Fantasy

THE HOBBIT, OR THERE AND BACK AGAIN by J.R.R. Tolkien

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Bilbo Baggins was a polite and respectable hobbit who lived in a neat little hobbit-hole in the Shire and never, ever did anything unexpected.  That is, until the wizard Gandalf the Grey and a company of thirteen dwarves show up on his doorstep and suddenly sweep him off on an adventure.  The dwarves have been wandering for years since their home under the Lonely Mountain was conquered by Smaug the dragon.  Thorin Oakenshield believes the time is right to lead his followers back to the mountain and reclaim his grandfather’s treasure.  For reasons he does not fully explain, Gandalf has chosen Bilbo as the “burglar” who will help the dwarves reclaim their home (although poor Bilbo has never stolen anything in his life).  The quest begins with unfortunate encounters with mountain trolls and goblins, and Bilbo worries that he may not be cut out for adventuring after all.  But when a misadventure in the Misty Mountains leads him to discover a magical ring, Bilbo’s luck turns for the better, and he may become a successful burglar at last. 

Tolkien’s classic precursor to the Lord of the Rings trilogy is truly a children’s book–lighthearted and full of adventure, humor, and magic.  Elementary-age readers who enjoy fantasy such as Harry Potter or the Redwall books will love The Hobbit, although younger or less skilled readers may prefer it as a family read-aloud since it is not an easy text.  It is an engaging book, however, and many reluctant readers find that the story motivates them to read it again and again despite the initial struggle.

If you liked The Hobbit, you may also enjoy The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, Odd and the Frost Giants, Charmed Life, The Secret of Platform 13, Magyk, Peter Pan, Peter and the Starcatchers, Gregor the Overlander, and Redwall.

THE GRAVEYARD BOOK by Neil Gaiman

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The man Jack had always completed his assignments thoroughly and efficiently.  His knife dispatched the man, the woman, and the little girl before even a scream could pass their lips.  So it comes as a great surprise to him when he discovers that the toddler has somehow escaped into the night.  The man Jack follows the little boy’s scent up the hill and into the graveyard, but there he loses the trail as a mysterious, black-velvet-clad man named Silas escorts him from the graveyard, persuading him that he never saw the child there in the first place.  The inhabitants of the graveyard, the ghosts of all of those laid to rest within its gates over the centuries, offer the child their protection.  The ghosts Master and Mistress Owens adopt the child, whom they name Nobody (Bod), and Silas, who is neither living nor dead and can therefore leave the graveyard to procure food for the child, agrees to be his guardian.  Bod is given the freedom of the graveyard, seeing as the dead see, moving through walls, fading into shadow, and exploring worlds on the border between life and death.  He grows up safe inside the graveyard, but outside its gates, the man Jack has not abandoned his search for child.

The Graveyard Book won the 2009 Newbery Medal, which is somewhat surprising given the book’s subject matter–the dark, fantastical world stands out from typical Newbery winners–but fully deserved.  Gaiman builds a vivid world in the graveyard and explores themes of life, death, family and friendship, love and loyalty, identity, and morality.  He weaves these themes into his brilliantly imagined storyline, which keeps readers engaged in characters and plot from beginning to end.  Fair warning: you will reach a point in the story where you will become unable to put this book down.  Plan your time accordingly.

I highly recommed this book for upper elementary, teen, and adult readers who can handle dark fantasy and murder mysteries. I also cannot recommend highly enough Neil Gaiman’s audio book performance of this book!  It is one of my top two favorite audiobooks of all time–an absolutely stunning performance.  It is great to listen to, whether you are experiencing the book for the first time or reading it again.  You should definitely check the audio book out!

THE LOVELY BONES by Alice Sebold

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Fourteen-year-old Susie Salmon takes a shortcut home from school through a cornfield where her middle-aged neighbor, George Harvey, is waiting.  When she accepts his offer to show her his cool underground den, he rapes and murders her, disposing of her dismembered remains in a sinkhole.  The story unfolds as Susie’s ghost watches her father, mother, sister and friends deal with the tragedy of her death and search for answers and justice.

This book wasn’t quite what I expected when I first read it. I thought the main thrust of the plot would be devoted to tracking down her killer and bringing him to justice. But it was much more subtle and complicated than that. It’s an upsetting story, but having Susie’s ghost as narrator lends a sort of peace to the story that it wouldn’t have had being told by the father or the detective. The reader knows from the start what happened, so the pressure for justice and the need for the characters to learn the killer’s identity isn’t quite the same as it would be if we needed that information as well. Also, while Susie is dead to the characters, she is very much alive to the reader. It is upsetting, to be sure, but it is not just another serial killer book.

RECKLESS by Cornelia Funke

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After his father disappeared, twelve-year-old Jacob sneaked into his study searching for answers.  Instead he found a magic mirror.  For twelve years, Jacob journeyed back and forth from his own world to the Mirrorworld, a parallel dimension where dark fairy tales became real: questers can sell magical objects on the black market, dangerous fairies seek human lovers, and sleeping princesses decay in eternal sleep, waiting for princes who never arrive.

For Jacob, the Mirrorworld is an escape from everything that he does not want to face in his own world.  But when his younger brother, Will, follows him and is wounded by a stone Goyl, everything changes.  As Will begins to turn to jade stone, Jacob and the fox-girl who loves him have to guide Will and Will’s fiancee, Clara, through his dangerous world, hoping to find a cure, though he is fairly sure none exists.  Meanwhile Goyl army, led by the Dark Fairy, race to find the jade Goyl who has been prophesied to protect their king and lead them to victorious dominion over the human empire.

Based in a German fairy tale tradition that is already fairly dark, Funke’s Mirrorworld is chilling and grotesque.  The book is marketed for teens, and will certainly appeal especially to an older teen audience, although adults who enjoy these kinds of twisted fairy tale fantasies will find the characters very accessible as well.  I enjoyed reading this book very much.  

If you liked Reckless, you might like Dreamwood by Heather Mackey or Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu (both for a slightly younger audience).