Halfway through reading this book, I was considering telling a real life lie. I caught myself worrying my ‘smoke’ would betray me.
For that’s how tangible the magic spun in Vyleta’s world is. It’s Victorian England, but with a crucial difference: its inhabitants’ bodies emit smoke when they ‘sin.’ Sometimes light, pale plumes that can be wafted away in a second; sometimes foul smelling, bitter clouds seeping darkly from every pore.
The plot follows two friends, Charlie and Thomas, at boarding school: Charlie is so naturally kind and good that he barely smokes, Thomas can be shamefully stirred to a death-black soot by anger. It starts as a mystery, working out why Thomas smokes as he does, and develops into a quest to understand the nature, origin and meaning of the smoke itself - and, consequently, of ‘sin’.
Vyleta has a light touch with these big questions, and it’s that, combined with the subtlety and magic of his vision, that have probably inspired the comparisons to Philip Pullman. The book’s other main strength is the sweet teenage friendship between Charlie and Thomas, and the impact of a shared love interest, Livia - it may be this that drew the Harry Potter nods. But Smoke stands alone, comfortable in the Adult genre despite its teenage protagonists.
And it’s certainly gripping. Every now and again a book comes along that I’m so addicted to, I start to hate it. I resented this brilliant book, a lot. In no small part because its magic seeped into my non-reading consciousness as deeply as when I was lost in the pages.
But perhaps also because it never quite delivered on its marvellous promise. It gave enough at every turn to keep me hooked, and I was satisfied enough at the end, but I doubt any story could fully realise the dizzy heights of the wonderful world it was set in.
For me, the setting was enough. A chance to explore an intoxicating and magical alternative reality, while being grateful we escaped it: my little white lie got thorough and no plume of smoke betrayed me.
Published: 7th July 2016, W&N, Orion Publishing Group
Lead down dark paths of infatuation, need and circumstance to a brutal decision - would we make the right choice? What might we be capable of? These questions haunt both the main character and the book.
The Girls is a love story, a murder mystery and a coming-of-age tale, all propelled by a delicious moral ambiguity and a hopeful, lust-filled confusion.
Set in North California in 1969, it’s the tale of one particular 14 yr-old’s own personal Summer of Love - complete with long hair, flowing dresses and plenty of drugs. But Evie Boyd admits no opinion of politics, and despite being a stone’s throw from San Francisco she didn’t hang out in the Haight. Her Summer of Love was narrow, naive and personal: one girl - Susan, one place - the ranch. The rest just came with it.
Susan leads ‘The Girls’ of the title, a small tribe devoted to Russell - a character inspired by Charles Manson. The girls are first seen by Evie glinting through a buzzing, dazzling, summer haze: otherworldly and vaguely, unplaceably threatening. And that atmosphere soaks through the rest of the book.
Evie is always slightly blinded, and despite her own gains in confidence and self awareness she still fails to see the decay and rot setting into both her beloved ranch and its inhabitants. Let alone what that rot would lead to. For it’s not just the character of Russell that’s inspired by Manson, there are gruesome cult-influenced murders too.
The language in The Girls is beautiful: carefree, loose and creatively twisting to fit the confused feelings and half-grasped realities it describes. But when it needs to be brutal it can be: the murders every bit as sickening and disturbing as they should be. The triumph is that they’re believable. You can just about imagine the characters could have done it - which is quite an ask when they’re being depicted through a blur of Evie’s optimism, admiration and love. More interestingly still, is that somehow, deep down, Evie believes it too.
[Note: It shares a lot of themes and perspectives in common with Girls on Fire. I didn’t find it quite as challenging, heady, exhilarating, believable or disturbing, although it’s a little of all those things. It is also, crucially perhaps, a slightly more accessible read - perhaps for being a little less of all those things, and therefore less intense.]
Published: 2nd June 2016, Random House UK
As hooks go, I found this one irresistible: when a man accidentally shoots and kills a friend’s child in a hunting accident, he follows his Native American traditions and offers up his own son, LaRose, to replace him. The book supposedly deals with the fallout from both young Dusty’s death, and from LaRose’s separation from his family.
It does do both of those things, and to that it adds to that a strong seam of magical realism as it explores LaRose’s ancestry and his powers of communicating with the dead, AND a compelling and shocking personal history of the enforced assimilation of Native American children through harsh boarding schools.
But the strange thing about this book is that despite the dramatic premise, the dark, magical elements, and the shocking historical context, it is the everyday humanity of its beautifully drawn cast of characters that is its main strength and lasting impression. The unconventional and disparate effects of grief on Dusty’s mother, father and sister. The unique and delightful sibling bond between La Rose’s teenage sisters Snow and Josette. The delicate relationship between a boy and his estranged father. And the slow stagnation of good relationships.
So much is covered in this book, and all in a complex, detailed, solid and satisfying way. And at it’s core is the human ability to help or to harm - both so easily and unintentionally, and both with the potential for huge consequences.
Published: 10th May 2016, Little, Brown Book Group UK