Review of “A Torch Against the Night” by Sabaa Tahir

I think that this second book in the series that began with An Ember in the Ashes is better than the first book, and the first book has been wildly popular. This second is definitely not a standalone, however.


Note: Spoilers for Book One, but none for this book.

In Book One, we met Laia, a young woman determined to rescue her brother Darin from the prisons of the Martial Empire. Laia and her family are Scholars, enemies of the Martials. Laia manages to enlist the help of an elite Martial soldier named Elias Venturis. Elias, though skilled in killing, has somehow remained good on the inside, and is sickened by what the Empire asks of him. In particular, he loathes the sadistic commandant, who happens to be his biological mother.

As Book One ends, one of the worst of the Martials, Marcus, has become Emperor, and Helene, long the best friend of Elias, has become (not by choice) Marcus’s chief assassin. Elias decided to flee the Empire, and he and Laia are on the run, racing to try and rescue Darin from the notoriously bad and impenetrable prison to which he has been taken.

This book is almost all action from the moment it begins – taking up right where the first book ended, and adding even more violence and brutality to the tale.

The focus shifts back and forth among Laia, Elias, and Helene. All of them struggle with competing loyalties, and accommodation to their roles in the changed Empire. The females are intelligent and brave, at least up to a point, but there is no doubt they are the heroes of the saga. [Note if I said “heroines” it would imply they were only sidekicks to male heroes. So one has to choose the “masculine” form of the word to indicate their prominence in the story.]

There is also a time limit to something that will happen in this book, adding a lot of tension and energy to the story, and making one want to race through to the climax.

Discussion: There is more depth to this book than just the usual YA tropes, of which there are plenty. But there is also much sadness, loss, pain, suffering, and a sensitivity to feelings of loneliness and horror. There is guilt, loyalty, and love, and triangles, albeit with fuzzy edges.

The books raise questions we continue to face in real life: how, in the face of tyranny and threatened death, can we stand up for justice, and at what cost to ourselves and our families? Is it wrong to take the “easy” way out? How do we live with ourselves for the bad choices we have made?

There is also an ongoing theme of the fear of hurting those we love, and the advice not to lock oneself away from others because of it: “What point is there in being human if you don’t let yourself feel anything?”

And perhaps most importantly for these fallible characters, there is the admonition not to let failure defeat them:

“Failure doesn’t define you. It’s what you do after you fail that determines whether you are a leader or a waste of perfect good air.”

In the Acknowledgments, the author thanks some of her fellow YA fantasy authors for their friendship and chats, and interestingly, I can see the influence of some of them in this work. When one of the characters speaks of love, it particularly reminds me of Renée Ahdieh:

“You are my temple. You are my priest. You are my prayer. You are my release.”

Evaluation: It isn’t often that a “book two” of a series is better than the first book, but I think it is true in this case. I didn’t always like the choices made by the characters, but couldn’t help liking them or hating them for who they were, and really enjoying the story.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Razorbill, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2016

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Kid Lit Review of “Strange, Unusual, Gross & Cool Animals” by Charles Ghigna

Animal Planet and Time Inc. Books have produced a collection of cool (not to mention, strange, unusual, and gross) animal facts sure to delight any kid.


There are more than 200 photographs in this book that is divided into four different focuses: “Galleries” to explore a theme, “Featured Creature” to spotlight particular extraordinary animals, “Creature Collections” with groups of animals to compare and contrast, and “Macroview,” showing tiny details.


The featured animals are just amazing, and include the blobfish, the deep sea octopod, the ghost octopus (just discovered in 2016!), the red-lipped batfish, banded gila monster, and as you can tell by the names, a host of unusual creatures. To me, the most incredible animals are those hiding way below us in the ocean, but the book also includes animals we might hope to see on land (or in some cases, hope not to see….)

The milky white ghost octopus, nicknamed “Casper the Friendly Ghost” by Twitter users, was caught on cameras mounted on the craft at a depth of 4,290 meters.

The milky white ghost octopus, nicknamed “Casper the Friendly Ghost” by Twitter users, was caught on cameras mounted on the craft at a depth of 4,290 meters.

I especially love the theme galleries. They include “Fabulous Feet,” “Vanishing Creatures,” “Squirters and Spitters,” “See-Through Creatures,” and my favorite, “Glow-in-the-Dark Creatures.”

The see-through glasswing butterfly photographed by David Tiller on Wikimedia Commons

The see-through glasswing butterfly photographed by David Tiller on Wikimedia Commons

On all of these pages, you learn astounding facts about what makes these animals so unusual.

The book includes a glossary, annotated links to find out more, and an index.


I really appreciate that a portion of the proceeds from the sale of books benefits the principal partners of R.O.A.R. (Reach Out. Act. Respond) – Animal Planet’s project to help make the world a better place for animals.

We used to have this "unusual, gross, and cool" gila monster living along our driveway in Tucson

We used to have this “unusual, gross, and cool” gila monster living along our driveway in Tucson

Evaluation: This overview of a fascinating topic is sure to inspire kids to seek out further information. The books from Animal Planet (as well as their television series) prove that learning can be fun.

Published by Liberty Street, an imprint of Time Inc. Books, 2016


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Review of “Crosstalk” by Connie Willis

I adored this romantic comedy which is coupled with a focus on the pervasiveness of nonstop social media and information overload.

Connie Willis is an author who often invokes the theme of miscommunications – sentences only half spoken, misunderstood, never conveyed, conveyed too late, or lost in dreams. In this book, she stretches the idea a bit further and explores what happens when there is too much communication – not only the inundation of thoughts on Facebook, twitter, and texting, and their instantaneous transmission, but to the idea of telepathy itself.


Readers may also recognize this premise from Patrick Ness’s “Chaos Walking” series, a dystopia in which living creatures are constantly bombarded with each other’s thoughts. Willis takes a different approach: while her book may be characterized as a fantasy or perhaps science fiction, it is much closer than Ness’s series to “real life.” And it is full of humor even though it has suggestions of the dark repercussions of too much information and lack of privacy. The tragic as well as comedic consequences of communicating too much or too little serves to provide dramatic tension as well as sociological commentary.

Briddey Flannigan and her boyfriend Trent Worth both work at Commspan, a smartphone company that is a rival of Apple. After a whirlwind relationship, Trent has talked Briddey into getting an EED – a minor surgical procedure that “increases your ability to connect emotionally with your partner.”

The results are not what they planned.

Briddey finds herself suddenly connected telepathically not to Trent but to C.B. Schwartz, a reclusive technician at Commspan.

C.B. has actually been working on a phone that reduces one’s connectivity: a “sanctuary phone” that lets you politely block calls you don’t want. He explains to Briddey:

“Commspan promises . . . more communication. But that isn’t what people want. They’ve got way too much already – laptops, smartphones, tablets, social media. They’ve got connectivity coming out their ears. There’s such a thing as being too connected, you know, especially when it comes to relationships. Relationships need less communication, not more.”

He illustrates his point by examples with which everyone can relate:

“If people really wanted to communicate, they’d tell the truth, but they don’t. . . . ‘No, I don’t think that dress makes you look fat.’ ’Of course I want to go.’ ‘Of course’ is a dead giveaway that you’re lying. ‘Of course I didn’t sleep with her.’ ‘Of course I like your family.’ ‘Of course you can trust me.’”

“And you know who people lie to the most? Themselves. They’re absolute masters of self-deception.”

Briddey comes to understand his latter point as well.

And when Briddey begins to hear the voices of other people, she learns something else. She tells C.B. how horrible the thoughts were that she overheard. C.B. replies:

“‘Actually, they were just your average [people] … Vulgar? Vindictive? Spiteful? Scheming? I’m afraid that’s what people sound like in the privacy of their own heads.’ He gave her a wry grin. ‘I told you it’s a cesspool in there. … They can say out loud the nice stuff they think…. Inside their heads is the only place the bad stuff can come out, which tends to make their thoughts disproportionately unpleasant. But also, people are brutish, hateful, greedy mean, manipulative, and cruel.

“But everyone can’t be awful.”

“You haven’t listened to them for as long as I have.”

The ensuing action, as Briddey tries to hide this unintended consequence of the EED, cope with the voices, and cope with Trent, turns into a first-class adventure story and race against time, as with Willis’s best fiction.

Evaluation: There is a reason Connie Willis has garnered so many awards – she has won eleven Hugo Awards and seven Nebula Awards — more major awards than any other writer – and that she has such a rabid fan base. (I include myself in that category; her book Doomsday is on my list of top ten favorite books ever!) Her stories are just a delight.

This book is more social satire than science fiction. It is also a humorous look at modern management and mores, with a fairy tale overlay that includes a fairy godmother, and a prince in disguise. I have yet to be disappointed with Connie Willis!

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Del Rey, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House, 2016

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Review of “Saga, Volume Six” by Fiona Staples & Brian K. Vaughan

This outstanding graphic novel series, often referred to as a “space opera,” continues the story of the little family of Marko and Alana – a mixed-race couple – and their daughter Hazel. The family is struggling to stay together in spite of a war between their two races.


Alana is from the planet Landfall, where inhabitants have wings on their backs, and Marko is from its moon, Wreath, where all people have horns on their heads. The two defied all convention (and propaganda, viz: those people have horns on their heads!) and fell in love. Hazel was born with both horns and wings, and it is Hazel who narrates the story.


There is an ongoing intergalactic hunt for Marko and Alana, because their love story gives lie to the party line that the people from these two species can’t, and never will, get along.

The series features a number of species and characters involved in the hunt for them, such as the members of the Robot Kingdom, who have CRTs for heads. [A very funny ongoing joke in the series is how other people think these CRT-heads all look alike.]


There is also a killer for hire named “The Will” who, in this volume, has become addicted to the drug “Heroine” which, as one character explains, makes you see and hear your “first love,” even if that first love is no longer living. We also re-encounter a pair of journalists investigating the story for the tabloids.


Hazel’s observations often seem like sociological commentary, as when she notes:

“We’re all aliens to someone. Even among our own people, most of us still feel like complete foreigners from time to time.”

Hazel’s teacher also adds insights that transcend the story itself:

“ . . . anyone who thinks one book has all the answers hasn’t read enough books.”

This volume features some unlikely collaborations among former enemies, a jail break, and a surprise development at the end.


Discussion: Again, and in spite of ongoing violence and killing, it is love and loyalty that take center stage in this series. And there is never a dearth of nuance and pathos; in spite of the small space for picture and dialogue in the graphic novel, even the worst characters are miraculously made into beings eliciting our compassion and understanding. My heart went out to The Will, to Hazel, to the Robot Prince, and really, to them all.

And yet there is always a subtle sense of humor in this series as well, that tempers the gravity of what is happening and lets the reader feel delight as well as sadness and joy.

Hazel and her grandma - note how much emotion is conveyed by their expressions

Hazel and her grandma – note how much emotion is conveyed by their expressions

Illustrator Fiona Staples was voted the best female comics artist of all time in a major fan poll at in 2015, which certainly doesn’t surprise me at all. Writer Brian Vaughan asked her to draw for the series as an equal co-creator. There just aren’t enough superlatives to describe the amazing imagination of this team.


Evaluation: This is an outstanding “saga” whether you like graphic novels or not. This is not by any means a series for kids – you will see graphic (in both senses) depictions of childbirth, oral sex, anal sex, masturbation – just about anything you can think of (or more accurately, might have never thought of!).

No one gender or race has claim to any particular qualities, whether courage or compassion. But overall, the females tend to be more formidable, powerful and tough, and the guys more nurturing. The political commentary is as powerful as it is subtle. This series is hilarious, moving, exciting, romantic, action-packed, and crazily mentally stimulating, all at once.


This series is really not to be missed, but should be read in order.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Image Comics, 2016

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Review of “News of the World” by Paulette Jiles

When I saw Paulette Jiles had a new book I jumped at the chance to read it. Her novels often explore historical periods but with a poetic bent. Her books are unlike any others I have read. She does a great deal of research, and then dramatizes conflicts among people in the era about which she is reporting with an unstinting yet lyrical eye. She also employs a distinctive style of showing dialogue without any distinguishing punctuation, which makes it more a part of the narrative flow.


This novel takes place in Texas in 1870. In 1870, the population of Texas was 818,579 (ten years later, it would almost double, approaching 1.5 million people). Oddly, there was something of a line at the 100th meridian between the Texas with newspapers and the Texas without newspapers. [The 100th meridian is approximately down the vertical middle of the United States and so also down the middle of Texas.]  John Pfak, of the wonderful eponymous online bookstore specializing in unusual, rare and unique material in the sciences and the history of science, demonstrated this from a map he found, shown below, in an 1882 book entitled History and Present Condition of the Newspaper and Periodical Press of the United States:

The Texas "Newspaper Frontier" as it appeared in 1880

The Texas “Newspaper Frontier” as it appeared in 1880

The main protagonist of this novel is Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, 71, who lived through three wars, and now travels around North Texas reading newspapers to any comers who pay a dime a piece to hear the news. Originally, he had a vague hope that by spreading “true knowledge” about the world, he might in some way help make the world a more peaceful place. By age 65, he gave up that illusion, but he knew he did add something to people’s lives: in that time without television or movies, “he took them away to far places and strange peoples. Into mythic forms of thought and the structures of fairy tales.”

The author shares much of what the Captain would have read to his audiences, from the search for Ancient Troy in Turkey to the attempts of explorers to get to the North Pole, to tales of shipwrecks, inventions, and natural disasters. He tried to avoid news about anything that might start fighting among the listeners, especially in the volatile political atmosphere of the post-Civil War South. [From May 1865 to March 1870 before Texas was readmitted to the Union, there was an occupying army from the North in Texas. Even so, in the state elections in this time, many from the prewar power structure were reinstated, and got into bitter conflict with Unionists.]


On one such trip through northern Texas doing readings, the Captain is asked to deliver a ten-year-old girl named Johanna back to her relatives near San Antonio. She had been abducted by the Kiowa when she was six, and a man named Britt Johnson was hired to retrieve her. But while Johnson managed to get Johanna from the tribe, he did not want to take the risk of traveling through Texas with a small blond girl because he was black; the Captain would be trusted because not only was he white, but he was an old man.

The Captain agreed, and so began the odyssey of the Captain and Johanna across Texas, with the Captain doing occasional newspaper readings to pay for the trip. The two of them faced a number of perils, because in 1870, lawlessness was rampant in much of Texas, with bands of brigands roaming through the state.

There was also a constant threat of raids by tribes of Native Americans, in particular the Comanches. The 1867 Treaty of Medicine Lodge Creek established a reservation for the Comanches, Kiowas, and Kiowa Apaches, but the southwestern natives were not interested in staying penned in on reservations. [The U.S. Army fought them and their cultural values and beliefs, and by 1875 the Comanche population had been reduced to just over 1,500.]

Johanna, sullen and sad and quiet at first, comes to understand that the Captain is on her side and wants to protect her from all the various dangers. She begins to call him Kontah, the Kiowa name for grandfather. But Johanna in some ways was not like other captives. As the author explains in an Afterword about child captives from the Texas frontier:

“They apparently became Indian in every way and rarely readjusted when returned to their non-native families. They always wished to return to their adoptive families, even when they had been with their Indian families for less than a year.”

[It is possible Jiles was inspired by the story of a 9-year-old pioneer girl named Cynthia Ann Parker who was kidnapped during a Comanche raid in North Texas in 1836. She became a ward of the chief and eventually, a full member of the Comanches. She married a highly respected Comanche chief and gave birth to three children, including Quanah Parker — who would grow up to become the last and greatest Comanche leader.]

Quanah Parker was the last chief of the Comanches — and the son of Cynthia Ann Parker, who was captured as a child by the Comanches. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Quanah Parker was the last chief of the Comanches — and the son of Cynthia Ann Parker, who was captured as a child by the Comanches.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Indeed, Johanna often thinks about her life before, when her people “followed water, lived with every contingency, were brave in the face of enemies, who could go without food or water or money or shoes or hats and did not care that they had neither mattresses nor chairs nor oil lamps.”

The Captain knew that Johanna would never again be like other white people, and he found himself adopting Johanna’s worldview rather than trying to force her to conform to non-native ways. Neither fashionable dresses nor bank accounts, he learns from her, are what matters. Rather, “the baseline of human life was courage.”

Courage and character are consistent themes in Jiles’ books. Here, both come into play not only during their trip to San Antonio, but also when the time comes for the Captain to deliver Johanna to her aunt and uncle.

Evaluation: Jiles is an adept writer who improbably describes scenes of violence and destruction with a poetic eloquence that somehow adds to the horror rather than “beautifying” it. But she also lends her poetic hand to the pain, naivety, and hope of love, resulting in an unforgettable stories. This short novel is no exception.

Rating: 4/5

Published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2016

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