Review: “No Time Like The Past” By Jodi Taylor (Novel)

Well, since the weather was still annoyingly hot, I thought that it was time for me to read Jodi Taylor’s 2013 novel “No Time Like The Past”, since I was lucky enough to find an affordable second-hand copy of it online a couple of months ago and had been saving it for an occasion like this.

This is the fifth book in Taylor’s excellent “Chronicles Of St. Mary’s” series and you can find my reviews of the previous four “St. Mary’s” books here, here, here and here.

Plus, although this book is the fifth in a series, it can pretty much be read as a stand-alone novel, thanks to a lot of recaps throughout the story. However, a few scenes will have more emotional impact and/or make slightly more sense if you’ve read the previous books.

So, let’s take a look at “No Time Like The Past”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2015 Accent Press (UK) paperback edition of “No Time Like The Past” that I read.

The novel begins about a year after the events of the fourth novel, and the disaster-prone time-travelling historical research institute of St.Mary’s is pretty much back to normal. The story begins when oafish security officer Markham claims to see a person falling past one of the windows on several different occasions, yet a body is never found. So, naturally, Chief Operations Officer Madeleine Maxwell (or “Max” for short) is curious.

After a calamity-filled trip back to a Civil War-era version of St.Mary’s in order to investigate, the mystery is solved. However, there’s a lot more stuff for Max to do.

Not only does she need to organise a peaceful, uneventful and disaster-free (yeah, right…) trip to 1851 for most of the institute’s staff, but there’s also the matter of another treasure-grabbing trip to placate the institute’s sponsors, not to mention that several old enemies have turned up again and… worst of all… Max also has to plan the institute’s annual open day too…..

One of the first things that I will say about this book is that this series just keeps getting better and better. If you’ve never read a “St. Mary’s” book before, then the series is a little bit like a cross between “Doctor Who“, a more grown-up version of “St. Trinian’s“, a military sitcom called “Bluestone 42” and the comedy of Terry Pratchett and/or Douglas Adams.

Plus, not only does this instalment in the series have a more well-structured story with a brilliant balance of comedy, thrilling action and serious drama but it also does a few other interesting things too.

The most interesting of these is probably the opening segment of the story – which is almost a self-contained story in it’s own right. Seriously, the first 50-60 pages of this book could easily be a stand-alone novella and, far from being a distraction, this works perfectly. Not only does it get the story off to a reasonably strong start, but it also serves as a really good introduction to/recap for the series too – with the beginning containing all of the elements that make the series so great.

Seriously, this is one of those books that gets the story density absolutely right. Although there are quite a few sub-plots in this story, they are all linked together and follow on from each other in a logical way – with the emphasis firmly being on just one at a time, which helps to ensure that the story never loses focus. This is the kind of book that feels like watching an entire season of a TV show, whilst still being less than 300 pages long. Now that is good writing!

The novel’s comedy is even better than usual, with a really excellent mixture of eccentric humour, a couple of new running jokes (eg: Markham’s knowledge of classic literature), some well-placed slapstick comedy/farce, some cynicism (eg: Max’s comments about a variety of topics), lots of character-based humour, some brilliant pop culture references (eg: not only does the movie “Tremors” make an appearance, but there’s also a deliberately vague reference to Leon getting a fancy new screwdriver too) and a few other things like that.

The time travel/sci-fi elements are pretty cool too. The novel contains at least three wonderfully suspenseful parts where the characters either have to avoid causing time paradoxes and/or damaging to the timeline. Likewise, the novel also contains a good repertoire of historical settings that include a Civil War-era version of St. Mary’s, the great fire of London, The 1851 Great Exhibition, 15th century Italy and Ancient Greece.

The story’s moments of serious drama work really well most of the time too. Although a couple seem either a little bit over-dramatic or a bit under-dramatic, most of them work really well. However, some of these scenes will have a lot more emotional resonance if you’ve read the previous books in the series. Likewise, Max and Leon’s argument-filled relationship might seem a bit random or bizarre if you don’t know the characters well.

In terms of the writing, the novel’s first-person narration is as good as ever. Max is one of the funniest, most unique and most gleefully irreverent narrators I’ve ever read and this book is no exception. Plus, like in the other books in the series, the narration is informal and “matter of fact” enough to keep the story moving at a decent pace, whilst also being descriptive enough to add atmosphere to the story.

In terms of the characters, they’re as good as ever. If you’ve never read the series before, then expect lots of hilariously eccentric characters 🙂 Interestingly, although this novel does focus on Max and Leon’s relationship during several parts of the story, there’s a lot more focus on Markham (of all people) in this book than I expected. Plus, a couple of familiar villains also make a return too – and, although they don’t really appear for as long as I would have hoped for, both scenes are pretty dramatic.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really good. Not only does this novel manage to cram a lot of story into a gloriously efficient 291 pages, but the story’s pacing is a lot better than some earlier instalments in the series too. In other words, whilst you shouldn’t expect an ultra-fast paced story, the story moves along consistently at a fairly decent pace.

All in all, this is another great instalment of a great series. If you want a short, but story-filled, sci-fi novel that also contains lots of comedy, drama, thrills and cups of tea, then this one is certainly worth reading 🙂 Seriously, this is one of those book series that should be adapted to television, but would probably lose a lot if it did (since the narration is one of the major reasons this series is so good). So, if you want something that is like a great TV series, but better, then this book is worth reading.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would just about get a five.

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Review: “More Tales Of The City” By Armistead Maupin (Novel)

Well, I thought that I’d take a break from horror fiction and review a comedy novel today. This is mostly because, a week or two before I wrote this review, I was reminded of Armistead Maupin’s brilliant “Tales Of The City” series 🙂 Although I read the first novel in this series during the mid-late 2000s, I couldn’t remember if I’d read any more of them.

So, I found a cheap second-hand copy of Maupin’s 1980 novel “More Tales Of The City” online and decided to take a look at it. Although this novel is a sequel to “Tales Of The City”, it works reasonably well as a stand-alone novel (thanks to a few recaps). However, having some vague memories of the characters from “Tales Of The City” will help you get into the story a lot more easily.

So, let’s take a look at “More Tales Of The City”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the [2007-10?] Black Swan (UK) paperback reprint of “More Tales Of The City” that I read.

The novel takes place in San Francisco in 1977 and follows the inhabitants of a boarding house run by an old hippie called Mrs. Madrigal. It is Valentine’s day, so Mary Ann Singleton and her GBF Michael Tolliver are making hilariously irreverent Valentine’s day resolutions. After the events of the previous novel, Mary Ann has inherited $5000 from her previous boss. So, the two of them decide to go on a cruise to Mexico. Of course, after they spot a mysterious handsome man by the pool, they aren’t sure who should ask him out…

Meanwhile, Mona Ramsay decides to leave San Francisco. On the way, she meets a kindly old woman who is travelling to Winnemucca, Nevada and decides to travel with her. Of course, things take a slightly unexpected turn when Mona learns more about her travelling companion.

Meanwhile, Brian Hawkins is looking for a girlfriend and finds himself both spying on and being spied upon by a mysterious woman living in a nearby tower block. Plus, following the events of the previous novel, DeDe is several months pregnant with twins and her husband Beauchamp isn’t particularly happy about it, given that he isn’t the father….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is amazing 🙂 It’s a complex, relaxing and gleefully hedonistic comedy novel that is so much fun to read 🙂 In addition to having a wonderful atmosphere, amazing writing and brilliant characters, this is the kind of novel that has a level of personality and humanity to it that is comparable to Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” comics. In other words, this is a wonderfully quirky novel that will make you laugh out loud and cry with joy. It’s also an utterly brilliant piece of classic LGBT fiction too.

I should probably start by talking about the novel’s comedy elements. This novel contains a really good mixture of irreverent humour, character-based humour, cynical humour, social satire, complex humour, farce, parody (eg: the soap opera style storyline with DeDe) and eccentric humour. In addition to several laugh out loud moments, a lot of the novel’s humour tends to be more of a constant background thing that really helps to keep the story amusingly compelling throughout. Not to mention that some of the comedy comes from how all of the story’s various sub-plots connect with each other too.

And, yes, I should probably talk about this novel’s plot. Although the story does have one, it’s more like a collection of lots of sub-plots which are expertly interwoven throughout the novel (kind of like in a good sitcom episode). Although you may have to take notes at first, the juggling of several plotlines works really well and gives the story a level of realism and complexity that contrasts perfectly with the hilariously random, bizarre and occasionally contrived events of the story.

In addition to this, the novel’s plot also contains some more serious elements – like a detective thriller sub-plot later in the story, a sub-plot about Mona’s parents, a sub-plot about Michael’s ex and a medical sub-plot. These elements of the story contrast really well with the novel’s comedy elements and really help to add some extra warmth and humanity to the story too (and, yes, expect to cry during a few moments).

The novel’s characters are, in a word, superb. They’re an absolutely wonderful group of quirky, realistic individuals who I really enjoyed hanging out with whilst writing the novel. I could spend ages talking about the characters in this novel but they are certainly one of the story’s greatest strengths. Likewise, the friendships and relationships between the characters are also another major strength of this story too.

This novel is also an utterly stellar work of LGBT fiction too 🙂 In addition to lots of retro LGBT humour/in-jokes, this novel also includes lots of romance, a fairly realistic depiction of coming out (eg: something that has to be done multiple times in multiple situations), some brilliant dialogue segments (such as a letter that Michael writes to his conservative parents) and – for the time it was written – a surprisingly well-written transgender character too.

The atmosphere of this novel is brilliant too – in addition to the kind of locations that you’ll really want to visit, this novel has the kind of irreverently countercultural attitude and quirky atmosphere that really makes it feel like the story is taking place a mere 7-8 years after the 1960s ended.

In terms of the writing, Maupin’s third-person narration has a brilliantly unique voice and style. Maupin’s narration is a gloriously impish mixture of more formal, descriptive narration and much more irreverent informal narration. This is one of those novels that is worth reading for the writing alone 🙂

In terms of the length and pacing, this novel is really good. At 288 pages in length, it is concise enough to remain compelling throughout. Likewise, although most of the story is rather moderately paced, the humour and the many sub-plots keep the story compelling throughout and this is one of those novels that you’ll probably want to savour. Not to mention that a few mildly suspenseful thriller elements also appear in the later parts of the story too 🙂

As for how this thirty-nine year old novel has aged, it has aged really well. Yes, there are a few dated descriptions and story elements that will probably seem “politically incorrect” these days but, for the most part, this novel holds up surprisingly well when read today. A lot of the novel’s irreverent humour seems slightly ahead of it’s time (eg: I can’t believe this wasn’t written during the 1990s!) and is still brilliantly funny when read today. Plus, this novel shows a much more open-minded side of the 1970s too, whilst still having a charmingly “retro” atmosphere too. Seriously, this novel was ahead of it’s time!

All in all, this novel is brilliant 🙂 If you want the kind of novel which is not only fun, funny and compelling but also has an atmosphere, warmth and humanity to it that can sometimes be difficult to find in fiction, then read this novel. It was an absolute joy to read 🙂

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a solid five.