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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Kid Lit Review of “Atlas of Animal Adventures” by Rachel Williams and Emily Hawkins


This is a delightful collection of information and anecdotes detailing how animals survive in the wild. The authors have done an excellent job selecting animals that will be of high interest to kids, or that will be once kids learn about them.


For example, while you might expect kids to want to know more about puffins or anacondas or the giant panda, after they read about the extraordinary behaviors of bowerbirds and leaf-cutter ants, they will be amazed and fascinated. (Bowerbirds are known for their artistry – they construct nests, or bowers, out of berries, stones, flowers, trinkets, and any other colorful objects they can find to attract females. In Animal Wise, Virginia Morell reported that if scientists snuck in and rearranged the displays, the birds would quickly restore every single item to its proper place. Scientists concluded bowerbirds are the first animal other than humans to have “an artistic sense.”)


Leaf-cutter ants have equally impressive characteristics. They live in underground colonies that can reach depths of twenty feet and hold up to 8 million ants! And they can strip a whole tree bare of leaves in a single night. And here’s a somewhat terrifying/gross fact: the queen is the size of a small mouse!

There are so many more fascinating tidbits I could share from this book. You’ll just have to get a copy for yourself!

The illustrator, Lucy Letherland, does a terrific job making each double-page spread interesting, fun, and colorful.


Evaluation: This is an outstanding resource that will help kids appreciate the amazing diversity and astonishing behaviors of animals, and will undoubtedly have them curious for more.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Wide Eyed Editions, 2016

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Review of “Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right” by Jane Mayer

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

Jane Mayer has written a very disturbing book about the influence of big money (and I mean very big money) on American politics and society. She details how a handful of billionaire families have utilized tax-exempt private foundations to influence legislation and regulation to benefit their personal financial interests, ostensibly in the interest of “social welfare.”


Section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code authorizes the creation of tax exempt corporate entities devoted to “social welfare.” These entities are allowed to engage in electoral politics, and since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, they have done so with a vengeance. Moreover, unlike other entities engaged in electoral politics, 501(c)(4) organizations do not have to disclose the identities of their contributors. Most prominent among the family foundations enjoying this tax largess is that owned by Charles and David Koch.

These two brothers control Koch Industries, the second-largest privately owned company in the United States (with 2013 revenues of $115 billion). The family business was started by their father Fred, who developed a new method for the refinement of heavy crude oil into gasoline. Fred Koch, a great influence on his sons, was one of the 11 founders of the John Birch Society, a far-right advocacy group supporting anti-communism and limited government. The brothers, with profits from their Kansas-based company, have become a major source of support for conservative candidates and causes in American politics that will benefit their financial operations.

Charles Koch in 2012

Charles Koch in 2012

In particular, Mayer describes how the Kochs have funded ostensibly “scientific” research to create the notion that climate change is a hoax. They claim they were driven by principle, “but their positions dovetailed seamlessly with their personal financial interests.” Of course, regulation of the emission of green house gases like carbon dioxide would greatly increase the cost of doing business for many of the Koch businesses.

But the Kochs have not confined their activities to sponsoring the publication of dubious scientific papers. Mayer reports that they have frequently used private detectives to dig up dirt on the private lives of their adversaries and legitimate climate scientists. Moreover, there appears to be plenty of evidence that the Koch’s businesses violated numerous environmental regulations and may have been criminally liable.

Mayer also documents the extent to which the Kochs have used their money and influence to transform the political system, especially at the state level, to one that would favor their antigovernment philosophy. As Alan Ehrenhalt writes in his review of this book for “The New York Times”:

“What the Kochs and their allies have created, in her view, is a private political bank capable of bestowing unlimited amounts of money on favored candidates, and doing it with virtually no disclosure of its source. They have established a Republican Party in which donors, not elected officials, are in charge. In 2011, when House Speaker John Boehner was desperate for Republican votes to prevent the government from defaulting on its debt, he went to see David Koch in Manhattan to plead for help. ‘It had taken years,’ Mayer writes, but the brothers ‘were becoming a rival center of power to the Republican establishment.’”

In some instances, Mayer overstates her case. She sees every conservative cause as intrinsically evil, and any funding of such causes as sinister. She does an injustice to the “Law and Economics Movement” because of support it received from the Olin Foundation, one of her bugbears. John M. Olin, who also made his fortune from the fossil fuel industry – in particular from the coal industry – believed universities were “brainwashing centers” for the liberal left, and dedicated his donations to countering this alleged influence.

John M. Olin

John M. Olin

Olin endowed the still-influential “Law and Economics” curriculum in law schools nationwide, which stresses the importance and “neutrality” of the free market, instead of giving equal or greater value to social considerations that might not be the most economically efficient. The Olin Foundation spent $68 million underwriting its growth. But this movement was already quite influential at the University of Chicago in the early 1960’s without any help from John Olin. The Law and Economics philosophy influenced a whole generation of lawyers, leading to the junking of many anticompetitive regulations, a re-examination of antitrust law, a great reduction in the enforcement of the Robinson-Patman Act, and the abolition of the Interstate Commerce Commission.

This small criticism aside, Mayer’s writing had me cringing at the thought of the Kochs, Olins, and a host of even crazier right-wingers promulgating their nonsense, and in many cases, not being required to disclose their identities. In this election cycle, for example, “The New York Times” reported that the political network overseen by the Kochs planned to spend close to $900 million, “to influence legislation and campaigns across the country, leveraging Republican control of Congress and the party’s dominance of state capitols to push for deregulation, tax cuts and smaller government.”


As Bill McKibben characterized the influence of these conservative billionaires in “The New York Review of Books”:

“…the Kochs, and the closely connected group of billionaires they’ve helped assemble, have . . . distorted American politics in devastating ways, impairing the chances that we’ll effectively respond to climate change, reducing voting rights in many states, paralyzing Congress, and radically ratcheting up inequality.”

Evaluation: This well-researched and well-documented important book should be read by all citizens, even if it will probably raise your blood pressure.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Doubleday, 2016

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Review of “The Trespasser” by Tana French

This is the sixth book in the outstanding Dublin Murder Squad Series.


The whole book is written in the form of a long monologue delivered by Antoinette Conway, a detective on the Dublin Murder Squad. She hopes she has an ally in her partner, Stephen Moran, because she feels like the rest of the squad is trying to drive her out. She finds spit in her coffee, piss in her locker, her notes go missing, and the reporter who is her nemesis always seems to know where she will be next. To make it worse, she and Steve keep getting assigned to cases that offer only minor challenges.

After working all night, she and Steve get yet another case that seems like a routine domestic violence case. Aislinn Murray is found dead in her cottage, in which a table had been set for a romantic dinner. Texts on Aislinn’s phone to her girlfriend showed she was waiting for her boyfriend, and was quite excited about it. But something went very wrong.

Inexplicably and insultingly, to Antoinette and Steve, the boss asks her to add the older, more experienced Detective Breslin to their team. Breslin is smarmy and obnoxious, and tries to push Antoinette and Steve into a quick conviction of the boyfriend, although at first, the evidence is only circumstantial. The two suspect there is more to the case than meets the eye, but they can’t figure out what it might be, or why Breslin is so anxious for them to wrap up the case fast.

As the tension builds, so do the mysteries, and while the ending wasn’t a total surprise, following it unfold by a master of crime writing was, for me, like watching a masterful drama on stage. Even as you are mesmerized, you can step back enough to appreciate the talent that so thoroughly places you in the midst of another world.

Discussion: Tana French is so good, that my first thought on finishing this book was, “I can’t wait for the next one!” The writing is excellent; French is expert at capturing dialogue and describing a scene so that you can see it yourself, and setting a mood so that you actually sense it, whether menace or hope or fear or anger. She conveys the thoughts of the characters in a way that ensures we know exactly how they feel – such as Antoinette’s growing paranoia and hurt, the increasing desperation of the accused, and the shock felt by one of the other characters when the truth comes out at last.

Evaluation: I loved this book, just as I loved her previous books. I also enjoyed the experience of listening to it on audio. While I would probably have raced through a written version, in this way I was made to savor the story more.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published in hardcover by Viking, 2016

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

The narrator – Hilda Fay – is terrific. She handles all the voices, many in the same scene, but no matter how many, and no matter what gender the characters are, I never had any trouble identifying who was doing the talking.

Published unabridged on 18 CDs (21 listening hours) by Penguin Random House, 2016

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