Book Review: Smoke, by Dan Vyleta

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_smokeI chose to read and review this book because of its intriguing premise – what if sin were visible? What if, every time you did (or even thought) something ‘bad’, your body emitted smoke?

Dan Vyleta’s new YA novel imagines a Victorian England where smoke has become not just the visual manifestation of sin but a tool of class oppression: upper-class people never smoke, working-class people smoke all the time. Rich people’s white clothing remains white; poor people’s clothing is covered in soot. (The middle classes don’t really appear, apart from the odd mention: “Burghers may smoke, once in a while. One does not expect better of them.”)

I found the premise of human smoke to be utterly fascinating, and a good thing too, because plot- and character-wise Smoke is almost completely run-of-the-mill. Keen YA readers will find all their favourite tropes: young people who have to save the world, a teenage girl torn between two male love interests (one of whom is kind and openly in love with her, and the other of whom is a sexy bad boy whose attentions are more ambiguous), adults who turn out to be untrustworthy and/or dangerous, etc.

Smoke opens in a vicious upper-class boarding school near Oxford where the children of the rich are sent to have the smoke beaten out of them. Our heroes are two schoolboys: Thomas (brooding, dark past, possibly a ‘chosen one’) and Charlie (helpful, kind, faithful companion). They are tortured by an older boy, the prefect Julius (cruel, entitled, arrogant). Over the Christmas hols they’re sent to stay with Thomas’s uncle, Baron Naylor, where they meet the baron’s daughter & third protagonist, Livia (pretty, and thus a romantic goal for both Thomas and Charlie; intelligent, self-disciplined to the point of aggravating piousness). Lady Naylor, a scientist and revolutionary, reveals that All Is Not As It Seems, that the aristocrats appear smokeless not because they’re morally superior but because they’ve found a way to game the system, and that the conspiracy to maintain the oppressive status quo goes All The Way To The Top. But can she be trusted? Our heroes must set off on a Quest to Discover the Truth!

Despite its occasional clunkiness, Smoke is an enjoyable read, with enough mystery and adventure to keep the reader turning pages. Although Vyleta seems to be more concerned with investigating the mechanics and meaning of human smoke than in the readability of his novel, this didn’t bother me, because I too found the whole concept intriguing.

Various adult characters serve as mouthpieces for different ideologies of smoke. The religious interpretation states that smoke is the manifestation of sin, and must be punished. The Enlightenment-inspired philosophers attempt to study smoke in a rational manner: “Every transgression leaves behind its own type of Soot and those versed in such matters can determine the severity of your crime just by studying the stain’s density and grit.” Maybe smoke is the symptom of a disease that science can cure? The Marxist interpretation says that smoke is a tool of class oppression: “Smoking ain’t a sin. It’s a weapon. Toffs use it to keep us down.” The humanist-socialist interpretation says that smoke is a natural expression of passion: “It’s the animal part of us that will not serve.”

At its best, Smoke is a fascinating alternative history that fully explores the central question, what if human bodies smoked? At its worst, it’s a trope-ridden YA novel that doesn’t quite manage to lift itself up from under the layers of plot strands and furious philosophising. An enjoyable light read.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Smoke
by Dan Vyleta
Published by Weidenfield & Nicolson
ISBN  9780297609933

Book Review: Women of the Catlins: Life in the Deep South, by Diana Noonan

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_women_of_the_catlinsThis wonderful collection of stories from the women who live in New Zealand’s deep South are treats for the soul. Each woman bestows on the reader a sense of peace as they share the day-to-day stories of their lives. It’s fascinating to read of the way they have built their lives in the Catlins – a wild and isolated natural, beautiful part of New Zealand.

The Catlins is known to some of us as a place you drive through on your way from Dunedin to Invercargill, others may not be entirely sure where it is. You may wonder what the fuss was about as you drove past on the main highway, but the secret of the Catlins lies beyond this highway. You need to make the time to turn off and head down those back country roads to see the rolling green farmland interspersed with native bush, and cold, windswept wild beaches abundant with penguins, seals and seabirds. With no-one in sight.

Catlins resident Diana Noonan shares some of the best, the worst and the most fascinating things about the lives of these 26 women, none of whom would think they were remarkable in any way, but for the magical place they’ve chosen to build their lives. Through Women of the Catlins, we sneak a peek into their lives. Their stories are the kind that you might get if you were lucky enough to run into them at the local store, share a pint at the pub, and get into conversation with them about the history of their place.

Rona Williamson may tell you how seafood was abundant back in the ‘30s, the water was clear and clean, and flounders lay flat and plentiful in the beds. She’d walk all the way out to the mouth of the river spearing them as she went – some were so large they wouldn’t fit in the pan.

Christine Mitchell grew up farming, shearing and horse trekking, far away from anything and anyone – an hour this way, an hour that, sometimes the travel can be annoying. She notes that it can be a lonely sometimes, but on the flip side, she wouldn’t trade the amazing bush and ocean views out of their living room window, plus the kids love it down on the farm. Christine says they don’t need things, she knows and feels they have all they need, with a warm house and a loving family.

What is particularly notable about these women is the reflections that make up their lives, as they live among the woodland, flowers, native bush, animals farmed and wild, coast, sea and hillsides, in weather warm, cold and windblown. Each of the women has a rich knowledge of local people, community, neighbours – concerts and dances in halls, farms, views and peace and quiet. It’s a kind of charmed life for those of us that live in the hustle and bustle of the city, and its not for nothing that many of us crave a simpler life more connected to the earth and the elements.

I wish to thank these women for sharing a piece of their lives with us, and Diana Noonan and Photographer Cris Antona for bringing it to life. This is a wonderful book for anyone who relishes the dream of a slower, more connected life – taking the time to smell the roses, and the fresh baking.

Reviewed by Amie Lightbourne

Women of the Catlins: Life in the Deep South
Edited by Diana Noonan, Photography by Cris Antona
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9781877578977