Monday 15 July 2019

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Review: Other Words for Smoke by Sarah Maria Griffin

Other Words for Smoke by Sarah Maria Griffin

Other Words for Smoke by Sarah Maria Griffin

Published: 2nd April 2019 | Publisher: Titan Books | Cover Designer: Julia Lloyd | Source: Bought
Sarah Maria Griffin on Twitter

The house at the end of the lane burned down, and Rita Frost and her teenage ward, Bevan, were never seen again. The townspeople never learned what happened. Only Mae and her brother Rossa know the truth; they spent two summers with Rita and Bevan, two of the strangest summers of their lives...

Because nothing in that house was as it seemed: a cat who was more than a cat, and a dark power called Sweet James that lurked behind the wallpaper, enthralling Bevan with whispers of neon magic and escape.

And in the summer heat, Mae became equally as enthralled with Bevan. Desperately in the grips of first love, she'd give the other girl anything. A dangerous offer when all that Sweet James desired was a taste of new flesh... From Goodreads

Trigger/Content Warnings: This book features a house fire, sexual manipulation, fantasy addiction, mentions of Magdelen laundries, mentions of death in childbirth.

I have wanted to read Other Words for Smoke by Sarah Maria Griffin ever since I first heard it mentioned on Twitter along with Perfectly Preventable Deaths by Deirdre Sullivan and All the Bad Apples by Moïra Fowley-Doyle as three Irish witchy books coming out this year. I looked them all up, and they all sounded incredible! However, I finished Other Words for Smoke with mixed feelings.

I was expecting Other Words for Smoke to be an atmospheric, creepy novel, the kind that leaves me with this constant thrill of the magical and the sinister. But for me, the tone was off until right at the very end. There was no atmosphere, and it wasn't even all that creepy - until the end.

It was strange, because the story is strange; a larger than normal talking cat; a strange being living in the walls, taking the shape of an owl, creating doors that lead somewhere else, feeding on bones and blood and body parts; Rita, an elderly woman with a gift for magic and the tarot, who gives psychic readings for a living; and Bevan, a teenage girl who has become addicted to the magic, mystery, and power of an owl that appears in the wallpaper of her bedroom. It does have all the ingredients for an incredible story! But as I said, the tone was completely off. I wasn't as enchanted by the writing as I expected to be; I wasn't spellbound by the eerie feel of it all - because it wasn't there. It was the weirdest thing, because so many odd things are happening, the house is ridiculous, and Rita, Bevan, and Bobby, the cat, and everything that's going on, it's all so extraordinary and fantastic... and yet I never once felt freaked out or scared, and I definitely feel like I should have been. There just wasn't the right kind of tension or ominous suspense.

Saying that, though, there was always the anticipation of more, things were going to get more sinister, more malevolent... and it never really got there. There were some things that were really out there and definitely had me thinking, "What the hell?" But there was always the sense that this was just the tip of the iceberg, and it was going to get so much worse, and it just didn't. It's like the focus is more on Mae and Rossa's fear than on actual scary things - rather than the fantastic - happening. I was kind of left with the feeling of, is that it?

However, I did like that there was more to Other Words for Smoke than just a fantasy/horror story. Threading it's way through the story was the theme of the control of young Irish women who weren't "good girls," and the consequence of that. Society's view of young unmarried pregnant girls, their view of queer girls, the harsh treatment alluded to at Magdalene laundries, the historic focus on the importance of "purity", the loathing and revulsion of "sinners." This story wouldn't exist without Ireland's history of disgusting treatment of women and girls; this story, and everything that happens, is because of that history.

The ending! Mate, the ending had everything I wanted all the way through! Everything was saved for that ending, and I wish it permeated the entire novel. What I did kind of love is that we don't get a huge amount of answers. In that sense, it's a fantasy that edges close to magical realism. But it's a horror without the horror. Without the atmospheric vibe. Other Words for Smoke definitely had enough going on to keep me reading; I absolutely needed to get some answers, and to know where things were going to go. It was fascinating, but also fell a little flat for me. I finished enjoying the feel of the ending, but wanting more. I expected more. So I was kind of disappointed. And yet, the book was still engaging enough that I have been looking into Griffin's debut novel, Spare and Found Parts, and I am intrigued by the premise, so there's that. But just because Other Words for Smoke didn't quite work for me, doesn't mean it won't work for you. So do read some other reviews before deciding whether or not to read it.

You might also like:

The Accident Season by Moïra Fowley-Doyle Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand The Wicked Deep by Shea Ernshaw

Over to you graphic

what do you want from strange and magical stories? Does tone and/or vibe matter much to you? What atmospheric, creepy YA would you recommend? Will you be picking up Other Words for Smoke? Let me know in the comments!

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