The Raven Cycle // Review

The Raven Cycle is a tricky series to categorize. On one hand the young adult series is low-fantasy, or perhaps it’s paranormal, or the cringe-inducing paranormal romance. Either way, it’s been an immensely popular series across pedestrian reviewers on book blogs and Youtube.

The Raven Cycle was all the rage around the internet last spring when the fourth and final book of the series, the Raven King, was released. I have a well-documented distaste for YA so it was simply not on my radar for some time, but I do try to diversify my reading and decided to give it a go. I ordered my books off of the Book Depository because I couldn’t bear to pay full price so I have the British edition, which is mostly the same except they change words like gas to petrol.

The quality of the books themselves is awful. Sigh. Scholastic never changes.

The Scholastic Book Fair is a load of crap. -My mom, a school librarian

The Raven Cycle follows the lives of a group of teenagers in a small Virginia town called Henrietta with an all-boys boarding school that sounds an awful lot like a New England one. But then again, not all students live in the dorms, they live on their own off campus. It’s a small detail, probably for convenience, but as someone who has lived with boarding school culture it doesn’t make much sense to me. All the boys— Ronan, Adam, Gansey— attend the school except for the female member of the squad, Blue, who is a local.

Blue’s family (made of mostly her mother’s friends) are psychics. She, herself, is a mirror who amplifies other’s magical abilities. Blue is billed as a typical “weird girl” who is too strange to fit in at public school and is Not Like Other Girls; however, she manages to be delightful despite this. Through coincidence and a sprinkling of fate, Blue gets wrapped up in the boy’s plot to uncover a sleeping Welsh king supposedly buried beneath the town. That is essentially the overarching plot of the series.

There’s magic, drama, intrigue—it’s certainly more dimensional than other YA titles.

After reading the second book (the Dream Thieves, also my favorite and by far the standout), I decided that I would review the books together, as a series. Although it’s made of four books, I honestly don’t feel as though there was enough plot. Each book is fairly long—between 300-400 words each. The structure is so that each novel centers around a major character: the first is Adam’s book, then Ronan’s, Blue’s, and finally Gansey’s. The point of view shifts multiples times and there is essentially a guiding focus… but not much else.

The series is treated more like an anthology or a television show than a cohesive series of novels. It’s a fantasy story in installments, which is not exactly the best format for a fantasy. There is the guiding quest to find Glendower, the magical Welsh king, but the ‘bad guy’ changes in every novel to the point where they all feel superficial. Even the final installment an interesting, dynamic character named Henry Cheng is introduced and he becomes a fundamental and important part of the group with hardly any screen time.

The writing itself feels this way, too. Stiefvater is a talented writer who I image will only get better the more she publishes (she’s fairly young for an author of eight books at 34). She produces beautiful sentences—moments, really. But like a movie, moments aren’t enough. I didn’t find the substance between the lovely, quotable lines to have enough purpose. Sometimes the plot jumps from hit to hit without much in between. A novel absolutely needs to be purposeful and make sense between the major hits or it becomes empty.

There’s reason to enjoy these books— they’re actually interesting and unique, for one, and are enjoyable and easy to read. Part of the reason the lack of development in characters and plot annoys me so much because the world really is an engaging one. I crave more, but when I finished the final book I felt… incomplete. I feel as though, almost, a determined editor could shave Stiefvater down to one, fantastic 500 page book.

It was good. Not great, but good. A passable novel that wasn’t a waste of my time and almost certainly inflated by the surrounding hype. More than anything it made me want to revisit Lord of the Rings, which I think is its best characteristic.

Advertisements

We Need Art

 

As my University’s multi-million dollar science building takes shape, I reminded more than ever of the importance of the arts in our lives. In school we are taught about the importance of STEM—Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math—and that if we go into these fields we will be rewarded with job opportunities galore. The relentless emphasis leaves out the arts, which are good for more than just aesthetic pleasures. Everyone, from law students to engineers to painters, can learn from art.

With art in our lives we think deeper, dream wider, and feel more profoundly. It affects how we view the world and fellow humans. “As the digital age unfolds, visual literacy increasingly impacts how we live, where we go, and the choices we make throughout life,” said Patricia Franklin, the spokesperson for the National Arts Education Association. “[The arts] guide students their cognitive, social, and emotional development.”

Art provides a much needed break from the monotonous routines of our daily lives. The arts are a multifaceted experience—imagine getting chills when seeing a great work in person, patrons weeping before Michelangelo’s David, or the critical thinking skills required when viewing something that makes you think “What is that supposed to be?”

STEM takes focus in our education, and this is motivated by a fear that the US is falling behind in technology sectors. However, art education actually improves critical thinking—studies by the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies show that students involved in art score higher on standardized tests.

The STEM sector doesn’t completely lack creativity: makerspaces are one example. However, makerspaces still often focus on just STEM technology. STEM education will surely help us fix some of the world’s most complicated problems, but the focus is still on literal interpretations of the world rather than the metaphysical perspective of art.

Every day I see articles titled with some variation of “Top Grossing College Majors” or “Best Majors to Get a Job.” These kinds of articles send the message that a good salary is the most important quality of a future job. Unfortunately, this propagates a superficial view of the world where money, rather than depth of experience, is the ultimate key to happiness. A global survey from the World Economic Forum states economic opportunity and unemployment is one of the top concerns of Millennials around the world.

In Boston, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum performs research on the importance of art education, particularly in K-12. The educational programming is called Thinking Through Art and utilizes a form of teaching known as VTS, or Visual Thinking Strategies. The focus is placed upon “looking” skills, like observation and inference. The popularity of this approach in museum teaching is due to its emphasis on transferable skills over content, meaning that someone like an engineer or computer scientist can benefit.

“The VTS curriculum [is] designed… to teach viewers how to make their own meaning from something that, at first glance, may have seemed completely strange,” said Peggy Burchenal, the Curator of Education at the museum.

“The importance of an art education goes beyond the technical skills gained from hours of work with skilled professionals, [such as] the ability to brainstorm, work as a team, and build off critique,” said Dominque Guinez, a senior animation student at Lesley University College of Art and Design.

There are so many opportunities for the almost 250,000 college students in the Boston Metropolitan area to experience the arts. Three major art museums—The Institute of Contemporary Art, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum—regularly hold after-hours programming aimed towards college students and there is free admission for most local students. For instance, during the early fall the ICA holds yoga lessons and parties on its deck. In addition, both the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Ballet have volunteer programs that allow students to see shows for free or at extremely discounted prices.

The Boston arts community is active and accessible to students. The arts provide valuable skills that involve more critical thinking than memorizing a formula or regurgitating information on a test. The arts teach us how to think for ourselves. They may not always get the money or attention they deserve, but they remain important. Even if you are just a temporary resident of Boston, take advantage of what is available. The effects are longer lasting than you may realize.

The Joy of Creation

Cre – ate
verb
bring (something) into existence

The act of creating something is a nice feeling. There’s something very secure in knowing that something would not exist without you. It makes you feel important, necessary. Accomplished.

I recently taught myself how to knit hats. I completed my first one, and although lumpy, I would not have a soft, knit beanie if I hadn’t made it myself. I made a fuzzy ring of happiness in me.

Of course, the act of creation can get much, much bigger than knitting a hat. Architects create buildings, couples create babies. All remarkable, new things.

Creating is a nuanced, often difficult process no matter what it is. When I struggle, there are certain sources I go to for inspiration, creators I admire. These are some

Casey Neistat

The Art Assignment The baby of Sarah Green (John Green’s wife), this channel produces amazing content on well, art. My favorite series is the “The Case for…”

Nerdwriter A video essayist who produces content on a couple of different topics, mostly around some form of media.

KaptainKristian
Do you ever feel like someone is inside your brain? Like Nerdwriter, Kristian is does video essays on everything I’ve ever thought was cool, mostly focusing on media. His latest was on Childish Gambino and and multiplicity of the modern artist. His last video on the design of the alien from Alien got repackaged at a WIRED article.

A Crisis of Faith (What’s New?)

Question: what do you do when you’re no longer good at what you’re good at? What you’ve always been good at?

Last week, my writing professor handed back the news stories we’d written, an assignment I’d worked hard on after phoning-in the first one. The night before I turned it in I read it out loud to my sister over the phone.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’ve been having trouble with the organization.”

“No,” she replied. “It’s good, Abs, really good.”

I breathed a sigh of relief. I trust my sister’s judgment more than anyone’s.

But when I got the assignment back, I read through the little edits and positive comments, all the way to the bottom where a glaring B- was circled. I couldn’t believe it. I hadn’t gotten a grade that bad on a writing assignment since Junior year of high school, when I was enrolled in AP Language and Composition—and I consider that class to be a watershed moment, where my writing potential turned into actual skill. 

I was crushed. More than crushed, actually. This one grade sent me into a downwards spiral of self-doubt and shook the very foundation of my academic career. Writing is what I do and I’ve never been interested in something else.

I sat through my 11:00 lecture utterly miserable.

Even a week later, my confidence in my writing ability is still shaken. Even after I talked to my professor and when she said she was going to reconsider my grade. I know I’ve never wanted to be a journalist, so it shouldn’t be a huge deal, right? Creative writing is a better fit for me, right?

“Don’t waste time waiting for inspiration. Begin, and inspiration will find you.” -H. Jackson Brown Jr.

Things have been compounding on top of me. I started a new job this weekend (some stupid one that hardly matters but pays), got sick again, and have been battling the predictable loneliness that comes with being away from friends and family. And now, words are harder to come by than ever.

Lately my thoughts have been meandering about my brain; yesterday I spent all day trying to research a paper and wrote less than a hundred words. I can only hope that by trying to write some of this down it will release the floodgates and I will actually be able to write again. No, to think again.

Summer Reading: a List

I month of September flew right by, and I forgot about doing a summer roundup. As we all know, May-August was a strange time for me and the same goes for my reading habits during it. I played bingo again and started off strong, but when I started a new, full time job in mid-July, I stopped reading almost completely. Included in this list are books read from May-August, with two exceptions.

  1. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (started in April)
  2. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
  3. Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman
  4. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
  5. Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Book Store by Robin Sloan
  6. The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater
  7. Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
  8. The Goldfinch by Donna Tart
  9. Star Wars: Verily, a New Hope by Ian Doescher
  10. Never-Ending Birds by David Baker
  11. The Dream Thieves by Maggie Steifvater
  12. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling (technically finished before September)

All things considered, twelve books is pretty good. Obviously there are bloggers and vloggers who are capable of that total in a month, but I am not and will likely never be one of them.

Of them all, the Bone Clocks was probably my favorite, although it does go off the rails a bit at the end. And even though I don’t think it’s a masterpiece, the Goldfinch did make me want to go out and get the Secret History.

And least favorite? Well, we all know how I feel about Ender’s Game.

Where You Been, Reader Girl?

The bedrock of this blog is literature. I have been doing very little literature blogging lately. Some of that is because I have much less free time, because of school. And some of it’s because I’ve been in the mood to binge watch multiple shows at Netflix. And some of it’s because when I could be reading, I’ve been knitting instead. Yesterday I finished my first hat; I’m very proud of myself.

But most of all, I haven’t been blogging about reading because I’ve been reading. For my big Communications 101 lecture we were assigned Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Too Big to Fail. I guess the 2008 financial crisis is “in” these days.

It is very enormous (almost 600 pages) and more importantly, a very dense nonfiction book on finance. Yeah. Not really light reading.

Thoughts from Thoughts from Places

A few weeks ago I wrote about now having a house, a home, anymore. About my dad losing his job.

He’s since taken off on a cross country road trip where he’s sort of living out of his car, visiting museums, and avoiding crowds. It’s the kind of adventure that if he were the type to have a blog, his would put mine to shame.

There’s something very Into the Wild about it, although I don’t think my dad’s going to drive to Alaska in his mom’s 2001 Cadillac Deville with only a bag of rice and a book on plants.

This is a very difficult thing to explain to other people. I try to flippant when it comes up. “Oh,” I say, “he’s the vagabond type.”

He does update fairly frequently on Facebook about his comings and goings, because he’s finally realized his friends and family care and worry about him. I try to text him more and occasionally I get something from him out of the blue.

The last thing? “Driving across Iowa. Lots of corn & soybeans”

Still, I try not to think about how at any given moment, I have no idea where in the country he is. Fortunately he doesn’t have a passport, so he’s American bound for now.

As he drives around the country and takes pictures and thinks of things, I think about him, and me. About how alike and very different we are, about how he more than anyone alive has shaped me into the person I am.

It beats thinking about home.

I think it’s the him in me that is the tiniest bit jealous that he gets to go off on his own— gets to go wherever he wants. Because there’s always been part of me that’s wanted to find the secret little caverns of the world, to breathe in strange air and maybe find myself in someplace else.

Just daughters of fathers, I guess.

Surrealism at Lobster Night

lobster_telephone

Wednesday, September 14th, was Lobster Night.

The event, a heavily marketed tradition on campus, was held across the three dining halls on campus. In the lead up days, a video was published on how to dissemble and eat a lobster. When the night came, the line stretched through the building, even threatening to go out the door.

Somewhere between 7,000 to 8,000 lobsters, supposedly.

I sent my mom the following text message: “I’m just wondering how much lobster they’re wasting by giving kids who’ve never eaten one a whole fucking lobster.”

The whole fucking lobster was served with the classic side of corn on the cob (not a whole cob) and apple crisp for desert.

Inside the dining hall, it was chaos at around 6:30, when I stumbled home from work. There was absolutely nowhere to sit, and some groups collected in comfy alcoves. The stench was overwhelming and eventually became unbearable. It was filthy with discarded napkins, forks, plates, everything covering the floor and tables.

I ate my macaroni and apple crips and fled.

Now, being from Maine, I have specific thoughts about lobster. First, I don’t like it. I never have and despite the occasional taste, I probably never will. Second, the classic Maine Lobster Dinner is a specific thing. It’s sitting out on the porch in the summer evening, seven, maybe even eight at night. The plastic table cloth (to be thrown out after suffering through the night) is held down with either rocks or stable to the underside of the picnic table. There’s friends and family, corn (another thing I do not like), potato salad, and probably some other type of seafood to match. The lobsters probably came from Market Basket, where they sell live ones for $5 a pound.

You sit around with people you love and drink beer and laugh until the mosquitos chase you inside.

Eating lobster is a big deal for people not from the coast. But a kid from Chicago will probably never get the real deal, because eating lobster is about a hell of a lot more than eating lobster.

Fenway, a Love Letter

When I was younger, before I lived in Boston, the neighborhood I would visit the most was Fenway (technically Fenway/Kenmore). It’s a big neighborhood, cradled by the Charles River and the city of Brookline. It’s where the Museum of Fine Arts is as well as, yeah, Fenway Park.

Now I get to live there, on a quiet tree lined street right next to the best Boston has to offer.

Last week I was getting off the T on my way back from work with the plans on getting food and heading back to my dorm. It was early enough in the year that I didn’t have much homework, so my nighttime plans consisted mostly of showering and Netflix.

Instead, I went to a Red Sox game.

I walked up to the Ace Ticket stand set up in front of their office in Kenmore Square, mostly just curious to sniff something out. A few says prior I’d tried to get cheap student tickets to no avail. With only a dozen or so home games left, I was pressing my luck.

I put my name in to win tickets to Big Papi’s last home game (because Big Papi) and asked the girl working how much tickets to the night’s game were, mostly out of curiosity. She said $30 and I figured, yeah, I could swing that.

I proceed to walk home, replace my backpack with my Sox cap, and returned to the park in around ten minutes. I was flying solo.

Now, if you’re not from Boston or New England, you might not know that Red Sox home games are something of a religious experience. Or maybe you do. One of the most tangible moments of the night

To me, the park is perfect. I don’t care that it’s small, old, and kind of wonky. On game day it seems like the whole city shows up to the game, if not to go in then just hang around.

I love baseball. I remember my parents watching it, first, because my mom is a huge fan. My dad had this blanket he’d put over his head when things got really tense. I’m pretty sure my mom considers beating the Yankees in 2004 one of the best things to ever happen to her.

That night I sat in the bleacher seats, which is probably the most fun place to sit anyways. Sure, not the best for views but really not that bad. I sat next to a couple perfect strangers and together we heckled the Orioles fans sitting a few rows down.

“Fuck you’s” flew. It was great.

One of the most tangible moments of the night was watching a visiting Brit cry during the traditional singing of “Sweet Caroline”

That’s magic right there.