can’t for the life of me, understand how or why this book is out of print. We should be thinking of future generations!)

Notable Quotes/ Parts: Cats are extinct in the future (GASP) so when Neds meets his first ever cat hilarity ensues as he thinks it is as simple as dealing with a DOG. If you are a cat lover you will find every scene with The Cat superb. Plus this is quite possibly the funniest thing I ever read:

“Come, cat. Heel”


And kissed her for a hundred and sixty-nine years

Additional Thoughts: SO…my first Connie Willis went really really well and I want MOARS. Any fans in the house? Where should I go next?

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.

Five years in the writing by one of science fiction’s most honored authors, Doomsday Book is a storytelling triumph. Connie Willis draws upon her understanding of the universalities of human nature to explore the ageless issues of evil, suffering and the indomitable will of the human spirit.

Oxford in 2060 is a chaotic place. Scores of time-traveling historians are being sent into the past, to destinations including the American Civil War and the attack on the World Trade Center. Michael Davies is prepping to go to Pearl Harbor. Merope Ward is coping with a bunch of bratty 1940 evacuees and trying to talk her thesis adviser, Mr. Dunworthy, into letting her go to VE Day. Polly Churchill’s next assignment will be as a shopgirl in the middle of London’s Blitz. And seventeen-year-old Colin Templer, who has a major crush on Polly, is determined to go to the Crusades so that he can “catch up” to her in age.

But now the time-travel lab is suddenly canceling assignments for no apparent reason and switching around everyone’s schedules. And when Michael, Merope, and Polly finally get to World War II, things just get worse. For there they face air raids, blackouts, unexploded bombs, dive-bombing Stukas, rationing, shrapnel, V-1s, and two of the most incorrigible children in all of history—to say nothing of a growing feeling that not only their assignments but the war and history itself are spiraling out of control. Because suddenly the once-reliable mechanisms of time travel are showing significant glitches, and our heroes are beginning to question their most firmly held belief: that no historian can possibly change the past.

From the people sheltering in the tube stations of London to the retired sailors who set off across the Channel to rescue the stranded British Army from Dunkirk, from shopgirls to ambulance drivers, from spies to hospital nurses to Shakespearean actors, Blackout reveals a side of World War II seldom seen before: a dangerous, desperate world in which there are no civilians and in which everybody—from the Queen down to the lowliest barmaid—is determined to do their bit to help a beleaguered nation survive.

Rating: 9 – Damn Near Perfection

Reading Next: Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce


  • Lenore
    January 14, 2011 at 12:09 pm


    I still need to read more Connie Willis, but damn do I love Doomsday Book.

  • David H.
    January 14, 2011 at 12:18 pm

    I wouldn’t have labeled “To Say Nothing of the Dog” as a pure stand-alone, more of a stand-alone within a specific universe, if that makes any sense. Characters from “Doomsday Book” show up in TSNotD and in “Blackout”/”All Clear” though not necessarily as main characters.

    “Doomsday Book” was written before TSNotD and it also has a vastly different tone (dead serious as opposed to the comedy of TSNotD). I haven’t read “Blackout” but I know it’s really Part 1 of the “Blackout”/”All Clear” “book” so if you read one you need to read the other right after to finish the story.

  • Karen
    January 14, 2011 at 12:23 pm

    I love this book so hugely much. It is high on my list of comfort reads, right along with Pride and Prejudice. It is just hilarious and smart and utterly perfect.

    (small note – the dog is Cyril, not Cyrus)

  • raych
    January 14, 2011 at 12:25 pm

    I respectfully beg to disagree with David H; Doomsday Book is HILARIOUS. It is also, on the other hand, unrepentantly sad. Prepare your heart to be RIVEN. But in the best way. Read that next, is what I’m saying, especially because Blackout is only the first half of what is really one book in two covers. The sequel – All Clear – came out last fall.

    Also, read Passage. Read everything Willis has written, how about. But read Doomsday Book next. It may be my favorite book ever.

  • Karen
    January 14, 2011 at 12:26 pm

    Oh! And for a book that is more similar to To Say Nothing of the Dog, I’d recommend Bellwether. It is similarly light and romantic, whereas Doomsday Book and Blackout are a little darker and less fun. Still excellent, but the don’t make me giddy in the way To Say Nothing of the Dog does.

    Bellwether deals with predicting trends and has a similar amount of historical details worked in. The romance isn’t as strong, but I still really enjoyed it.

  • April (Good Books & Wine)
    January 14, 2011 at 12:41 pm

    Bishop’s Birdstump!!!

    I would love to read To Say Nothing Of The Dog again, what a fun romp it was.

  • kearsten
    January 14, 2011 at 12:49 pm

    Your review of this most delightful book was spot on both in rating and tone! 🙂 I, too, urge you on to both Doomsday Book and Bellwether, though really, Willis’s writing is such a delight, you can’t really go wrong!

  • Elizabeth
    January 14, 2011 at 12:51 pm

    I LOVE To Say Nothing of The Dog, and I would agree that you should go from there to Doomsday Book and then read Blackout/All Clear (actually between Blackout and All Clear I recommend reading her novelette Fire Watch which is her first story set in this world and won the Nebula). Also, if you get the chance you should go and see her read or talk, I got to go to the talk for the All Clear release and she’s hilarious.

    Connie Willis says that Bellwether is the other book that people tend to start with and love. I had a hard time getting into it the first time I tried to read it, but I need to go back and try again.

  • Rana
    January 14, 2011 at 12:56 pm

    Are you sure this is a good book? I usually trust your opinion but time travel?
    The last time travel book I read was The Time-Traveler’s Wife and it was horrible! I didn’t finish it. It made me hate anything related to time-travel or the name Henry ugh!

  • Emy Shin
    January 14, 2011 at 1:15 pm

    I read this book ages ago and loved it, even if I did get confused at times. Time-travel + Victorian era = awesomeness.

  • Marg
    January 14, 2011 at 1:31 pm

    So glad you loved this one! I am determined that I am going to read Doomsday Book myself this year! I had so much fun with To Say Nothing of the Dog.

  • Shanna Swendson
    January 14, 2011 at 1:37 pm

    This is probably my all-time favorite book. I’ve read it a zillion times and never get tired of it. I also managed to find my way around Oxford based on what I remembered of descriptions from the book, and when I got lost, I always managed to end up in the same place Ned did. Weird.

    I’ve read Blackout/All Clear, and I would suggest reading The Doomsday Book first because that introduces some of the key characters in Blackout. You’ll get a lot more out of that story with the foundation of The Doomsday Book. The Doomsday Book is two parallel stories, one incredibly heartbreaking and tragic and one that manages to be very funny while still having serious stuff going on.

    And I wouldn’t even think to compare these books to The Time Traveler’s Wife. They’re not at all similar. These are more about history, not traveling within one’s own lifetime.

  • Nymeth
    January 14, 2011 at 1:54 pm

    DOOMSDAY BOOK! Actually, I haven’t read Blackout and All Clear yet, and I have full faith in their awesomeness. But you need Doomsday Book in your life as soon as possible. Just be ready to cry (but like Raych said, ALSO to laugh.)

  • Andrea
    January 14, 2011 at 2:13 pm

    Read The Domesday Book and then explore some of her other fiction. Hold off on reading Blackout/All Clear. It’s the first Willis I really _haven’t_ liked.

  • Maya M.
    January 14, 2011 at 3:37 pm

    TSNOTD has been in bookshelf TBR for, oh, maybe 2 years now. Clearly I must move it up.

    Oh, and I reading ‘Bleeding Violet’ at the moment – loving it as reader, a bit afraid of it as parent to a very new teen.

  • Weasel of Doom
    January 14, 2011 at 3:37 pm

    Ana, “Doomsday Book” is wonderful. So is “Passage.” Be warned, though, they are not as light-hearted as “To Say Nothing of the Dog.”

    I enjoyed her novellas and collections of stories, too – “Christmas Miracle and Other Stories,” “Lincoln’s Dreams,” “Fire Watch,” “Uncharted Territory,” and “Bellweather.”

    Haven’t read “Blackout/All Clear” yet, so can’t comment on that one…

  • Brandy
    January 14, 2011 at 6:33 pm

    This review was absolutely perfect in every way. This was my first Connie Willis book too. I read it last year, loved it and have been reading my way through all her other books since. I have to agree with what everyone else has said. You need to read Doomsday Book before Blackout/All Clear because it will give you a better sense of a couple of the characters. All three of them are awesome though. The other book of hers I’ve read is Bellwether and I thoroughly enjoyed that one too.

  • Amber
    January 14, 2011 at 8:34 pm

    Doomsday Book is wonderful. I also loved Firewatch.

  • Karalynn Lee
    January 14, 2011 at 9:07 pm

    I heartily second the recommendation for “Fire Watch” and also for Doomsday Book, although I found the latter less on the delightful side (one character annoyed me for much of the story) and more moving. I mean, the medieval period is simply going to make for a grimmer everyday. It took more investment — I had a little trouble getting into it — but had quite a payoff.

    I’d count myself in the “pass on Blackout/All Clear” camp, which on the other hand took a lot of page count and mental concentration (more POVs and time shifts) and forgiveness of some nonsensical actions, but didn’t end up having much of an impact on me. But that’s partially because I found some elements far too familiar from her other works, which wouldn’t be as much of a problem for you.

  • Brentus
    January 14, 2011 at 9:21 pm

    Doomsday Book and Blackout/All Clear are awesome. While I enjoyed it, To Say Nothing of the Dog is actually my least favorite in the series. Read Doomsday Book first like Brandy said.

    Oh, and sometime you have to read the authors whose humor TSNOTD is a tribute to: Jerome K Jerome and PG Wodehouse.

  • Chris
    January 14, 2011 at 10:34 pm

    Out of print?! Ack! I have a copy to keep and a copy to lend, fortunately…

    I’d definitely recommend Bellwether – it’s a delight, not very long, and it was the first scifi book I ever got my former book club I used to read. And we had a great discussion, because Bellwether is about trends – and every tangent that we went on could be related back to the book.

  • willaful
    January 15, 2011 at 12:38 am

    Well sheesh, everyone has already said DOOMSDAY BOOK! so I guess I don’t need to. And Bellwether was going to be my next recommendation, Hrumph. So I will put in a mention for the obviously underappreciated, very beautiful and very sad Lincoln’s Dreams.

  • Sharon
    January 15, 2011 at 8:11 am

    I’m actually reading this book now, after reading Doomsday Book, Blackout and All Clear (in that order). If you read Blackout next, like the other comments stated, you need to read All Clear right afterwards since Blackout ends in a cliffhanger.
    Now I’m trying to locate all our Connie Willis’ books to read. I didn’t think I would enjoy time travel books, but have to admit I loved these!

  • Angie
    January 15, 2011 at 2:13 pm

    DOOMSDAY BOOK, Ana! It is incredible. I have TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG on my nightstand right now. 🙂

  • kelly
    January 15, 2011 at 5:52 pm

    Adding another vote for Bellwether (my copy is read to tatters) and the short story collection Impossible Things (in particular the stories Even the Queen, Spice Pogrom and Ado, but they’re all quite wonderful).

  • Kiki
    January 15, 2011 at 6:33 pm

    DOOMSDAY BOOK! It is one of my all time favorite books.

  • S.S. White
    January 15, 2011 at 11:15 pm

    I agree with those suggesting Doomsday Book before Blackout/All Clear. It’s a better, tighter book, and it nearly made me cry. Blackout/All Clear could’ve used a firmer hand at editing, but that’s me. 🙂

  • Beth
    January 16, 2011 at 11:46 am

    I loved this one so, so much. I read it about two months ago and have gone on a Connie Willis reading spree since. I didn’t like Doomsday Book that much, although I do respect the amount of research that went into it; I loved Blackout and All Clear. Just a note – Blackout is half a book. It cuts off right in the middle of the story. Blackout and All Clear together are one story that frankly, could have been shortened by a lot, but I love it so much that I overlook that.

    So basically, read those two next 🙂

  • Erika (Jawas Read, Too)
    January 16, 2011 at 12:47 pm

    I’m so glad you liked this book! Connie Willis is amazing, no? 🙂

    I have Impossible Things (short story collection), Blackout and Doomsday Book waiting to be read on my shelf, but I’m constantly on the look out for more.

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  • Karina
    January 25, 2011 at 4:49 am

    Definitely, definitely Doomsday Book, especially if you love history. She has also written a book called Passage, which is about a researcher who is examining near death experiences. Not as good as her other books, but an interesting read nonetheless.

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  • Meghan
    May 2, 2012 at 11:16 am

    So I’m about a million, billion years behind, both on reading this book and this review, but I LOVE THIS BOOK SO MUCH. I’d already laughed my way through Three Men in a Boat and the entire Wodehouse oeuvre years ago, so reading this book was like meeting a friend of a friend and having an instant connection. I found myself neglecting my kid so I could read, and randomly grinning like an idiot in public when I remembered something about the book. I just want to inhale the rest of the Oxford books now.

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