Half a King

half a kingAfter reading so much young adult fiction, I must have been craving fantasy. I read Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons, which I enjoyed. But after that and the other kinds of “soft”, young adult fantasy I’d read—Blue Lily, Lily Blue, Mortal Heart, Girl of Fire and Thorns—I felt ready to get back into my old, more hard core, fantasy reading habits. Luckily, Emily gave me Half a King by Joe Abercrombie.

Half a King is a fundamental fantasy novel with a couple twists. Self-doubt is not the only thing that plagues the hero. Yarvi is not only a prince, but he was only born with a deformed hand that leaves him crippled in the tasks that define a king in his world—strength and courage in battle. But as the second son, Yarvi does not have to worry about being king. He plans to join the religious ministry of his day, but his plans are thwarted when his father and older brother are killed and he becomes king. To retaliate against the king who allegedly killed his father, Yarvi sets sail across the Shattered Sea, only to be betrayed by the person closest to him. This sets him down a path of revenge and redemption, a road lined unexpected friends and even more betrayal. Through it all, Yarvi becomes the king he needs to be, but that’s when Abercrombie throws the reader his final twist.

Joe Abercrombie

Joe Abercrombie

Half a King has the basic elements of fantasy—kings, queens, pirates, untried heroes thrust into adventures, battles, betrayals, schemes. The cast of characters is a varied and eclectic group of all ages and backgrounds who meet as slaves on a merchant ship. This motley group sails the high seas, goes on the run, and stands together with swords drawn against common enemies.

But for all the typical fantasy elements, Abercrombie also throws in enough unexpected twists to keep it interesting. Fantasy and sci fi readers will enjoy it. While it wasn’t my favorite fantasy book, I enjoyed it and look forward to reading Abercrombie’s other books.

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A Natural History of Dragons

natural historySometimes it can be difficult finding a good fantasy book. You go looking for something Tolkien-ish, and all you find is cheap rip offs. You want a good story and all you find is two-dimensional characters with staves and headdresses. Basically, all you see on the shelves are mass-market paperback copies of one hundred books that are all exactly the same. The sci-fi/fantasy genre can be exceedingly difficult to navigate, but it is not without its rewards. Overjoyed are you when you discover Brandon Sanderson and Joe Abercrombie. But even though you enjoy the stereotypical fantasy novel with wizards and female warriors, every now and then you wish for something different, something that falls within the fantasy category—dragons, fictional worlds, plot twists—but maybe something minus pointy ears and fireballs. Something more “normal”.

I enjoyed Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent because even though it is technically a fantasy novel, it felt more like historical fiction—even if it is history from a made up universe. It is a nice break from the fantasy genre standard.

Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan

A Natural History of Dragons is an “autobiography” of Isabella Trent, who, now in her old age, is a renowned naturalist and author, particularly known for her life’s work with dragons. This book, however, takes the reader back to the very beginning of her career. We learn how her interest in dragons began in her childhood, how she came to marry her husband Jacob, and how she became involved in her first expedition to study dragons.

There are several things that make this story different from most fantasy books. One is the setting. Most fantasy novels take place in worlds that are equivalent to ancient civilizations or the Middle Ages—limited technology, magic, primitive beliefs and social customs. A Natural History of Dragons, however, moves this setting forward in time. It is not modern, but it has the feeling of a later time, perhaps closer to the Enlightenment, Scientific Revolution, or Regency periods. It’s a good change of scene, and one that I enjoyed. There are social conventions more align with the British television shows everyone is into these days, so that should be a draw.

An illustration from the novel, drawn by Todd Lockwood.

An illustration from the novel, drawn by Todd Lockwood.

Another difference that I greatly appreciated was the female/main character Isabella. In fantasy novels, almost every single female protagonist is a badass warrior. While this was something that was the main draw of fantasy literature for teenage me, after ten years of reading nothing but the same female warrior character over and over again in every fantasy novel, it was really nice to get a female protagonist who was strong without being an elf warrior who kicked all the boys’ butts.

Isabella is bookish with unconventional interest, i.e. dragons. Her nerdiness and desire to break with social conventions are cliché, but not in fantasy novels. Unconventional bookworms are plenty, but usually in contemporary of history fiction novels. While this personality does not make Isabella anything unique in literature overall, it makes her different than her contemporaries in the fantasy genre. She does not wield a weapon, though she is independent and curious. She has a strong desire to learn about the creatures that have captivated her imagination, and she is not afraid to travel far from safe, conventional society to get her chance. This makes her strong without wielding a sword, and it’s a nice change of pace.

The other unconventional thing I liked about this book was the relationship. First, it is not the overly passionate let’s make out in the forest kind of relationship you see in every other fantasy novel. *cough* Graceling. Isabella and Jacob’s relationship is semi-arranged, though they meet and decide to marry on their own. They are good friends who respect each other. The book describes no hot make out scenes, but rather demonstrates their love for each other by showing how much they care about each other when they’re hurt or in danger. It’s a more realistic portrayal of love. When you’re together for years, every second is not a moment of passion. Love also shows itself through small, day-to-day moments, and that’s what Jacob and Isabella share.

Illustration by Todd Lockwood.

Illustration by Todd Lockwood.

Isabella and Jacob also get married at the beginning of the book. They go through their adventures together as a married couple. Weddings usually come at the end of books, or not all, but I enjoyed reading about both of these characters going on their adventures together as husband and wife. It was a new way to do it.

The last thing I will say about this book is that the voice was very engaging. The cliché nature of Isabella’s personality, even though it is original in her genre, kept me from diving into the book headfirst. I read a little at a time, but the voice was what kept me coming back. The writing has a unique feel to it. Marie Brennan really made the book feel like Isabella’s autobiography. Her writing is humorous, clever, and engaging. Perhaps my favorite part of the whole book.

For anyone into the fantasy genre, or anyone looking for a different read, I recommend A Natural History of Dragons. For you die-hard fantasy nerds out there, you still get a dose of the good ol’ fantasy—dragons, schemes, etc. But I think most people will enjoy this new take on the fantasy genre.

Unbroken

unbrokenThere were quite a few blockbuster hits this holiday season—The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies, Into the Woods, etc. One of these hits was Unbroken, the story of Louis Zamperini, an American Olympic athlete held prisoner by the Japanese during WWII. It’s based off of the best-selling novel by Laura Hildebrand, and while Battle of the Five Armies may have more exciting battle scenes between orc and elves, and Into the Woods has more entertaining musical numbers, Unbroken makes an appealing case as the “best” film of Christmas.

Part of what makes Unbroken such an amazing movie is that it is a true story. Louis Zamperini grew up in America, but his parents were Italian immigrants. He was constantly in trouble as a child, but his brother directed his energy into running, which in turn led him to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany. While Zamperini didn’t bring home the gold medal, he did extraordinarily well for his first Olympics, knowing that the next Olympics—to be held in Tokyo, Japan—would be his real moment. Still, he made himself a hero at the 1936 Games, but his running dreams were cut short by World War II.

Jack O’Connell as Louis Zamperini.

After joining the army, Zamperini joins the U.S. forces in the Pacific. While using a faulty plane for a rescue party, Zamperini and his fellow soldiers go down in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Only three survive, Zamperini and two others. They drift on the ocean alone on a life raft for over 45 days, doing anything they can to survive, including catching and eating sharks. One of Zamperini’s companions doesn’t make it, but Louis and his friend are rescued by Japanese soldiers, only to be taken to a prisoner of war camp.

As one can imagine in a prisoner of war camp in WWII, terrible things happen to Louis. After discovering that he is an Olympic athlete, the leader of the camp, referred to by the prisoners as “the Bird”, goes out of his way to make Zamperini suffer. At many times, it’s difficult to watch what he goes through, but through all his suffering, Louis Zamperini remains unbroken, and the end credits will tell you that he learns to forgive his Japanese captors years later, and finally gets to run in the Japanese Olympic Games decades later.

Angelina Jolie and Louis Zamperini.

Unbroken may seem like another World War II film, and it some ways it is. It delves into the other side of the war—the Pacific side. It lets viewers see what it was like inside Japanese POW camps, but ultimately, Unbroken is a story about the triumph of the human spirit, of friendship, courage, strength, and faith. These are the things that uplift viewers and characters alike in films and stories where people endure so much suffering. This movie may be too intense for some viewers, but it is so well done—the acting, cinematography, writing, etc.—that I enthusiastically recommend it to everyone. We should not forget the terrible things that happened in World War II, in Germany and the Pacific, and we should not forget Zamperini’s own message—that forgiveness is the only way to move forward.

The Windy City

Emily and I in front of the Bean.

Emily and I in front of the Bean.

One of the things Emily and I like to do most is travel. Part of this is encouraged by the fact that we live on opposite sides of the country, so travel is necessary if we want to see each other in person. As it happened, we both had time off from work around the holidays, so we decided that instead of one of us traveling across the country, we would meet somewhere in the middle. We decided on Chicago. It seemed like a fun city with a lot to see and do, even if the temperature was supposed to linger around zero degrees the whole time.

Between the two of us, Emily and I have been to a lot of cities—New York, D.C., Los Angeles, London, Paris, etc. After traveling to so many cities, we have established a sort of standard for the activities we do and the places we visit. We always find good places to eat, fun parks to walk around, cool museums to visit, and neat bookstores to explore. These are four things that we have found are almost all worth looking into in new cities, though each city ranks differently in those four categories.

Eduardo's Enoteca.

Eduardo’s Enoteca.

Chicago had a lot of fun places to eat. For New Year’s Eve, we went to a very small Italian place called Eduardo’s Enoteca. The place was lit by twinkly lights and seated only about ten parties. It was small and quiet, but the food was delicious, authentic Italian food with a vast selection of wines and homemade pastas. It was so good, we ended up going back for our last dinner in the city. We also sampled some donuts from Firecake Donuts, ate at the local Shake Shack (my favorite burger place ever), had some authentic Cajun food at Heaven on Seven, and tried deep-dish pizza from two different restaurants. If food is your thing, Chicago is definitely a city you should visit.

When we travel, Emily and I play quite a bit of tourist, so of course we went to Millennium Park to see the Bean. For something that is a simple reflective statue, the Bean (or Cloud Gate) is really fun. There was also ice skating below that was playing fun music. We went during the day and at night to see the city’s reflection in the curved surface of the Bean. Though Millennium Park was not as big as I though it would be, it is only one of many parks in Chicago that I’m sure are a bit more beautiful when it isn’t the dead of winter and the grass and leaves are green.

An elderly couple admiring La Grande Jatte.

An elderly couple admiring La Grande Jatte.

The first thing Emily and I did in Chicago (besides order in deep-dish pizza from our hotel room) was visit the Art Institute of Chicago. You know, the museum from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. After visiting the Louvre, the Met, the British National Gallery, and the National Gallery, and the Getty Museum, you think we would have had enough of art, but that is simply not possible. The Art Institute had some amazing pieces, including numerous pieces by famous Impressionist painters, Picasso’s “The Old Guitarist”, and “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte” by Georges Seurat. If I had to pick one museum to see in Chicago, this was would be it.

Walt Disney's recreated office from the Disney studios in Burbank, CA.

Walt Disney’s recreated office from the Disney studios in Burbank, CA.

But we also visited the Museum of Science and Industry because they were having an exhibit on Walt Disney, who was born in Chicago. The other exhibits in the museum were probably more fascinating for children, the apparent targeted audience of the museum, but the exhibit on Walt Disney was great. There were drawings and concept art from his early work, like Oswald the Rabbit, to his classic films, like Snow White and Cinderella. The exhibit also had a recreation of his animator’s desk and his office in the Burbank studio. There were costumes from modern Disney films like Enchanted and Maleficient, Walt Disney’s numerous awards, and props used for animation, such as the storybooks from Cinderella. Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White. And at the end, visitors could sit through a short animation academy and learn how to draw a Disney character. Emily and I drew Minnie Mouse.

The bookstores of Chicago were probably the most disappointing part of the trip. We went to the Myopic Bookstore, which was fun but very small, and Powell’s, which felt very much like a chain bookstore. But perhaps Emily and I are spoiled after bookstores like The Strand in New York City. Still, I walked away with cool old paperback copies of Lloyd Alexander’s Pyridian books.

Twinkly lights near the Water Tower on Michigan Avenue.

Twinkly lights near the Water Tower on Michigan Avenue.

But there were worse things than the bookstore misadventure. Emily and I got lost several times trying to navigate Chicago’s public transportation system, both busses and the ‘L’. Still, there were some lovely surprises on the trip. The hotel, which was right on the river and had a view of the city and Lake Michigan, upgraded our room so that we ended up having a perfect view of the New Year’s fireworks. There were twinkly lights everywhere. All of the Magnificent Mile (the shopping strip of Michigan Avenue) was lit up by lights. So even though it was very cold, it was still magical.

While I enjoyed wearing my coat and scarves and getting to see a bit of snow, I might recommend visiting Chicago during a warmer time of year. But Chicago is worth visiting any time of year. There is a lot to do and see and a lot of good food to try. Even though it was cold, the trip was totally worth it.

Parks and Rec

Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope.

Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope.

While my brother Payton was home for Christmas break, we pretty much did one thing: watched Parks and Recreation. I had just finished watching every episode on Netflix, and he had recently done the same, so we went through and watched all of our favorite episodes together. It was fun. I haven’t watched a show that funny in a very long time. I remember in high school when everyone was obsessed with The Office and other various shows, but I could never get into those because mostly, the humor is either sex jokes or stupid jokes. Parks and Rec, on the other hand, was a breath of fresh air because it was actually clever.

The show follows Leslie Knope, the deputy director of the Parks and Rec department in the small town of Pawnee, Indiana, and her friends and coworkers. It follows their personal and professional lives through the random, meaningful, and hilarious situations that arise in their small town.

L to R: Andy, Ron, Donna, April, Leslie, Anne, Chris, Jerry, and Tom.

L to R: Andy, Ron, Donna, April, Leslie, Anne, Chris, Jerry, and Tom.

Sure, there are sex jokes and stupid jokes in Parks and Rec, but most of the humor comes from the quirks and idiosyncrasies of the characters. The show utilizes the extreme personalities of the characters for most of the humor, and the better you know the characters, the funnier the jokes are. There are witty puns, physical comedy, long running jokes, and a wide variety of humor that makes the show appealing to people with different sense of humor.

Ben and Leslie

Ben and Leslie

But in addition to the jokes, Parks and Rec also has plenty of real moments to keep the show grounded. The characters care a great deal about each other, and sometimes the things they do or go through for each other can be very endearing. The show also disperses surprisingly deep moments and life lessons in between the humor to make the show more valuable than a simple sitcom.

The show also progresses. There’s nothing more annoying than when a TV show remains stagnant in a particular plot or relationship, like in Bones. Rather than keep the plot stagnant at the Parks and Rec department, the show progresses from the department to a city council campaign, to city council work and beyond. Every character progresses, grows, and develops as the show moves on, which allows the viewers to feel like they are actually involved in the characters’ lives.

Parks and Rec is one of the best shows I’ve seen in a while because it is truly funny, something actually missing from most comedies today, but it also balances its humor with real, deep moments that allow viewers to truly invest in the characters and the story. The characters are all loveable, even the ones you love to hate. The show is full of romantic relationships viewers can relate to, but even more so, Parks and Rec is full of friendships that are the true heart of the show. It is self deprecating and wholesome at the same time, funny yet meaningful. It’s a well-rounded show that I would heartily recommend. Plus, it is hilarious as anything.

Best friends Ann and Leslie.

Best friends Ann and Leslie.

Into the Woods

intoThis holiday season saw some pretty big box office hits, including the final Hobbit movie The Battle of the Five Armies, the true story of Louis Zamperini Unbroken, and Disney’s adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim musical Into the Woods. I went to see the Hobbit movie and Unbroken with my brothers over Christmas break, but Emily and I went to see Into the Woods in Chicago.

Before I go into any detail about the movie, I have to describe the theater where we saw Into the Woods. It was an AMC theater off of Michigan Avenue in Chicago. Instead of regular movie theater seats, each chair was essentially a spacious leather armchair that reclined so you could lie back with your feet up as you watched the movie. Every other armrest could be raised to form a loveseat if you happened to be on a date and need to cuddle during the movie. It was by far the most luxurious and comfortable movie going experience either of us had ever had. Regular movie theaters just won’t be enough anymore.

Top L to R: Rapunzel, Rapunzel's Prince, Cinderella, the Wolf, the Baker's Wife. Bottom L to R: Jack, the Witch, the Baker, Red Riding Hood, Cinderella's Prince.

Top L to R: Rapunzel, Rapunzel’s Prince, Cinderella, the Wolf, the Baker’s Wife. Bottom L to R: Jack, the Witch, the Baker, Red Riding Hood, Cinderella’s Prince.

But the only thing better than those chairs was the movie. The popularity of Stephen Sondheim’s musical gave Disney high standards for a movie adaptation. Things has to be adjusted, songs had to be cut, but the resulting movie stayed true to the themes of the original musical. And the cast was amazing.

The story combines several fairytales, from Cinderella and Rapunzel to Little Red Riding Hood and Jack and the Beanstalk. The opening musical number “Into the Woods” explains the motivations for all the characters. They each wish for something—Cinderella to go to the ball, a baker and his wife to have a child, Jack to save his pet cow, Red Riding Hood to bring bread to her grandmother, etc. Then a witch appears, who wishes for something herself. She gives the baker and his wife a way to have a child, so they set out to collect a list of items, a journey that crosses their paths with the other characters. Through various songs each character finally gets what they wished for, only to find that what they wished for isn’t what they thought it would be.

That is the heart of the story—that what you wish for isn’t always what you need or even want. Each of the characters learns this lesson the hard way, making it very anti-fairytale in some ways. The movie preserves this lesson from the musical despite the changes it had to make, which is why the movie is still good despite any changes.

Another reason why the movie was so wonderful was the incredible cast. Disney cast some big names in this film—Johnny Depp as the Wolf, Anna Kendrick as Cinderella, Chris Pine as Prince Charming, Meryl Streep as the Witch, Emily Blunt as the Baker’s wife—but these big names proved to be more than marketing schemes. Everyone cast, both celebrities and actors/singers from Broadway, proved more than up for the challenge of the songs. The songs are all incredible. (And who knew Chris Pine could sing??) Emily Blunt might be my favorite, but Anna Kendrick is also great, proving that she can sing classic musicals and not just a cappella pop songs a la Pitch Perfect. I’ve been listening to the soundtrack nonstop for several days now and I still can’t get enough. Stephen Sondheim wrote amazing songs for this musical and the cast really did them justice.

If you haven’t seen Into the Woods, I highly suggest that you do. Even if you don’t like musicals, I think you would enjoy it. And if you’re a musical/Broadway snob I still think you’d like it. The movie made changes, but it preserved the heart of the story, and the songs are great. It’s a fun movie and I want to go see it again before it leaves theaters.

Anna Kendrick as Cinderella on the steps of the palace.

Anna Kendrick as Cinderella on the steps of the palace.