Just One Damned Thing After Another by Jodi Taylor: A Delightfully Charming and Fun Time-Travel Epic Kicks Off

 Just One Damned Thing After Another Just One Damned Thing After Another

by Jodi Taylor
Series: The Chronicles of St. Mary’s, #1

Paperback, 480 pg.
Night Shade Books, 2016
Read: July 30, 2018

Thinking carefully is something that happens to other people.

I lost my notes to this book, which is annoying me greatly. So I’m going to be a bit more vague than I want to be.

I could tell from the first couple of pages that I was going to have a great time with this book — our narrator is Dr. Madeline “Max” Maxwell, a specialist in ancient history. She is charming, engaging, brash, and funny. She’s a few more things, too, but let’s leave it there. Essentially, she’s a delight — it almost doesn’t matter what setting you put her in, what story you tell with her — I’m in.

Thankfully, Taylor puts her in a crazy novel, one perfectly suited for her. When we meet her, Max is being recruited by a former mentor to join St Mary’s Institute of Historical Research, a very strange research facility. These historians get their hands dirty in their research in the ways that no other facility on Earth can manage — they have time machines to take them to whatever point in time they’re studying so they can see ad experience history first-hand.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? But things go awry — in spectacularly bad fashion. But, for these Historians, where there’s tea, there’s hope. Using wit, sheer determination, and a little luck Max and her new colleagues will have to find a way to meet these new and dangerous challenges.

There’s a lot more action and fighting than you’d think given that the book is about Historians and the Technicians who work with them. There’s a lot of humor, some pathos, a little love — and a little more sex than I’d prefer (thankfully most of it happens “off screen,” but not all of it). The plot is impossible to summarize well — it bounces around from point to point like a ball in a pinball machine. This is not a complaint, this is a description. Months will go by in a paragraph (or less) and then things will slow down for the events of a day or two. These are Time Travelers, after all, they can squeeze a lot of activity into a short period of time.

There are some other great characters here, too. Max has wonderful, loyal and capable allies (who happen to be interesting to read about); she has fantastic antagonists — the kind of characters you can relish your annoyance/anger/moral superiority over; her friends are interesting, he love interest is about as fun as you could ask for, and is charming enough in his own right.

I wish I’d had the time to write this up when the book was fresher in my mind — or if I’d not lost my notes. This book deserved a bit more from me. Basically, this book — between characters, circumstances, plot and tone is what I’d hoped for from the Tuesday Next books. I have no idea if Taylor can keep up the freshness of the voice, the zaniness of the plot, and the engaging quality of the characters (particularly Max) — it’ll be tough to do. But I’m looking forward to finding out. I had a blast reading this one, and can’t imagine that Taylor’s charm wouldn’t win over at least 87% of those who give this a try.

—–

4 Stars

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Voyage of the Dogs by Greg van Eekhout: An All-Ages SF that is a sure-fire crowd-pleaser

Voyage of the DogsVoyage of the Dogs

by Greg van Eekhout

Hardcover, 208 pg.
HarperCollins, 2018
Read: October 1, 2018

           Of course, the humans couldn’t go alone. There had to be dogs. Because wherever humans went dogs came along. Like rats, only more helpful. Dogs would herd livestock. Dogs would keep watch against the unknown. And, more importantly, dogs would keep the human crew company during the long spaceflight, and on their new home, far away from Earth.

But first they had to get there.

I guess this is technically a “Middle Grade” book — but forget about that. Call it All-Ages instead — that way, adults and YA readers and . . . everyone can enjoy this SF guilt-free. I should also include this line from The Big Idea post Van Eekhout wrote on Scalzi’s blog: “Spoiler: I don’t kill off any of the dogs in this book. Why not? Because I’m not a monster, that’s why not.” It’s important to get that out of the way.

Let’s start with this: the rationale to bring dogs along on a spaceship. It’s brilliant. It also points to one of the biggest problems with Starfleet, the Colonial Battle Fleet, the Serenity, etc. A lack of animals. Sure, NCC 1701-D had pets (not that we saw them often), but they were sealed up in cabins. And Firefly‘s episode “Safe” had cattle, but that was an oddity. The animals aboard Laika are there for purposes — like the main character, Lopside. He’s there to hunt rats — where there are humans and cargo, there are rats. Something small and fast — and with a good nose — is needed to hunt rats down.

The book will do a better job explaining the roles of the other three dogs and what advances in breeding have led to dogs being capable of being more than the dogs we have today — while still remaining dogs — to become Barkonauts.

These poor, brave dogs go into the hibernation state just before the humans do to complete the voyage to a nearby star system as part of human exploration and colonization, the first mission like this humanity has tried. But when the dogs wake up, they notice something’s wrong — part of the ship is missing, as is the crew.

They’re too far into the mission to turn around, too far away for a rescue mission to reach them. At this point, Lopside and the others have to try to salvage what they can and limp along to their final destination.

Lopside is a terrier mix, he’s brave, he has (understandably) abandonment issues — which are not helped at all by the absence of the humans. He’s a little scatter-brained (like a good terrier) and he’s incredibly loyal and has a great heart. The other barkonauts are as well-drawn and lovable.

Van Eekhout is clearly a dog-lover and it comes out in his characters. He’s also a pretty good story-teller, because even with that spoiler, I was invested in the outcome and really wasn’t sure how he was going to pull things off in a way that was satisfying and that wouldn’t reduce semi-sensitive 5th-graders across the globe to quivering balls of tears (a lesson Wilson Rawls could’ve used, I have to say — no, I’m not still torn up about Old Dan and Little Ann, why do you ask?). He does succeed in that — although some might get a bit misty at a point or two. It’s a fun and creative story, and takes some oft-repeated SF tropes and deals with them in a refreshing way.

Ignore the stars — I can’t bring myself to give it more, I don’t know why. Pay attention to what I have said above and this: read the book. It’ll warm your heart, it’ll make you make you a little sad, it’ll give you something to grin about — and it tells a good story, too. What more do you want?

—–

3.5 Stars

2018 Library Love Challenge

Lost in a Good Book by Jasper Fforde, Emily Gray (Audiobook): A little too zany for me

Lost in a Good BookLost in a Good Book

by Jasper Fforde, Emily Gray (Narrator)
Series: Thursday Next, #2

Unabridged Audiobook, 12 hrs. and 59 mins.
Penguin Audio, 2011

Read: September 4 – 6, 2018
I didn’t post about The Eyre Affair a couple of months ago when I listened to it, because I just didn’t know what to say about it. I was hoping that a second book would help. I’m not sure it did.

Let’s just start with the Publisher’s Summary (because there’s just no way I could do justice to this book):

           The second installment in Jasper Fforde’s New York Times bestselling series follows literary detective Thursday Next on another adventure in her alternate reality of literature-obsessed England—from the author of Early Riser.

The inventive, exuberant, and totally original literary fun that began with The Eyre Affair continues with New York Times bestselling author Jasper Fforde’s magnificent second adventure starring the resourceful, fearless literary sleuth Thursday Next. When Landen, the love of her life, is eradicated by the corrupt multinational Goliath Corporation, Thursday must moonlight as a Prose Resource Operative of Jurisfiction—the police force inside the BookWorld. She is apprenticed to the man-hating Miss Havisham from Dickens’s Great Expectations, who grudgingly shows Thursday the ropes. And she gains just enough skill to get herself in a real mess entering the pages of Poe’s “The Raven.” What she really wants is to get Landen back. But this latest mission is not without further complications.

Along with jumping into the works of Kafka and Austen, and even Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies, Thursday finds herself the target of a series of potentially lethal coincidences, the authenticator of a newly discovered play by the Bard himself, and the only one who can prevent an unidentifiable pink sludge from engulfing all life on Earth. It’s another genre-bending blend of crime fiction, fantasy, and top-drawer literary entertainment for fans of Douglas Adams and P. G. Wodehouse.

There’s simply too much going on. This is Douglas Adams (mostly the Dirk Gentley novels) meets Terry Pratchett meets Doctor Who meets . . . something else, but it’s not just those elements — it’s those influences without restraint (not that any of those are known for their restraint). It’s just too zany ,too strange, too unmoored from reality.

There’s cloning to bring back extinct species, time travel, vampires, werewolves, interacting with fictional characters, rabid literary fans, characters walking into novels/other written materials to rewrite them, travel, or just to meet with someone else — and that’s just scratching the surface.

I realize that this is tantamount to complaining that there’s too much of a good thing, and I recently talked about what a foolish complaint that is. But this is different, somehow. The sheer amount of ways that reality can be rewritten/rebooted/changed in this series is hard to contemplate, and seems like too easy for a writer to use to get out of whatever corner they paint themselves into. One of the best emotional moments of this book — is ruined, simply ruined by time travel unmaking it just a few minutes later.

Emily Gray’s narration is probably the saving grace of this audiobook — I’m not sure I’d have rated this as high as I did without it. Her ability to sound sane when delivering this ridiculous text (I mean that as a compliment) makes it all seem plausible.

I enjoyed it — but almost in spite of itself. I can’t see me coming back for more. I do see why these books have a following — sort of. But I’ve got to bail.

—–

3 Stars2018 Library Love Challenge

Darkside Earther by Bradley Horner: A Sweet Story of First Love Wrapped in a SF Shell

Darkside EartherDarkside Earther

by Bradley Horner
Series: Darkside Earther, #1

Kindle Edition, 221 pg.
2018
Read: September 1 – 3, 2018

I really didn’t think it could get any better than this.

But as with all tales of happiness, there’s always a floating cloud of crap over our heads just waiting for the touch of gravity to send it falling.

Axel is a not a typical teen, but he’s not a-typical. Hundreds years in the future, he lives on a massive space station in orbit above Earth. His parents are people of influence and importance on the station, and he’s being raised to join them. But that’s not at all what he wants. He’s a middling student, at best, all he really wants to do is make art and fall in love — hopefully with one particular girl from his classes. Maybe play a few video games (they’re far more immersive than anything we can possibly come up with — and are called something else, but they’re essentially what I used to play on an Intellivision).

Helen doesn’t have his artistic inclinations or abilities, but she shares his political apathy, his love of video games, his odd sense of humor and other interests (I was tempted to say that she shares his obsession with her appearance, but that’s not entirely fair to her). Her family is historically (and currently) a pretty Big Deal on Earth. Her immediate family is on this space station in part to work on behalf of the people on Earth. I don’t have as strong of a sense of her as I do Axel — at least not one I could express. That’s primarily on me — but it’s also part of the book, it’s Axel’s story, and we know him much better.

The book begins spending a little time with their courtship after setting the stage — it’s very easy to get caught up in the happiness and forget about that floating cloud of crap. Then they hit a pretty major road-bump — and then just when you get caught up in their clever ways around their obstacles, life for everyone on the station plunges into chaos.

Some bar owner once said, “it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of … little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world” with an eye to the horrors of World War II around him. Axel and Helen have a bigger conflict, and more suffering, around them — and their problems are even smaller in comparison. But that won’t stop you from being drawn to their plight (and their joy, determination, and courage, too). What these two (and their friends) go through is enough to derail relationships, families, movements — and while you’d understand why both of them would bail on their romance, you can’t help but root for these crazy kids.

It would’ve been understandable, and so very easy, to turn the parents into the villains of the piece — even just one set. But Horner resisted that, and even has Axel realizing they’re all just doing what they think is right and best — even if that’s diametrically opposed to what their children want/believe.

This isn’t technically YA, but it’s YA-friendly. Maybe even MG-friendly, come to think of it. It’s suitable for SF readers of all ages, let’s just say. Horner writes like the best SF writers used to in a way that’s approachable and appealing to all audiences. I wish more did that. I could say a lot about the science of the space station — and the cultures created by it, both in orbit and on the ground; or the politics; or the technology; the human biology . . . basically the SF-ness of it. I’m not going to, because of time, space required — and frankly, the human elements, the characters are what counts.

I wasn’t that sure this book was going to work for me, but I’m glad I gave it a chance, because this thing won me over (pretty quickly, I should add) — it had to be Axel and his way of looking at life that drew me in and then pretty much everything else kept me there. It’s hopeful, almost optimistic (given the harshness of the reality of humanity’s situation, that’s an accomplishment), you can enjoy huge swaths of it. It’s a love story, it’s the beginning of a SF epic, and you will fall under its spell if you give it half a chance. There are some big ideas here, but it’s a pretty small story, where people and their feelings are more important (and more interesting) than conflict, technological wonders, and everything else.

—–

4 Stars

Constance Verity Saves the World by A. Lee Martinez: Connie Verity is trying to have it all — a personal life while saving the world on a regular basis

Constance Verity Saves the WorldConstance Verity Saves the World

by A. Lee Martinez
Series: Constance Verity, #2

Trade Paperback, 385 pg.
Saga Press , 2018<br/
Read: August 18 – 20, 2018

“It’s a problem I have. When you’re ten years old and dangling from a cliff while rabid hyenas circle below, you learn to be stubborn. You can’t quit, because quitting isn’t an option. You dig your fingernails and pray that root doesn’t come loose. And if it does, you plan how best to fend off hyenas when all you have is a Pez dispenser and a priceless diamond in your pocket. I fight. It’s what I do. It’s how I survive. When people turn and run, I go forward. It’s kept me alive so far, but it’s skewed how I look at things.

“Somebody tells me I can’t do something, I want to do it more. Want isn’t a strong enough word. I need to do it. Give me that big red button labeled DO NOT PUSH in bright neon letters, and I’ll push it every time.”

Having fought for the ability to have a normal life in The Last Adventure of Constance Verity Connie’s out to try to have one. Which is harder than saving the world a few times a week. She’s still saving the world regularly, as well as having all sorts of adventures. She’s trying to settle down with her boyfriend Byron the accountant, while relying on her best friend/sidekick Tia some more (all the while, Tia is trying to strengthen her relationship with her ninja-thief boyfriend, Hiro). There are evil geniuses, aliens, robots, and vampires living in her condo — all of them behaving themselves, thank you very much.

One of the activities that takes most of Connie’s time right now is trying to help out an old friend cleanup the supercriminal organization that he’s in charge of now that his mother has apparently died. There’s a lot of rogue agents, assassins and experiments that need cleaning up if the organization is going to be come a legitimate force for good — or at least not a force for evil and chaos in the world. Connie’s tempted to spend more time doing that than she should, to the detriment of her relationship with Byron. Thankfully, Tia’s there to help keep her priorities in order. Hopefully, that’ll be enough.

You ever find yourself eating something — say, some cake — and you’re not sure if it’s too rich, if the frosting is too sweet? And then you realize how stupid you sound? Wondering if the cake is too good? Well, that’s the experience I had with this (and, I’m pretty sure with the previous Constance Verity book) — where there too many quips? Too many (seemingly) random ideas, aliens, evil masterminds, robots, henchmen of a variety of stripes, strange occurrences? What a stupid thing to ask. Yeah, there’s a lot going on, but it actually doesn’t get to the overload status. It may come close, but it stays on the right side. It’s like asking if there are too many animated personages in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, if there are too many Easter Eggs in whatever your Super-Hero movie of choice is. No, there’s not — there’s a lot of good things that are fun. Shut up and enjoy.

Really, that’s the worst thing I can say about the book — occasionally, there are too many fun things happening. The pacing is great, the characters are rich, lively, and well-developed (including many of those only around for a page or so), you’ll laugh, you’ll be moved, you might even have a thought provoked. It’s just a charming book set in a delightful world.

Do not make the mistake of thinking this is a romp, just a free-wheeling ball of fun, snark and self-referential humor. It’s an A. Lee Martinez book, so yeah, there’s a lot of that — but laying underneath that is a good story, some interesting ideas about relationships, about trust, about fate. A whole lot of other things, too, I’m sure, but let’s stick with those. Too many people will read this, focus on the “fun” stuff and will miss the very thoughtful portions — it’s Martinez’ strength and weakness that it’s so easy to do with his works. There’s nothing wrong with a silly adventure story, and there’s nothing wrong with a book that’s about something. But when you have a novel that’s both — you should pay attention to both.

I knew Martinez could write a series if he wanted to — I had no idea what it was going to look like when he did. I’m glad I got the chance to find out. Constance Verity Saves the World is equal to its predecessor in every way that it doesn’t outdo The Last Adventure of Constance Verity — which is no mean feat. It’s fun, the characters are better defined and have grown some, and there’s never a dull moment. Constance Verity, the caretaker of the universe, the Legendary Snurkab, possibly the only woman with more titles than Daenerys Targaryen, is a character you need to get to know. Her sidekick Tia is, too. I cannot wait to see what the two of them do next.

—–

4 Stars

Reposting Just ‘Cuz: Skyfarer by Joseph Brassey

Last night I found myself reading when I “should have been” writing — which meant that by the time I finished, there wasn’t time enough to really get anything ready for today. Well, today, I find myself almost at the half-way point in the sequel to this outstanding book, the possibly more-outstanding (outstandinger?) Dragon Road. But I can’t talk about it yet, which is what I really want to do. So instead, let me once again post this little nugget.

SkyfarerSkyfarer

by Joseph Brassey
Series: Drifting Lands, #1
eARC, 352 pg.
Angry Robot Books, 2017
Read: August 11 – 14, 2017

I’ve read a few interesting mergers of SF and Fantasy this year — some that were just that, interesting, some that were good — a couple that were more than good. Thankfully, Brassey’s Skyfarer was in that latter camp. Even in those early chapters where I was still trying to figure out the world, remember which name lined up with what character, and get a handle on the plot, I had a sense that this was going to be one of those books I talked about very positively — and very often. That sense just only got stronger as the book went on.

I feel like could go on for pages about this book — but won’t let myself (so I can avoid the wrath of Angry Robot and you can actually get something out of reading it yourself — which you have to go do as soon as it comes out).

So you’ve got this group called the Eternal Order — a group committed to death, destruction, power, and plunder. When it comes to numbers, they can’t stand up to the civilizations around them, at least when they ally themselves against the Order. But when they (rarely, it seems) can come in with a quick strike against one people they can wreak much havoc. Which is exactly what they do here — they come in and demand that the rulers of Port Providence hand over the Axiom Diamond, or they will wipe them out — and it’s clear that Lord Azrael, the commander, isn’t being hyperbolic. The royal family responds with armed resistance, which has some measure of success, but is primarily fighting losing battles.

Into the midst of this looming genocide comes a wayward spacecraft, the Elysium. The Elysium is a small carrier with more weapons than one should expect (we’re initially told this, anyway). The crew has just welcomed an apprentice mage, fresh from the academy, to complete her studies with her mentor/professor. Aimee de Laurent has been pushing herself for years to excel, to be the best — if there’s a sacrifice to be made for her studies, she’s made it. All leading up to this day, where her professor, Harkon Bright has taken her as an apprentice on his exploration ship to complete her education. She joins a crew that’s been together for years and is eager to find her place within them.

When the Elysium arrives in the middle of this, it doesn’t take anything approaching calculus for them to figure out what this particular crew is going to do. There’s The Eternal Order on one side, civilians and the remnants of the military on the other. There’s a ravaged civilization on one side and the ravagers on the other. There’s a group trying to prevent The Eternal Order from getting something they want and there’s, well, The Eternal Order. So our band of adventurers tell the remnants of the royal family that they’ll hunt down the Axiom and protect it.

This isn’t exactly a revolutionary idea for a story — but man, it doesn’t matter. There’s a reason everyone and their brother has tried this — it’s a good story. Especially when it’s told well. And, I’m here to tell you that Joseph Brassey tells it really well. Not just because of his hybridization of SF and Fantasy, but because he can take a story that everyone’s taken a shot at and make it seem fresh, he can deliver the excitement, he can deliver the emotion. There is some horrible stuff depicted — either in the present or in flashbacks; there’s some pretty tragic stuff; and yet this is a fun read — the pacing, the tone, everything makes this feel like the adventure films and books that I grew up on. You want to read it — not just to find out what’s going to happen next, but because it’s written in such a way that you just want to be reading the book, like a having a glass of iced tea on a summer’s day.

The characters could uniformly use a little more fleshing out — which isn’t a weakness in the writing. Brassey pretty much points at the places where the reader will more details (especially when it comes to Aimee and Harkon), making us want more than he’s giving us. What we’re given, though, is enough to make you root for or against them, hope that they survive (or are subjected to painful and humiliating defeat), or simply enjoy the camaraderie. The good news is, that there’s more to learn about everyone — about their past and their present — and how those shape their future.

You’ve got magic — various schools of magic, too, each with its own understanding of what magic is and how it can be used; you’ve got swords and lasers (and similar kinds of weapons); you’ve got space ships running of magic (not just hyperspace drives that act like magic); objects and persons of prophecy; beings and intelligences that aren’t explicable — tell me why you wouldn’t want to read this? Especially when you throw in epic sword fights, magic duels, and spacecraft action all written by someone who writes like a seasoned pro. Sign me up for the sequel!

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Angry Robot Books via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this.

—–

4 1/2 Stars

Picket Town by Chris von Halle: An Age-Appropriately Creepy SF for the MG reader in your life

Picket TownPicket Town

by Chris von Halle

PDF, 178 pg.
Clean Reads, 2018
Read: July 31, 2018

Amanda is bored. Every day is the same — her life isn’t bad, she actually likes it. But she wants more. She’s not sure exactly what it is that she wants — but it’ll be found outside the city limits of New Pines (she calls it Picket Town). She and her friend Sam spend their days after school playing a computer RPG, eating with their families, playing the game some more and repeating the whole thing the next day.

Then something starts happening — some of the kids in town come down with some sort of bacterial infection that requires them to be hospitalized while a cure is worked on. Amanda starts to wonder if everyone is going to be okay — no matter how often she’s assured that the grown-ups have everything under control. She wants to strike out, she wants to learn something — and on the way home from school, they pass the same sign forbidding them to enter the forest that they walk by every day. But this day, this particular day she decides she’s had enough — and then she convinces Sam to come with her. They climb over the fence and explore the forest. This is the most thrilling thing they’ve ever done. Right up until the point that they find a what appears to be a flying saucer (well, a saucer that’s landed). Pretty much everything they’ve ever known ends right there. What follows is exciting, dramatic, and unexpected (well, at least for the target audience — Middle Grade — adult readers will have a pretty good chance of seeing what’s around the corner, most of the time).

I wasn’t so sure that I was going to enjoy this at the beginning, I’m not sure why, it just didn’t seem like it clicked. But it honestly didn’t take long before it reminded me of the better SF I read in grade school, and I was in it for the long haul. Although, honestly, I’m not sure any of the books I read when I was that age would’ve gone where von Halle took this. That’s a compliment, by the way, it may not look like one.

I’m not crazy about the conclusion, I have to say, as much as I liked almost everything that came before. There’s a good twist to it — and I really liked it. But the ending itself? I don’t know — it relied too much on a big info-dump, and then the reveal for Amanda and Sam could’ve been executed a little better. But I think those are quibbles, and I really don’t imagine that there’s a Fourth Grader out there that’ll say the same thing.

This isn’t a MG novel that transcends the label and that’ll appeal to adults — in other words, not everyone is J.K. Rowling. I’ll give you a moment to digest that revelation. This is a MG novel that knows its audience and that will deliver what it wants. Were I in that audience, I’d be re-reading this a few times. I’m not, so I’ll tell people to give it to someone who’ll appreciate it more.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for my honest opinion, given above.

—–

3 Stars