“Just One Damned Thing After Another” by Jodi Taylor (2013)

Leave a comment

“There have been two moments in my life when everything changed.”

Be honest, we all want a go in the TARDIS. Everyone has that one point in history they’d like to go back and experience first hand. For me, I’ve got several. I’d love to go and experience the London Frost Fair of 1814 (as seen in this week’s Doctor Who, incidentally), to hang out with the Ancient Greeks, and to have a picnic on a Jurassic hill, watching the sauropods pass by. We all know the rules though – look, don’t touch. This is the rule that has led to the creation of St Mary’s Institute of Historical Research, where we will be spending the duration of this review.

Madeline “Max” Maxwell is a history doctorate, specialising in Ancient History. With a slightly mysterious background, she is an expert in her field, and on day called upon by an old teacher, Mrs De Winter, to join St Mary’s. She soon discovers that this is historical research with a difference – they can go back in time and observe contemporaneously. After rigorous training and an entire shake-up of her worldview, Max is soon a qualified Historian, finding herself being sent back in time to get the real answers about history.

Along the way she falls for techie Leon Farrell, befriends many of her fellow St Mary’s recruits, and becomes one of the first humans to ever see the dinosaurs alive. But all is not as it seems, and Farrell has a secret. He is from the future, sent back to prevent a rival organisation from meddling with the timeline to fit their own means. Suddenly dinosaurs are the least of her worries.

This is such a neat concept, and one that has been twisted and shaken by most science fiction writers over time. I enjoy the concept of these jaunts into the past merely being observational and, of course, being human, they can’t help but intervene, with History all the while pushing back against the new arrivals and trying to ensure the timeline is kept in tact. There are also some genuinely funny quips and one-liners. However, and I wish I didn’t have to say this, there’s something distinctly lacking about the whole thing.

The plot is disjointed and sprints around all over the place, with occasional scenes added simply for the sake of it. I wonder if the books saw much in the way of an editor, and I was surprised to learn that while this book was published in 2013, the eighth installment was released last month, implying not much proofreading is going on. There are a couple of sections where the use of pronouns and lack of dialogue tags completely flummoxed me and I couldn’t work out who exactly was speaking, or who they were speaking about. The time frame, ironically for a book about the importance of time, is also unclear. The novel races through Max’s training, giving the impression (unless I missed it) that it’s all being undertaken in a matter of months, or even weeks. It becomes clear later that the novel has covered at least five years of time. The list of main characters in the front contains several of their ages, but it’s not clear at which point in the story they are the age noted.

Several times people seem to come to conclusions, make decisions or have knowledge of things that it seems they otherwise shouldn’t. Characters often go by two different names, depending on who’s speaking. There’s an unexpected fantastical addition towards the end of the novel, and at one point there’s suddenly an incredibly graphic sex scene out of the blue in an otherwise fairly chaste novel. Max’s own history is absent, with just a few mentions that lead us to surmise she had a terrible childhood and apparently doesn’t speak to any family, but it’s never made clear what the situation is. On the last few pages, something else entirely otherwise unmentioned happens and is supposedly important, but at the moment it’s hard to tell how.

I don’t want to put the whole series down, as there’s a good chance I’ll return here and see what happens next, but I think I expected better.

Advertisements

“Timequake” by Kurt Vonnegut (1997)

Leave a comment

“Call me Junior.”

Perhaps because the present is so appalling at the moment, I’ve been thinking a lot about the past, which is always a dangerous thing to do. It’s often a stark reminder of how quickly times have changed and how things have moved on. Ten years ago, in 2007, there was no Twitter and no iPads. Facebook was still new, Obama hadn’t been President yet, the Harry Potter book series would conclude in the summer, and The Simpsons Movie, Hot Fuzz and Juno were all in cinemas. I was still in university. I think we all wonder, sometimes, whether we’d want to turn back the clock and experience things again, or make a few changes. We can’t, of course but in Timequake, the population does go round a second time – the universe shrinks suddenly in 2001, taking everyone back to 1991, but they have no ability to change anything, and instead must live through their last decade again, doing exactly the same as they did the first time round.

I was intrigued by this as a concept, but the book is far more than that. Like everything Kurt Vonnegut did, this is damned weird. When you think about it, it would be hard to write a book retreading old time, especially when free will had been removed so no one could discuss what had happened; everyone just has a sense that time is repeating. Instead, Vonnegut tells the story of how the wrote the book, and details his relationship with Kilgore Trout, a science fiction writer who is categorically fictional. Vonnegut blends his autobiographical memories about the career and his family with fictional events. He talks of writing Timequake One, but also seems to have experienced it himself.

He mixes together true tales, some funny, some tragic, about his life with fiction in such a way that sometimes it’s difficult to work out where the lines are. The text is somewhat jumbled throughout, leaping through time without much warning, occasionally segueing into idle thoughts that otherwise have no place in the text. He repeats himself, brings back unfinished stories to touch them up later on, and speaks with love about his family: his sister who died in her forties, his scientist brother who invented a way to force clouds to snow, and various aunts and uncles with whom he had a whole manner of relationships. It’s a metafictional minefield though, as at any moment we could be treated to what Kilgore Trout was doing during the rerun, or why the death toll was so high when the universe finally sorted itself out again.

Oddly enough, 2007 was also the year Kurt Vonnegut died. So it goes.

“The Woman Who Died A Lot” by Jasper Fforde (2012)

Leave a comment

woman-who-died“Everything comes to an end.”

Despite this novel’s opening line, this isn’t quite the end. However, it feels like it some days. This is the seventh book in the Thursday Next series, and there hasn’t been a new one in four years now, although it ends on a cliffhanger and reports that she will return. All I say to you now though is, if you haven’t read the ones before, then this is going to make even less sense to you than if you had. On we go.

Thursday Next has been forced into semi-retirement. Now in her early fifties, she has survived the kidnapping attempt of the previous book, but now she walks with a stick, has double vision a lot of the time, and is addicted to painkiller patches. With the news that SpecOps is about to be reinstated in an effort to use up as much of the country’s excess money in stupid ways as possible, she is sure that she’s in line to be the new head of SO-27, the Literary Detectives. After all, having worked for them for a long time, as well as spending several years inside literature, surely she’s the ideal person for the job. That is, if it wasn’t for Phoebe Smalls, who is younger, fitter and perhaps even more tenacious than Thursday.

Thursday is instead offered the job of heading up Swindon Library, a task that is somewhat more relaxed but still doesn’t come without its problems, such as the impending budget cuts, the Blyton fundamentalists who want all the racism put back into their novels to better represent their “perfect England”, and the fact that Goliath, everyone’s least-favourite multinational are after some specific and unusual antique books.

But, being a Thursday Next book, that’s not all.

Thursday’s son Friday has lost the job he never had with the Chronoguard and has been told he’s going to commit a murder at the end of the week; an angry god is planning on smiting Swindon on the same day, unless Thursday’s genius daughter Tuesday can find a way to prevent it; memories keep going astray and Thursday doesn’t understand the tattoo that’s appeared on her hand; there seems to be something going on within the Dark Reading Matter that contains all the stories that never got written; and Thursday herself keeps getting replaced by very lifelike synthetic versions of herself which is proving to be very annoying.

In the last book, we spent the vast majority of the time inside the BookWorld, emerging once to learn a little bit about what was going on in the Outland, and this time it’s the other way around. Because of Thursday’s injuries, she can no longer jump into fiction and instead must make do on this side of the page. This lets us explore more of the strange world of Fforde’s Swindon, bringing back Joffy Next, Jack Schitt and Daisy Mutlar, to name some of the characters. By this point in the series, you better have a firm grip on what’s come before as Fforde enjoys dropping in references to names and events from previous books without explanation.

He’s as funny as ever too, turning librarians into a task force of the military elite, who are regularly shot at by angry patrons and perform raids on private houses to get back the books that rightfully belong in their hallowed buildings. Despite writing off time travel as impossible two books ago, he’s obviously had a change of heart and it’s back and even stranger than ever, paradoxically working and not at the same time.

There are also some deeply dark moments in here, such as the Letters of Destiny which tell would-have-been members of the Chronoguard about the life they would have had and the one they now will. All the scenes involving Aornis Hades and her memory-altering powers are also incredibly powerful and actually quite terrifying. Thursday is an amazing protagonist, and seems almost unique in the canon of female heroes as being a mother, over fifty, highly intelligent, and still able to kick butt when necessary (or in a synthetic body).

I could languish in this world forever, if only for the puns, wordplay and beautifully constructed nonsensical sentences. Every scene is utter bliss, from Thursday’s father who until recently didn’t exist but now has memories of his family that they don’t share, to the Manchild, who has half of his body aging in reverse.

If you’re new to this world, get reading The Eyre Affair. You’ll thank me later.

“First Among Sequels” by Jasper Fforde (2007)

1 Comment

first_among_sequels“The dangerously high levels of the Stupidity Surplus was once again the lead story in The Owl that morning.

It’s been a while, for both myself and Thursday. I left her fifteen books ago and she returns here in the fifth book of the Thursday Next series, and things are a little different. As ever, there will be some spoilers in here for people who haven’t read the first four, though if you do feel like starting in the middle for absolutely no sensible reason, here would be the best place to start.

The book opens fourteen years after the end of the last one, and things are very different. Thursday Next is now 52 and still happily married to Landen, with three children, the perpetually lazy and smelly cliched teenager Friday, the phenomenally intelligent Tuesday, and the quiet, unsociable Jenny. SpecOps has been mostly disbanded, leading Thursday and her former colleagues without official work, so now they run a carpet fitting shop. Except this is just a cover – they’re still dealing with the “weird shit” that the regular police won’t touch. And this is a cover too – Thursday is still working for Jurisfiction, deep inside the BookWorld, where her own stories have now become books that she’d rather distance herself from. As ever in Fforde’s world, there are a lot of threads here.

Firstly, Thursday has to mentor her fictional selves, the hyper-aggressive and violent Thursday1-4, star of the first four Thursday Next books, and the hippie, museli-loving rewrite of the fifth, Thursday5. Secondly, she has to convince her son Friday to join the ChronoGuard where he is meant to become the most successful operative of all times, but he’d rather be playing in his band and sleeping in until midday. With the End of Time approaching, never has the phrase “running out of time” been more apt.

Thirdly, the government are introducing the idea of reality television into books, suggesting that they should be rewritten with people choosing how they want the story to run and which characters they want to kill off. With Pride and Prejudice up for first adjustment, there are a lot of worried people. It may be true that fewer people are reading than ever before, but surely this isn’t the way to get them back into literature? And then of course there’s the discovery that Sherlock Holmes has been killed, and there’s the possibility that a serial killer is running free through the pages of the BookWorld.

More than ever, the book is loaded with hilarious exposition, scenes that seem pointless and sometimes are just there for the humour, but other times load up some highly important information without you noticing. The book is notable for several reasons. One of these is for the greatest time travel twist I’ve ever seen in fiction. I won’t ruin it here, but it’s something that has to be seen to be believed and makes me laugh out loud. In fact, several concepts here are wonderful. Joining the time travel debacle is the idea that TK-Maxx isn’t a discount clothing store, but in fact a prison where criminals are kept in stable time loops, aging but unable to do anything more than live out the same few minutes for years on end.

Where was I? Notability, right. If it seemed unusual enough before that Thursday was a heroine in her mid-thirties, here she’s in her early fifties, and still kicking arse and taking names as much as she ever used to, even though her back is starting to hurt and she’s not quite as quick as she once was. An action heroine in her fifties? You don’t get that in Hollywood. Another reason why these books are sheer perfection. Fforde messes around with intertextuality, goes meta to greater extremes than displayed anywhere else, and yet all the nonsense still works with great humour and serious intelligence. There’s even a jaunt into an Agatha Christie novel in here, and because the books are now set in the early 2000s rather than the 1980s, there are references to more modern characters, including Temperance Brennan and Harry Potter (the latter being unable to attend a couple of scenes due to issues of copyright law).

I’m aware that my posts about Thursday Next and Jasper Fforde are little more than giddy fanboying, but frankly I don’t care. Read these books and join me in my madness – you won’t regret it.

“Time Salvager” by Wesley Chu (2015)

Leave a comment

time-salvager“A sliver of light cut through the void, shooting toward the center of the battle display.”

An ongoing theme of 2016 has been a fear for the future. Humans have always worried, but this year, with the terror of Brexit, several very high profile tragedies involving people from all walks of life, and a xenophobic madman just a few steps away from taking the most powerful office in the world, it makes anyone stop and think long and hard about what we might be stumbling into. I’ve been trying to give dystopian fiction because it feels too much like fact these days, but old habits die hard and that’s how I ended up in the horrendous future depicted in Time Salvager.

It’s 2511 and we meet James Griffin-Mars, a chronman who is one of an elite band of highly trained individuals who is employed to leap back in time and collect equipment that will help humanity in this future. The species is spread across the solar system, from Mercury to Eris, but it’s rapidly dying out. Heading back in time to collect energy sources and more mundane resources from spots in history that won’t alter the chronostream is the only way humanity is continuing to cling on. The Earth itself is poisoned and almost destroyed, with just a few cities left populated by scavengers and primitive tribes. The land, sea and air of our former home are all brown and grey, polluted and overrun with a plague that destroys everything it comes into contact with.

James is assigned a new task to rescue a power source from an oceanic rig in 2097, the year before World War Three started. If he succeeds in this job, he and his handler Smitt can retire to Europa and never have to work again. However, while there, he forms an attachment quickly to biologist Elise Kim, and when the rig begins to fall into the sea as history dictates, he breaks the first law of time travel and brings Elise with him back into the future to a world far grimmer than she could ever have imagined.

Now considered a fugitive, James must hide on the toxic wasteland that is Earth, in a city that once may have been Boston, and make sure that neither he or Elise are found by the ChronoCom, or worse, the megacorporation Valta. James may have some of the most advanced technology in history at his disposal, but it’ll take more than machinery to stay hidden and survive on that Earth.

Wesley Chu manages to neatly sidestep the question of how time travel actually works in this book, by having James explain that just because he uses it, it doesn’t mean he understands it. This is fair, really, because while I’m typing this on a laptop, I’d never be able to explain to a stranger exactly how it works. The vision of a brown, desecrated Earth is a terribly sad one, and the book suggests that life out among the planets isn’t much better. Humans have continued doing what they’ve always done – fought wars over resources – but we learn through neat exposition that the stakes always got bigger, whether humans were fighting for the rocky minerals of the asteroid belt, or mining the gas of Saturn and Neptune. Our knowledge of what happened between our time and 2511 comes piecemeal, explained to Elise by James. Humanity seemed to go through various phases, including one where the planet turned into something Orwellian for a while. Specific explanations of what the technology used by the characters are also fleeting, but you get the general idea.

James Griffin-Mars isn’t outstandingly interesting as a character. He’s plagued by guilt with all the people he’s left to die (chronmen must take resources from a point where it won’t affect the timeline, so it’s usually just before some major disaster was going to destroy the equipment anyway) and sees visions of some of these people. He’s also something of a cliched alcoholic who doesn’t like authority. He’s not entirely without redeeming features though. He’s brave and he certainly cares about (some) people, just often has a funny way of showing it. He also has the most character development throughout the novel, but it’s not much we haven’t seen before. The best characters are the two leading ladies, Elise Kim and Grace Priestly, the latter being the scientist who first drew up the rules of time travel and is almost worshipped by the chronmen and their organisation. They each lend James a touch of humanity, but in different ways, and allow us often to get a better grasp on what’s happening in this future.

Like most books set in dystopian futures, there is a note of hope in the text, especially towards the end, and a sense that while humans will almost always do the wrong thing first, they will eventually see the error of their ways and try to do the right thing, in their own slapdash, do-it-yourself style. Humans are the great survivors, and once more you get the impression that they’ll make it through this in one form or another.

A nice addition to the time travel canon, and definitely one for those who can’t get enough of this kind of stuff, but full to the brim with science fiction tropes. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing.

“Lost In A Good Book” by Jasper Fforde (2002)

2 Comments

It's my favourite place to go missing.

It’s my favourite place to go missing.

“I didn’t ask to be a celebrity.”

I’m back to Jasper Fforde and I’m going to open immediately by saying that if you haven’t read The Eyre Affair and care about spoilers then stop reading now. This book opens pretty much where the last one left off, so I will have to talk about the ending of the first book as a matter of course. In some series, this probably doesn’t matter, but in Fforde’s world, while each book contains the important information from previous novels, you miss out on a lot of character work and nuanced details.

So, spoilers ahead, you have been warned.

It’s a month since Thursday Next had chased down dangerous criminal Acheron Hades into Jane Eyre and accidentally changed the ending of the novel, and now she’s struggling with the pressures of fame when she’d much rather be spending time with her new husband, Landen. However, most of the time she finds herself caught between her duties at SpecOps (a genuine copy of Cardenio has been discovered), the villains of Goliath (their operative Jack Schitt is still trapped in The Raven), and Cordelia Flakk who is insistent that she does more press and publicity. But things are about to get a whole lot worse.

When coincidences start happening around her, Thursday starts to worry that she’s going mad. She attacks a Neanderthal who she believes has a gun, she is nearly crushed by a car, and just when things couldn’t get any worse, her husband is eradicated from time and now died when he was two years old. Only she has any memory of the fact that she was ever married, and everyone else is concerned for her health. Just when things couldn’t get anymore troublesome, she makes contact with a lawyer who works for the Jurisfiction, the organisation that polices books from inside the books. Thursday is assigned to be trained up as their newest member under the watchful eye of Miss Havisham (yes, that one) and must learn the ropes of the book industry.

And as if that wasn’t enough, the world is due to end in just over a week, and someone is after Thursday who makes Acheron Hades look as nasty as a kitten. Life would be so much easier if she was just allowed to sit back and get lost in a good book.

OK, so trying to write a coherent (and short) plot synopsis for a Jasper Fforde book is nearly impossible, so that’s as good as you’re going to get. As usual, there are so many threads going on here, but they still all make sense and tie together in such wonderfully implausible ways that you almost can’t get over the sheer nerve of the man. Thursday remains one of the greatest characters in literature, and this is where the books really start to come into their own, as we spend some time in the Great Library and meet the fictional characters who run the Jurisfiction, most notably in this book, Miss Havisham, the Cheshire Cat, the Red Queen and Commander Bradshaw.

It also introduces us to one of the most terrifying villains in fiction. With the abilities to mess with people’s memories, as well as affect the laws of coincidence and probability, this is one of the most horrifying people you could imagine meeting. Maybe you already have…

It is the Bookworld, though, that really shines through. I forgot how far into the book you get before Thursday actually makes it into the Great Library, but once you’re there, it’s clear that Fforde has never had quite so much fun. He populates the fictional world with characters who we know from the classics, as well as more of his own devising, and has them all as real as anyone from the real world. A particularly funny example is with Mrs Dashwood from Sense & Sensibility, who worries what the readers think of her and her husband. Miss Havisham is awesome; we’re more used to thinking of her sat in her ballroom wasting away in her wedding dress, but here she’s full of life and has a strange passion for sports cars, or indeed anything with a big motor. It also introduces some of the concepts that will become important later like pagerunners (characters who escape from their books) and the Well of Lost Plots (where all unfinished stories reside).

It’s a book that is hilarious and smart, certainly, but it’s so full of warmth and love too, and it really feels like settling down with an old friend, albeit a well-read friend who in equal measure likes to make you laugh, cry and quake with fear. Fforde seems to understand literature in a way that few others do, and he really, really loves books. It would be so easy to mock literature from the inside, but he doesn’t. It’s all done with passion and joy.

This series is a must for anyone who loves literature, and if that’s you, then get on with it.

“The Eyre Affair” by Jasper Fforde (2001)

4 Comments

eyre“My father had a face that could stop a clock.”

There is another 1985. In this one, literature and art are revered in the way that sport and religion are in our world. Criminals have turned their attentions to literary forgeries and art theft. Here, Richard III is performed with audience participation, Baconists go door-to-door insisting that Shakespeare didn’t write his own plays, and the truly dedicated have all changed their names to that of their favourite poet.

But because this is Jasper Fforde, there’s far more going on than just that. This is a world where time travel exists, vampires and werewolves stalk the streets, home-cloning kits have ensured that everyone has a pet dodo, the Crimean War is still raging, and a corporation called Goliath has a finger in every pie. Even then, I’m still simplifying. I’ve had to jump right in though because this world has been built so wonderfully from the bottom up, that I really have to try and stress what magic is going on in here.

Our heroine is Thursday Next, a literary detective (or LiteraTec) who has just been temporarily promoted. From her lowly position in SpecOps 27, she has been called upon to assist SO5, a department so shady that no one’s quite sure what they do. But this time they’re after Acheron Hades, one of the most evil men in the world; a man who does evil acts just for the sheer joy of doing them. He has no motive, he just wants the world to suffer. As a former student of his, Thursday is able to identify him, as everyone else is having trouble on that front. While Hades appears human, he has a number of particular powers, such as the ability to convince people he’s not there, to hear his name whispered from a thousand yards away, and to be undamaged by bullets.

Thursday’s uncle, the genius but forgetful scientist Mycroft Next, has just invented another wonderful device, the Prose Portal. It allows people to travel in and out of fiction and explore their favourite tales first hand. But such a device, in the wrong hands, would prove very dangerous indeed, and with both Goliath and Acheron Hades after it, Mycroft is in serious danger. When Hades traps Mycroft’s wife Polly inside a Wordsworth poem, he then sets about killing a minor character from Martin Chuzzlewit, demanding a ransom before he does any more damage. After all, Chuzzlewit is one thing – people will get over a missing lodger. But Hades has set his sights on bigger targets, and when he kidnaps Jane Eyre from her own novel, only Thursday is brave enough to step inside the novel and put right what went wrong…

This was the first Fforde book I read, and indeed the first one published, and it won me over immediately. I don’t actually know how or why it took me so long to get round to him. The idea of being able to leap in and out of fiction is heaven to me, and it gets explored in far more depth in the upcoming installments. It’s hilarious, smart, original and everything that a good book should be. If you hadn’t already guessed, I’m about to start off on some wild fanboying.

eyre 2Thursday Next is one of my favourite protagonists ever. Thirty-six years old, she seems different to so many heroes who have gone before her. She’s remarkably ordinary, a former soldier who suffered great loss in the Crimean War ten years before and is still struggling to get over it. Her biggest regret is losing her ex-lover, Landen Parke-Laine, and when he makes a reappearance in her life, she wants to set things right. Although some people probably complain that giving such an “action woman” a love story seems like it’s pigeon-holing women and saying they all want the same thing, I disagree. I’m against tacked-on love stories, but here it seems fitting. Besides, this isn’t Thursday risking it all for a man she’s just met – she and Landen have history. It never claims that this is what all women want, just what Thursday needs to be happy.

The extended cast are all wonderful. Acheron Hades is a great villain, although not my favourite in the Thursday Next series – she’s yet to come – and Thursday’s family are hilarious, not least the absent-minded Mycroft, and her time-travelling father, who has been scrubbed from history by his former colleagues after he went rougue in the Chronoguard (the department that cleans up messes in time) but still pops in to see his daughter from time to time. The other members of the SO departments including Spike Stoker, Bowden Cable, Braxon Hicks and Victor Analogy are also all superb, if only for their wonderful names – Fforde likes a name that serves as a pun. We also get to meet the cast of Jane Eyre, who are all too aware that they’re in a story. While Fforde resists giving Jane herself too many lines (he apparently didn’t want to mess too much with her out of respect), we do get to know Rochester very well.

It’s probably the fourth time I’ve read this book now – Rowling is probably the only author I’ve re-read more than Fforde – and every time I find something new in it; a joke I’ve missed, or some foreshadowing I ignored. Despite Jane Eyre being a key plot point in the book, this is the first time I’ve read The Eyre Affair after reading the original text, and while I loved it more than enough before, it makes it even better afterwards, to see Thursday skulking around the novel. Besides, at one point Thursday does explain the plot for Bowden Cable, so even those who haven’t read it can follow along. It’s such a clever concept, and Fforde does it with such skill that it’s a wonder this book isn’t better known. In some ways, I wish everyone knew about it, but in others, I like having a smaller, select group who seem to worship it.

The book has many lessons in it about the importance of literature, and love, but above all it’s consistently creative and plays with your expectations. Fforde has performed a miracle here, and throws so much into it that you race through wondering how all the plot threads will join up, if even at all. By the end, though, you can’t help be satisfied. Plus, it’s the only book I’ve ever read that successfully manages a car chase – they’re much easier in films.

It’s a must read for any lovers of literature at all, but in particular those with a love of the Brontës. After all, as Thursday herself says, “Governments and fashions come and go, but Jane Eyre is for all time.”

Older Entries