Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Welcome to Teen Read Week

Okay, so it's officially been Teen Read Week since Sunday, but hey, we'll go with it.

This year's theme is "Read Beyond Reality," so I figured I'd open up the discussion for everyone's favorite science fiction/fantasy/horror books. Here are my top ten--what are yours?

10. Foundation - Isaac Asimov
Using psychology as a base science, Isaac Asimov's Hari Seldon sets out a plan to save the galaxy from itself. Not the most engaging characters in the genre, but an undisputed classic, and definitely worth a read on the pure idea front.

9. The Talisman - Stephen King and Peter Straub
Jack Sawyer is the modern American version of a prince--the son of a movie star. Unfortunately, she's dying, and when she flees to the east coast in an attempt to avoid the duplicitous Morgan Sloat, a frightened and depressed Jack stumbles onto the magical world of the Territories--both wondrous and terrifying, and populated by "Twinners" of people in his world. He makes a daring trek across the Territories--and the United States--in search of the magical Talisman, which will save his mother, and both worlds in which she is queen. Excellent character work.

8. Animal Farm - George Orwell
Orwell's short allegory of the Russian Revolution features pigs who decide that they've had enough of being ruled over by humans--four legs good, two legs bad!--and lead the animals of Manor Farm in a successful revolt. But as the revolution grows darker and the pigs become more like the humans, even the basic tenets of Animalism come into question. A great, quick read that will make you think... but which is also an entertaining story in its own right.

7. The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien
While The Hobbit's famous sequel, Lord of the Rings, rightly holds pride of place, The Hobbit itself is worth reading on its own merits. Initially meant to entertain children, it is the story of a comfortable hobbit who--much like Tolkien himself--loves tea parties, stories, and a good smoke in the garden. When adventure overtakes him, he goes along unwillingly as a burglar for a troop of dwarves trying to reclaim their treasure from a dragon. But Bilbo the hobbit has greater reserves of strength than he suspects, and his kindness and fairness ultimately save more than his own skin. As he travels, he never loses his love of his home, but can he ever be truly comfortable there again?

6. The Chronicles of Narnia - C.S. Lewis
Some books in this series are better than others (I can live without The Last Battle), but the power of Lewis's story is unshakeable. Four children, at the height of the Blitz, are taken to the country. There, they find a wardrobe that leads to the magical world of Narnia, and its mystical creator, Aslan--who is not, after all, a tame lion. As the books progress, others join the Pevensies, even replacing them in later books, as they fight through battles both physical and moral. A note on the numbering: At some point, the publishers decided to re-number the books in chronological order of their events. This makes very little sense, as in the original order--which began with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the reader discovers Narnia along with the characers, while in the chronological order, the prequel, The Magician's Nephew comes first, and there are many things in it that refer to books that are technically later in the series. In my opinion, it's better to read these books in the original order.

5. Lord of the Flies - William Golding
Not quite as visibly SF/F as some of the others (but very much in the horror tradition), Lord of the Flies is still speculative fiction. A plane carrying schoolboys away from a war crashes on a paradisical island, leaving the boys on their own. Set up as a contrast to boys' adventure stories where everything works out, in Golding's view, everything goes wrong. The boys carry a seed of their own destruction with them, and when, at the end, the adult world comes to rescue them, the reader is left wondering if they're any better off.

4. The Stand - Stephen King
Very few plot ideas are simpler to explain than The Stand: Virus wipes out 99% of humanity, and the survivors regroup. How does that go on for 1100 pages? Because King delves into how it would feel to the survivors to go through the now barren landscape, in which magic is starting to reassert itself. Not for the fainthearted, the extended version of The Stand contains some occasionally questionable segments, but the powerful vision at the core--the haunting idea of the empty world and the resurgence of wild magic--carries this through as a classic of speculative fiction.

3. Ender's Game - Orson Scott Card
Ender Wiggin is a genius born among geniuses. A third child in a world of two-child limit laws, Ender was requested by the government in order to save the world from a race of invading aliens. Sent to the elite battle school, he finds himself twisted into increasing complex "games" meant to train him for the war, and losing means more than dropping a point or two in the statistics. In the life and death world of battle school, Ender is forged into a soldier in this story where questions of what we ask of our children take the forefront.

2. Harry Potter series - JK Rowling
(Link to first book in the series.)
Oh, the horrors! It's a children's series! Let's create a whole new bestseller list so it doesn't crowd out "real" books!
When JK Rowling set out with her bespectacled boy wizard to tell a modest story about saving the world while drinking pumpkin juice and flying Firebolt brooms in Quidditch games, she probably had no idea what she was getting into. A worldwide phenomenon that got kids and adults reading together--and reading long and fairly challenging books, at that--Harry Potter has earned its place as a fantasy classic. Beginning with eleven year old Harry having a fun adventure involving a three-headed dog named Fluffy and a dragon named Norbert, the series grows up with Harry, evolving into a story about the sins of the past, the power of love, and the mystery of death. If you've discounted Harry Potter as a kiddie phenomenon, give it a try--you'll be surprised.

1. Lord of the Rings - JRR Tolkien
(Link to first volume.)
In the end, as they say in The Highlander, there can be only one, and in the world of fantasy that "one" is Lord of the Rings. It's the taproot of modern fantasy.

Picking up a few decades after The Hobbit left off, Bilbo's nephew, Frodo Baggins, inherits the ring of invisibility Bilbo found... which belongs to Sauron, the dark wizard who once enslaved all of Middle Earth, and who now wants it back, to call all of his minions to him and send his shadow armies marching across the face of the world. While Aragorn, the king-in-exile, leads great battles to reclaim his throne, Frodo and his companion, Samwise Gamgee, take a long, thankless trek across the dark realm of Mordor, to destroy the Ring in the fires where it was forged. As they go, the power of the Ring acts on everyone who comes into contact with it, no one more devastatingly than Frodo.

But even as they fight their large battles, there is another one waiting at home. Will the hobbits find the strength to defend their own beloved Shire, or will all be lost in the end?

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