Review: Just One Damned Thing After Another

Book cover Just One Damned Thing After Another by Jodi TaylorJust One Damned Thing After Another by Jodi Taylor (UK link, US link) is a fun book that walks the border between science fiction and fantasy. For the most part, it feels like science fiction, with futuristic technology driving the plot, but there are hints at elements from mythology towards the end that lend it a fantasy air. It tells the story of St Mary’s, a historical research organisation with a difference. These historians actually go back in time. Technological developments allow them to go back and see what actually happened at major historical events, answer key questions, and take recordings of what they see.

The main character is Max, a historian who signs on as a trainee at the start of the book. She is surrounded by a mixture of academics, engineers, security staff, and medics, who are all disaster magnets and generally obsessed with getting a good cup of tea. It’s a lively story, told with a lot of humour and most of this humour comes from the interactions between the various characters. I did struggle sometimes to keep some of the minor characters straight, especially since they might be referred to by first name, last name, or nickname. There was a list of characters at the start of the book which served as reference and I found a big help, but it didn’t stop me from getting muddled now and then.

There are some dark moments in the book. While the tone through most of it is light, there are some dramatic events that stand in stark contrast and the emotion of these sections really works, probably because of the contrast. It makes them feel more raw and real.

On the whole, I’d say that this book is good entertainment. It’s an enjoyable read and very easy to get through. It’s a perfect holiday read for when you just want to relax with something amusing and fun. Where I think it struggles is in terms of a coherent plot. There are some plot threads that flow through the book as a whole, but there are times when the book feels more like a series of events rather than forming a solid whole. As the title suggests – it’s one thing after another. There are separate chunks of the book with their own focus and activities and I almost think it would have worked between if the author had made more of these distinctions, breaking the book into separate parts and treating each as a separate episode within the larger narrative. It did pull the plot threads together a bit at the end though, so this criticism is a fairly minor one.

I think the author assumed considerably more historic knowledge of the reader than I had. There were references to historic events which were largely explained. Some of these references I got, but others just passed me by. Someone with more of a background in history than I have would probably have enjoyed this more, as it was I could have done with a little bit more information about the things being referred to. Thankfully those that were more critical to the plot were explained, so it was mostly the off-hand comments and throwaway lines that I ended up missing.

Overall, I’d give this book four stars out of five. It’s not going on my favourites list, but I did enjoy reading it and I will look out for other books by the same author in the future.

Reading non-fiction

There’s a lot of advice out there for writers but one thing that comes up time and again is the advice to read. I whole-heartedly agreed with this advice. Read writers you admire and try to figure out what it is that they do that makes you like their work so much. Read books you dislike to try and figure out what it is that puts you off about it and avoid it in your own work. Read widely in the genre you write so that you can pick up on the tropes and cliches. Read in other genres to see how stories are crafted differently for different audiences.

But I would also recommend reading non-fiction. There’s a lot that can be learned from books that can be useful in your writing, but I’m not talking about researching a specific subject with a book in mind. Reading more broadly can give you a foundation of knowledge to build on when creating your fiction. Personally, I read a lot of popular science simple because I find it interesting, I’m also very keen on psychology, which I think is a really useful area for writers to read up on. As we create our characters, we want to have them feel believable, like real, solid people with personalities that make sense and whose actions are plausible in their circumstances. Even for those of us working in science fiction and fantasy, we want the characters to feel like real people. Reading psychology books can give us insight into what makes people act in certain ways and that can help as build more nuanced characters.

If you’re writing stories of political intrigue or dealing with the rulers of a fantasy land, it could be useful to read about historical rulers, but I would also recommend The Dictator’s Handbook, which I’m currently reading, a book all about the ways people gain and keep power, and the rules by which they’re able to rule.

There’s an old adage “write what you know” which a lot of writing coaches shy away from these days, but there is an element of truth to it. If you know a subject, you’re more likely to be able to write about it in a way that people believe in. At the very least, you can avoid the more obvious mistakes that will make experts on the subject cringe. If you want to follow this piece of advice, then the next step is to try and know more about as wide a range of topics as you manage. In other words: read more non-fiction.

Sumup

If you’ve followed my blog for a while, you’ll probably know that I sometimes get a table at conventions or gift fairs to sell copies of my books (and some miscellaneous other items to help cover costs because dealers tables at conventions are expensive). My latest convention was Cardiff Film and Comic Con a few weeks ago, and Birmingham Collectormania this weekend.

Until now, I’ve only ever done cash payments but now more and more people are expecting to be able to pay with card wherever they are (and I can’t blame them, because I’m so used to the convenience of cards myself). I decided it was about time I got myself a card reader.

I talked to a few of the vendors at Eastercon about what they use and one that was recommended to me by a couple of different people was Sumup, which was the cheapest around according to one of the people I asked. From my own comparisons of reader costs and commission fees, I think she was right. When you sign up for Sumup, you buy a small card reader, which is nicely portable, and which connects via bluetooth to a phone app (you need to have Android or iPhone). The app itself is very simple and you can enter manual payments or create a catalogue of sales items so you can quickly tap on items to put a sale through. You can also group your items/prices, so I can have separate lists of stock for Christmas fairs and for science fiction conventions, making it easier to find the items on the list when you’re making a sale.

I did have a little bit of a teething problem on my first sale – the phone app sat on the “connecting” screen for ages and couldn’t find the reader – but I restarted the phone and card reader and after that it all went through seamlessly, letting me take chip and pin payments and contactless. I had fun today when it found a couple of other people’s Sumup devices before it identified mine (the challenge when three stallholders within a few metres of each other have chosen the same service) but it was easy enough to get it linking to the right one and processing the sale. After a sale, there’s also an option to send a receipt by text or email.

I have an online dashboard to see my payment history and track sales and income. Sumup send money directly to me bank account within a couple of days of the payment going through. They charge a 1.69% fee on each transaction, so if I sell a book for £10, I will pay about 17 pence to Sumup which is not bad at all and good compared to the other options on the market – iZettle is 1.75%, as is Square, WorldPay and Paypal can be up to 2.75%.

I would definitely recommend getting a card reader if, like me, you sell your books at face to face events. There were a few sales I made at the last convention that were only possible because I had a card reader, and one person who was going to buy one book but when he saw I had a card reader decided to get two. I would be happy to recommend Sumup based on my experiences last week, and if you do go for it, they have a “refer a friend” scheme. If you click on this link (http://fbuy.me/iRKnc) and sign up, you get a discount on the card reader (the website says a £44 discount, but I only paid £29 for my card reader, so I’m not sure how that works) and for the sake of honesty I should probably admin that I would get a £10 fee.

These days, if you’re selling your books face-to-face, you’re going to miss out on sales if you don’t have a card reader of some sort.