Why The Lord of the Rings Should Win the Great American Read

The Great American Read is an eight-part television series celebrating and discussing America’s top 100 novels as chosen by a survey of approximately 7,200 people.  Americans can vote on their favorite book once a day until the winner is revealed on October 23.  Here at Pages Unbound, we’re joining the fun by reading, reviewing, and discussing some of the nominees!

1. The Lord of the Rings Has Defined High Fantasy.

Tolkien dreamed of creating a mythology for England and, by working on it for nearly his entire life, he succeeded.  Middle-earth is a fully developed world with an extensive detailed history, a world where each race springs from its language, where even the plant life, the distances, and the cycles of the moon are carefully noted.  As a result, Middle-earth feels like it really is the precursor of ours.  Generations of writers after Tolkien have tried to capture that same magic by populating fantasy realms with Elves, Dwarves, and orcs.  But no one else has come close to creating something that feels so real.

2. It deals with complex moral and philosophical themes.

On a surface level, The Lord of the Rings seems like a standard (or the standard) fantasy quest, one where the hero faces off against an evil villain to save the people from world domination.  Tolkien’s story, however, goes far beyond that to celebrate the ways in the small moments and small people can create world-shaking effects.  At its heart, The Lord of the Rings is about Sauron attempting to play God, but being defeated by the short-sighted nature of evil and the inability to understand the love that motivates others.  Frodo triumphs, not because he is strong, but because he says “yes” to a providential moment, because he shows mercy to Gollum, and because he is aided by the self-sacrificial friendship of Sam.  Evil is not overcome by violence or trickery or deceit.  Evil is defeated by virtue.

3. It draws characters in shades of Grey.

Tolkien’s characters are incredibly complex, despite their reputation for being black-and-white.  Frodo, for instance, is hardly an ordinary hero.  He does not triumph through strength of arms or quick intellect.  Instead, he triumphs because he is an instrument of Eru–and he has to live with the feeling that he himself failed.  Meanwhile, Frodo’s stalwart companion Sam is more than a lovably loyal sidekick.  He struggles with the mercy Frodo shows to Gollum and his lack of charity influences Gollum just when he is teetering on the brink between choosing to remain himself or become Smeagol once more.  And Boromir, the character readers love to hate for failing?  He shows how every person is flawed, but still can be redeemed.  The richly drawn characters of The Lord of the Rings make it come alive just as much as its detailed worldbuilding.

4. It Is a Book of the People.

At its heart, The Lord of the Rings is a celebration of the common people.  The wise and the strong have their plans, but they are ultimately saved by the quiet heroics of Hobbits from the Shire.  The story posits that it is the everyday choices that really determine the fate of the world–the decision to be kind, the decision to help a friend, the decision to carry onward even when all hope seems lost.  The real battlefield is internal and every person is fighting–not just the people who make the news or who receive the credit.

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Previous posts on the Great American Read

Take the quiz to see how many of the Great American Read nominees you have already read!

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Blogger Stats Survey 2018: Invitation to Participate

In 2016, I (Briana) conducted a blogger stats survey to help shed some transparency on what stats are “normal” in book blogging. I personally found it helpful because many people seemed to assume that their own stats were significantly lower than other bloggers’, when that often was not the case. Since it’s been two years since that survey and some things have changed (what people consider a “big” blogger, how much time people devote to other outlets like Bookstagram and Booktube, etc.), I thought it could be helpful to do an updated survey.

Participation is anonymous, so please participate if this is a project that interests you. Also feel free to share, as the stats will be better if there are more data points (in 2016, I received about 70 responses). The 2016 survey results are here.

* Note that by “blogger,” I mean someone who runs a blog, not someone running a Booktube channel, Bookstagram.  (You can do both, but you should have an actual blog.)

LIFEL1K3 by Jay Kristoff

LIFEL1K3Information

Goodreads: LIFEL1K3
Series: LIFEL1K3 #1
Source: Library
Published: May 29, 2018

Official Summary

On a floating junkyard beneath a radiation sky, a deadly secret lies buried in the scrap.

Eve isn’t looking for secrets—she’s too busy looking over her shoulder. The robot gladiator she’s just spent six months building has been reduced to a smoking wreck, and the only thing keeping her Grandpa from the grave was the fistful of credits she just lost to the bookies. To top it off, she’s discovered she can destroy electronics with the power of her mind, and the puritanical Brotherhood are building a coffin her size. If she’s ever had a worse day, Eve can’t remember it.

But when Eve discovers the ruins of an android boy named Ezekiel in the scrap pile she calls home, her entire world comes crashing down. With her best friend Lemon Fresh and her robotic conscience, Cricket, in tow, she and Ezekiel will trek across deserts of irradiated glass, infiltrate towering megacities and scour the graveyard of humanity’s greatest folly to save the ones Eve loves, and learn the dark secrets of her past.

Even if those secrets were better off staying buried.

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Review

Jay Kristoff’s LIFEL1K3 joins a tradition of science fiction books that tackle the question of whether AI/androids “count” as human and should be afforded human rights like free will.  While I was initially somewhat ambivalent to the question itself, having seen it elsewhere in various forms, the strong writing, vibrant characters, and surprise plot twists kept me engaged with LIFEL1K3.

I have some nit-picky issues with the book that had me on the fence about how much I liked it while I was in the process of reading it.  (Actually, I listened to the first half on audiobook and read the last half in ebook form.)  Kristoff does a good job worldbuilding, including having so much invented slang and names that it seemed over-the-top.  The characters also vacillated between charmingly sassy and trying-too-hard sassy (something perhaps exacerbated by the audibook narrator, who read nearly everyone’s lines with uptalk and made protagonist BFFs Lemon and Eve both come across as almost stereotypically vapid).  Maybe my overall issue (since “trying too hard” is a theme here)  was just that I could “see the seams” of the book, the places where Kristoff decided “I need a futuristic cool slang term for X” and “I’m going to repeat these lines throughout the book for drama” and “I’m going stop at this part in the plot because it’s a good cliffhanger for the chapter.”

However, I ultimately prefer books with noticeable seams like this–places where the writer obviously put some thought into structure, characterization, worldbuilding, etc.– over books that don’t come together well.  So this is both a plus and a con for me and kind of cancels itself out.  And besides this, I liked a lot about the book.

Mostly, there were two major plot twists that genuinely took me by surprise. More importantly, in both cases, these twists made me reevaluate various questions about the book, including the nature of AI and what truly differentiates man from machine.  Initially, the “lifelikes,” androids so realistic you can hardly tell they’re not human except for the fact they’re “too perfect,” were not interesting representations of AI to me.  Basically, they are SO lifelife, that there barely seemed to be a real question of whether they “deserved” rights because of course they did. However, aspects in the second half of the book raised more questions about what differentiates humans from inventions that I found more compelling.

However, I also enjoyed the characters, even if their brand of sass and snark isn’t my own.  Eve’s sidekick Cricket, her “bestest” Lemon, her faithful machine dog, and her grandfather Silas are all special–smart, loyal, brave.  I admittedly found the love interest unremarkable, in the sense I didn’t really feel any chemistry between him and Eve, but that’s fine.

Overall, I do recommend this one. I didn’t like it quite as much as Illuminae, and I’m in the weird position where I don’t actually care that much about continuing to read the series, but I still think it’s a very good book.

4 stars Briana

The Sunday Exchange (9/9/18)

Sunday Exchange

Introduction

The Sunday Exchange is a new weekly feature we are introducing at Pages Unbound where we ask you, our readers, to share a post from your own blog that matches the week’s theme.  The goal is to allow you to share posts you are proud of or think other people will find interesting and to help other people find fun posts to read.

This Week’s Theme

Share a Post about Your Favorite Genre

The “Rules”

  1. Share your post title, the URL of the post, AND a brief explanation of what the post is/why you think people might like to read it in a comment on this blog post.
  2. Try to make the post fit the week’s theme.
  3. Please share only one post each week.
  4. The post does not have to be recent. It can be from any time in your blog’s archives.
  5. Consider visiting some other bloggers’ posts.
  6. We won’t be closing the comments after a week has passed, so *technically* you can still add your post later, but it may not get that much traffic if you share your post a month later.

That’s it! We hope you participate, and check back next Sunday for a new theme and another chance to share!

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A Post We Recommend at Pages Unbound

Fantasy Reveals the Things We Wish Were Easy-min

 

How Fantasy Reveals the Things We Wish Were Easy

Fantasy has a special ability to help us see our own (“real”) world through a different lens.  Tolkien talks a lot about the power of myth and fantasy in “On Fairy Stories.” Sometimes making something seem “unfamiliar” can help us see it more clearly, or prompt us to look at it anew.  I believe fantasy, however, also helps us see what we wish were true, or what we wish were simpler to do or to know.

 

Mirage by Somaiya Daud

Information

Goodreads: Mirage
Series: Mirage #1
Source: Library
Published: 2018

Summary

Eighteen-year-old Amani imagines she will grow up on her “backwater moon” like the rest of her family, now that the Vathek empire has conquered their star system and impoverished the citizens.  But then a droid kidnaps her and brings her to the palace.  There she is expected to be a body double for the cruel princess Maram, a woman so hated that her family does not believe she can appear in public without being killed.  Amani initially agrees just to survive. But when she begins to fall in love with Maram’s betrothed and to listen to rebel whisperings, things suddenly become much more complicated.

Review

Set in a science-fiction world inspired by Morocco, Mirage is an engrossing YA fantasy peopled with vivid characters.  From the first pages when Amani is ripped from her home and forced into a life of subservience, readers will find themselves empathizing with her loss and hoping for her to find new strength.  Her story intertwines with that of a cruel princess who fears to change and prince who mourns his past but shows little desire to go chase it.  The story is centered around the ways in which these characters affect one another and grow.  Although the plot and the character development are ultimately predictable, Mirage deviates enough from standard YA conventions that it manages to feel fresh.

The characters are perhaps the book’s greatest strength as each reveals hidden depths over the course of the story and each shows an ability to change.  Readers will readily anticipate most of the character development, and yet that does not make it any less satisfying.  Mirage celebrates resilience and bravery, particularly bravery of spirit rather bravery in combat.  That each character reveals a little of such traits gives the book a hopeful feeling, one mirrored in Amani’s growing understanding that she is responsible for her own destiny.

If the book possesses a major flaw, it is that it does meaningfully utilize its sci-fi setting.  The Moroccan-inspired setting of the planet where Amani is held captive is drawn lovingly and in detail.  The planet and the way its people have been shaped by and shape it seem like characters themselves.  However, Somaiya Daud does very little with the planetary system she has set up.  It is, in fact, incredibly easy to forget that Amani hails from a moon and that planets and moons are involved in this story at all.  I do not see the point of setting a story in space if it could just as well have been set in a fantasy world on one planet.

Overall, however, Mirage is a compelling fantasy written in effortless prose (not the overwrought “lyricism” many YA authors try for).  It feels effortlessly immersive and easily captures the sympathy of readers for its cast of characters.  It is little wonder that Mirage has proven so popular or that so many readers eagerly await the sequel.

4 stars

How Can We Normalize Reading?

Lately, I’ve been struck by how society seems to assume that children do not read.  I’ve seen Bingo prize tables full of toys but no books.  Raffle baskets with themes like “Movie Night” and “Board Game Night” but no “Curled Up with a Good Book Night.”  Donation requests for movie theatre gift cards, school supplies, and games–but no books.  When adults think of “fun” things children like, books apparently do not make the list.

However, what if we could change that?  Instead of assuming that children do not like to read or will not read, what if we assumed that they do and will?  Simply acting like reading is an enjoyable activity that people naturally do could make it become so.  After all, children who live in a world where books are scarce and never presented as a fun option are unlikely to associate reading with pleasure instead of schoolwork.  But children who are surrounded by books and who see books placed alongside fun activities like sports or games may start to perceive reading as something that people do for entertainment–not just something students are forced to do.

Creating a culture of reading means bringing books to people.  And we already have many ways of doing just that.  Non-profit organizations hand out free books for children.  Schools sometimes mail home free books to students over the summer–books they can keep.  Little free libraries make books easy to access in communities where children may not be able to walk easily to the public library.  All these are wonderful, creative initiatives!

However, I think we can go farther.  The initiatives I listed in the above paragraph specifically offer only books and thus are likely to appeal mainly to already avid readers.  (Would a nonreader go to a book event to receive a free book?  Or be excited to receive a book in the mail?  Possibly not.)  I propose that we add books to events and activities not primarily about reading, so that children can see others assume reading is a fun pastime.

The possibilities for adding reading to fun events are myriad.  Books can be handed out as prizes for games or competitions–think festivals, community or church fairs, or family picnics.  Books can be offered as prizes at fundraising events–think door prizes for a fundraising night or raffle baskets.  Books can even be donated when collections are taken up for holiday gift-giving.  Simply think of “fun” events where games and toys are given out and add books!

Initially, adding books to different events may feel weird.  After all, we are not accustomed to seeing books make an appearance in many places.  We may fear that people will judge us or that no one will place any raffle tickets in a book basket.  However, real change takes time.  And, eventually, adding a book here and there may make all the difference.

Tips When Donating Books

  • Remember your target audience.  What ages will be present?  Do you know if they have a preference for a certain genre or type of book?
  • For wide appeal, consider current popular trends.  “Who Was” books, graphic novels, or authors like Rick Riordan could be safe bets.
  • If you do not have much money to spend, look for cheaper options such as chapter books.  Chapter books are not any books divided into chapters, but books for new independent readers, usually around a second to third grade reading level.  They typically cost under $5 per book.  Think Owl Diaries, Rainbow Fairies, Purrmaids, etc.
  • Consider the type of book appropriate for each event.  Parents, for instance, may be put off by covers depicting graphic violence.  The idea is to get other adults to encourage children to read, not to make a book selection an upsetting ordeal. So just use your best judgment about what types of book options will make a positive, welcoming experience for all.

Disclaimer: Yes, of course I realize that simply handing people books is not a cure all!  I understand that children need to be encouraged to read at home and to see examples of others reading. This post was never meant to imply that simply giving free books away is going to solve all of society’s problems.  Rather, it was meant to be a reflection on how we can encourage a culture where reading is seen as enjoyable everywhere, not just at home or in school.  It was meant to be a reflection on what could happen if children saw adults and other children excited about reading in everyday situations.  What if they met adults who could point them to good books or who could talk about their favorites or who, instead of spending any free time with a phone, would pick up a book?  What if reading were everywhere?

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

Information

Goodreads: Seraphina
Series: Seraphina #1
Source: Library
Published: 2012

Summary

The peace between dragons and humans is uneasy in Goredd.  Dragons take on human form and attend universities, but they are marked with bells and locked into gated communities at night–all to make the humans feel safer.  When a member of the royal family is found dead in a way that suggests a dragon culprit, tensions rise.  Seraphina Dombegh, a court musician and secret half-dragon, half-human, thinks she understands dragons well enough to help keep the peace.  But no one can know who she really is.

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Review

I have been meaning to read Seraphina for years.  Fantasies with dragons are exactly my cup of tea, even if they have never turned into New York Times bestsellers.  Having finally read Seraphina, I am not entirely blown away, however.  The story is a solid fantasy with a compelling plot and a sympathetic protagonist.  It just could never live up to my expectations after I read Tess of the Road.

Writing a review for Seraphina is difficult because I have no strong emotions about the book.  I enjoyed reading it and often kept reading it long after I should have stopped.  However, it does not possess for me that ineffable “Wow!” factor.  I found Seraphina sympathetic, but not particularly interesting.  I liked the plot, but did not find it particularly amazing.  Nothing stood out for me.

This is not necessarily a bad thing.  A solid fantasy is still a good fantasy!  I am just a little baffled about how Seraphina became a bestseller over other fantasies equally as solid.  Perhaps fantasy fans just cannot resist a good dragon tale.

3 Stars