A Different Kind of Prison Break: A Review of Elle Cosimano’s Holding Smoke

Holding Smoke (2016)
Written by: Elle Cosimano
Genre: Paranormal Thriller
Pages: 322 (Hardcover)
Publisher: Hyperion

Why I Chose It: As much as I try to keep up on new Horror, a lot slides by me, including this Stoker-nominated YA novel. It caught my eye for its premise — a paranormal thriller set inside a prison facility. Now THAT’s a unique setting and one I know a little about. Would it read authentic? I had to check it out.

The Premise:

John “Smoke” Conlan is serving time for two murders — but he wasn’t the one who murdered his English teacher, and he never intended to kill the only other witness to the crime. A dangerous juvenile rehabilitation center in Denver, Colorado, known as the Y, is Smoke’s new home and the only one he believes he deserves. But, unlike his fellow inmates, Smoke is not in constant imprisonment. After a near death experience leaves him with the ability to shed his physical body at will, Smoke is able to travel freely outside the concrete walls of the Y, gathering information for himself and his fellow inmates while they’re asleep in their beds. Convinced his future is only as bright as the fluorescent lights in his cell, Smoke doesn’t care that the “threads” that bind his soul to his body are wearing thin — that one day he may not make it back in time. That is, until he meets Pink, a tough, resourceful girl who is sees him for who he truly is and wants to help him clear his name. Now Smoke is on a journey to redemption he never thought possible. With Pink’s help, Smoke may be able to reveal the true killer, but the closer they get to the truth, the more deadly their search becomes. The web of lies, deceit, and corruption that put Smoke behind bars is more tangled than they could have ever imagined. With both of their lives on the line, Smoke will have to decide how much he’s willing to risk, and if he can envision a future worth fighting for.

Spoilers: I discuss the premise and the central conflict, but I don’t give away the ending.

Discussion: The story opens inside the detention center, with “Smoke” starting a fight in order to buy time alone in segregation. He needs to be on his own to fulfill the long list of favors given to him by other inmates and, occasionally, guards. Written in code in books from the prison library, Smoke is given questions to answer such as, “Is my mother okay?” and “Is my girl cheating on me?”

How he answers those queries is the supernatural part of the story.

After being beaten to death — literally — by his alcoholic father, Smoke found himself hovering over his own body. Afraid of going toward the light, he managed to force his soul back inside. Brought back from death by the EMT’s, he can now slip in and out of his body at will. But doing so leaves his body inert and vulnerable — a bad way to be in a jail.

Safely locked up on his own in segregation, he astral travels through the prison walls to answer the evening’s queries. The mechanics of his supernatural power seem limited to him. If he has been to a place, or can see a place, he can travel to it. But he can’t travel through a closed door if he can’t see what’s on the other side. He can’t sit in a chair without falling through it. And he can’t move objects. He is, as he describes himself, just Smoke.

While trying to get info for a fellow inmate, he encounters a waitress in a bar he names Pink. When she tells him to get out, he’s stunned. How can she see him? No one has ever seen him.

Pink is a medium. She’s used to seeing dead people, and when Smoke tries to talk to her, she assumes he’s just another dead person who wants her to deliver a message to a loved one. Smoke challenges her to come see him in the flesh at the Y. When she realizes he’s not a ghost, she tries to help him grow and control his abilities, although she’s not quite sure she can trust a double-murderer.

It’s Smoke’s crimes, and the possibility that he could prove his innocence, that becomes the focus of the story. Accused of killing a beloved teacher and another person near her, he’s haunted by the memory of a hooded figure he saw at the murder scene. Because he was astral projecting (and therefore, incapable of movement) at the time of the murder, Smoke was never able to defend himself, because who would believe it? He’s accepted his fate. He’ll spend the rest of his life in jail.

But when the murder weapon shows up in the hands of another inmate, Smoke starts to wonder what’s going on. It also gives him hope that he can somehow prove himself innocent and imagine a life after the Y.

In Conclusion: The heart of this story — essentially a murder mystery — is frustrating and obtuse at times. We don’t get much of the information we need to understand Smoke’s conviction until deep into the novel. And the reasoning behind planting the murder weapon seems too convoluted.

Some of my frustration with the story had to do with lost opportunities regarding the paranormal elements in the story. Pink, while portrayed as a strong and resilient character, never really uses her powers as a medium until the end, and even then, Smoke does most of the work in that scene. She has agency, but HER superpower gets lost in the shuffle. She becomes someone to rescue.

In another case of missed opportunities, the writer puts a ghost in Smoke’s path, a ghost he’s responsible for creating at the Y, and that scene is the single most terrifying and fantastic scene of the novel. Cosimano does little with it as a recurring horror element, instead choosing to focus on Smoke’s guilt for the ghost’s creation. More of both these storylines would have been very satisfying to horror readers.

But Holding Smoke has other things going for it, like spot-on setting and character. The author is the daughter of a prison warden and she knows the world. She does a great job of portraying the hopelessness of inmates, their wariness, their shut-down attitudes, and the jadedness — and occasional kindnesses — of the staff who try to help them. Because of this, it can be at times a depressing read, but our immersion into Smoke’s world is complete. Even when the story lagged or seemed illogical, I wanted to keep reading to find out what would happen to the characters.

In sum, if you are a plot person, some of the little mistakes in the novel may drive you crazy. If you are a horror fan, some of the paranormal elements may feel thin. However, if you are a setting and character person, you will love Holding Smoke. Could it win the Stoker for YA this year? Yes, definitely.


  • Lane Robins April 26, 2017 at 3:10 pm

    The premise sounds awesome. But the plot hiccups sound like they would drive me crazy, too.

    • Carey Ballard April 27, 2017 at 8:55 am

      Agreeing with Lane. I love this concept. I may try the book anyway, even if flawed in execution.

      • sharonpatry April 27, 2017 at 10:49 am

        The portrayal of prison life is pretty compelling all by itself.

  • sharonpatry April 27, 2017 at 6:56 am

    Yup. It does pop you out of the story in places.


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