Thursday, November 10, 2016

Review: Just One Damned Thing After Another

Just One Damned Thing After Another Just One Damned Thing After Another by Jodi Taylor
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This one is in love with its premise – premises, actually – and I can mostly forgive it for that.

To start with, the foundational idea here is a lot of fun. A group of researchers unearth lost history by using their time machines to go back and record events otherwise lost to time. They work with a kind of rigor, and they have all sorts of adventures just keeping their offices in working order.

The idea of such time travel is necessarily contrived. They can, for instance, go back in time but not interfere (standard time travel stuff) but they are also unable to bring back artifacts. They can only observe. Until [SPOILER], that is, our protagonist makes the realization that they can bring back things that, in their own time, have no future. That may be a mostly burned and spent pine cone, and it might be a manuscript removed from the Library of Alexandria just before it would otherwise be incinerated.

Such insights almost always bother me: if the author is making such contrived rules in the first place, I feel she ought to live within them. Changing them to set up the climax seems like cheating.

Still, there is a lot of fun in the way our heroes set off for “one damned thing after another” and eventually run into historical settings. It might be better if there were more coherence to their travels – they jump from dinosaur era to Roman Egypt to Shakespearean England without sustaining any particular research project – but I can’t be too much of a spoil sport. The book moves with a nice, quirky narrative pace, and that covers over a number of possible complaints.

The second premise here is even better: our narrator is a spunky young woman who turns out to be much tougher than we originally think. Sure she falls for one of the other guys, but he falls first. She could almost take or leave him. And sure she turns out to save the day – days actually – but, while there’s a lot of luck, it’s usually due to her rare capacity to keep her cool.

We see that same calm-and-funny-in-the-face-of-danger demeanor when she’s just learning how the kooky place works. Others are always surprised; she’s unflappable. And her narration is shaped by that sensibility and by a sustained sense of humor.

The tone gets strange here. We deal with miscarriage, sudden violent death, and sociopathic killers in the same breezy way we get reports of office hijinks and spontaneous sex. Or, there’s the quick line I really enjoyed from early in the book, “Sex was like scratching a rash. It felt good when you stopped.” Or the perhaps even funnier one when, being flirted with by her soon-to-be-lover who’s just teased her about being a terrible driver, she jokes, “Pull over and I’ll give you the blow job of your life.” Without additional explanation, we get, “And then we hit a tree.”

So, bottom line, there’s a refreshing strangeness counterbalanced by a seeming lack of planning and that uneven tone. I hear it’s a smash in England and that it has a host of sequels. I can’t see myself going any farther with this, but I can understand why it would be someone else’s cup of tea.

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