Cover Art

SUPERMAN SMASHES THE KLAN Part 2 hit comic book stores in December. It’s over a month old and I have been delinquent in reviewing it, until today. This story is appropriate for just about all readers. Rated PG.

For a review of Part 1, see this no spoiler review

Warning: This review will have spoilers if you have not read the first installment.

Inspired by the 1940s radio series Clan of the Fiery Cross, Gene Yang picks up the cliff-hanger from part 1. In part 1, Tommy Lee, a Chinese-American boy has been abducted by a white supremacist group, Klan of the Fiery Kross.

Yang does not sugarcoat the violence of the Klan

The aim of the Klan is to tar and feather Tommy, therefore teaching his parents a lesson. They resent the Lees moving out of Chinatown and into their white neighborhood. The Lee family has made this move because Dr. Lee, Tommy’s father, has been offered a job in a nearby lab.

All the storylines ratchet up a notch in Part 2.

Worth noting:

  1. Superman backstory: Superman continues to have flashbacks of his parents, aliens who look very different than humans. He is grappling with his own “alien” identity. His journey parallels the journey of the immigrants and their children in the story
  2. A little bit of romance: Yes, it’s a bit comedic and fun to see the budding affection between Superman and Lois and a little flare between Jimmy and Roberta, the main character in the story, the Lee’s spunky daughter.
  3. A community undergoing change: Yang captures an aspect of American life that rings true…especially, second generation immigrants moving out of the inner cities, out of enclaves and integrating into white America, changes that have historically led to tension. As in Part 1, Yang treats the “bad guys” fairly, always grappling with their feelings and their perspective. Not excusing their views or actions, but giving all his characters humanity.
  4. Another history lesson/bio on race relations in the US: At the end of the comic, a memoir section called Superman and Me describes Gene Yang’s childhood relationship with Superman and other comic heroes. Underneath Yang’s love affair with comics is the power of story and how they provided a sense of identity and empowerment for the author. In case you’re enamored by the history lesson, consider Yang’s early graphic novel masterpiece, American Born Chinese Definitely worth owning and passing around to friends, especially young teens.

Overall, this is a great middle to the story. I look forward to reading the finale, Part 3 when it is released on February 19, 2020.

Superman’s Flashbacks

A note on the art: The art in the series, created by Gurihiru, is colorful, capturing a blend of retro and anime. It seems apropos that this Japanese female duo would create the artwork for a comic grappling with some of the first Asian-American characters portrayed in a sympathetic way in the American Comics Universe.

To buy Part 1, click here

To buy Part 2, click here

KINDRED, perhaps the most admired novel written by the late, great Octavia Butler is a nearly perfect novel.

I rate this novel PG-13 for the violence that is shown, though not celebrated, against black slaves.

I plan to write a separate post for educators after this general review of the novel.

Short Review…3 Reasons to Read

  1. KINDRED is a page-turner. As a novelist, I so admire this book. It ain’t easy to keep your audience on edge. Butler does it with genius.
  2. KINDRED humanizes slaves and slaveholders…In my mind, KINDRED is a literary narrative because it does not simplify the incredibly complex story of slavery in US history/society.
  3. KINDRED is literary, yet it is also an adventure story…Read the book to gain empathy, knowledge and understanding, but count on being entertained and in suspense while you learn.

Longer Review

Octavia Butler did write great science fiction, like The Xenogenesis Trilogy, but KINDRED falls into a different category. It’s a time-travel fantasy with fewer of the typical time travel tropes. We all know those tropes, how tension builds as the reader/audience wonders whether a character who impacts past will change the future. In KINDRED, that tension (changing the future by impacting the past) stays in the background. It is a worry, but not the primary worry. What creates the tension in KINDRED is the survival of the main character.

The story premise is brilliant.

Dana, whom the reader affixes to very early, is an African American woman, married to a white man living in the 1970s. She is living her life in the present as a happy person. Suddenly, she finds herself yanked back into history. It takes her a while to figure out why, but eventually, she and the reader understand that every time one of her ancestors (a white slave owner) finds his life in danger, Dana is summoned to the past. This happens multiple times. Dana comes back into real time when she finds herself in danger of being severly injured or killed. The going back and forth is painful, but an interesting narrative device. The reader, who empathizes with Dana, finds these short respites back in the modern era as hopeful and yet terrifying because the readers knows, as does Dana, that she will be yanked back in time within minutes, hours or days of her respite. Her oasis in the modern era taunts the reader and gives the reader pause. At least in part, our society has grown out of the horrifying reality of slavery. That reality cannot be denied, or at least it is harder to deny when the reader is identifying so powerfully with this main character.

Dana, because of her experience of liberty in the 1970s as a black woman, becomes a guide to those in the past. She has agency, yet because of her skin color, she is also threatening to everyone who exists in this past world, including the slaves she will try to help.

Regarding KINDRED’s captivating narrative, I challenge you to read the first twenty pages of this book and be able to put it down.

Regarding KINDRED’s story, I challenge you to read something of greater substance that falls into the category of “time travel narrative”. I doubt you will find one.

To buy this masterpiece, click KINDRED

To buy the first of Butler’s science fiction the Xenogenesis trilogy, click DAWN

To buy the whole trilogy, click The Xenogenesis Trilogy

 

BY NNEDI OKORAFOR

BINTI, by Nnedi Okorafor, is a novella about a young woman from a desert tribe on Earth. Her people are called the Himba people and they make a vital piece of technology on Earth called an astrolabe. Binti is the name of the main character. The story, told in first person, begins with Binti climbing aboard a transporter that is taking her to a launch port, then onward to Oomza Uni. Oomza Uni is a university on a distant planet where Binti will have the opportunity to study mathematics with the best and brightest from all over the universe. She is the first of her people to be admitted, so there is the sense of her achieving a great honor. However, she and we (the reader) clearly understand how high the cost is as she leaves her tribe and family behind, potentially forever.

Binti is a 16-year-old, but this book is not a YA book according to the author. However, the back cover of the paperback calls it a “coming of age story”, which might put it in that genre for some. I believe it will appeal most to the middle grade and YA audience, with some degree of PG-13 gore (one incident).

The Novella, BINTI, won the Hugo award in 2016 and the Nebula in 2015 for best novella.

To order BINTI, click here.

What I enjoyed about BINTI.

  1. Sometimes, a novella is just right. There aren’t many around, but novellas can be a satisfying reading experience. To get through a story in one long sitting or two or three short sittings is a lovely thing. Also…light-weight, perfect for a 2-hour plane ride.
  2. The main character is unique and different than a typical caucasian protagonist. Her culture will feel different to many readers. Okorafor has ties to Nigeria and I am guessing that her place of origin impacts the writing of this world. That world is powerful in many respects in how it anchors the character’s identity. For the sci-fi reader who loves to enter into new cultures and worlds, this story will scratch an itch.
  3. Decent tension to keep the reader going.
  4. A satisfying introduction to an author’s burgeoning world. (two novellas follow this one)

It’s a bargain to order the complete trilogy. To do so, click here.

What annoyed me about BINTI and makes me hesitant to give it the highest review…

  1. Somewhat shallow character development. This is the negative of the novella format…it’s a challenge to develop the characters deeply.
  2. The conflict is resolved too easily.
  3. There are wonderful characters here, but I found the writing a bit underwhelming. My exposure to literary fiction makes me a snob sometimes…the writing won’t be a problem for most readers.
  4. The tech is more like magic in this story than science…or might as well be. I’m wondering if it will be explained in the next novella in a sciency way or not?

Educators, THE HOUSE OF THE SCORPION provides a valuable and sensitive context for a discussion on genetics and cloning. To begin the journey, read the novel alongside your student(s). Next, discuss the science. There are a number of kid-friendly articles on cloning, I liked this one from Science News For Students

Finally, with an understanding of what cloning is, dig deep into the human story presented by Nancy Farmer in her deftly written account of a boy clone, Matt Alacrán.

 

To order HOUSE OF THE SCORPION, click here.

 

Here are a few questions to get the juices of discussion flowing.

  1. Who is Matt? How would you describe him?
  2. Why do you think others often treat him cruelly?
  3. How would you describe Celia?
  4. What does Celia feel about Matt?
  5. What does El Patrón feel about Matt? Why do you think he calls Matt “mi vida”?
  6. What does it mean to be owned by a person? (Tam Lin, Matt, Celia, and even Felicia…all of them tell stories that indicate they are owned and not free…owned by El Patrón.) How is it that El Patrón owns them?
  7. What is an eejit?
  8. How is an eejit similar or different than Matt?
  9. How would you describe Matt’s struggle with being a clone? Does it make sense to you? Why or Why not?
  10. Matt’s life makes a positive difference in the lives of many others in the novel. Make a list of those people.
  11. Do you believe the cloning of people will take place in our future? In no, why?
  12. If yes, How should clones be viewed by the society that creates them?
  13. Can you imagine a situation where you would choose to have a clone of yourself created or that of a loved one?

Synopsis of the Cloning Story:

THE HOUSE OF THE SCORPION is a Middle Grade/YA novel that follows the story of Matt Alacrán, one soul and his battle to find meaning and love in the midst of his genetic reality. El Patrón, a powerful drug lord who has an appetite for eternal life, has allowed Matt to be created as his clone, but the assumption is that Matt will not to live much past his adolescence. El Patrón’s long-term plans are to harvest the boy’s organs for himself. Neither the reader nor Matt know all of this initially. The reveal happens little by little. This is not a horror story in essence, though there are horrific issues to grapple with…Primarily, this story is about a young person figuring out who he is, learning day by day what it means to be human.

Roadtrip Listen

Audiobook Rating

THE HOUSE OF THE SCORPION

by Nancy Farmer

read by Raúl Esparza

8 out of 10

 

Highly Recommend! This listen is perfect for a family road trip because the novel is well written and engaging enough to capture the interest of a variety of story-lovers, young and old. The audio voices are well-performed by actor, Raúl Esparza (Ferdinand, Law & Order: Special Victim’s unit) and the story lends itself easily to the listening ear.

5 Reasons for such a strong review:

1. Initially, there are few characters to follow and as new ones are introduced, the listener can maintain a grip on who everyone is…including, there are a number of characters with accents and very distinct voices (performed well by Esparza).

2. The point of view is third person, it stays close to Matt. It does not jump around from character to character.

3. The repetition of little stories told mostly by El Patrón, work like anchors for the listening brain. I write about this in my review of the novel, THE HOUSE OF THE SCORPION Repetition is a common story-telling technique, much like songwriters or poets will use a chorus or a repeated stanza to drive a point home.

4. The writing is top notch, which means, the dialogue is well written. The dialogue feels authentic, like real people talking.

5. Description of Opium takes place slowly and organically. The listener doesn’t have to absorb a huge amount of exposition, the describing of places, houses, rooms, plants, animals, people etc..takes place incrementally. Matt’s life starts out small and his view of Opium is narrow, but little by little, as he learns, the listener learns. Details are added that are important, but not all at once. It makes the audio format easy to follow.

For more on how to choose a good audiobook, see Part II  The Rise of the Audio Book

THE HOUSE OF THE SCORPION by Nancy Farmer 

Nancy Farmer’s first of of three novels, following the life of Matteo (Matt) Alacrán, is a story worth reading to or with your kids. The primary moral challenge centers around cloning, but there are many other ethical questions that will arise in the reading. Farmer’s writing creates real characters, despite the fantastical nature of the world. She takes on complicated relationships. power dynamics, and even religion as she draws the readers toward an inevitable reckoning. She stays close to the child, Matt, who grows up in the oddly luxurious world that is Opium. Matt is a young child at the start of the narrative, a teenager by the end. The story is told in close third person.

Matt is a clone of the wealthiest drug Lord in the world, an elderly Mexican man who dragged himself out of poverty to become one of the wealthiest men in the world. He is known as El Patrón. El Patrón is well over 100 years old. He rules his nation through fear and raw power and on its land he produces enough Opium, legal and illegal, for those who need the product. The land of Opium is both a place of horrors and an ecological oasis.  Nothing is simple in Opium, as the reader will slowly discover.

THE HOUSE OF THE SCORPION deals with extreme wealth versus extreme poverty as well as power, ecological degradation, leadership, friendship, loyalty, religion and meaning. All of this subject matter is delivered in an impactful way to the young reader through relatable characters.

Farmer uses a style of writing that does not explain too much too early, but for those details that are difficult to fathom, they get repeated many times throughout the book, almost like a chorus. For example, the story of how El Patrón’s siblings perished, is told and retold. The story reveals the condition of poverty endured by his family, his town, his people and how desperately powerless he had been at one time. El Patrón is an old man…of course he would repeat himself again and again, but there is more to that story. The tale is part of the legend and a defining trauma in the life of the old man. The story also reminds the reader that Matt, though he is an exact replica of El Patrón on a cellular level, his life experiences will have been completely different. That memory of losing his family is El Patrón’s, but not Matt’s. The nature versus nurture debate looms in the background of this narrative and is worthy of a hearty discussion with your child.

Many other issues are introduced in THE HOUSE OF THE SCORPION There is more great storytelling and ethics to unearth as the narrative progresses. Nothing is black and white in Matt’s world, but this is why I would recommend the book. Farmer has put forward a character and a world with the kind of complexity that leads to memorable discussions. My next post will cover a short audiobook review of THE HOUSE OF THE SCORPION.

To buy THE HOUSE OF THE SCORPION, click here.

The art of a good question is always to draw out the thoughts and feelings of the one being questioned…(and for the most part…to avoid yes/no answers). 
Here are 20 questions to get your student chatting up a storm (of course the student must have read the book closely in order to answer them, so you’ll find that out too.)

To order THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH, click here.

  1. What is Milo like in Chapter 1. How would you describe him?
  2. Would you want to be Milo’s friend, the Milo of Chapter 1? Why or Why not?
  3. When Milo sees the mysterious gift, he makes a pretty big effort to put it together (the tollbooth) and then decides to use it. Does this surprise you? Why or Why not? Would you go through all the trouble to put the tollbooth together and use it?
  4. In Milo’s initial travels, he gets stuck in the Doldrums. Who helps him get out? What does Milo have to do to get his car moving again?
  5. How would you describe Dictionopolis?
  6. In chapter 6, we learn about two Princesses. What are their names and how did they get banished?
  7. Milo starts thinking about the idea that he will rescue the Princesses. Where are the Princesses being held and what hardships will Milo face if he tries to rescue them?
  8. How would you describe the banquet in Dictionopolis? Did any of the foods make you laugh? Which one(s)?
  9. Chapter 9 introduces us to a boy called Alec and the idea of Point of View…How would you define “point of view” based on the discussion Alec and Milo have?
  10. In Chapter 10, the chapter that features Reality, Milo realizes “…the many times he’d done the very same thing; and, as hard as he tried, there were even things on his own street that he couldn’t remember…” What was Milo’s mistake? How has he made the same mistake people in Reality made long ago?
  11. Alec tells Milo in Chapter 11: There’s a lot to see everywhere, if only you keep your eyes open. What do you think Alec means when he says this to Milo? What is Milo supposed to see?
  12. Are noises and sounds important to you? Which ones and why? What do you think it would be like to live in a place where there was no sound?
  13. Milo steals a sound from the Soundkeeper…How does he do it and what are the results?
  14. Is the Island of Conclusions a good place to jump to? Why or why not?
  15. Who helps Milo reaches Digitopolis (see Chapter 14)?
  16. How does Milo outsmart the Mathemagician?
  17. What does the Demon of Petty Tasks and Worthless Jobs, Ogre of Wasted Effort and Monster of Habit ask Milo, Humbug and Tock to do?
  18. What are the demons that protect Ignorance? Come up with a list of the demons in this book, to the best of your ability (hint…end of Chapter 16 to middle of chapter 19)
  19. Which demon scares you the most and why?
  20. Look back to your Chapter 1 answer…How has Milo learned from his adventure? How would you describe him now? Would you want to be Milo’s friend, the Milo of Chapter 20?

Discussion Questions for Educators

Appropriate for Middle Schoolers and High Schoolers

 What a potent book and an important topic. If you are an educator, please assign this short novel to your kids. I have tested it on more than a few middle and high schoolers and they liked it, even felt captivated by it and knew there was truth in the story that they needed to pay attention to.

Five discussion questions for your students

  1. How is the feed similar to the way we connect to our devices?
  2. How is the feed different from the way we connect to our devices?
  3. How would you describe Titus and his friends?
  4. How would you describe Violet?
  5. Who is more of a hero? Violet or Titus? Explain why…

If you have an interest in my review of the novel, see my post on FEED that isn’t designated for educators.

To buy, FEED, click here.