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!
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Landline

landlinecoverI am a big fan of classic Meg Ryan films. Sleepless in Seattle, When Harry Met Sally, You’ve Got Mail. I love them all. 90’s Meg Ryan was cute and endearing. Her films all had an adorable, quirky element to them, but they also had deeper message about life, love, and friendship. I think this combination of quirky and real is what made Rainbow Rowell’s new novel Landline feel like it could be a darn good Meg Ryan film.

In Landline, Georgie is a wife, mother of two, and television comedy writer living in Los Angeles. Right before Christmas, she gets a career-altering opportunity for her own television show, but she has to stay in L.A. to write four episodes even though her family had plans to visit her in-laws in Nebraska. Despite her husband’s protests, Georgie decides not to go to Nebraska, but she’s surprised when her husband Neal takes their two daughters and goes anyway.

Worried that her marriage may be failing, Georgie constantly tries to call Neal, but her own terrible cell phone and Neal’s terrible phone habits make it impossible to connect with him. Desperate, she tries the landline at her mother’s house and finally gets Neal on the line. Only, to her surprise, it’s Neal from the past, from when he first left her and right before he proposed. Now Georgie has the opportunity to talk to this Neal from the past and try to fix their marital problems before they begin, or maybe her time continuum will mean she and Neal never do get married.

Rainbow Rowell

Rainbow Rowell

Different from her popular YA novel Eleanor and Park, Landline is an adult novel. The main characters are middle aged, grown with families of their own. Their problems involve careers, parenting, and marriage. Flashbacks to the college years, when Georgie and Neal first met, however, keeps the story relevant to a younger audience. While readers worry about Neal and Georgie’s marriage in the present, they can enjoy the cute and confusing parts of the beginning of a romance. This juxtaposition really makes the novel appealing to all ages.

The reason I think it feels like a Meg Ryan movie is the phone line to the past. It’s quirky and almost whimsical, and I can easily imagine Meg Ryan sitting on her bed in her pajamas talking to her husband-to-be in the past. But despite this magical element, the story doesn’t stray from its serious plot. Georgie has to figure out what to do about her marriage, her family, and her career.

Landline is Sleepless in Seattle meets When Harry Met Sally. It has a unique plot, a tiny dose of magic set in the real world, but the issues it tackles are heavy. Balancing work and family is a tricky thing for people of all ages, and it’s a very relevant topic in today’s culture. Rainbow Rowell has written another winner. And I still think Meg Ryan should star in the movie adaptation.

Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally (1898).

Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally (1898).

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.

The Last Goodbye

The_Hobbit_-_The_Battle_of_the_Five_ArmiesWatching The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is sure to be an emotional experience for any Lord of the Rings fan. It marks the end of an era, the end of Peter Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations, the end of over ten years of waiting and watching. It’s been a long, crazy ride, but since the Tolkien estate is unlikely to release the rights to any other Tolkien works, the ride is now over.

It’s a bittersweet ending. I have enjoyed a lot of things about the Hobbit movies—Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, seeing the Shire again, watching the White Council in action. But most of the sweetness comes from the memories of Peter Jackson’s original trilogy, his wonderful adaptation of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. It’s not that the Hobbit movies are the “bitter” part of the bittersweet ending, but for a finale, it has been disappointing.

I’ve watched these Hobbit movies (An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug) with people who have both read and not read the book. In general, I’ve found that people liked the first movie, did not like the second movie, and are split over the third movie. I understand that separating the book from the movie probably makes The Battle of the Five Armies more enjoyable, but I didn’t have to make that distinction to enjoy Jackson’ original trilogy, so I don’t feel like doing that for Jackson’s farewell to Middle Earth.

Martin Freeman as Bilbo

Martin Freeman as Bilbo

I think almost everyone agrees that stretching this short children’s novel into three movies was a big, money-grasping mistake. All films are filled with unnecessary wastes of time, from more new characters and action sequences than any viewer cares for. Most of these scenes were in the second movie, which was by far the most filler of all the movies, but it also caught up with the third film. Why did the movie spend so much time with the sleazy Alfred from Laketown when he was a cheap Grima Wormtongue knock off? I don’t know. Why have there been so many orc chases in all of the movies?

I understand that when adapting a book to a movie, there have to be some changes, but I thought movies like The Book Thief and The Fault In Our Stars taught us that there don’t have to be that many changes to make a good movie. After all, if a book has a good story, that story will translate to a good movie. Here are the changes in The Battle of the Five Armies that I thought detracted from the story.

Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel

Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel

Tauriel. I know that Peter Jackson and his writing team thought there needed to be a bigger female presence, but Tauriel felt like a cheap rip off of Tolkien’s female characters in Lord of the Rings. The romance between her and Legolas was stale and Tolkien would balk. The romance between her and Kili was cheesy (I can’t believe the same people who wrote dialogue Aragorn and Arwen wrote the dialogue for Tauriel and Kili), and Tolkien is rolling in his grave. It also felt like a cheap rip off because Jackson actually did rip off his own tricks from the original trilogy, like bathing Tauriel in light like he did Arwen, making her a warrior like Eowyn. Also, Tauriel is not canon. You can change canon in little ways to make your story work but you cannot create entirely new main characters. You just can’t.

hr_The_Hobbit-_The_Battle_of_the_Five_Armies_3

Bard (Luke Evnas) facing down Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch)

Smaug. The second movie ends with the dragon flying to Laketown to destroy it, so naturally that’s where the movie picks up. The first thing that happens is Bard kills Smaug. It’s so anti-climatic for that to happen first thing and then have to move on to the battle so quickly. It would have been much more effective storytelling to end the second movie with the slaying of Smaug. I can’t believe Jackson and company couldn’t see that.

Azog. Peter Jackson and team thought they needed more agency to push the storyline, so they had an orc with a personal vendetta against the dwarves chase them. Of course, they wouldn’t have needed this agency if they hadn’t made this tiny book into three movies. But my big issue with Azog in this last movie is when he fights Thorin, Kili, and Fili. In the book, Thorin and his nephews die fighting in the midst of a battle to defend their homeland and their people. By staging a fight with Azog high above the battle, Jackson took away the meaning of their death. It was nothing more than this personal vendetta of revenge when it was suppose to be a valiant redemption. It wasn’t meaningful. I didn’t even cry, and I sob when I read this part of the book.

the-hobbit-battle-of-five-armies1

Lee Pace as Thranduil

The ending. The subtitle of The Hobbit, given by Tolkien himself, is “there and back again”. The story ends with Bilbo returning home to his hobbit hole Bag End. The movie had that part, but it felt so rushed. Thorin dies, Bilbo heads off after a short goodbye to the dwarfs. This movie is the finale to LOTR movies as we know them, but the closure felt rushed and in hurry. Maybe I’m nostalgic and emotional and needed more time to process the ending of this era, but I would have liked a more meaningful ending, like the ending of The Return of the King. I also thought Thranduil’s exit from the story was rushed. Thranduil in general probably deserved more screen time, as some of his mystery character motivations were left half developed. But maybe I’m biased because I think Lee Pace is amazing.

In the end, I was disappointed by The Battle of the Five Armies, but all three Hobbit movies in general. There were things that I liked—the casting, mostly. But after Jackson’s incredibly successful Lord of the Rings trilogy, I guess I expected more. By stretching the book into three movies, adding new characters, and taking unnecessary and harmful tangents into the story, Jackson and his team feel short of what could have been a miraculous adaptation. Perhaps after the success of LOTR they thought had had more artistic license, I don’t know. But maybe they missed Tolkien’s original intent of The Hobbit. Maybe they tried to make it too much like Lord of the Rings. Either way, The Hobbit movies were not what they could have been. That’s not to say they were a total waste. When I have the urge to see Bilbo Baggins on screen, I can turn to these movies, but ultimately, these movies simply make me yearn to see the superior Lord of the Rings adaptation.

Into the West

Into the West

The Theory of Everything

The-Theory-of-EverythingOne of my favorite movies is A Beautiful Mind directed by Ron Howard, starring Russell Crowe, Ed Harris, and Jennifer Connelly. It tells the story of mathematician and economist John Nash. Nash is a genius, but he suffers from schizophrenia. With the support of his wife and friends, he learns to work through his schizophrenia and goes on to win the Nobel Prize in economics.

There are several things I love about this movie. It’s beautifully done, from the acting to the cinematography to the music, but I also love the mathematical elements because I’m a nerd. I love nothing more than the intersection of art and science found in a good movie about something science-y. A Beautiful Mind is one of those films. James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything is another.

theoryThe Theory of Everything is about renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, focusing on his scientific breakthroughs in cosmology, his relationship with his first wife Jane, and the progression of his motor neuron disease. The movie begins with Hawking’s time at Cambridge where he met Jane. It’s shortly after they begin seeing each other that Hawking is diagnosed with his disease and only expected to live for two more years. Despite Hawking’s attempt to distance himself from his friends, Jane is determined that they will beat this disease together and the two are married in 1965.

The next decades of their life together include Hawking getting his Ph.D., three children, and years of dedicated care giving. Jane serves as a full-time caregiver as Hawking’s muscles deteriorate. Much like Nash’s wife’s care and support, Jane does so much for Hawking, and it’s a testament to a beautiful relationship between the two. Though it is far from easy. Jane struggles to work on her own Ph.D. while taking care of three children and Stephen as his career and popularity grows. Eventually, Stephen and Jane are forced to accept help due to his deteriorating state. Help comes in the form of a church musician who befriends the entire family while growing particularly fond of Jane, and a nurse who grows particularly fond of Stephen.

hawking

Left: Stephen and Jane Hawking. Right: Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones.

Eventually, Jane and Stephen separate, which is sad after you invest in their relationship, but it is the story of what happens, and both Jane and Stephen seem to understand what the other needs. The end of the movie still resolves their story nicely, as Hawking invites Jane and their three children with him when he meets the Queen of England. It may not be as beautiful as Nash’s story, where his wife stands by his side through everything and in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech thanks only her, but it is still a good story. Stephen and Jane went through so much together, more than they did with their other spouses. They worked through his disease as his condition worsened, she helped him with his work, and they created three children. That last fact is the one Hawking chooses to highlight at the end of the movie. Together they made something beautiful, so theirs is a beautiful story.

75The relationship between Jane and Stephen really propels the movie forward. It is heart-wrenching to watch one of the most brilliant men of our generation slowly lose control of all his muscles, but Jane’s care and Stephen’s wit offer moments of tenderness and humor. The acting job of Felicity Jones (Jane) and Eddie Redmayne (Stephen) are phenomenal, especially Redmayne. Redmayne captures Hawking’s movements perfectly as his disease progresses, and even when Hawking’s only possible expressions are slight movements, Redmayne fills his face with emotion. It’s truly amazing.

As a nerd, or really anyone interested in academic or scientific concepts, and as a romantic who loves a good love story, I think The Theory of Everything was a great movie, despite the fact that their marriage ended. The Theory of Everything tells a remarkable story about a remarkable man and woman. Stephen Hawking did the impossible. Now aged 72, he is decades older than the doctors ever expected him to live. He wrote his book A Brief History of Time while in the thrall of his disease, and he traveled extensively. He never would have been able to achieve so much for the science world if he hadn’t had Jane’s love, support, and care. He may not have even made it past those two years. She saved him, and the movie tells their remarkable story. The acting is amazing, definitely Oscar-worthy, and the film is well done. I can’t wait for it to come out on DVD so I can watch it again.

La Fin, Percy Jackson

the-blood-of-olympus-coverI finished The Blood of Olympus, the conclusion to Rick Riordan’s Heroes of Olympus series or the second Percy Jackson series, a while ago, but I guess I needed time to process before blogging about it. I needed time to process the fact that this book was not just the end of the series, but the end of a rather significant phase in my life. Rick Riordan may write more books about Percy and his friends, but even if he does, I think The Blood of Olympus marks my end to these wonderful re-imaginings. I’ve been through two book series with Percy, and have enjoyed every adventure, but now it’s time to hang up my hat/pen turns into a sword/lightning bolt.

I read the first Percy Jackson series, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, forever ago, it seems. I was younger, way into Greek and Roman mythology, taking Latin classes, and so beyond excited that I had found a book series that incorporated so much of the mythology I loved. Percy Jackson was so novel back then. I’d read retellings of fairytales and myths before, but nothing like this. Rick Riordan didn’t just put the old myths into new words, he transported them into another world—my own modern day American world—and the stories came to life with a vibrant new gusto. Camp Half-Blood became a Hogwarts-type place, somewhere readers could dream of going where magic and adventure was so possible. It seemed like you, the reader, could be the next Percy Jackson, a hero. And the books brought ancient mythology back to a modern day audience.

Rick Riordan

Rick Riordan

Perhaps this is the real debt owed to Rick Riordan. He inspired a love for the Greco-Roman classics in a new generation. Kids everywhere were suddenly interested in taking Latin, in reading Greek myths, in restoring a world that was so foundational to storytelling in the first place. It’s remarkable the influence Percy Jackson has had on a generation, and I’m sure Homer, Virgil, Horace, and all the others are applauding Rick Riordan from their graves.

That will be part of Rick Riordan’s legacy—the rekindling of the classic world. But part of his legacy will also be the impact of his many memorable characters—Percy, Annabeth, Grover, Jason, Hazel, Frank, Leo, Nico—and their adventures. The Percy Jackson books will be around for many generations to inspire young readers to be heroes. It’ll join other books on the shelves like Harry Potter, Artemis Fowl, The Magic Treehouse, and many others that will introduce young readers to new and marvelous worlds. Even though Percy’s story is at an end for now, he’ll always be there, and we’ll always be grateful for him.

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.