The Machine was my first foray into the work of James Smythe, and as such I didn't know what to expect...moreThis review first appeared on IwishIwasabook.com
The Machine was my first foray into the work of James Smythe, and as such I didn't know what to expect. What I discovered was one of the most interesting, compelling and affecting novels I've read in some time.
Beth lost her husband Vic to the Machine, a device designed to remove selective traumatic memories from his time in some unknown war. Instead it stripped him of everything that made him human, leaving him vacant, a shell. Now it's the only think that can bring him back.
It's not a happy tale, let's make that clear right now. There's a fog of despair that seeps into every aspect of the plot, from Beth's guilt and pain of loss, to the flood ruined, globally-warmed near-future in which she lives. There's very little happiness in the world. And that's like cat-nip to this reviewer. Smythe could have set the story at any time or place, and Beth's struggle would still have been touching, but the fact that the state of the world at large directly reflects Beth's own personal plight resonates strongly. Her quest to bring back her husband is the only slight glimmer of hope in an otherwise bleak and friendless world.
The plot is insular, as well. It rarely strays from Beth's quiet life at home in her unloved flat or the school where she is overworked and under-appreciated. This too is mirrored by the setting, with Beth living on a version of the Isle of Wight that resembles a slum more than a holiday resort, cut off from the rest of the world by swelling water.
And that's what The Machine is about. Distorted reflections. Beth may get her husband back, but will it ever truly be him? Or just some copy, close but never quite right. Hollow. Broken.
It's a surprisingly brutal story as well. Not so much with violence - though it does feature towards the end – but with the harsh truths of life. Beth's role as Vic's carer is detailed with no holds barred. We experience everything it involves, from cleaning him after he has soiled himself, to how she views him, this vacant shell that she used to love. It's intimate and personal, and Smythe never holds back.
It's a credit to Smythe's writing that he can address these tough themes - from global-warming to street gangs, from care work and social responsibility to religion and the nature of the soul – in such a frank and emotional way, yet keep the book so readable. And it really is: I devoured the 328 page novel in a couple of days, compelled to discover more Beth and Vic, more about the world they inhabit, and, most of all, more about the Machine.
Ah yes, the Machine. I love it when authors create a character from inanimate objects or buildings, and Smythe did a great job with the Machine (never referred to as anything other than the Machine). It's a constant presence, huge and over-bearing in Beth's spare room, humming and whirring, radiating its presence, never allowing you to forget that it is there. The source of Beth's pain, but also her only comfort. There's something so ominous about it, something intangible, something... alive.
The Machine by James Smythe is a dark, dreamlike (or maybe that should be nightmarish) delight to read. There's something ineffable about it, yet so grounded in reality. Smythe is undoubtedly a talented author, and I look forward to appreciating his work again soon.
I was really surprised by I am Legend, having expected something akin to the film. Thankfully it was nothing ali...moreRead this in two sittings. Fantastic.
I was really surprised by I am Legend, having expected something akin to the film. Thankfully it was nothing alike in plot, style, feel or theme, and it is one of the most original vampire books I've read.
Really recommend to anyone sick of the usual vampire/zombie/whatever apocalypse book. Bleak, raw and sometime terrifying. Loved it.(less)
Every inch of Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig screams pessimism. It lingers around the story, the characters, and even the back water towns in which it is...moreEvery inch of Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig screams pessimism. It lingers around the story, the characters, and even the back water towns in which it is set, like a cloud of noxious cigarette smoke blown from our heroin Miriam's sin-ridden lips. And yet, despite all the darkness, despite the death and the bleak world view, there is a sliver of light that manages to squeeze through.
That's what makes Blackbirds so fantastic (and yes, it really is fantastic). It is a murky book full of death and decay, but there is always a ray of hope - usually in the form of big Louis, one of our (anti?)hero's love interests. This ray of hope keeps you reading, keeps you guessing, maybe, just maybe, it will all turn out ok in the end.
Blackbirds is funny, too. Really funny. Dark funny, grotesque funny, but always funny. That's important, because with all the gritty, nasty drama in this novel it is bordering on depressing, and depressing doesn't make for a good read. Thankfully Miriam is so brazen, so bolshy, that she manages to have you laughing out loud in even the most perilous situations.
The pace of the book is pitched just right. We race around on a mad road trip with our heroin as she bounces from one hell to another, being chased by killers, seeing the horrific fates of friends and strangers alike, but it is slowed and steadied by a series of interludes. Some of these take the form of bizarre dreams featuring ghosts with crosses of electrical tape for eyes, others fill in back story for our villains, and the best of all take the form of an interview Miriam does, presumably a while before the start of the book. They help to ground the story and give some much appreciated history.
One slight let down is the novel's main antagonist Ingersoll, or “Hairless Fucker” as Miriam calls him. He is a bit of an evil villain cliché. An emotionless, hairless businessmen, who could be from countless books and films. Thankfully his righ-hand-woman, Harriet, is much more interesting. She is dead inside, and all she lives for is causing pain and suffering to anyone and everyone. Plus, her interlude that explains how she became who she is is fantastically gory.
The concept of Blackbirds is simple: Miriam Black knows when you are going to die.
Still in her early twenties, she's foreseen hundreds of car crashes, heart attacks, strokes, suicides, and slow deaths by cancer. But when Miriam hitches a ride with truck driver Louis Darling and shakes his hand, she sees that in thirty days Louis will be gruesomely murdered while he calls her name.
Miriam has given up trying to save people; that only makes their deaths happen. But Louis will die because he met her, and she will be the next victim. No matter what she does she can't save Louis. But if she wants to stay alive, she'll have to try.
This is urban fantasy, but done in a fresh, bloody, broody, exciting and exhilarating new way. Blackbirds is one of the best books of the year so far, and a real must read.
Florence & Giles by John Harding is a tale of isolation, fear, madness and risen spirits. It is simultaneously a classic ghost story and a modern...moreFlorence & Giles by John Harding is a tale of isolation, fear, madness and risen spirits. It is simultaneously a classic ghost story and a modern psychological thriller, with a truly unique narrator. What at first seems to be a fairly standard story of a lonely child living a secluded life in a haunted house soon turns into an intriguing, compelling, spine-tingling and original story that is impossible to put down.
Florence, our narrator, is an instantly likeable enigma, with her own take on the English language with which she narrates and a strange isolated existence. She lives out her quiet life with her younger brother in a mansion in the country with only the servants and the books she is forbidden to read for company. This quiet life starts to fall apart when their governess is killed in a confused boating accident. With her replacement, Miss Taylor, comes a series of inexplicable and sinister events that lead Florence to believe she is a malevolent spirit come to torment Florence and steal away Giles.
The plot is subtle, possibilities are suggested, never stated, and nothing is ever quite as it seems. As the story continues it gets harder and harder to sit back passively and be a passenger in the story, as threads start to come together and beliefs are conflicted. It becomes impossible not to start to make our own conclusions, regardless of what is being told to us. The reader is left to make up their own mind about what is real and what is not, what is truth and what is fantasy, something that makes a chilling tale like Florence & Giles all the more special.
The tension builds gradually, with a battle of wills taking place between Florence and the governess, until it crescendos into a tense, thrilling and brutal finale that will leave you faintly dazed and fully disturbed.
Urban fantasy that I read and love, that of Jim Butcher, Kelley Armstrong and others, tends to be American. American in terms of the author and settin...moreUrban fantasy that I read and love, that of Jim Butcher, Kelley Armstrong and others, tends to be American. American in terms of the author and setting, but also in terms of the feel of the book and the prose. This is fine, but it often leaves me feeling a little left out, thanks to references to places or people that I have never heard of. I think that is how Ben Aaronovitch feels as well. But with his latest book, Rivers of London, he has turned the tables.
Rivers of London is a murder mystery, urban fantasy style, and does a cracking job at mixing magic and monsters with good old fashioned policing. What makes it unique, however, is the London-centric writing, where the big smoke is as much a character as anyone else.
So, London as a character. This really is the case. Barely a page goes by before Aaronovitch mentions a place, a building or a shop name, trying to keep you completely aware of our hero's position. This is fine for most Londoners, and those of us who are familiar with the layout of the city, but I'm certain it would become a nuisance for people who do not. Why, for instance, can't we just be told that he gets off the tube near St Paul's Church, rather than telling us that he gets off the tube at Covent Garden, which is on the Piccadilly line, between Leicester Square and Holborn?
Still that is only a small gripe, and there are not that many others. Yes, the characters do tend to accept the existence of magic a little easily, and yes there is a distinct lack of actual fireball & lightning magic taking place, but these things do not take away from the fact that Rivers of London is a genuinely intriguing book, with a fun and bloody story.
Our hero is a little wooden, although likeable, as is his best friend Leslie, but many of the supporting characters such as the mysterious Molly - housekeeper and some sort of demonic entity - and the river spirits like Mother Thames and Beverly Brook, more than make up for this. There's also a trusty dog sidekick, which is always welcomed!
It is not an epic, nor is it a must read, but it is good fun and well worth a look. There are more books in the series, which will be released quickly throughout the year, and I for one will await them eagerly.