Book Review: Smoke and Stone

Smoke and Stone by Michael R. Fletcher

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


That was fun! City of Sacrifice applies that same pulse of anticapitalist revolutionary rhetoric that’s showed up in every successful YA series since Harry Potter, and that, in conjunction with all the characters being teenagers, had me shook. Fortunately, this wasn’t YA, due largely to the frequent on-screen mutilations and the liberal (though by no means tasteless) use of the fuck word.

The gods are at war, and they’re jockeying for first place in order to have their chosen avatar become King of the Human Farm where they all live, in the middle of the desert. Damnedest thing is I ran a D&D campaign with the same premise, although I swapped out the tiered communofascist dystopia for the metropolitan seaboard equivalent of Deadwood, governed by Peter Baelish. A great artist steals, I’m told.

But whereas my campaign featured such as fan favorites as Jeffostopheles, affable devil from the lower Baator, and Bango Butterbox, halfling god of… something or other, luck maybe, Fletcher draws heavily from animist and Aztec mythology and populates the stands with ominous figurous with many and ambiguous names like Smoking Mirror and Southern Hummingbird. Also, the star of the show, Mother Death, whose name and job description are more direct.

Several high fantasy orphan protagonists are chosen as representatives of the gods for their useful mental illness and pitted against each other for their ability to take enough drugs to become Animorphs or to stab people really, really well.

I loved this audiobook, couldn’t turn it off. I was going to give it four stars because I just read Beyond Redemption and that blew my mind, so it altered my expectations for Fletcher. However, I recognize that if I’d found this one first, I would’ve called it 5 stars off the bat. I don’t wanna tank his Goodreads MMR. Feels like a dick move. Five stars.



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Book Review: The One and Only Ivan

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I used to work as a BSC. A lot of my job was sitting in the back of classrooms “observing the problematic behavior” of my clients, but that only worked when they were being problematic. This kid was a little demon, but he would shut up during story time, and that’s where I first had a chapter of The One and Only Ivan read aloud to me by a kindly but exasperated secondary educator.

I put it on my to-read list, then forgot about it for a couple years, because it’s a YA book (being generous) and I don’t read YA. I was born old, and crotchety. I started into my father’s Stephen King collection when I was in 2nd grade, and to regress to whatever iteration of Harry Potter knockoff is currently sucking the attention of the near-literate would be detrimental to both mind and dignity.

“Don’t be such a fucker,” you might be saying. “It wouldn’t kill you to read YA once in a while.”

It wouldn’t kill me to eat Gerber Strained Peas for dinner once in a while either, but I wouldn’t hit my macros.

Animorphs was my stepping stone between Goosebumps and terrible, pulpy adult video game novels, like the abysmal Doom novels (in every sense of the word), and the Magic the Gathering novels that shared nothing in common with the card game, except that they both occasionally referred to wizards. I was voracious with the Animorphs series, and listed K.A. Applegate as my favorite author on more than a few grim late 90s/early 2000s internet forums, each undoubtedly devoted to one of the four franchises mentioned earlier in this paragraph.

I just sat down and read this book in one sitting, cover to cover. It took me two hours. I cried, openly and like a bitch, no fewer than three times.

The story’s about a gorilla named either Ivan or Mud, depending. His family is killed by poachers and the infant gorilla is sold off to some sleazy mall manager, who tries to raise him like they did to Caesar in the remake of Planet of the Apes. It works because Ivan is far too traumatized to develop a rebellious streak. Eventually, his owner tucks him away in a glass cubicle in his dead mall and charges people to gawk at him and an elderly elephant with an infected foot that never gets treatment.

The book focuses on Ivan’s understanding of himself, his limited grasp of “civilization”, and his avoidance of remembering the joy of his childhood because of the pain it would inevitably bring. It’s driven by the relationships with the wise, sick old elephant Stella and a feral dog named Bob who plays the role of Diogenes. I’m 90% sure that in the first draft, Bob was a rat, and Applegate changed it in order to sew up a happy ending for everyone. Feral rats are rarely adopted.

The mall owner, Mack, becomes an increasingly jaded alcoholic and flirts with animal abuse, though it never shows up. Children’s book, remember.

It really starts to grind up the ol’ heart meats when Mack buys a baby elephant named Rosie, whom Stella begins to raise as her own, for as long as she could. It’s a book about learned helplessness, about the isolation and gradual dying of the soul that comes with captivity, acceptance, complacency. It’s about the horrific ways humans mistreat animals, but also the kindnesses that we can do, however infrequently.

On the surface, that’s what it’s about. But under that, it’s about freedom and security. Ivan liked laying on his pillows in his cute little pajamas, being hand-fed orange soda and watching cartoons on TV, but late at night, the snatches of dreams he remembered were about the jungle, and the wind in his fur, playing with his sister, picking ripe fruit from the trees and weaving himself a nest to sleep in.

And I think that’s true of all of us.

Five stars. Read the book. Absolutely crushing.



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