Book Review and Reflection: The Winner’s Curse, by Marie Rutkoski

winners_curseIn the aristocratic society where Kestrel resides, superiority is a universal attribute and war is the national obsession. A key character once tells her, “A kestrel is a hunting hawk,” to which she replies unconvincingly, “Yes. The perfect name for a warrior girl.”

Being the only child of the highly respected Head General, Kestrel is required to enlist for the army before her twentieth birthday, when citizens of Valoria must decide to marry, or they will be drafted into the military. Kestrel has a knack for battle strategization, and her father wishes to work with her, despite the fact that if she enlists, she will have to give up playing the piano, which is viewed upon as a slave’s task. But is she really willing to sacrifice her one real passion—music—in order to please her father?

When she purchases a slave sold as a singer at a local auction, society begins to speak. They had anticipated that she would be in the army already, not being caught sneaking to and from the music room, in re a disinterested low class citizen.

Consequently, Kestrel and her father strike a deal: by spring, she will be married, or her father will get his way and she will be enlist; both forms of life-long commitment to which she is opposed. However, she decides that this agreement is better than the alternative scenario, and inevitably succumbs to his blackmail and manipulatively selective choice of words.

Even though the most frequently used idiomic cliché remains to be “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” we all do, admittedly. [It has been scientifically proven that “within a tenth of a second of seeing a person for the first time, we have already made a series of judgments, not just about attractive they are, but how trustworthy they are, how assertive they are, how funny they’re going to be. We’re built to make these snap judgments about each other because at some point in our history, it was necessary for our survival to do so. And now, we build even more signals into the way we style our hair, the shoes that we wear, the socks, the clothes, tattoos and piercings, all a way to give cultural cues about what kind of person we are.” (Hank Green)].

We are all awash in this excessively unrectified and undoubtedly precedented subconscious appeal to the visually representative; we make all these initial and usually incorrect assumptions that are solely based on superficiality and appearance so often that we are no longer aware that we are being superficial. I was discussing this disappointing fault of our underling human lives with one of my closest friends not too long ago (a bit ironic, as we live in Orange County) and he laughed and then said to me: “It is not a question of whether we are superficial. It is a question of to what extent; myself, of course, being of no exception to this philosophy.” This is something, I think, that was conveyed as a theme throughout this book, as it was definitely something that I took away from it.

I, subsequent to my superficial examination, expected The Winner’s Curse to be an anticipatable, contemporized attempt to reconjure the simultaneous romance and tragedy of a Shakespearean drama lo the many, many authors that have tried—and failed—to do just that (although I did enjoy Kissing Shakespeare by Pamela Mingle and Still Star-Crossed by Melinda Taub). In a nutshell, this book is not a poor attempt to recreate the irreplaceable story of Romeo and Juliet like the cover so obviously suggests.

The Winner’s Curse contains love and violence; separation and companionship; countless lies and recoverable truths; manipulation and forgiveness. It addresses the differentiation between what is expected of us—or what people want for us—and what we, for ourselves and what we love, aspire to become. It is that passion; that thing that we do solely because we love doing it, despite what society tells us we should be doing instead, that shapes us into the individual person that we will one day become.

I am really appreciative that I was given the opportunity to “pre-read” an advance copy of this book just before it was published; thanks to Mission Viejo’s Teen Librarian, Allison, for supplying me with that opportunity. It’s now available in bookstores everywhere. I would also like to congratulate those of you who actually succeeded in reaching the end of this incessant rant and would like to apologize for its unnecessary length and depth.

-Danielle K., 8th grade


Book Review: Skinned, by Robin Wasserman

skinned_coverSkinned is the first book of a sci-fi trilogy, set in a future where science has perfected a way to download a person’s personality and memories into an immortal mechanical body.

After her body is destroyed beyond repair in a car accident, 17-year-old Lia Kahn’s wealthy parents pay for her to become a “mech.” Lia’s new life poses unexpected problems when her friends reject her, believing her to be an inhuman impostor of her former self, and hate groups protest her very existence. She encounters a group of mechs who shun mortal life and live together for protection, and must choose between her old friends and family or the company of others like her.

I really liked the worldbuilding of this book. Many futuristic dystopian novels feature civilizations with impractical societal rules that are unlikely to develop in our world’s future, and are used mostly as a plot device (no art ever! the government matches you up with your spouse!). However, the world of Skinned is more of a decayed version of our own: there is still a democratically elected government, but they have little power compared to the huge corporations that own everything. People are even more addicted to technology and entertainment. And outside of the comfortable suburbs where Lia lives, the majority of the population starves in crime-ridden cities or works under harsh conditions in corporate-owned towns. Lia lives her life preoccupied with popularity and consumerism, and only starts thinking about the bleak state of the rest of the world once she sees the cities for herself and befriends mechs who grew up there. Her greater awareness of the problems of her society parallels her character development from a spoiled and judgmental girl to a more mature person trying to change the world. Though Lia has several love interests over the course of the trilogy, romance never overshadows the plot and equal focus is given to Lia’s changing relationships with family, friends, enemies, and the corporation who built her.

I would recommend Skinned to anyone 14+ (for language and thematic elements) who likes sci-fi and dystopian books such as Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies.

-Miranda C., 12th grade

Book Review: Alabama Moon, by Watt Key

alabama_moonHave you ever fantasized about residing in the woods? Have you ever envisioned hunting for every meal you need? How about constructing your own dwelling from trees with your own hands? In the book Alabama Moon, by Watt Key, audacious and juvenile ten-year-old Moon Blake has resided his entire existence in the woods with no external connection except for Mr. Abroscotto, who owns the local general store.

After his father succumbs, Moon knows that he has to pursue the last instructions of his father to go north to Alaska. Heading to Alaska, Moon’s journey is stopped precipitously when a policeman catches him. As he battles his way through the outside world he has never known, he comprehends that going to Alaska will not be easy. Read the rest of the novel to see if Moon makes it to Alaska or not.

I would recommend this book to kids who dream of an adventurous life in the woods. I admired how Moon overcame impossible obstacles with his positive spirit. He is a great role model for children everywhere. A funny part was how Moon had never eaten “normal” food and he enjoyed every meal he ate, even though it was sometimes jail food. The only questionable aspect of the book was Moon’s father’s reasons for living in the woods was not that clear, even though it stated that he went to Vietnam. Overall, the book was outstanding, and a great read for somebody craving adventure.

-Anmol K., 7th grade

Really Good Books About Real Life

Stephen Chbosky.  Ned Vizzini.  Sarah Dessen.  John Green.  What do all of these have in common, you ask?  Aside from being some of the best Young Adult book authors of all time, these four authors all write novels that deal with real teen lives.  I personally love books that deal with real life.  At the top of my teen novel list are The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, which is now a movie, It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini, also a movie, all Sarah Dessen books, three of which were adapted into a movie called How to Deal, and The Fault in Our Stars by John Green- the movie version comes out this June.

perks_coverThe Perks of Being a Wallflower is officially my favorite book and movie.  I may be a bit biased because of this, but, I am telling you, anyone who reads this book will fall in love.  Extremely well written, containing characters you feel connected to, and ending with a surprising plot twist, I recommend this book a thousand times over to anyone who will listen.

kind_of_a_funny_story_coverIt’s Kind of a Funny Story is an excellent showcase of problems teens face everyday that really should be pointed out.  I watched the movie before realized there was a book (I know, shame on me) and, surprisingly, the movie does the book justice.  I know this is rarely the case with all of the “artistic” changes that take place when a movie is made that is based off of a book, but, with this cast, I don’t think anyone can complain.  Anyways, this book perfectly showcases the ups and downs of a teens life.  The downs include depression, suicide, and mental wards while love and friendship fill the ups.

truth_about_foreverEvery single Sarah Dessen book I have read has left me wanting to read another.  Unlike some authors, Dessen does not write series, but single books that stand by themselves.  And, for a little fun fact, there is always at least one small detail that connects one of the books with another.  For example, she often has a main character run into a minor character from a different book or includes a location that is the main setting of another book, but is just a shop that is passed by and commented on by the character in your book.  It may just be me, but whenever I realize she is connecting her books, it makes me feel like an ultra-fan for noticing.  Some of my favorite books by her are Keeping the MoonThis Lullaby, The Truth About Forever, Just Listen, Lock and Key, Along for the Ride, and What Happened to Goodbye.  

fault_in_our_stars_coverAnd finally, The Fault in Our Stars by John Green.  This is the only John Green book I have read so far, though I want to read more.  Once again, stupid library-goers are hogging books.  Anyways, this book is definitely a  tear-jerker.  I was sobbing alone in my room when I finished this book.  Now that I have warned you, I can get to describing the amazingness of the novel.  First of all, it is the most well-written book I have ever read.  Green seems to seamlessly weave together teenage “language” (if it can even be considered a language) and eloquent phrases.  Second, you begin to love the characters the moment you meet them.  Lastly, who doesn’t love a good romance?  Overall, this is one of my favorite teen romance novels to date.

I don’t mean Hollywood “real life.”  I mean REAL life problems that are not glorified or made unrealistic because they become too nitty-gritty.  That could be the reasoning behind why I enjoy these books so much.  I feel like too many authors make a happy ending just so they don’t have to go too deep.  But that is what makes these so great.  You can connect with these characters because they are going through the same things you may be experiencing.  Besides, life isn’t always a happy ending, so why should books always have to have one?

– Kaelyn L., 10th grade

Never Give Up: An Interview with Author Christina Baker Kline

kline“Never give up” is what Christina Baker Kline advises those of us who are aspiring writers. “[And] to be sure to also have a [backup] skill, doing something that you really like . . . Before I could make a living as a writer I also knew that I could be an editor or a teacher… [Writing a book] takes a long time and you aren’t earning that much money from your writing so you need something else to do that you really like. So for me that’s editing and teaching. For me those things are also a very nice complement to writing because it involves both.”

As a guest of Mission Viejo Library, Christina Baker Kline, author of Orphan Train, came to speak at the Council Chamber last month.  I had the privilege of meeting her in person and attending her interesting historic presentation on orphan trains.  Although Orphan Train cannot be classified as historical fiction because the story switches back and forth from the present to the past, Mrs. Kline says her novel is factually accurate except for one small detail:  A horticulturist informed the novelist that there is no such thing as a pink crocus!

orphan_trainFor those who may not be aware, orphan trains were part of American history from 1854 through 1929 and affected as many as 200,000 to 250,000 children.  Because these orphan train riders often thought they were “the only ones” and because they felt ashamed of their past, they just didn’t talk about this part of their lives.  Even Mrs. Kline’s husband didn’t know his own grandfather had been one of these orphan train riders!  But now as more and more families are doing genealogy studies, this history is coming out.  Soon, we will all come to know about this important part of our country’s history.

Much like her book subject, Mrs. Kline is a very interesting person.  Born in Cambridge, England, she moved to America in her youth, living in the South and on the East Coast.  She obtained her BA in English at Yale, her MA in Literature at Cambridge University, and her MFA at the University of Virginia!  Mrs. Kline has worked as a personal chef, caterer, an editor, a published author of nonfiction and fiction, and a university teacher.  Along the way, she met and married David Kline and together, they are raising their three boys. Amazingly, Mrs. Kline apologized for not having her hair styled for the presentation because she had been climbing up to the Hollywood sign that morning!

As you can see, Mrs. Kline is a very accomplished woman. I can’t wait to read her book Orphan Train!  (Please be advised that Christina Baker Kline cautions young readers about page 150 as it contains mature content.)

-Danielle L., 6th grade

Book Review: The Lives We Lost, by Megan Crewe

lives_we_lostThis month, I am reviewing the sequel to The Way We Fall, by Megan Crewe. The book, The Lives We Lost, begins when the main character, Kaelyn, and her friends discover that the deadly virus that starts with “flu-like” symptoms has spread far past their small quarantined island on the East Coast, and has now reached the rest of America, and possibly the world.

Kaelyn subsequently finds a vaccine in her late father’s lab that she heard him talking about before he died. She knows that she must set out to find someone who can replicate this vaccine to save humankind as we know it. However, as Kaelyn and her friends set out, they realize that the journey they are taking is long and dangerous, and the few people who are not infected with the virus will do almost anything, even kill innocent kids, to get their hands on the vaccine.

This is a great read, especially for teens who enjoy apocalypse and dystopian novels. Due to the content of the book, I would only recommend it for kids ages 13 or 14 and up, but even though the book can be graphic, it is a page-turner.

Both The Lives We Lost and its predecessor end with cliff hangers foreshadowing another book in the series. While I wish that Ms. Crewe had added another hundred pages or so and just finished the second book instead of leaving the reader hanging, I am looking forward to reading the third in the series.

-Will R., 9th grade

Book Review: Nightshade, by Andrea Cremer

nightshade_coverThis book is actually has a prequel series and the first book’s title is Rift. After I read Rift, I fell in love with this world. Rift took place in 1401 so there are castles and knights. Within the kingdom there are special types of knights that protect from outside invaders, such as monsters from a different dimension. Later, after the war that happened in the prequel series, the actual book starts.

A girl named Calla isn’t a ordinary human, she’s a Guardian. Guardians are like werewolves that protect the kingdom from seekers. Calla has had her whole life planned out for her because she’s the alpha of her pack; she would marry the other alpha from the pack Bane, named Renier, also known as Ren– and then their packs would merge together after the Union. The Union was the day Calla and Ren would become married. Calla goes to a school called the Mountain School, which is ordinary.

One day she and her packmate and best friend, Bryn, go out to watch the grounds, like a normal Sunday, but she and her friend see a boy being attacked by a bear, so she saves him, which is against the Guardian law. After that scene she thinks that it’s the last time she’ll ever see him, but when she goes to school she finds out that the boy, Shay, starts to go to her school too.

Day after day she starts straying from her destiny, and she doesn’t know who to trust. Does she trust Shay enough to figure out the truth within the lies she’s been fed all her life, or does she go with Ren and continues to be part of the world she grew up in?

-Meagan R., 8th grade