Stephanie from Chasm of Books, Krysta, and I will be hosting a three-month read-along of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings beginning next month, January 2014!
- January: Stephanie will be leading discussion on The Fellowship of the Ring at her blog, Chasm of Books.
- February: Krysta will be leading discussion on The Two Towers here at Pages Unbound.
- March: I will be leading discussion on The Return of the King here at Pages Unbound.
Each month will feature three discussion posts, a Twitter chat, and a mystery activity. We will post a more detailed schedule closer to the read-along. You are invited to read ANY of the books with us–one, two, or all three!
To join the read-along discussion on Twitter, use the hashtag #LOTR2014.
If you would like to sign up, you may do so by clicking the green Mr. Linky graphic below. The sign-up list will open in a new window. We hope you join us, and please invite your friends!
Goodreads: Oliver Twist
Orphaned at birth, Oliver Twist has grown up starved for food and for love. He has nothing more to look forward to in life than an apprenticeship where he can expect the same ill treatment. Alone and scared, Oliver sets off for London, no plan in mind. A boy known as the Artful Dodger promises he can have a home, but Oliver does not realize he will be expected to earn his keep as a pickpocket. Other kindly souls take notice of his plight, however, and thereafter ensues a struggle for Oliver’s very soul.
Oliver Twist has permeated popular culture to such an extent that I thought I had a vague idea of its plot. After all, everyone knows the famous line, “Please, sir, I want some more.” This, combined with snippets I have seen of the musical Oliver! as well references in literary criticism to the thief Fagin, gave me the impression that the book followed Oliver from the workhouse to the streets of London, where he subsequently lived a merry life with a gang of pickpockets led by a singing and dancing leader who was some sort of latter-day Falstaff. What I read was actually much more Dickensian than that.
Oliver Twist was Charles Dickens’s second published novel and his preoccupations with the poor and the unjust laws that keep them so are already clear. Oliver’s mother dies at his birth, so readers can follow him from his early days in the workhouse (where the officials purposely keep the orphans underfed and the local impoverished unprovided for so that they will eventually cease requests for more handouts) to the streets of London where he is introduced to the children who must steal to survive. Dickens has plenty of blame to throw around. He directs most of his biting humor at the government officials, but ordinary people receive personal censure for not extending the kind word or the helping hand that might have saved a child from being forced to sin in order to live. The thieves do not get off free, either, however–the portraits Dickens draws are various, and one or two illustrate characters who delight in, rather than shrink from, the sordid lifestyle they lead.
Readers can never know if some of the characters they meet were once like Oliver–young and innocent and repulsed by the notion of doing wrong even to save themselves. Fagin’s observations about women like Nancy–that they take interest in orphans like Oliver until they go to the bad, so to speak–suggest that some of them were. Thus, even in depicting the thieves in their worst moments, Dickens suggests that they could, they might, be better. He may even seem to hint that society is remiss in offering opportunities of repentance and freedom only to those they deem worthy.
Ultimately, Dickens refuses to romanticize the thieving lifestyle. Nancy may repent, but her desperate cries to save the others fall on deaf ears and she herself does not know how to leave the only life she knows. Fagin tellingly reveals his character when he reveals how he keeps boys in the business–he traps them in their own sense of sin and shame so they feel they can never get out. And, no matter how the boys may delight in the “game”, eventually they will all end up either at the gallows or on a ship to be deported. The group talks about giving it to society when they make their final speeches at their trials, but the gesture is ultimately meaningless, and the readers know it, even if the boys do not.
Of course, Dickens was not above romanticizing a good deal of his book, even if he refused to do it for criminals (excepting, of course, Nancy–Dickens’s requisite angelic woman). The main plot line actually follows the fortunes of Oliver as he falls into various kindly hands and a “mystery” surrounding his birth soon develops. It is not hard to figure out where that mystery is headed–both because the device is familiar and because Dickens is such a careful craftsman. Already in this book he shows his beautiful economy, never wasting a scene or a character. Everything and everyone comes back full circle and readers get a snugly wrapped-up conclusion to reward their interest.
I do not think Oliver Twist is Dickens at his best, even if it seems ever-present in our culture. It does, however, showcase many of the author’s great strengths and talents–his social commentary, his dry humor, and his ridiculous characters. Though it was not what I expected, it certainly was classic Dickens.
Top Ten Tuesdays is a meme hosted by the Broke and the Bookish. This week’s topic is
Top Ten 2014 Releases I’m Dying to Read
- Burn by Julianna Baggott
- Cress by Marissa Meyer
- Dreams of Gods and Monsters by Laini Taylor
- Isla and the Happily Ever After by Stephanie Perkins
- Rewriting the Old Testament in Anglo-Saxon Verse: Becoming the Chosen People by Samantha Zacher
- School of Charm by Lisa Ann Scott
- The Mode and Meaning of Beowulf by Margaret E. Goldsmith
- The Only Thing Worse than Witches by Lauren Magaziner
- Wayfarer by Lili St. Crow
- What I Thought Was True by Huntley Fitzpatrick
Series: Elantris #1
Published: April 2005
Elantris was the capital of Arelon: gigantic, beautiful, literally radiant, filled with benevolent beings who used their powerful magical abilities for the benefit of all. Yet each of these demigods was once an ordinary person until touched by the mysterious transforming power of the Shaod. Ten years ago, without warning, the magic failed. Elantrians became wizened, leper-like, powerless creatures, and Elantris itself dark, filthy, and crumbling.
Arelon’s new capital, Kae, crouches in the shadow of Elantris. Princess Sarene of Teod arrives for a marriage of state with Crown Prince Raoden, hoping — based on their correspondence — to also find love. She finds instead that Raoden has died and she is considered his widow. Both Teod and Arelon are under threat as the last remaining holdouts against the imperial ambitions of the ruthless religious fanatics of Fjordell. So Sarene decides to use her new status to counter the machinations of Hrathen, a Fjordell high priest who has come to Kae to convert Arelon and claim it for his emperor and his god.
But neither Sarene nor Hrathen suspect the truth about Prince Raoden. Stricken by the same curse that ruined Elantris, Raoden was secretly exiled by his father to the dark city. His struggle to help the wretches trapped there begins a series of events that will bring hope to Arelon, and perhaps reveal the secret of Elantris itself.
Brandon Sanderson crafts an intricate fantasy world in Elantris, dumping readers straight into a land teetering on the brink of ruin and war. Arelon is ruled by an inadequate king, is being subtly invaded by a destructive religion, and has just lost its crown prince—the only man the people believed could save them all. Prince Raoden is not dead, however. He has become an Elantrian and is standing on his own precipice, doomed to a life of eternal suffering that will eventually drive him insane. Unless he can find uncover the secrets of the once-beautiful Elantrian magic.
The stories of Prince Raoden, quarantined in the city of Elantris, and Arelon at large run parallel in Elantris. Princess Sarene, Raoden’s intended fiancée, attempts to take his place in the capital as the people’s savior, facing off against high priest Hrathen and Roaden’s father. The result is a complex web of politics, as alliances are made, secrets revealed, and murders committed. Elantris is billed as a fantasy, and it does feature magic, but it is just as much a book of political intrigue.
The characters, however, are just as complex as their plots. Raoden is a pretty straightforward hero, but the rest have multiple facets that will be a pleasure for readers to explore. Sarene is a strong-willed woman who does not always believe in herself. Hrathen is a passionate priest who does not always believe in his faith. Their allies have mysterious pasts. Everyone, eventually, learns from their mistakes and grows—sometimes ending on far different paths than they anticipated.
Meanwhile, Sanderon’s writing is superb, something I am beginning to expect after reading Elantris and Steelheart. Occasionally his characters (particularly Raoden) explain a little too much, as if the readers are not smart enough to draw conclusions and put together plot events on their own. However, the structure of the story is tight and the writing intelligent. In the end, everything comes back to the beginning and is beautifully tied up. Elantris is truly a pleasure just to look at.
I would recommend this book to readers who like smart fantasy with fair helpings of both magic and politics. One of my favorite reads of 2013.
Goodreads: Hydrogen: The Essential Element
Rigden explores key advances in physics by focusing on the hydrogen atom.
In Hydrogen, John Rigden attempts to bring the beauty and elegance of physics to the general reader through a brief survey of some of its greatest puzzles, theories, experiments, and applications. Along the way he introduces his audience to a host of famous names from Niels Bohr to Albert Einstein, imparting a personal element to a discipline too often considered detached and cold. Rigden’s enthusiasm for his subject permeates every page, and even readers who consider themselves allergic to science may find themselves unexpectedly excited at the prospect of a new discovery or baffled by a particularly odd observation.
I find it difficult to say whether Rigden actually succeeds in his goal of introducing physics to the general reader. My sense is that he provides enough information and enough background that the general reader could indeed follow along, at least getting the main points. However, even a little background in physics or chemistry is guaranteed to help, just so that having an assortment of names like the Balmer series, the Bohr model, and the quadrupole moment of the deuteron do not become overwhelming. (Don’t be alarmed if you forget everything from your introductory high school course on classical physics, however–this book focuses on the birth of quantum mechanics and quantum electrodynamics. Newton will only get you so far.) A few figures illustrate the text, but they seem to be present mainly for those who want them and not because they are indispensable for understanding. If readers find they do not want to look at energy state diagrams, they can continue on reading and still get something from the book.
Perhaps Rigden’s greatest achievement in Hydrogen is not explaining physics to the general public, however, but in providing an illustration of how science works. Depictions of scientists in popular culture show men and women who live in a world of absolutes where everything is neat and pretty and all the numbers always add up. In reality, science is often confused and messy. Rigden’s very subject–the development of wave mechanics, the birth of quantum electrodynamics–shows how scientists were aware for decades of gaps in their knowledge and how gaps still exist in their current models for understanding the world around us. The biographies he inserts show scientists who stumble upon great discoveries by pure luck (though, of course, intelligence is still needed to recognize significant data when one sees it) as well as scientists who worked fruitlessly for years because they relied on wrong assumptions. The hydrogen atom, Rigden likes to remind his readers, reveals amazing secrets about the world, but also cautions us to be humble in our search for knowledge.
Hydrogen is a great book for those interested in learning more about physics and some of its most startling discoveries. Rigden employs an engaging writing style that he couples with some witty observations in order to make his topic come alive. Some of his stories may change the way readers look at physics.
If You Like, Then Read is a feature where we offer reading suggestions based on books you already like, scheduled once a month. If you have more suggestions, feel free to tell us in the comments! You can check out the rest of these lists here.
The Ashtown Burials series by N. D. Wilson
In Book 1, The Dragon’s Tooth, Antigone and Cyrus Smith live in a dilapidated hotel with their older brother Daniel. No one ever checks in, until the night a strange man requests a specific room. By morning, the man has died, the hotel has burned to the ground, and Daniel has disappeared. Informed that the only way to save their brother is to join a mysterious order of explorers dedicated to preserving the world’s treasures and imprisoning the world’s monsters, Antigone and Cyrus find themselves racing against time to find the order and swear their loyalty. Not everyone in the order, however, welcomes the new initiates. Surrounded by enemies, the two will have to prove their skill and bravery if they want to reunite their family. The series continues to follow the Smith family as they fight an enemy determined to unleash some of legend’s most fearful monsters upon the world.
Atlantis Rising by T. A. Barron
T. A. Barron explores the roots of Atlantis’s legendary greatness in this book dedicated to celebrating the rise of the island rather than chronicling its fall. In his version, a thief named Promi joins forces with Atlanta, a girl with natural magic, in order to decipher a prophecy that seems to indicate the end of all magic. The gods, however, have separated themselves from mortals and no hope seems left for those who would save the land from ruin.
The Theodosia Throckmorton series by R. L. LaFevers
Eleven-year-old Theodosia Throckmorton practically lives in London’s Museum of Legends and Antiquities where her father works as curator. Only she, however, can detect the ancient curses that linger on the artifacts her mother brings back from Egypt, and only she knows the rituals that will render the curses innocuous. Adults may not believe her stories, but she nevertheless devotes her gifts to saving the British Empire.
The Goddess Girls series by Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams
This series features the Greek gods as adolescent students attending Mount Olympus Academy. The first book in the series is Athena the Brain.
The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel series by Michael Scott
Fifteen-year-old twins Sophie and Josh Newman find themselves embroiled in a centuries-long battle between alchemist Nicholas Flamel and his foe Dr. John Dee. Flamel and his wife need a book called known as the Codex in order to continue making the elixir of life or they will both die–Dee, however, plans to use the Codex to destroy the world. The Alchemyst is the first of six books in the series.
Series: Matched #3
Now members of the Rising, Cassia, Ky, and Xander wait for the final push against the Society to begin. They do not know when or how it will occur, but their trust in the Pilot keeps them blindly following orders. Then Plague strikes and even the Rising does not have the capability to combat it. Love has carried the three this far, but can it triumph over death?
The Matched trilogy previously left me feeling conflicted. Although its identity as a dystopian series implies a desire to comment on government, authority and choice, its focus always remained on the love life of Cassia Reyes. The novels never convincingly demonstrated that Cassia fully understood the magnitude of the atrocities committed by the Society or decided to rebel against it for reasons other than a desire to make out with a man not chosen for her by someone else. Sometimes, like Xander, I wondered if Cassia even really loved Ky, or simply wanted him because he was forbidden.
I was able to take Reached more seriously as a dystopian novel because it broadens its focus from the personal journey of Cassia to encompass not only the journeys of Ky and Xander but also the fate of the Society as a whole. Previously Condie expected me to believe that stealing kisses in the forest was a noble act of rebellion and not simply teenage hormones. Now she illustrates the infrastructure of the Society crumbling under the pressure of plague and civil unrest. Even though the tactics of the Rising never made real sense to me, I found watching them attempt to take power much more interesting than watching Cassia moon over her crush.
Despite the broadened focus, however, the other characters continue to attach undue importance to the actions of Cassia and her love interests. While reading Matched, I found myself baffled by the willingness of Cassia’s family and friends to risk their lives in order to allow her to continue meeting her crush in secret; everyone seemed honestly convinced that conducting a forbidden love affair was the first step in taking down the government. While reading Reached, I found myself baffled by the interest of the Pilot in Cassia and her friends. Even though, as the leader of an uprising, he must have men and women under him who can look into suspect activities, he chooses to investigate Cassia personally. He then chooses Cassia and her friends for a top secret mission (on which the whole fate of the Rising happens to hinge) even though one would assume that, of all the people who follow him, there must exist some more qualified for this sort of thing than three teenagers.
Reached also fails to fulfill promises to explore more in depth the nature of government, authority, and rebellion. Condie has hinted before in the trilogy that the Rising might not be what it appears. Events in Reached suggest that, indeed, the Rising possesses elements of corruption. Events furthermore suggest the dangers of idolizing any one figure or movement. The characters, however, seem unfazed by these revelations, never really questioning their involvement in the Rising or learning any lessons about placing complete trust in people they barely know. I suppose it is to their credit that they continue to believe in the inherent goodness of people and to hope for a better future, but Condie obliquely acknowledges their danger of repeating past mistakes and erecting a new Society instead of staging a true revolution.
Reached proves a fast-paced novel filled with enough action and danger to make it the most exciting book in the trilogy. Fans will find their eyes glued to the pages as they follow Cassia, Xander, and Ky through a new adventure and see how the three grow in maturity as they are forced to go their separate ways. An exciting plot and good character development cannot, however, completely obscure the flaws in the trilogy, and I find myself wondering what the books could have been like had they been more fleshed out and made more sense.
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Goodreads: The Runaway King
Series: The Ascendance Trilogy #2
Published: March 1, 2013
A kingdom teetering on the brink of destruction. A king gone missing. Who will survive? Find out in the highly anticipated sequel to Jennifer A. Nielsen’s blockbuster THE FALSE PRINCE!
Just weeks after Jaron has taken the throne, an assassination attempt forces him into a deadly situation. Rumors of a coming war are winding their way between the castle walls, and Jaron feels the pressure quietly mounting within Carthya. Soon, it becomes clear that deserting the kingdom may be his only hope of saving it. But the further Jaron is forced to run from his identity, the more he wonders if it is possible to go too far. Will he ever be able to return home again? Or will he have to sacrifice his own life in order to save his kingdom?
The stunning second installment of The Ascendance Trilogy takes readers on a roller-coaster ride of treason and murder, thrills and peril, as they journey with the Runaway King!
With The Runaway King, Nielsen writes a magnificent follow-up to bestseller The False Prince, reintroducing readers to all their favorite characters and intrigues. Sage passes through an initial period of anger, but once he gets a grip on his emotions, he is as clever as ever—something many writers find difficult to maintain over a series. He is joined by gutsy Imogen, old enemy Roden, and a few unexpected new friends.
In addition to creating an evolving cast, Nielsen keeps the story fresh by moving the plot out of Carthya—straight into a pirate camp. Sage and his friends have two new cultures to learn, that of rival kingdom Avenia and that of the pirates’ of Tarblade Bay. How well they can adapt and blend in will determine how long they can keep their lives. One suspects they must succeed (That’s what happens in modern children’s books, right? The good guys win?), but Nielsen still keeps readers on the edges of their seats, introducing plot twist as plot twist.
Sage’s exploits in The Runaway King are as physically demanding as they are mentally. Outwitting pirates often means backing them into a duel. Sage exhibits remarkable strength and endurance through his ordeals, demonstrating his mind and body are as quick as his tongue—characteristics that will serve him well as the king he is meant to become.
Through all the action, The Runaway King promotes some great moral messages about doing what is right, maintaining loyalty, and sacrificing oneself when necessary. The book is not preachy, however; ethical actions are simply something that permeate Sage’s worldview and thus the story. The Runaway King tells readers that doing the right thing is tough, but it is worthwhile.
The Runaway King is a fast-paced middle grade adventure that will please fans of The False Prince with its wit, charm, and thoughtfulness.
Teaser Quote: “Afraid didn’t even begin to describe the terror I felt. Pinched behind me, my hands still shook. But I was angry with myself too. Because for all my good intentions, it was obvious that I had been wrong to come here. There were so many who would pay for my mistakes” (250-251).
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Goodreads: Mister Max: The Book of Lost Things
Series: Mister Max #1
Published: September 2013
Max’s parents arranged to meet him upon the Flower of Kashmir to take the trip of a lifetime. When Max arrives at the harbor, however, the ship does not exist and his parents are missing. Luckily Max possesses a talent for finding things—lost children, lost dogs, and even lost loves. Dressed in various disguises, he roams the city solving other people’s mysteries—but will he be able to solve his own?
The Book of Lost Things was a delightful surprise. Sometimes books in a genre all seem to blur together. Sometimes middle-grade offerings all seem the same. Cynthia Voigt, however, takes a standard middle-grade plot–that of the missing parents–and transforms it into something new. Readers may not fully swallow the details of the plot, but the adventure on which Max takes them is so fun that most will probably suspend their disbelief willingly, just to continue.
This book announces its determination to do something different from the very beginning–when Max loses his parents, but is not left alone. That’s right. Max has a grandmother and she loves him and cares for him and feeds him. And she helps him solve the mystery. Max still wants to be independent. He seems to think that caring for himself will make losing his parents more bearable. But that’s okay. His grandmother is still there if he needs her; she gives him space without ever letting him do anything too stupid. And thus we have a rare example of a book in which children can rely on adults while still having fun.
Max’s independence comes largely in the area of getting a job, which also makes sense since his grandmother does not make enough money to support both of them. (Her job, incidentally, is also a pretty good way of keeping her out of the way when Max goes off exploring.) The job he eventually lands will probably tax the belief of readers–he becomes some sort of detective, which means he dresses up in various outfits, pretending to be a portly middle-aged man, a university student, and more all while still a child. And people buy it. But, hey, at least Voigt tried to explain it by making his parents actors. And the job search itself was pretty realistic for these times–Max looks all over town but no one’s hiring. Usually characters seem to land the first job they walk into.
If readers can get past these amazing feats of disguise, they may very well find the rest of the plot both enchanting and amusing. It is always fun to see who Max will be next and how his clients will react to his appearance. He seems to have a pretty good idea of how people work–apparently it comes from reading Shakespeare–and his reasonings for costumes are just as fun as the outfits themselves. Some of the plot elements will be familiar (this is a middle-grade book and not all “mysteries” are that mysterious), but surprises are still in store and I think most will not predict the ending.
The only problem now is that I have to wait to get my hands on the sequel.