Just One Damned Thing After Another by Jodi Taylor

I’ve been curious about The Chronicles of St Mary’s for a while; I enjoy anything to do with time travel, so I thought there was a good chance that I would like these books, but you can never be sure. That’s why, when the publisher made several of the books in the series available through NetGalley a few months ago, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to try the first one and see what it was like.

Just One Damned Thing After Another (the title is taken from a quote by Arnold Toynbee) introduces us to Madeleine Maxwell who, as the novel opens, is encouraged by her old schoolteacher and mentor, Mrs de Winter, to apply for the position of historian at St Mary’s Institute of Historical Research. Max, as she is known, is instantly intrigued; she has had a passion for history since discovering a book about Henry V and the Battle of Agincourt as a child. She applies for the job and is invited for an interview, but as she is shown around her future place of work, she quickly becomes aware that this is no ordinary academic institute…and that the historians of St Mary’s are no ordinary historians.

The Institute has developed a form of time travel which allows the historians to travel back in time inside fully equipped ‘pods’ in order to investigate some of history’s many mysteries – large and small – at first-hand. From “being able to say with authority, ‘Yes, the Princes in the Tower were alive at the end of Richard III’s reign, I know because I saw them with my own eyes’” to understanding the secret of Greek Fire and how to handle a Roman chariot, the possibilities are endless. But so are the dangers: pods that malfunction with terrifying results, hostile groups of rival time travellers, as well as all the other hazards you would expect to find on a journey into a less enlightened time. Max and her friends are constantly getting into trouble – particularly Max, who seems to attract disaster like a magnet – but they see it as a risk worth taking in return for being able to see and experience so many wonderful things.

We don’t learn a huge amount about any of the historical periods to which Max travels (only the Cretaceous period has a significant amount of time devoted to it), but that’s not really the point of the book. The enjoyment is in following the adventures Max and the other St Mary’s historians have as they travel through time – and in sympathising with Max’s various accidents and mishaps, some of which are her own fault, but certainly not all! The story is narrated in Max’s own strong and humorous voice, which adds to the sense of fun.

Apart from Max herself, though, I didn’t feel that I got to know any of the other characters very well, but maybe they will be developed further in future books. Although I don’t feel the compulsion to continue with this series immediately (I did enjoy meeting Max, but I think I would find it a bit overwhelming to spend too long in her company), I do still plan to read the second book and am looking forward to finding out where the historians will travel to next. And of course, now I’m wondering where I would choose to go if I had one of the St Mary’s pods at my disposal…

This is book 9/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.

Thanks to Headline for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Chocky by John Wyndham – #1968Club

When I read The Day of the Triffids earlier this year a few people recommended Chocky as my next Wyndham. Chocky was published in 1968 (developed from an earlier novella which appeared in the magazine Amazing Stories in 1963) so it seemed a perfect choice for this week’s 1968 Club, the latest of the events hosted by Karen and Simon in which participants read and write about books from a chosen year.

David Gore, the narrator of Chocky, becomes concerned when he overhears his adopted son, Matthew, having a conversation with what he assumes is an imaginary friend. Apart from the fact that Matthew is almost twelve years old and is surely past the age when he should be playing this sort of game, it also seems to be a very strange conversation, not the sort you would expect children to have. Soon Matthew is asking some unusual questions: Why are there only seven days in a week and not eight? Where is Earth? And, more bizarrely, why do cows stop?

David and his wife, Mary, have had some experience with this sort of thing. Just a few years earlier, their daughter Polly had been inseparable from her own invisible friend, Piff. They can sense, though, that this is different. While Polly – who had been five years old at the time – had been very much in control of Piff, it appears to be the other way round with Matthew and Chocky. Matthew is unable to tell his parents Chocky’s age, where Chocky comes from or even whether Chocky is male or female (he eventually settles on female). It’s all quite worrying for David and Mary who don’t know how to help their son – or even if he really needs to be helped at all.

Who or what is Chocky? Is she a positive influence on Matthew or a harmful one? And what should his parents do about it? This is a very short novel – about 160 pages in the edition I read – so I am not going to say much more about the plot. What I will say is that it’s not difficult to guess what is going on; I made my mind up about Chocky almost immediately and I was right. David and Mary, however, are unaware of the truth and so the interest is in watching them each try to deal with the situation in their own way. Should they just ignore all mentions of Chocky and hope she goes away, as Piff did? Do they need to get a doctor involved? The only thing they agree on is that, although Matthew doesn’t seem at all frightened or unhappy, his behaviour is certainly not normal.

I loved Chocky; it’s the perfect sort of science fiction for me – that is, for someone who doesn’t usually choose to read it! Like The Midwich Cuckoos (my favourite of the three Wyndham novels I’ve read so far), this book features ordinary people living quiet, uneventful lives…until something slightly out of the ordinary happens and shakes them out of their peaceful existence. The science fiction elements are subtle – in fact, until the final chapter, it’s as much a domestic novel about the relationship between parents and children as it is a science fiction one.

This was a great choice for 1968 Club and I’m already looking forward to my next John Wyndham book, whichever that will be. I have also read another book from 1968 for the club, but haven’t finished my review yet so that one will be coming later in the week.

~

More 1968 books previously read and reviewed:

Cousin Kate by Georgette Heyer

Usually I am able to post a list of books from the relevant year which I’ve previously reviewed on my blog, but this time I can only find one. It seems that 1968 books have not featured very strongly in my reading until now!

The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

A few years ago I read John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos and loved it, which was a nice surprise as I very rarely choose to read science fiction. It has taken me a while to get round to reading another book by Wyndham, but now that I’ve finally read The Day of the Triffids I’m pleased to report that I found this another enjoyable, if unsettling, read.

The story is set in a world very similar to our own, but for one small but very significant difference: the presence of a species of plant known as the triffid:

There must have been plenty of them about, growing up quietly and inoffensively, with nobody taking any particular notice of them – at least, it seemed so, for if the biological or botanical experts were excited over them, no news of their interest percolated to the general public. And so the one in our garden continued its growth peacefully, as did thousands like it in neglected spots all over the world.

It was some little time later that the first one picked up its roots and walked.

Apart from the ability to walk, another characteristic of the triffid is its long stinging arm with which it lashes out with unnerving accuracy at anyone who gets too close. At the beginning of the novel, our narrator, Bill Masen, is in a London hospital with a bandage over his eyes, having been stung in the face by one of these vicious plants. Because of this, Bill misses out on seeing a spectacular display of meteors which light up the sky with green flashes all over the world.

The next day, when he tentatively removes his bandages, Bill is relieved to find that no damage has been done to his eyes – but on venturing out of his hospital ward, which is strangely quiet that morning, he makes a shocking discovery. It seems that everyone who watched the meteor shower in the sky last night has suddenly and mysteriously gone blind, meaning that Bill is one of the few people left in the world who is able to see.

When I read The Midwich Cuckoos, one of the reasons I liked it so much was that the focus was on a small community trying to deal with the consequences of one strange occurrence and the ‘science fiction’ elements were quite subtle. With giant killer plants, flashing lights in the sky and sudden worldwide blindness, those elements are a lot stronger in The Day of the Triffids, but there’s still the same sense of the ordinary blending with the extraordinary.

It’s never entirely clear what caused the blindness – or the introduction of the triffid to the planet – but there are hints of biological and chemical warfare (it’s worth remembering that the book was published in 1951, in the early years of the Cold War). But maybe the causes are not really important; what is important is the reaction of the characters to the post-apocalyptic world in which they find themselves. And I found the way most people reacted quite depressing – fighting, rioting, looting shops and stealing food. The most memorable section of the novel, for me, was the part immediately following the onset of the blindness, where Bill leaves the hospital to find that the world – or London at least – has descended into chaos:

We had turned a corner to see the street seventy yards ahead of us filled with people. They were coming toward us at a stumbling run, with their arms outstretched before them. A mingled crying and screaming came from them. Even as we came into sight of them a woman at the front tripped and fell; others tumbled over her, and she disappeared beneath a kicking, struggling heap. Beyond the mob we had a glimpse of the cause of it all: three dark-leaved stems swaying beyond the panic-stricken heads.

Personally, I think the idea of seven-foot tall plants uprooting themselves and walking around the streets is terrifying enough without all the other things that happen in the novel! The triffids play a surprisingly small part in the novel, though; much more time is spent on the implications of the blindness, the opportunity for shaping a new society and the varying opinions of what that society should be like. The role of the triffids in the story, I think, is to show how precarious our position is in the world and how just one small change (such as the loss of our eyesight) can result in the conditions being right for another species to gain superiority.

Although I preferred The Midwich Cuckoos, The Day of the Triffids really is a fascinating novel. Now I need to decide which John Wyndham book to read next.

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

The Time Machine I don’t often read science fiction, but when I do I usually find that I enjoy it. H.G. Wells’ 1895 novel, The Time Machine, is an early classic of the genre and I’m sorry it has taken me so long to decide to read it – especially as I’ve previously read and liked two of his other books, The Island of Dr Moreau and Ann Veronica (although the latter is not science fiction).

The Time Machine follows the adventures of a Victorian scientist known only as the Time Traveller who believes he has created a machine which can travel into the past and the future. After describing his invention to a group of friends and explaining how it works, he announces that he intends to use the machine to explore time. Assembling at a dinner party the following week, the gentlemen await the appearance of the Time Traveller – who arrives late, looking dirty and exhausted, and proceeds to narrate an incredible story.

The Time Traveller tells of his journey to the year 802,701, a world populated by the Eloi, a race of beautiful, innocent, childlike people who, far from being the advanced society he had expected, are leading surprisingly lazy, directionless lives and appear to be weaker and less intelligent than ourselves. Due to a change in language, he is unable to communicate with them to find out more about their way of life, although he does form a friendship of sorts with an Eloi woman whose name is Weena.

Later, the Time Traveller discovers that the Eloi are not the only inhabitants of this futuristic world; another race of human-like creatures live below ground, only coming to the surface at night. Known as the Morlocks, these creatures are brutish and savage but appear to be carrying out all the work and industry which enables the Eloi to live their simple lives of leisure on the land above. They also appear to have stolen the time machine, which means that unless the Time Traveller can find a way to retrieve it, he could be trapped in the future forever!

The Time Traveller comes up with several theories to explain what is happening in this futuristic world, but has to revise his opinion as more information comes to light. He speculates that the human race must have evolved at some point into two species, the rich and privileged becoming the Eloi and the working classes becoming the Morlocks. The Eloi, he thinks, have led such comfortable lives and faced so few challenges, that they have had no further need to grow and adapt:

“It is a law of nature we overlook, that intellectual versatility is the compensation for change, danger, and trouble. An animal perfectly in harmony with its environment is a perfect mechanism. Nature never appeals to intelligence until habit and instinct are useless. There is no intelligence where there is no change and no need of change. Only those animals partake of intelligence that have to meet a huge variety of needs and dangers.”

I’ve always been intrigued by the possibilities of time travel and although I personally would be more interested in visiting the past than the future, I find it fascinating to see what people think the future will hold. Remembering when this novel was published, Wells’ vision of a future world has been developed from some of the issues which would have seemed relevant at the end of the 19th century, such as widening class divisions, theories of evolution and Darwinism. It’s a bleak and depressing view of the future – and if that really is what we have to look forward to, then imperfect as our current society may be, I’m very glad to be living in 2016!

While I enjoyed reading The Time Machine, I thought there could have been more to the story. I hadn’t realised it was such a short book (there are just over 100 pages in my edition, so it can easily be read in a few hours), and I would have liked it to have been a bit longer which would have allowed some of the ideas in the novel to be developed in more depth. Still, I’m pleased to have read such an important and influential science fiction novel and will think about reading more of Wells’ work at some point.

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

Kindred Kindred begins in 1976 with our narrator, Dana, celebrating her twenty-sixth birthday with her husband, Kevin. Suddenly Dana begins to feel dizzy and disappears from the room, finding herself kneeling by a river watching a young boy drowning in the water. She manages to rescue the boy before the scene in front of her vanishes and she is back in her own home, wet and muddy. After another similar experience, Dana becomes aware that she is somehow being drawn back in time to the early 1800s and that the boy she has saved is Rufus Weylin, one of her own ancestors.

Dana is transported back to the past again and again to find that on each occasion several years have gone by and Rufus is growing from a man to a boy. It seems that the purpose of Dana’s time travel is to rescue Rufus every time he finds himself in danger – but she quickly discovers that as a black woman in Maryland in 1815, her own life could also be at risk. To make things worse, Rufus is white and the son of a slave-owner. She’s not sure whether she can trust him, but she knows that she must continue to protect him if she wants to ensure her own future survival.

This is the first time I’ve read any of Octavia E. Butler’s work, though I’ve heard a lot about her and knowing that she was one of very few black female authors of science fiction made me even more interested in trying her books. I was particularly interested in reading Kindred, as it’s such a well-loved, highly regarded novel, and I’m pleased to have finally had an opportunity to read it because it was excellent.

At first, with her knowledge of the future and the freedom and independence she has there, Dana feels very different from the slaves she meets on the plantation. But the longer she spends in the past, the more she discovers “how easily people could be trained to accept slavery” and is horrified to find herself adapting to her new life and becoming increasingly reluctant to resist, knowing that it’s the only way to avoid punishment. On one of her journeys back in time, her husband, Kevin, is able to accompany her. This adds another angle to the story as Kevin is just as outraged by slavery as Dana is, but being both white and male he finds himself in an entirely different social position.

The relationship between Dana and Rufus is particularly interesting (as Dana herself muses, “slavery fosters strange relationships”). Although both Rufus and his father before him commit some acts of appalling cruelty, they are not portrayed as completely evil people. There are indications, particularly in the younger Rufus, that he has the potential to be a good person but as the years go by he finds it more and more difficult to think and behave any differently than he has been brought up to think and behave. Even the special bond he shares with Dana is strained as he becomes corrupted by the power he has, as a white man, over those he considers inferior.

I don’t know what Butler’s other novels are like, but this one is as much historical fiction as science fiction. We learn very little about the actual technicalities of Dana’s time travel and are never given a scientific explanation as to why it might be happening. The time travel is really just a device to get Dana into the past and explore what it was like to be a slave from the point of view of a modern day black woman. I have read other novels that deal with the subject of slavery but never from this perspective. It was fascinating and really helped me to understand what slavery was like (as far as it’s possible to understand without actually experiencing it yourself). I loved this book!

I received a review copy from Headline via Bookbridgr

The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham

The Midwich Cuckoos The Midwich Cuckoos begins as our narrator, Richard Gayford, and his wife, Janet, attempt to return to their home in the quiet English village of Midwich after a trip to London to celebrate Richard’s birthday. As they approach the village they discover that the road has been closed by the police; something very strange is happening in Midwich, a place where, as Richard tells us, things just did not happen. That night, Monday 26th September, everyone within the boundaries of Midwich has fallen asleep and anyone who tries to enter the village also loses consciousness.

The next day this phenomenon, which becomes known as the ‘Dayout’, disappears as suddenly as it arrived – the invisible barrier is lifted and people begin to wake up. At first it seems that most of the villagers have been completely unharmed by the ‘Dayout’, but a few months later they make a shocking discovery. Something did happen during their twenty-four hours of unconsciousness and it’s going to have a big effect on the lives of everyone in Midwich.

I’ve decided to end my summary of the plot here rather than tell you exactly what happened to the people of Midwich. I’m sure some of you will already know (maybe you’ve seen the film based on the book, Village of the Damned, or maybe the title of the book and the cover of my old Penguin edition pictured here have given you some clues) but I don’t really want to spoil things for anyone new to the story so I won’t go into any more details. All I will say is that I thoroughly enjoyed this book from beginning to end!

I don’t often choose to read science fiction (looking back through my blog archives I can only see five or six that I’ve read since 2009) and I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book, but The Midwich Cuckoos was probably the perfect type of science fiction for me – instead of being filled with too much action or violence, it’s a subtle, thought provoking portrayal of a small, seemingly normal community trying to cope with something that is threatening their way of life. I think it was the ordinariness of the setting that made the story so effective; this, combined with Wyndham’s thoughtful, undramatic writing style, made it possible to almost believe in what happened in Midwich, while also creating quite an eerie atmosphere.

The only problem I had with this book was that I didn’t feel any connection with the characters. The narrator himself doesn’t have a big part to play and is actually absent from the village for long periods of time, leaving large portions of the story to be told through second-hand accounts, particularly through the philosophical musings of one of the Midwich residents, Gordon Zellaby. It was also disappointing that despite the women of Midwich having such an important role in the story, we never really get to know any of them and they are rarely given a chance to participate in any of the discussions or decisions being made by the men. But although there were a few aspects of the book that I thought could have been better, I did love my first John Wyndham book and am now wondering which one I should read next.

The River of No Return by Bee Ridgway

The River of No Return If you met Nick Davenant you would probably think he was a normal, unremarkable young man, enjoying life in 2013 as the owner of a dairy farm in Vermont, whose biggest worry is a visit from the cheese inspector. But once, Nick Davenant was Lord Nicholas Falcott, Marquess of Blackdown, an English aristocrat who fought in the Napoleonic Wars.

With an enemy soldier about to kill him on a Spanish battlefield one fateful day in 1812, Nick jumps forward almost two hundred years into the future and finds himself waking up in the twenty-first century. Here he learns that he is now a member of ‘the Guild’, a secret society of time travellers like himself. With the help of the Guild, Nick is able to adapt to modern life and accepts that there can be “no return”. Then one day Nick receives a letter from the Guild summoning him to London, where he is informed that they are going to break their own rules and send him back to his own time on a very special mission…

Back in the nineteenth century again, Nick meets his old friend, Julia Percy, who lives at nearby Dar Castle. In Nick’s absence Julia’s grandfather, the fifth Earl of Darchester, has died and her greedy, brutal cousin Eamon has become the new Earl. Grandfather had a very unusual ability: he could manipulate time, and Julia appears to have inherited this special gift. And when she discovers that Eamon is searching for the Talisman, an object he believes will give him the power to control time, Julia decides not to tell anybody about her secret talent.

I’ve always enjoyed books with a time travel element and The River of No Return is one of the most original and imaginative I’ve read for a long time. This is a time travel novel where the manipulation of time forms a big part of the plot – jumping forwards in time, jumping backwards in time, freezing time, speeding time up and slowing time down. However, after Nick’s initial jump into the future and then back again, which all takes place during the first third of the novel, we don’t actually see much movement between the centuries. The majority of the story is set in Regency England, a world where people travel by horse and carriage, where girls look forward to going to London for the Season, and where the Corn Bill is being debated in Parliament. As a fan of historical fiction who enjoys reading about the Regency period, I was very happy about this and in fact, it wasn’t until Nick left the modern day behind and returned to the past that I really found myself being pulled into the story.

The book did feel a bit too long and I thought there were too many lengthy conversations about the mechanisms of time travel, but overall, after a slow start, I thought this was a great debut novel – not purely science fiction, fantasy, romance or historical fiction, but a mixture of all four. The ending felt very abrupt and left me wanting to know more, so I hope Bee Ridgway is planning a sequel. I would happily read more of Nick and Julia’s adventures.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley for review.