BOOK REVIEW: Smoke, by Dan Vyleta

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BOOK REVIEW: Smoke, by Dan VyletaTitle: Smoke: A Novel by Dan Vyleta
Published by Doubleday
Published: May 24th 2016
Genres: Fiction
Pages: 448
Format: eBook
Source: Edelweiss
Goodreads

England. A century ago, give or take a few years.
An England where people who are wicked in thought or deed are marked by the Smoke that pours forth from their bodies, a sign of their fallen state. The aristocracy do not smoke, proof of their virtue and right to rule, while the lower classes are drenched in sin and soot. An England utterly strange and utterly real. An elite boarding school where the sons of the wealthy are groomed to take power as their birthright. Teachers with mysterious ties to warring political factions at the highest levels of government. Three young people who learn everything they’ve been taught is a lie—knowledge that could cost them their lives. A grand estate where secrets lurk in attic rooms and hidden laboratories. A love triangle. A desperate chase. Revolutionaries and secret police. Religious fanatics and coldhearted scientists. Murder. A London filled with danger and wonder. A tortured relationship between a mother and a daughter, and a mother and a son. Unexpected villains and unexpected heroes. Cool reason versus passion. Rich versus poor. Right versus wrong, though which is which isn’t clear.

Dan Vyleta’s Smoke is what you would get if you crossed Henry James with Philip Pullman and is set it in some post-apocalyptic Victorian-ish England in which Smoke is the manifestation of humanity’s emotional existence – the soul, the spirit, some other sublime aspect of ourselves. London itself is a cesspit of Smoke and Soot, running rampant with all sorts of behavior. There is a lot of interplay with levels of class, with the ideas of right and wrong, and with adhering to social expectations of propriety or letting go and running with base emotions.

Smoke is never fully defined with no origin story or full resolution by the end. Readers looking for a solid beginning and end will not find that here. Smoke is something that came into existence a few hundred years before this story began, and society’s leaders rewrote history to include the existence of Smoke as if it has always existed. The upper class are allowed to rule and govern because they are pure and restrained, while the lower class must rot in Soot and Smoke. But it’s discovered that the upper class, especially the ones who control the power with money and influence, have ways in which to control the Smoke through special candies developed to absorb all release of the body’s Smoke. Conversely, the upper class have devised a cigarette in which one can enjoy the pleasures of Smoke without entirely being consumed by it (at great expense, of course).

Three school-aged people – Thomas, Charlie, and Livia – discover the lies in which their society lives and go to great lengths to find some kind of resolution. It might seem a bit anticlimactic to those who are unfamiliar with British literature and/or culture or the Gothic genre, but it is quite liberating if one is on the side of the young ones. Embracing the Smoke, ultimately embracing emotion (passion, anger, yearning, courage, etc.), is where one finds personal freedom.

I should add that the description advertises a love triangle. Without any spoilers, it’s the first time I’ve been wholly pleased with the outcome of that love triangle at the end. Writers, take note.

Vyleta’s immensely detailed descriptions evoked that style of Henry James, the social commentary reminded me a bit of Dickens, and the use of the elements and religious tyranny with children discovering the truth reminded me of Pullman. Stir in a pinch of Collins, a dash of Doyle, and a handful of soot, and you’ve got Smoke. It’s one of the best books I’ve read all year.

Thanks to Edelweiss for the review copy!

BOOK REVIEW: The Swans of Fifth Avenue, by Melanie Benjamin

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BOOK REVIEW: The Swans of Fifth Avenue, by Melanie BenjaminTitle: The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin
Published by Delacorte Press
Published: January 26th 2016
Genres: Fiction
Pages: 368
Format: eBook
Source: Netgalley
Goodreads

Centered on two dynamic, complicated, and compelling protagonists—Truman Capote and Babe Paley—this book is steeped in the glamour and perfumed and smoky atmosphere of New York’s high society. Babe Paley—known for her high-profile marriage to CBS founder William Paley and her ranking in the International Best-Dressed Hall of Fame—was one of the reigning monarchs of New York’s high society in the 1950s. Replete with gossip, scandal, betrayal, and a vibrant cast of real-life supporting characters, readers will be seduced by this startling new look at the infamous society swans.

Melanie Benjamin’s The Swans of Fifth Avenue is a delightfully gossipy look into the lives of a handful of New York City socialites and Truman Capote from the 1950s to the 1970s. Admittedly, I knew nothing of Truman Capote’s life outside of the film Capote with Philip Seymour Hoffman, and even then details are a little bit fuzzy. I know he wrote In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s with a smattering of short stories, but other than that, I’m a bit lost. I think that helped me a bit with the novel, going into it without knowing much, because it helped shape that fairy tale sort of quality I found in it.

I really liked Babe, and I like that she found some companionship and love in her friendship with Capote. I liked the life Benjamin brought to each of the women Capote befriended. Parts of the novel were told through the eyes of each of these women, and each of their points-of-view added to an excellent character study. These sheltered, beautiful “swans” of New York trusted Truman Capote with their thoughts, ideas, and secrets, and he ultimately betrayed all of them, including Babe, his closest friend out of all of the swans. Capote’s insatiable desire for gossip and his inability to keep it to himself led to some serious consequences. I couldn’t help but see that the driving question behind the entire story is why does one friend betray another? What drives all of them to backstab and spread secrets and lies? I think, perhaps, if you have it all and believe you have nothing left to do with your lives because you’ve “accomplished everything,” what more can you do with your life? Maybe for all of them, in their sheltered lives, all they wanted to do was to create a little drama to distract them from their terrible husbands and other disappointing or awful aspects of their lives.

New York’s high society in the fifties and sixties seems so far gone, but it wasn’t, not really. Beyond the fancy apartments, jewels, all of the designer dresses and shoes, Melanie Benjamin showed us that beyond the perfect veneer, the rich and famous were human just like the rest of us, dealt with similar heartbreaks and dramas the rest of us see in day-to-day life, but we’re so far removed from their world that it seems like a perfect fairy tale to us.

The Swans of Fifth Avenue has made me want to read Capote’s work, especially the pieces he wrote about the Swans and has made me want to read more about this era, because it’s an era in which I’m entirely unfamiliar.

Thank you to Netgalley for a review copy!

BOOK REVIEW: Grayling’s Song, by Karen Cushman

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BOOK REVIEW: Grayling’s Song, by Karen CushmanTitle: Grayling's Song by Karen Cushman
Published by Clarion Books
Published: June 7th 2016
Genres: Middle Grade, Fantasy
Pages: 224
Format: eBook
Source: Netgalley
Goodreads

It's time for Grayling to be a hero. Her mother, a wise woman has been turned into a tree by evil forces. Tangles and toadstools! Lacking confidence after years of being called "Feeble Wits" by her mother, Grayling heads off dubiously into the world in search of help, where she finds a weather witch, an aromatic enchantress, a cheese soothsayer, a slyly foolish apprentice, and a shape-shifting mouse named Pook! A fast-paced and funny coming-of-age odyssey from a Newbery medalist.

Grayling’s Song is a cute, light fantasy novel for middle grade readers. It reads like something you’d find in the children’s section years ago. The language is a little stiff sometimes and sounds old-fashioned, but I think it adds to the world Cushman creates. This book might not appeal to all readers because younger ones might not like or understand the phrasing and sentence structure, but it will appeal to readers who enjoy fantasy. It’s a great introduction to that high fantasy as it has a wide range of odd characters with magic and strange personalities.

Grayling doesn’t have very high self-esteem thanks to her mother constantly calling her “Feeble Wits.” When she goes on a quest to find her mother’s grimoire to free her from the curse of turning into a tree, Grayling doesn’t have much confidence in herself at all. As her journey progresses, she worries about being in charge, making mistakes, and taking responsibility for her actions and the fates of others because of her actions. As the days pass and she faces more and more of her fears, Grayling becomes stronger, both physically and emotionally.

This is a spoiler free review, so I won’t spoil the ending for you, but it’s clear by the end that this a story of learning to value your own strengths, learning to value the people with whom you surround yourself, and learning to accept when it is time to move on with your life, away from your parents and away from the people with whom you’ve grown, and embark on your own adventure.

I loved the cast of characters, especially Pook, the shapeshifting mouse. There is a lot of humor in this book that will appeal to younger readers, and there is a lot of insight into what a young person faces when growing up and leaving the nest. I also learned that cheese divination is called tyromancy!

I received a copy of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review!

BOOK REVIEW: Passenger, by Alexandra Bracken

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BOOK REVIEW: Passenger, by Alexandra BrackenTitle: Passenger by Alexandra Bracken
Series: Passenger #1
Published by Disney-Hyperion
Published: January 5th, 2016
Genres: Young Adult, Fantasy
Pages: 486
Format: eBook, Hardcover
Source: Netgalley, Library
Goodreads

Passage, n.i. A brief section of music composed of a series of notes and flourishes.ii. A journey by water; a voyage.iii. The transition from one place to another, across space and time.

In one devastating night, violin prodigy Etta Spencer loses everything she knows and loves. Thrust into an unfamiliar world by a stranger with a dangerous agenda, Etta is certain of only one thing: she has traveled not just miles but years from home. And she’s inherited a legacy she knows nothing about from a family whose existence she’s never heard of. Until now.

Nicholas Carter is content with his life at sea, free from the Ironwoods—a powerful family in the colonies—and the servitude he’s known at their hands. But with the arrival of an unusual passenger on his ship comes the insistent pull of the past that he can’t escape and the family that won’t let him go so easily. Now the Ironwoods are searching for a stolen object of untold value, one they believe only Etta, Nicholas’ passenger, can find. In order to protect her, he must ensure she brings it back to them— whether she wants to or not.

Together, Etta and Nicholas embark on a perilous journey across centuries and continents, piecing together clues left behind by the traveler who will do anything to keep the object out of the Ironwoods’ grasp. But as they get closer to the truth of their search, and the deadly game the Ironwoods are play­ing, treacherous forces threaten to sep­arate Etta not only from Nicholas but from her path home . . . forever.

We protect ourselves by playing the roles fit for the year we’re in.

Let’s just get this out of the way: I love time travel novels. I’m a huge sucker for them, and I always have been. Had this been released when about ten or fifteen years ago when I was at the age to which this is marketed (god, I’M SO OLD), I would have been all over this and would have given it a thousand and one stars. It still gets a solid rating from me, which comes as a positive thing after reading so many disappointing novels lately.

Etta, on the night of her big violin performance, is transported back in time onto a ship captained by Nicholas, a black pirate of sorts. Obviously there’s a romance brewing between the two, and even though it felt a little forced sometimes, I’m hoping it develops more in the next novel. It wasn’t necessarily an instant romance sort of thing, but the relationship seemed to progress quickly over a span of pages (even if those pages spanned several days). The romance progression felt typical for a YA novel, and that’s completely all right by me!

What I enjoyed most was the commentary on society then and now. Sophia, the other female time traveler whose original time is in the 1920s, says this really amazing thing to Etta about a hundred pages in:

So cling to your rights, your beliefs, your future – but know that none of them will help you here. You haven’t been forced to survive in the same way as the centuries of women who came before you. You know nothing of the impossibly small weapons we must use to carve out knowledge and power.

If I had read that ages ago, I think I would have shifted my thinking much earlier than it did, so I’m really pleased that Bracken is bringing to light the difficulties women have been facing for centuries to a young, modern audience. Not that her audience isn’t aware of it, but I’ve noticed lately in the classes I teach that some of the young women believe that they’ve always had the rights and advantages they have now, and I have to explain to them that within the last thirty or forty years we’ve progressed so much and that we still have so much to work for.

This is a super enjoyable romance-y time travel (with some logic!) novel that’s sure to appeal to fans of Sarah J. Maas, Susan Dennard, and Marissa Meyer.

I received a copy from Netgalley for my honest review.

BOOK REVIEW: After Alice, by Gregory Maguire

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BOOK REVIEW: After Alice, by Gregory MaguireTitle: After Alice by Gregory Maguire
Published by William Morrow
Published: October 27th 2015
Genres: Fiction, Retellings
Pages: 288
Format: eBook, Hardcover
Source: Edelweiss, Library
Goodreads

From the multi-million-copy bestselling author of Wicked comes a magical new twist on Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, published to coincide with the 150th anniversary of Lewis's Carroll's beloved classic. When Alice toppled down the rabbit-hole 150 years ago, she found a Wonderland as rife with inconsistent rules and abrasive egos as the world she left behind. But what of that world? How did 1860s Oxford react to Alice's disappearance?

In this brilliant new work of fiction, Gregory Maguire turns his dazzling imagination to the question of underworlds, undergrounds, underpinnings — and understandings old and new, offering an inventive spin on Carroll's enduring tale. Ada, a friend of Alice's mentioned briefly in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, is off to visit her friend, but arrives a moment too late — and tumbles down the rabbit hole herself. Ada brings to Wonderland her own imperfect apprehension of cause and effect as she embarks on an odyssey to find Alice and see her safely home from this surreal world below the world. If Euridyce can ever be returned to the arms of Orpheus, or Lazarus can be raised from the tomb, perhaps Alice can be returned to life. Either way, everything that happens next is After Alice.

Our private lives are like a colony of worlds expanding, contracting, breathing universal air into separate knowledges. Or like several packs of cards shuffled together by an expert anonymous hand, and dealt out in a random, amused or even hostile way.

In his previous retellings of famous fairy tales and stories, Gregory Maguire has a tell-tale style that draws you in, hooks you, and doesn’t let you go until he’s finished telling his story. I found After Alice to be lacking this particularly in Ada’s story. I think had it been more focused on Lydia’s becoming the woman of the house and the struggles she finds with that at the tender age of fifteen, or of Siam’s story as a former slave from Georgia, or of Darwin’s particular visit to the house that day I would have liked it more, but Ada’s part of the story (which should have been the most interesting) fell flat. I did particularly like Maguire’s take on the Jabberwocky, the bits and people about Oxford that were to come (which bordered on metafiction), and there were some lines that resonated with me. Otherwise, I felt that this was a draft of some kind with no real cohesion.

Thanks to Edelweiss for the review copy!