Smoke.

I can’t remember where I first heard about Dan Vyleta’s novel Smoke, which I think falls somewhere in between the YA and adult literature genres, but I’d had it on my shopping list for a year when the paperback version appeared in June for under $10. Offering a gothic-themed setting in an alternate reality where sin is revealed as visible Smoke emanating from the sinner’s body, Smoke follows its trio of compelling characters through a physical and metaphysical journey that leads them to question everything they’ve been told by their parents, teachers, and every other moral authorities in their lives.

Set some time in the late 19th century, Smoke begins, as so many young adult books do, in a boarding school, where we meet Thomas, a volatile child with hidden rage and some sort of secret in his family background; and Charlie, his new best friend at school, a more mild-mannered, rule-abiding kid. The school is for children of the upper class, who send their kids there to learn to avoid producing Smoke – easier said than done, as it turns out – as part of the complex social hierarchy that has evolved to protect those who don’t smoke, the gentry, from those who do. The opening scene, which does a wonderful job of pulling you right into the story, sets Thomas up against his antagonist for the remainder of the book, Julius, a Malfoyesque character who runs the school’s unofficial but apparently tolerated inquisitorial squad. What appears at the start to be a conflict among boys, two good against one evil, takes a hard and unexpected right turn when they visit Thomas’s aunt and uncle over the holidays, only to find themselves plunged right into the heart of the mystery of Smoke and on a quest to try and solve it, to save Thomas’s life and perhaps overturn the entire autocracy the aristocrats have constructed with Smoke as their weapon.

Vyleta takes the story from there into some surprising places, and does well to create a panoply of opponents for the two boys and Thomas’s cousin, Lydia, as they work on unraveling the knot of Smoke. There are some agents who are clearly evil, but many others who are working at opposing purposes to the kids for independent, moral, or even banal reasons. Eventually, we need and get a showdown with the worst of the baddies, but it is not central to the book the way it is to so many YA fantasy novels. (I’ve seen it referred to in video games, especially for RPGs, as the “Kill the Big Foozle” plot device.) It’s the other stuff that makes Smoke … um, sizzle, because the varying motivations and understanding of what’s actually going on beneath the skin, literally and metaphorically, open up the characters to natural discussions about right and wrong, moral authority, and historical revisionism. The most obvious target of Vyleta’s satire is the Church – Catholic, Anglican, you pick – although much of Smoke‘s subversive subtext works quite as well when applied to the pernicious effects of classism, environmental racism, or how people respond to totalitarian regimes.

By setting up a multi-threaded conflict, Vyleta set up a delightfully unconventional ending with plenty of tension, including the big fight that some readers will demand, but also resolving other plot threads in unexpected ways, not always thoroughly (by design) but at least hinting at what the End of Smoke might entail for whole groups of people whose identities are tied to the status quo. The book itself was inspired by a line from Dickens’ Dombey and Son, but the vibe of Smoke is much more along the lines of Lev Grossman’s superb trilogy The Magicians: It’s a bit dark, but not overwhelmingly so, and there’s plenty of humor and empathy to balance out the sinister elements. It’s too well-written to call it a true YA novel, but the themes would be appropriate for teens.

Next up: I read James Gould Cozzens’ Pulitzer-winning novel Guard of Honor, and it was just so bad – boring in story and prose – that I’m not going to bother with a full review. I’m now 2/3 of the way through Bessel Van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, which is $2 right now for the Kindle.

The Westing Game.

A mystery novel aimed at kids, Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game is perfectly charming even for (much) older readers. I tackled it to vet it for my daughter (who then said she wasn’t interested, but I bet she’ll come back to it at some point), finding myself caught up in how the author packed such a clever, intricate plot in a short novel. It won the Newbery Medal for the year’s best work of children’s literature; I think it’s only the fifth winner I’ve read in its entirety (along with The Giver, A Wrinkle in Time, The Graveyard Book, and Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH). Although it takes a temporary turn towards the dark in the middle, I’ll spoil it just a little bit to say that Raskin wraps up the entire story very nicely, and shows the reader just how many clues were right there the entire time for the characters and the audience alike.

The start of the book is a bit of a slow burn, but once you get about a third of the way into it, the pace picks up dramatically, once the long setup is done. Samuel Westing, a reclusive millionaire and owner of Westing Paper Products, dies right at the beginning of the book, and has set up an elaborate scheme for his sixteen “heirs” – most of whom are unrelated to him and surprised they’re even mentioned – to compete in teams of two for the prize of the inheritance. Many of the heirs have unspoken connections to Westing or his family; some are in the apartment building where the story takes place, Sunset Towers, under false names. Each team gets a set of five one-word clues and must try to follow the oblique instructions in Westing’s will to identify which of the heirs killed Westing and thus win the prize.

The star of the story is the youngest heir, “Turtle” Wexler, a mischievous, astute thirteen-year-old girl who will kick the shins of anyone who pulls her hair braid, and who plays second billing to her older sister Angela within the family. Turtle and a judge, J.J. Ford, an African-American woman who is open about her connection to Westing, do the bulk of the real investigating, Turtle to win (and also to make money in the stock market), Ford for the thrill of the hunt. The narrative jumps around to other pairs as well, which I think helps to obfuscate the actual answer to the mystery by giving the reader too many ideas about the various clues, enough to send me in the wrong direction for about half of the book. There’s no other character as magnetic as Turtle, who seemed to me to be a direct ancestor of another of my favorite child protagonists, Flavia de Luce.

The real gift of this book is how Raskin has her characters playing with words, thinking about their meanings, the order, even messing with pronunciations or misspellings, all to try to decipher the clues. It’s a subtle encouragement to the reader to do the same – to expand one’s thinking about how we use words, and how tiny shifts can alter the meanings of anything we say or write, including, to pick one relevant example, the irregular will of an eccentric millionaire.

There’s one scene that might be disturbing for younger readers, although it’s eventually resolved in a way that should satisfy everybody. The remainder plays out as a fairly straight mystery novel, with a structure that certainly recalled Agatha Christie’s ‘bigger’ novels, where she uses a larger cast of suspects and moves the narrative around frequently with shorter chapters. The Westing Game feels in spots like a mystery for adults that was slimmed down – not dumbed down, just made shorter – for younger readers, given how quickly the narrative jumps, often with one character noticing something or coming to a conclusion right before the switch. It works, and might keep younger readers more engaged, although given how many mysteries I’ve read for adults I did get the occasional sense of watching a video with too many jump cuts.

Next up: I’m halfway through Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment, her second novel, written before the Neapolitan quartet that begins with My Brilliant Friend.

Dreamsnake.

My omnibus post on all the new boardgames I saw at GenCon this year is up at Paste.

Vonda McIntyre won the sci-fi Triple Crown for her 1978 novel Dreamsnake, taking the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Awards for best novel, yet the book appears not to have the legacy those honors might have indicated. I’d never heard of the book before starting to read the list of Hugo winners, and it was probably two years before I stumbled on it in any bookstore, new or used. Combining elements of fantasy novels and post-apocalyptic stories, Dreamsnake reads today like an advanced YA fantasy novel, maybe a little too mature for younger readers, but with timeless themes and an emphasis on the protagonist finding her identity.

Snake is a healer in what we later learn is Earth after a nuclear war has ravaged the globe and left large swaths of land uninhabitable. She plies her trade with three trained snakes whom she can use to produce medications through their venom, including one, a “dreamsnake” known as Grass, whose bite induces morphine-like effects in dying people and allows them to die without pain and to dream through their final hours. In the first chapter, however, Snake’s dreamsnake is killed by fearful peasants whose child she’s trying to save, starting her on a quest to go to Center, a feudal city hostile to healers, to try to obtain another dreamsnake. The journey brings Snake into contact with a young girl, Melissa, who becomes important in the resolution of the story, and has two men following them across the landscape, one out of love and one with unknown (but presumably sinister) intent.

The quest itself is unorthodox, and doesn’t end with the usual Kill the Big Foozle climax we expect from fantasy novels (and almost every fantasy RPG ever), which may be part of why the book doesn’t seem to have the following of some other acclaimed sci-fi/fantasy novels of the era. Snake is a fascinating protagonist, however, attuned to her own feelings and those of others, while the setting’s combination of lost civilization and scientific progress (genetic modification is common, for example, with no anti-GMO zealots in sight, probably because they’re dead) is a novel one. Melissa’s subplot is hackneyed – stuff like this exists, but it’s a familiar trope in fiction – and I expected her role in the conclusion to be more significant given the time spent on Snake’s relationship with her. The clarity of McIntyre’s prose breaks down in the final three chapters, when Snake approaches and enters the “broken dome” in search of a new dreamsnake, with more abstruse descriptions of both setting and action standing in contrast to the evocative writing of the first three-fourths of the book.

Dreamsnake also tackles a lot of themes that may have been out of the norm in the 1970s but would be unremarkable today – birth control and LGBT rights among them – that make it seem more like a young adult novel forty years later. I hesitate on that description because there is some sex in the book, nothing explicit but also enough that I wouldn’t let my daughter read this until she’s older. By the time she’s in high school, she’d be mature enough for the content, and the book does feature two strong female characters (although a male character does come and save the day at the end, alas).

Next up: I’m reading John T. Edge’s The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South and am also about 80% through the audiobook version of Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction. The latter is narrated by the same actor who played state attorney Rupert Bond on The Wire.

The Graveyard Book.

Neil Gaiman won his first Hugo Award for Best Novel for his modern epic American Gods, a masterful blend of pagan mythology and magical realism that breathes some life into the generally-overused Chosen One plot structure, thanks in large part to Gaiman’s prodigious imagination. After withdrawing the related book Anansi Boys from consideration for the same honor in 2006, he won the prize a second time for his young adult novel The Graveyard Book, which brings his same charming prose style and clever world-building mind to a gentler story without most of the violence or sex that populate those two earlier works.

There’s an exception to that last bit, and it’s at the start of the book, perhaps the most overused trope in all of young-adult literature (and not a few Disney movies): The orphaned child protagonist. The toddler to soon be known as Nobody “Bod” Owens wakes in a house where his parents and sister have just been knifed to death in their sleep, escaping only due to happenstance and his own wanderlust, ending up in the local disused graveyard where the deceased denizens protect him from the killer. Bod grows up in the graveyard, raised by the Owens (dead for a few hundred years), watched by the not-quite-dead guardian Silas, forbidden to leave the cemetery grounds for fear it will expose him to his would-be murderer, Jack.

Of course, you know the story has to end with Bod facing Jack one final time, and since this is a children’s book, Bod’s going to come out all right, so the onus is on Gaiman to create tension within each of the episodes leading up to the 80-page chapter where the final confrontation occurs. Gaiman infuses Bod with the curiosity of most children, only partly sated by the attempts of the graveyard’s dwellers to educate him, leading him to various excursions outside of and underneath the cemetery itself, setting up the series of events or points of interest that will all come into play in the last battle.

The core story is straightforward, as you’d expect in a self-contained, 300-page young adult novel, but Gaiman has populated his necropolis with a small cast of eccentrics – I suppose expecting the shades to be simply drawn was unreasonable – that bring to mind everyone from Robert Altman to Jasper Fforde. They’re not weirdos, just dead and a little outdated, and have much to teach Bod (and the young reader) about the value of life and living it with just as much (or little) fear as is necessary.

But the book is just as much for the parent reading with or alongside the child; this is very much a book about rearing a son or daughter and learning to let go the older the child gets. Bod’s search for independence and agency is far from unusual; all things considered, he’s a rather compliant child, curious but only occasionally reckless, bailed out a couple of times by Silas or one of the other spirits who’ve been raising him. He touches something hot (metaphorically speaking), gets burned, and learns not to do it again; no matter how many times you say “don’t touch that,” you know the child won’t really believe you until s/he tests your admonition out in the flesh. And when Bod has to fight the final battle without Silas’ protecting, albeit with lots of help from his noncorporeal family, he comes of age right before us in a satisfying but far from entirely happy ending.

My daughter just turned nine, but I think the traumatic introduction where Bod’s family is killed offscreen might upset her a little too much; she was fine with Lily and James Potter dying, but that occurred before page 1 and it’s a lot less real to read of someone dying via spell than dying via blade. I’ll keep the book and leave it to her own judgment to decide when she wants to tackle it.

Next up: Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman.

The Storied Life of AJ Fikry.

I’ll be chatting on Thursday this week at 10 am Eastern rather than my usual afternoon slot.

Gabrielle Zevin’s The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry: is sort of an older-young-adults novel, a very superficial, breezily-told biography of a relatively young widower who runs an independent bookshop on a fictional island near Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. Fikry, the bookseller, finds his life turned upside down through an absolutely ridiculous turn of events, which eventually leads to him reentering society while Zevin gets to tell us about all of her favorite short stories.

It’s hard to imagine how Fikry was even married in the first place, given his near-misanthropic attitudes; he is the stereotypical bookworm who enjoys books more than people, and who shies away from nearly all relationships, even shunning the eager young female publishing sales rep whose first visit to his store opens the novel. (I bet you can’t guess where she figures in!) But the absurdity of Fikry coming downstairs one night to find a toddler left in his bookstore with a note asking him to take care of her – and then Massachusetts’ social services department, the same idiots who put the Amiraults in jail for over a decade on fabricated charges of child abuse, just going along with it turns the book into something akin to magical realism. Fikry raises Maya with him in the bookstore, cultivating a love of reading in her (if only parenting were so easy) and, as a narrative device, assembling a list of his favorite short stories with a page of explanation about each for her to read.

There’s a second plot strand running through the novel, eventually merging with Fikry’s own story in a moderately surprising way. Fikry’s late wife’s sister and her philandering author husband (talk about stock characters – he teaches writing and sleeps with some of his students) weave in and out of Fikry’s life, with their failed marriage and inability to conceive hovering in the background. Zevin’s picture of Alice Island is somewhat paradisical and sanitized – these are nearly all upper-class white folks (Fikry is half-Indian, a fact mentioned once and essentially discarded) who really love to read. The one non-white character is an interloper. That’s not to say anything about Zevin’s writing is racist – that’s a pretty accurate depiction of the racial makeup of Cape Cod and the nearby islands – but the lack of ethnic diversity in her characters seems to contribute to the lack of character depth.

The book truly flew by, as Zevin, who has written for younger audiences before, carries the vocabulary and sentence structure of YA novels into The Storied Life. Unfortunately it comes with the same clumsy, predictable plotting; it was clear early on in the book that it would end with the death of one of the three central characters, both from the content itself and because there was no other obvious direction to the narrative other than the mere passage of time – and it was quick, skipping huge chunks of Maya’s childhood, including the formative years that might have told us something more about Fikry’s evolution from a solitary, insular widower into a loving parent capable of entering another relationship with an adult. It’s book-club fodder, written to make us all feel good about books, but if you love books like I do, you should read something better.

Next up: I’m behind on my writeups, but the next one will be on George Saunders’ short story collection Tenth of December.

The Last Dragonslayer.

In case you missed anything, here’s the full set of links to the top 100 prospects package. The piece on 10 prospects who just missed the 100 will now run on Wednesday, rather than today.

I’m a longtime fan of Jasper Fforde’s novels – the Thursday Next series, the two Nursery Crimes books, and the dying-for-a-sequel Shades of Grey – and just tackled his first young adult novel, The Last Dragonslayer, last week. The first in the “Chronicles of Kazam” series, the book is quite Ffordian, just without the sex and swearing we’re used to from the Thursday Next books, yet still very ffunny and still willing to address big themes like death, moral choices, and greed.

Set in an alternate version of our world where magic exists (albeit in decline) and the U.K. has splintered into the Ununited Kingdoms, The Last Dragonslayer revolves around 15-year-old Jennifer Strange, the temporary manager of the Kazam employment agency for sorcerors and, as it turns out, the next in the line of dragonslayers. Here be dragons, or at least nearby, thanks to the Dragonpact that set up boundaries between dragons and humans – but the dragon nearest Kazam is dying and every human wants to rush in and claim some of the soon-to-be-unoccupied land. Fforde loves to riff on capitalism run amok and spares no one here in his assaults on human and corporate avarice, not even the local idiot King of Hereford, who believes Jennifer should be acting in his interests as one of his subjects.

Strange herself has no magical abilities, although she’s running the shop at Kazam, which rents out the services of its various mages for things like home rewirings and pizza deliveries (all those magic carpets have to find some use). She’s the ideal Ffordian hero: uncertain, underconfident, stronger than she realizes, female yet not overtly feminine, and fiercely loyal to her friends and to her principles. One of those friends, filling the role of Pickwick the dodo, is the Quarkbeast, whose only dialogue comprises the occasional interjection, “Quark.”

The successful completion of Jennifer’s mission involves more cunning than fighting, and she outwits several opponents to her half-formed plans to try to do the Right Thing, even though she’s far from clear on what that is. The story moves quickly, unfettered by much in the way of subplots – the missing owner of Kazam will likely wait for another day to resurface, and I imagine we’ll hear more of the origins of both Jennifer and her fellow foundling “Tiger” Prawns in a future book – with plenty of the dry wit that makes Fforde’s books such a pleasure to read. I think it’s appropriate for ages 8 or 9 and up, but wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to any adult.

Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret.

When I decided seven years ago to try to read every title on the TIME 100, the book that intimidated me most wasn’t The Recognitions, Gravity’s Rainbow, or Infinite Jest. It was a 150-page book aimed at children, one I refused to read until it became available in e-book format because I couldn’t be seen reading it in public – Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, in which the title character has to deal with moving to a new school, facing the onset of puberty, and exploring religion in the midst of a family battle over what faith, if any, she should follow.

The book touches on a few themes I’m not really prepared to cover here, including the ardent desire by Margaret and her classmates to get their first periods. (Given what many of the women I know have suffered as a result of this process, this must be the greatest example of “be careful what you wish for” in literary history.)

Blume’s broader theme in the book is about the need to fit in with one’s peers, especially for children approaching such a sensitive stage. Every child character in the book acts in some way on his/her insecurities about fitting in socially or even physically. While the treatment of the one girl in the class who sprouted early (in fourth grade, which would mean she hit puberty at nine) has an obvious resolution to any adult, it matches lessons my wife and I try to teach our daughter when she notices kids picking on other kids at school, that the bully and the victim often both need others’ help.

Even the subplot of Margaret’s search for God or religion works within this broader theme, although in this case Margaret is trying to fit in within her family, where her parents, one raised Jewish and one Christian, don’t practice any religion, while Margaret’s mother is estranged from her parents because of their fury over her marrying a Jewish man. (They eventually make a horribly awkward appearance toward the end of the book, straight out of central casting.) Of all the various strands within the book, this one was the most sophisticated and thoughtful, as Margaret, who generally sees herself as behind her peers, shows a more mature side in her desire to at least understand more about religion and her open-mindedness about the subject.

I appreciated the subtle humor of the book, even though some of it would likely fly over younger readers’ heads. Margaret commenting, without meaning to pick on the boys who haven’t seen their voices drop yet, about music class where “mostly the boys sang alto and the girls sang soprano,” or her grandmother using the expression about Mohammed coming to the mountain in the midst of the family’s battle over religion, or her matter-of-fact observation that her mother can talk her father into anything, each kept the book from becoming dry and preachy with its simplistic morality.

But unlike a lot of classic young adult novels, Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret comes across as juvenile to adult eyes, not due to gender differences but because it’s so thinly written. The plot is highly predictable, and the stories are all flimsy enough that you’d have trouble stretching this into more than a half hour of television. Most of the adults in the book are ineffectual, while the boys are mostly creeps (as is the 24-year-old sixth grade teacher who can’t stop staring at the girl who has already hit puberty). It feels like a book you might give your nine-year-old daughter to prep her for a Big Talk, but it’s not the kind of book that’s serious enough to answer any questions on its own. Its main value may be in making its readers feel better about their social anxiety around puberty, changing schools, and generally fitting in with peers, which is worth something, but maybe isn’t as ambitious as the book could have been. None of which made it any less awkward for me to read, although at least now I can cross it off the TIME 100 checklist.

Next up: I just finished Téa Obreht’s Orange Prize-winning The Tiger’s Wife, which blew away my modest expectations.