A Darker Shade of Magic

darkershadeMiddle school me loved magic. From The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe to Tamora Pierce books, I devoured anything with fantastical worlds where magic made almost anything possible. I still love a good magic book, but growing older I’ve discovered that good books about magic are hard to come by. More often than not, they’re cheesy, unbelievable, or more focused on the love triangle than the plot. It can be hard to find books containing magic and good plots and characters that are above a 6th grade reading level, but they are still out there. V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic is one of the best I’ve read in a very long time.

Schwab’s book is set in a fantasy version of London, or several Londons. There are four worlds sort of superimposed upon each other–each London but very different from each other. There is Red London, a place where magic is common and used for good. White London, where magic is used for evil. Gray London, where magic is nothing more than legend, and Black London, a world that was lost a long time ago.

Kell is one of the few people able to travel between these Londons, though he is from Red London and an adopted member of the royal family. On one of his trips to White London, he comes into possession of a piece of Black London, a broken but powerful stone that must be destroyed if the world he loves is to be preserved. On his quest to destroy the stone, he has the help of Lila, a street smart congirl. Together, Kell and Lily journey from Gray London to Red London to White London. They face all kinds of dangers, from being hunted by the dangerous Holland to facing the psychotic rulers of White London–the Dane twins.

The world building in this book is great. It really immerses the reader into a magical world full of wonder and danger. Schwab handles magic really well, showing how it can be used for good and evil, and how power can consume you. Her characters are also refreshing and fun. Kell comes off as the dark, brooding male protagonist, but his love for his adopted brother and his moral compass endear him to readers. Likewise, Lila is the strong, independent girl, but even though she can kick ass and take care of herself, she has a softer side–dreams of having her own adventures on the high seas. She’s not just a tomboy, and the dream that she holds to so tightly makes readers sympathetic–and empathetic–to her.
V.E. Schwab

V.E. Schwab

The bad guys, the Dane twins, are disturbingly wicked. You have to read the book to find out about them and their habits. Kell’s brother Rhy is very fun, quite the womanizer but you can’t help but love him.

The most refreshing part of the book, for me however, was the romance. Though maybe romance is probably a misnomer. There’s definitely chemistry between Kell and Lila, but unlike most YA and even adult fiction, the book does not revolve around them and their feelings. The foremost aspect of the plot is destroying the magic stone. And Kell and Lila develop a friendship before any romance is hinted at. And even then, it’s not the kind of romance that ends in a wedding, or even a passionate kiss, really. Schwab lays the foundation for a deeper romance, but doesn’t go there in this book. Rather, she leaves Kell and Lila as close friends with the possibility but not inevitability of something more. Which I really liked.

I totally recommend this book for anyone who likes fantasy or magic or new worlds. It feels like fantasy with a dash of dystopian while remaining British. It’s a great book, and I hope there will be another one soon!

Pitch Perfect

pitch perfectI recently watched Pitch Perfect again because it was on TV. I could have simply put the DVD in and watched it without commercials, but for some reason that seemed too difficult at the time. It had been a while since I had seen it, and it felt good to laugh at the “aca-jokes” again. I was reminded why that movie is such a good movie. Sure, it’s funny and there are catchy songs and goofy characters, but there are a lot of deeper things in that movie that make it more than “organized nerd singing”. Sure, it’s about friendship, being comfortable with who you are, and knowing how to rock an 80’s movie credit song, but there are a couple things that you don’t find in every movie.

The thing that stands out the most to me is the relationship between Becca and Jesse. In most films geared towards a young adult audience, boy and girl meet. Boy screws up. Boy does grand gesture to apologize to girl. Girl takes boy back. In Pitch Perfect, however, the roles are reversed (for the first time as far as I can recall). Jesse does absolutely nothing wrong. Beca is the one with issues (thanks to her parents’ divorce) and pushes Jesse away every chance she can. Now Beca is the one who must apologize, and the first time she does, Jesse doesn’t instantly take her back. After all, saying you’re sorry isn’t the same thing as saying—or proving—that you’re going to change. So it’s up to Beca to do the grand gesture to win Jesse back, and she does in awesome way.

Anna Kendrick as Beca.

Anna Kendrick as Beca.

Another things that stands out to me is that the movie really emphasizes the importance of girls having girl friends. A lot of the girls in the Barden Bellas, the acapella group, talk about how they didn’t have a ton of girl friends before they joined, and now they do and it’s awesome. It’s not that girls can’t be friends with boys, but girls need girls for support, understanding, and friendship. Most teen movies are about pursing relationships, but Pitch Perfect reminds us girls that it’s important to have girl friends (and it’s important for boys to have boy friends, too!).

Pitch Perfect also reminds young people—middle schoolers, high schoolers, college students, and young adults—that we all have issues. Everyone struggles with something, from insecurities to childhood problems and parent issues. Life is hard, which is why we need friends to help us get through it. It’s okay to let someone be there for you. It’s how we get through life.

Beca (Anna Kendrick) and Jesse (Skyler Astin).

Beca (Anna Kendrick) and Jesse (Skyler Astin).

Then, of course, Pitch Perfect is full of catchy songs and plenty of jokes. It’s funny and entertaining, but it has messages that we shouldn’t miss. And the second one is coming out soon, which the entire world seems to be super stoked about (me included).

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 Crown of Embers

crownembersThese days, romance in YA fiction is the thing of soap operas. Vampire boys watching girls sleep at night. Dramatic life and death situations in arenas. Romeo and Juliet vibes left and right. YA romances also come in two strains. The first is love at first sight. Boy meets girl. Boy and girl fall in love. The first minute of their relationship they know it’s destiny and they will be together for eternity. The other strain of YA romance is the Darcy/Elizabeth hate at first sight that develops into true love. That’s it. There is no middle ground. Or realistic ground.

That is what is so refreshing about the romance in Rae Carson’s YA fantasy novel The Crown of Embers. The sequel to The Girl of Fire and Thorns, which had its own original elements, The Crown of Embers portrays a realistic romance that is neither Romeo and Juliet nor Darcy and Elizabeth. Carson’s protagonist Elisa spent the first book in the series as the secret wife to the king of Joya, the leader of a rebellion against the enemy country of Invierne, and ended up queen and sole monarch of the kingdom. Where The Crown of Embers picks up, Elisa is the newly crowned queen and enjoying her status as a war hero. But while she thought she had successfully defeated Invierne, trouble begins to brew abroad and in her own court. She’s pressured by her council to marry and solidify her position as queen. She’s also desperately trying to figure out how to harness the magic of her Godstone. All in all, she’s trying to rule a country at 17, and it isn’t going that smoothly.

Rae Carson

Rae Carson

But as she navigates the politics of court, seeks out God in prayer and study, and tries to find a way to protect her people from a rising enemy, one person is always by Elisa’s side—Hector, the captain of her guard. Hector protected her in The Girl of Fire and Thorns, but now that she is queen he becomes her personal guard. Her safety is his concern at all time, and Hector and Elisa are friends at first sight. That’s it. Just friends. No insta-love, no hate filled with sexual tension. In the first book, Elisa befriends her husband and falls for a boy she meets in the dessert (spoilers: who dies in book 1). Even for most of this book, Elisa and Hector are just friends. But over time and through many dangers, they become closer and closer until they do fall in love. And as they progressed in their relationship, I found myself becoming more and more invested as a reader. (And now I am DYING to read book 3, The Bitter Kingdom!)

I think it’s important for girls reading YA fiction to know that love often works through a more natural course of events than love at first sight or antagonistic affection. Friendship is the best foundation for romance. As Hector himself points out when describing his parents’ marriage, true love is built on friendship, built on an equal partnership between two people. And it’s the only kind of romance worth having. Not suicidal vampire romance. Not let’s go hunt demons together romance. True love is friendship, honesty, trust, and putting another person before yourself. The Crown of Embers does a much better job of presenting that kind of relationship than any of YA book I’ve read this year.

The best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry.

ofmiceandmenOf Mice and Men was the first “required reading” novel that I truly loved. I read it my freshman year of high school, and it’s not that I thought that all books I had to read for school were boring. It’s just that they didn’t usually turn out to be my new favorite book. But John Steinbeck changed all that.

I’m sure every is familiar with the plot in Of Mice and Men. Most of you probably had to read this for high school. Like most Steinbeck novels, it’s about transient farm workers in California during the Great Depression, in this case George and Lennie. Lennie is developmentally stunted and George takes care of him. They travel from ranch to ranch, working and saving money so that one day they can buy their own bit of land. They come to work on a ranch where the boss’ son Curley and Curley’s wife both prove troublesome. Curley, out of a rather large inferiority complex, despises Lennie, and Curley’s wife, because she is lonely, flirts with Lennie. All goes awry when Lennie accidentally kills Curley’s wife. To save his friend from the wrath of Curley, George takes Lennie away and shoots him himself.

johnsteinbeckIt’s a tragic story in the end, but the theme of friendship runs strong throughout the book. George takes care of Lennie, but Steinbeck also constantly harps on the idea that men (and women) need someone they can talk to. Everyone needs a friend, and not everyone has one. Many people, like Crooks (the black stable buck) and Curley’s wife, are alone in the world. George and Lennie are lucky to have each other, even if it’s only for a while.

Steinbeck, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, was known for his representations of workers in California during the Great Depression. His writing may seem plain compared that of Shakespeare or Dickens, but it’s honest and blue-collar, much like his characters. His themes are complex and deep, however. Of Mice and Men represents both the lofty aspirations of dreams and the bitter reality of life. It is not a long book, but it speaks effectively to the heart of the reader. Even it wasn’t required reading in high school, everyone should have to read this book.

Founding Farmers

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Founding Farmers in Washington DC is one of our new favorite restaurants.

Have you ever heard of love languages? You know, words of affirmation, acts of service, receiving gifts, quality time, and physical touch? According to the premise, these are the ways in which we show others that we care, and the way in which others show that they care about us. I’m not 100% sure of how much I buy into this concept, but I do know one thing for certain. One of the major ways that I like to show that I care for someone is through giving them gifts.

Clare is the same way, and we always joke that buying Christmas and birthday presents for each other is so easy that we could go broke. I cannot tell you how many times I have texted her in July saying that I found her Christmas present, or how many times Clare has told me that she found my birthday present 11 months early! Part of this is that the two of us are so similar that it is easy to shop for Clare, and I am always on the lookout for little pick-me-ups that I could send her or books that I want to share with her, and vice versa.

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The bacon lollys were strips of bacon caramelized in brown sugar and other spices. And they are just as incredible as they sound!

But in the past few years, I have realized that my favorite gift to give a person is an experience. What I love about experience gifts is that they last forever in pictures and in memories. While a t-shirt can rip or fade, and experience lives on in stories that we tell and memories that we share.

This year I was so excited to be able to celebrate Clare’s birthday with her in person! So while Clare was visiting me and my family in DC, I decided to take her to see a production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Kennedy Center. There were good things about the show (puppets and a set that helped the audience imagine much of the scenery and characters in our minds) and bad things (a costume change that took Bottom’s transformation into an ass literally and left no room for the imagination).

But I think that both of us agree that the best part of the experience was the meal we shared beforehand at one of my favorite restaurants, Founding Farmers. Founding Farmers is an award-winning restaurant in Washington DC that has also won many fans among residents due to its fresh, utterly delicious food. The restaurant is located three blocks west of the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue, and usually the line of people waiting for tables spills out onto the street. And with good reason.

Founding Farmers is owned by a collective of American farms run by families (hence the name). All of the food in the restaurant is provided by those families, which ensures that the food is fresh, seasonal, and so, so delicious.

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The burgers are fresh, homemade, and to die for.

If you are lucky enough to live in the Washington DC area, you should definitely check out the restaurant for a special occasion or a fun night out on the town. Clare and I highly recommend the bacon lolly appetizer (it’s as amazing and life-expectancy-reducing as it sounds), the dogs & rolls (the homemade potato chips that come as a side are also incredible), and the chicken bolognese with bucatini (all of the pasta is handmade daily and is such a treat). From past trips, I can also recommend the fried green tomato appetizer (at its best during the summer), the GCS Burger (which is topped with fresh goat cheese, spinach, and pickled cucumbers and onions), and the goat cheese ravioli with chicken cutlet (a perfect blending of sweet and savory that melts in your mouth). Their made-to-order beignets are one dessert that I now crave on a regular basis.

Chicken Bolognese with Bucatini

And if you live outside the DC area, fear not! The restaurant has also put out an amazing cookbook! That you can buy on Amazon! I just purchased this for a loved one, and cannot wait to look through the cookbook and decide what amazing dishes to make at home.

Clare and I made so many fun memories that evening at Founding Farmers, and look forward to going again in the future to make some more.

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Order the beignets at the beginning of your meal, and they are made from scratch for you while you eat the rest of your incredible meal.

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The Power of Story

ImageStorytelling can be a powerful thing. It inspires us, entertains us, and moves us; some stories more than others. Personally, I enjoy light-hearted books like Marissa Meyer’s Cinder, an enjoyable book and an easy read. I also love deeply moving stories like Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief. Sometimes it depends on my mood whether I want an entertaining relationship-focused YA read or a powerful example of mythmaking. But on occasion I come across a book that is the perfect combination of romance and extraordinary storytelling.

Tiger Moon by Antonia Michaelis is a powerful tale filled with drama, excitement, heroism, adventure, and love. Much like the legend of Scheherazade but set in India, Tiger Moon tells two stories. One story follows a girl named Raka, who is sold in marriage as the eighth wife to a rich but violent merchant. Raka is beautiful and brave, but she is not a virgin, and when her new husband discovers this, Raka knows she will die. She has some time, though, as her husband recovers from an illness. Meanwhile, Raka befriends a servant boy called Lalit as she waits out what she knows will be her last days. During this time she begins to tell him a story, the second tale in this book.

This story follows the fate of a young thief named Farhad. Farhad steals a special amulet that earns him the right to be the “hero” for the Hindu god Krishna. Krishna sends the young thief on a quest to rescue his daughter, who has been captured by the demon king Ravana. On his quest, Farhad teams up with a white tiger named Nitish, and together they journey across India in search of the captive princess. During this time, Farhad changes from petty thief to noble hero, but he isn’t the only character to become more than he was.

Throughout the telling of Farhad’s story, Lalit begins to notice that Raka weaves myth and reality together in her tale. She is the captive princess in desperate need of a hero to rescue her. Lalit realizes that Farhad is not coming to save her because it is only a story. But on the night Raka must meet her husband, Lalit discovers someone in the garden, someone who has traveled great distance and through many perils to come to save Raka: Farhad. But Farhad cannot save Raka, so Lalit assumes the role and rescues her from death at the hands of her husband.

ImageThere are several different interpretations for this turn of events. Antonia Michaelis weaves her two stories together perfectly, and the setting of India, particularly the Hindu doctrine of reincarnation, provide a realistic basis for Farhad’s appearance in the real world. But there is another possibility, one that also matches the Indian culture of storytelling and the cycle of life and birth. Raka’s story is so powerful that it brings her hero to life—quite literally with Farhad, but also with Lalit. Raka tells her story about a hero coming to save a captive princess, and her hero appears in the garden. But the power of her story also gives her a hero in the form of Lalit the servant boy. Her story changed Lalit.

Tiger Moon offers a rich and beautiful look into India, but its theme is universal for all cultures. Tiger Moon is a tale about the power of love, friendship, adventure, and heroism, but most importantly, it is a book about the power of storytelling. Raka’s story is so powerful that is saves not only her, but Farhad and Lalit as well. Through her story she wills her heroes into existence, both literally and metaphorically. Tiger Moon is a book about the power of mythmaking. It is a testimony to the importance of story.