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!

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.

Year in Review: 2014

Emily and I at The Green Dragon in Boston.

Emily and I at The Green Dragon in Boston.

I can’t believe another year has passed already. I’m starting to feel old, and I’m only 22 (almost 23!). Last year around this time I posted a short review of my year—exciting stuff that happened (I graduated!), books I loved, movies I saw. I thought I’d do the same thing this year because, even though nothing as exciting as graduating from college happened, I did read some amazing books and see some amazing movies.

lovelyphotoI’ll start with books. One unconventional book that I absolutely adored was Lovely: Ladies of Animation, a collaborative art book featuring personal work by Lorelay Bove, Brittney Lee, Claire Keane, Helen Cheng, Lisa Keene, and Victoria Ying. I went to their exhibit in Burbank at the Center Stage Gallery and it was amazing. I love their artwork, and anyone into art, animation, or Disney should check it out.

sinnerNovels I loved include Out of the Easy by Ruta Septys, a story about a hard working girl from the French District in New Orleans. The writing was wonderful and the characters colorful. Another colorful book was Tiger Moon by Antonia Michaelis, an “Arabian nights” type story set in India. Both those books are full of very different cultures, vibrant and interesting. Another book full of culture is Marie Rutkoski’s The Winner’s Curse. The culture in this book is fictional, but heavily based upon Roman and Greek culture. I am incredibly excited for the next book, The Winner’s Crime. And speaking of waiting, I waited so long for Maggie Stiefvater’s Sinner, a stand alone companion novel to her Wolves of Mercy Falls series. If any of you like Maggie Stiefvater or werewolves or hot OTP couples, definitely check out this book. All of these books are incredible, and if you haven’t read them, put them on your “to read” list.

The-Theory-of-EverythingAs far as movies go, I enjoyed the adaptation of Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, which was not only a moving story set in World War II, but also incredibly close to the book. I also liked The Theory of Everything, the movie about Stephen Hawking and his wife Jane. The acting was amazing. And I know this is not a movie, but I also loved watching ABC’s Once Upon A Time. It was a fun, fairytale adventure with lots of twists and turns and villains. I can’t wait for the next season to come to Netflix.

Me under a tunnel of books.

Me under a tunnel of books.

It is difficult, nigh impossible, to top the traveling Emily and I did last year, going to London, Oxford, and Paris. This year was not as exciting, but we did get around. We went to Boston, walked the Freedom Trail, tasted the marvels of Little Italy. On the West Coast, I also visited The Last Bookstore, one of the most famous bookstores in Los Angeles, and it was quite the experience. Emily and I are closing off the year in Chicago together, so more adventures are yet to be had!

I can’t wait to wrap up 2014 watching Lord of the Rings in Chicago with my best friend, but I’m also looking forward to 2015. Hopefully it will be an exciting year and bring about some changes. I’m still thinking about what my resolutions should be, but hopefully they are big and exciting! I hope your new year is the same.

The Championships

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Murray winning Wimbledon in 2014.

Important things are happening today in the world of international sports, but I am not referring the FIFA World Cup, though the tournament goes on in Rio, Brazil. But far away, in another time zone, today is the first day of Wimbledon, the most prestigious tennis tournament in the world. Last year I wrote about the Heritage of Tennis, as it relates to Wimbledon. The Championships was especially exciting last year because it was the first I watched Wimbledon after touring the place with Emily when we were in London. Last year was also exciting because Andy Murray became the first U.K. (I won’t say British, because he’s actually Scottish and people tend to forget that and think that he’s English but he’s NOT) player to win since 1936. It was a Wimbledon that Murray and all of England will not soon forget, but now that another year has come around, it is time for Murray to defend his title.

Last year before the tournament, I wrote a short post on the players to watch, and honestly that hasn’t changed much this year. Roger Federer (current world No. 4) is a year older but grass remains his best surface. I wouldn’t expect him to win, but he’ll play excellent tennis. Novak Djokovic (No. 2) will be eager for his first Grand Slam title of the year, and Rafael Nadal (No. 1) will be ready to reclaim the title after winning the French Open several weeks ago. In addition to these major players, Australian Open winner Stanislas Wawrinka (No. 3), as well as Germany’s Thomas Berdych (No. 6), Spain’s David Ferrer (No. 7), and Argentina’s Juan Del Potro (No. 8) will be fighting to be holding the sacred golden trophy.

But, much like last year, the eyes of the host country will be focused on Andy Murray (No. 5). It’s a lot of pressure for one player, but last year Murray won the tournament with the same, if not more, pressure from his country. He’s a player you can’t help but root for, and I will definitely be cheering for him these next to weeks as we settle into some of the best tennis of the year. There will be upsets, emotional wins and losses, amazing plays and saves, and plenty of athleticism until a new champion is crowned. But whether it’s Murray, Djokovic, Nadal, Federer, or a new tennis king, these next two weeks of tennis will give the World Cup a run for it’s money.

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A picture of Court No. 1 from my trip to England.

Les Deux Magots

ImageThe highlight of my senior year of college had nothing to do with college, though graduating was rather exciting. But the most incredible thing I did that year was travel to Europe for the first time. Emily and I stayed in London for over a week, taking day trips to Oxford and Paris. When we decided to go to Paris, we knew we had to eat in a quintessential Parisian café in order to get the true Parisian experience. And being the literature nerds that we are, we knew we wanted to find a café with literary significance. After all, almost every old café in Paris can boast that it has hosted more than one famous writer, both European and American. After diligent research—which is Emily’s gift—we decided that for our whirlwind day in Paris we would eat in a little café known as Les Deux Magots.

Les Deux Magots is a small café located in Saint-Germain. And before you begin to wonder, the name does not translate to “two maggots”, which would be a terrible name for a place that serves food. Rather, Les Deux Magots means the two Chinese figurine dolls, a name derived from a novelty shop that occupied the space before the café. Since it was founded in 1812, Les Deux Magots has served many famous authors, artists, and notable people, but I will mention two.

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This plaque stands on the street corner where the cafe is located.

Ever the classicist, Emily insisted that we find a café where Ernest Hemingway had frequented while he lived in Paris in the 1920s. Les Deux Magots is one of those cafes, and it was very excited for both of us to eat in a place where that hosted this great American writer. More exciting for me and less exciting for Emily, Simone de Beauvoir also ate at Les Deux Magots. A notable French existentialist, writer, and feminist, de Beauvoir is most famous for her book The Second Sex and her relationship with existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. While I wrote my senior thesis that year—you can read part of my musings on the heroine in British literature—I read The Second Sex and was duly impressed by de Beauvoir’s intelligence and talent in writing. Though as a disclaimer I should say that I disagree with her on many, many points, but I couldn’t help but be impressed by the way de Beavoir tied feminism into philosophy, psychology, and politics. Anyway, Emily humored my Simone de Beauvoir phase as she handles all my odd phases, and we went to the café of Ernest Hemingway and Simone de Beauvoir.

But besides the historical and literary significance of Les Deux Magots, there is also the cultural atmosphere of a French café—a Parisian café. Emily and I sat at our small little table and ate our delicious sandwiches, soaking in the moment, pretending we were great writers ourselves. It was a wonderful experience; a required experience if you ever plan on visiting Paris. There are many cafés to choose from, and I’m sure they all serve delicious food and wonderful ambience, but Emily and I can personally recommend Les Deux Magots, 6 Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés.

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A shelf in the famous Parisian bookstore Shakespeare and Company that honors Simone de Beauvoir and her book The Second Sex.

18 Miles of Books

Wherever Emily and I travel together, we are sure to hit the major bookstores. In Paris, this meant that we went to Shakespeare and Company. In England, we went to Blackwell’s. In Washington DC, we went to Capitol Books. All of these bookstores were like heaven to two book lovers such as ourselves, but one of the best bookstores Emily and I ever went to was The Strand in New York City.

I was lucky enough to go to college in New York City, and Emily, attending the University of Maryland, was able to come visit me quite often. On almost all of her visits, we trekked down to Union Square to peruse the 18 miles of books that is The Strand Bookstore.

The Strand is one of the most famous bookstores in New York. It sells everything from new releases to old classics to rare (like, $5000 rare) first editions and signed copies. With four stories of books, you can find everything from fiction to nonfiction, children’s books to art books, Shakespeare coffee mugs to Jane Austen tote bags. It truly is a book lover’s heaven. Emily and I loved finding cheap copies of new books and beautiful old copies of our favorite classics.

Whenever we would go to The Strand, Emily and I would break off, knowing that we would both eventually end up in the Young Adult section on the second floor. But I had a routine that I always followed. I passed by the classic section to look at beautifully bound copies of Oliver Twist and The Praise of Folly. Then I would meander down the aisles of books to the science fiction section to look for new copies of Lord of the Rings. Because I have a problem buying copies of Lord of the Rings. I have 6 copies of The Lord of the Rings and 5 copies of The Hobbit.

After checking the Tolkien section, I would make my way to the poetry shelf to look for pretty copies of my favorite poets—Elizabeth Barrett Browning, W.B. Yeats, and Sylvia Plath. Next it was downstairs to the nonfiction section to look for more books on Tolkien, because clearly I don’t have enough. Then it was up to the second story to look at their wonderful young adult and children’s section. This is where Emily and I would usually meet up and then we would go up to the third floor to check out the rare and antique books that were well beyond our budgets.

The Strand is one of the biggest bookstores you’ll go to that is not a Barnes and Noble. The books are great prices and you can find fantastic scores—from copies with pretty bindings to books for only $1. Emily and I never went in without coming out with at least one book. Usually more. But even if you’re not buying anything, The Strand is a wonderful place to go and just soak up the aura of books.

Oxford

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The sign hanging outside the Eagle and Child pub.

Today is not only St. Patrick’s Day, a holiday celebrating the Catholic missionary to Ireland hundreds of years ago, but it is also my birthday. These combined events make March 17 very important to me, but there is one more reason why it’s such a special day. On this day exactly one year ago, Emily and I were in Oxford, England. For my last year of college and Emily’s last full year, we decided to travel to Europe during spring break. We stayed in London, took the train to Paris for the day, and most importantly, we went to Oxford on my birthday. That may not be a big deal for some people, but for me going to Oxford, or particularly the pub The Eagle and Child, was one of the highlights of my life.

I’ve been writing about this a lot lately, but The Lord of the Rings is my favorite book, so visiting the place where the author lived and worked was the best experience of my life. J.R.R. Tolkien studied English Language and Literature at Exeter College at Oxford University, graduating in 1915 with honors. Following his graduation, Tolkien married Edith Bratt, served as a soldier in World War I, became a father, and worked for the Oxford English Dictionary and the University of Leeds before returning to Oxford as a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College. In 1945, after World War II, Tolkien became a professor of English Language and Literature at Merton College, Oxford, where he remained until he retired. After he retired, Tolkien and Edith moved to Bournemouth, but after Edith’s death he returned to live at Oxford.

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The corner where the Inklings met at the Eagle and Child.

Tolkien was not the only literary great to live and work in Oxford. He was only one member of the writing group known as the Inklings, which also included C.S. Lewis and other famous authors. The Inklings met at a local pub, The Eagle and Child, which they fondly referred to as the “Bird and Baby”. Here, they discussed works of literature as well as their own writing.

For all Tolkien fans, Oxford is hallowed ground, especially The Eagle and Child. It had always been my life goal to one day visit the Inkling’s pub and to tour the university where Tolkien taught. Well, one year ago Emily and I went to Oxford, touring the university and eating at The Eagle and Child. We walked where Tolkien walked and ate where he ate (and discussed literature and writing). We also came across a chocolate faire and some unexpected snow. But I got to check off the number one thing on my bucket list. It was the best birthday of my life, and probably always will be. I’m lucky that I got to share it with my best friend and fellow Tolkien fanatic and Inkling appreciator.

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The Bodleian Library, where many of Tolkien’s original manuscripts and works are housed.