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: The Taxidermist’s Daughter, by Kate Mosse

cv_the_taxidermists_daughter

Available now in bookstores nationwide.

I haven’t read any of Kate Mosse’s books before and was told that I was in for a treat. She is most famous for her novel Labyrinth. Her latest book, The Taxidermist’s Daughter is a gothic fiction set just before World War One in a village in England. The book is rather fascinating − I’d love to spend some time with a book club discussing the themes in the book.

Connie Gifford lives with her father, the taxidermist, in a large house alongside the Fishbourne marshes, somewhat apart from the rest of the village. The house is also the workplace for the father’s now dwindling taxidermy business. While she is the taxidermist’s daughter, she is the only one in the household doing any taxidermy, as her father is a rather physically absent character spending his days drinking.

The profession of taxidermy holds them as separate from the community, and as it is no longer as desirable for families to have stuffed animals in the home, the business is seen as somewhat strange. Connie herself has lost all her childhood memories after a terrible fall as a child and suffers the occasional seizure as a result. Connie is portrayed as very self-contained individual, but never described as lonely. Her only thoughts are of her father, her work and trying to recover her memory. It is only when she finds something in common with a new acquaintance, midway through the story, that you get much sense of how lonely she is.

Why read this book? The setting is richly described and hangs heavily over the story. The setting is dark, omnipresent and a threat in itself. It is beautifully described. As I read I could vividly picture watching this on TV with a cast of well known British actors playing the key roles. Actually, when I think about it, the book feels like a TV adaptation of a book. I am left with a great sense of dark imagery, superficial understanding of the intentions or characters of those involved and a rather suspiciously neat ending.

The setting in this book is so richly described, often at the expense of character development. I excitedly read the last third of the book, as it was clear that the culmination of a natural disaster and the answer to ‘whodunnit’ would merge. I was rather let down. The answer to many of the questions of the book were simultaneously complex, straightforward and all were underdeveloped in the plot. The villians of the piece were barely known to me. This was a let down, but I think that I had started to feel as though the book was a standard crime story − and was disappointed when it didn’t really fit this kind of narrative. The book is rather more of a historical fiction with a very small snapshot into a few dramatic days in a village.

Taxidermy, naturally plays a part and contributes to the dark setting. It is clear that Connie sees her approach to taxidermy as an art. Her thoughts while preparing a bird:

“Connie turned the jackdaw over in her jackdaw_4hands, examining it thoroughly, and decided to continue. The flesh hadn’t become sticky and it was a beautiful creature; she didn’t want to let it go to waste. This was the moment when it would begin to transform from something dead into an object of beauty that would live for ever. The essence of the bird, caught by her craft and her skill, at one distinct moment.”

Her relationship with another character is cemented by their love of art − of finding beauty and truth in their work whether it is a stuffed bird, or painted portrait. I found it fascinating that both these characters have scenes where they are unsatisfied with their work.

A minor theme is that of justice. It is clear from the beginning of the book that a great injustice has occurred − but how differently those victimised by the event perceive a suitable punishment is fascinating to me. The central victim chooses a grotesque punishment for the offenders, but ultimately the punishments are attributed to something else, and the offender’s reputations are seemingly left intact. Those left behind just move on (and, given the epilogue is set in April 1913) you realise in the end that there is no happily-ever-after truly available.

For some fun, look at Twitter – #taxidermyselfie. It links with Kate Mosse’s website.

Reviewed by Emma Wong-Ming

The Taxidermist’s Daughter
by Kate Mosse
Published by Orion Publishing
ISBN 9781409153764