If I request a book for review, chances are I liked one of two things – the author or the premise. In this case it was a happy combination of both: I have read and enjoyed Ms. Cosimano’s Nearly series so I was familiar with her as an author and the premise of Holding Smoke – a boy who can walk through walls – is one I liked the sound of. An intriguing look at our juvenile offender system, this story will have you thinking about uncomfortable subjects long after you put it down.
John “”Smoke”” Conlan died. Then he came back to life. Then he went to prison. One thing that can be said for him is that he has never been boring or ordinary. In the way of all good YA heroes, John is innocent of the crime of which he’s accused. Which means that his current home, a dangerous juvenile rehabilitation center in Denver, Colorado, known as the Y, is not the safest place for him to be. That’s okay. Smoke is resourceful and besides, his containment is not constant – because when Smoke sleeps, his spirit is able to leave his body and go wherever it wants.
Smoke has used this unusual gift to help his situation in the Y. He trades in information. Want an update on your family? Need to know if your girl is cheating on you? Smoke’s your man. Using the prison library system as a message center, Smoke makes friends by doing favors and receiving them in return for his service. It is while he is out on an assignment that he meets Pink, a girl from his former school, who has the ability to see ghosts. And while Smoke might not yet be dead, the astral projection he’s doing is the next best thing. The two form an unlikely friendship and slowly, Pink gets pulled into the mystery of just who framed Smoke for a double murder. But whoever it was, they have powerful allies and Pink and Smoke have drawn their attention. And it’s quite possible that neither of them will survive this newest brush with “justice”.
This is a tough book to talk about. For starters, it’s about a difficult subject. The look the author takes at the juvenile offender system is enlightening, thought provoking and frightening. I’ve heard before that we send young men to juvie to train them to be better criminals and that is definitely the case with the Y, the facility in this tale. To survive there you need friends. And to make friends, you’re going to have to break the rules. That’s only a portion of the problem the young men in this criminal justice system face. From bad home situations, public school systems that fail them and public defenders that barely make an effort, every one of the kids at the Y has the sense that society had just thrown them away. The worst part is they are right, both within the context of this story and the context of the real world. Once you enter that system we are far too anxious to label you and throw you away.
The other thing that makes this book tough to talk about is the characters. Pink and Smoke made my heart bleed for them a little bit. You know they will never get out of their desperate financial situations. They have been poor all their lives and can, at best, aspire to the lower middle class. You know their poverty will always force them into choices that most of us will never have to make. And yet, they are such great kids. They are bright and talented and caring. They deserve so much more than I think life will ever give them and it just makes it worse to realize that out in the real world somewhere a real life Pink and Smoke exist and the same thing is happening to them. There is such a bittersweet feeling to falling in love with them and watching them fall for each other.
Which is a total testament to the author’s talent. Paranormal literature can easily lead to characters that become their gift and nothing else. In this case, Smoke’s ability is very much just a skill, similar to picking locks or forging checks. He uses it but he isn’t defined by it, which means that the author is able to develop him into a very believable, relatable character.
The mystery here is intriguing as well. We have no idea what the possible reason could be for framing Smoke and given the trauma he had gone through directly before he supposedly committed the crime, a small part of the reader will wonder if he actually did do it. This is how Smoke feels as well and it makes for some tantalizing reading.
I have only one complaint but unfortunately I think it may prove a stumbling block for some readers – the pacing is a bit slow. There were moments where I just wanted to get to the end and found myself frustrated enough to consider giving up. I was immensely glad I didn’t because this is a provocative, wondrous tale that is well worth reading. For those used to the faster pace of the modern mystery, though, this might seem a bit literary and pedantic. I would encourage you to take your time and push to the end. The reward will be worth it.
This book is well-written, the central characters are engaging and the plot is intriguing. Readers accepting of young protagonists will find a lot to love in Holding Smoke and a lot to think about when they are through with it. I recommend it to anyone looking for a thought provoking read.