The Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M.T. Anderson

Winner of the 2015 National Book Award Longlist, for Young People’s Literature, M.T. Anderson has created a story worth telling.  It is the unfortunate, yet true, biography of Dmitri Shostakovich.  

Growing up in a harsh life as a result of Communist Russian leaders, Shostakovich soon discovered his interest for music.  While his life in the world of the arts was beginning, however, so was the air of terror from Adolf Hitler.  Anderson takes the reader through the cold winters of Leningrad, the warm home of Shostakovich, and of course, the sweet melodies of Dmitri Shostakovich.

I really enjoyed Anderson’s writing style throughout the course of this book.  He told the story of Shostakovich truthfully and full-heartedly.  Anderson must also be a musician himself, as his insight and musical knowledge is vast. I picked up this book, as it was marked new in the Young Adult section, and I was intrigued.  The most interesting topics in nonfiction to me are WWII and music.  I had heard of Shostakovich before reading the biography, but never realized the story behind his masterpiece, Symphony No. 7.  

Anderson brought the reader back in time, into the early 1900s.  Shostakovich, born in 1906, grew up among a family of three children in St. Petersburg, Russia.  As he transitioned from a young scholar enrolled in a music school into a renowned composer, Shostakovich started a family of his own.  However, around him, the people of Leningrad were starving, caused by an unfortunate siege by the Germans.  Their food supply had been bombed.  Their leader had fled.  Citizens were trying to escape the city as fast as possible.  But not Shostakovich.  His pride and honor for the beloved city kept him there, even through the starvation.  Many high-ranking officials tried their hardest to relieve the Shostakovich’s, by bringing them to Moscow.  But, Dmitri insisted on staying in Leningrad to finish his symphony.

 
Later revealed at its debut in Leningrad, Shostakovich had written his masterpiece for the city of his home, the city of the dead.  For young musicians who may want to learn more about some of the greatest composers of the last few centuries, please check this out.  While the book is lengthy, I would recommend it, as it is a 10/10.

Maya S.

The Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M.T. Anderson is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library.

Every Falling Star: the True Story of How I Escaped North Korea by Sungju Lee and Susan McClelland

In utopian societies, life is perfect.  To young Sungju Lee, this was North Korea.  His father, an army general, was his greatest hero.  Someday, Sungju would fight in the North Korean army to beat the nasty Americans and cruel South Koreans.  In fact, when he was little, he and his father used to play a game with his father teaching young Sungju the ways of war.  North Korea would always win, for in Sungju’s mind, it was the best country in the world!  One of the strategies he used was a series of stones.  If a hideout was overtaken or deemed unsafe for the soldiers to return to, stones would be placed in front.  Little did Sungju know, this strategy would save his life.

One day, Sungju came home from school to find his parents packing up their things.  Sungju wondered if they were going to vacation to the ocean like he wanted.  But, instead they were going to the country.  Sungju then asked about where his dog would go while the Lees were on vacation.  His mother shamed him for asking, and Sungju felt bad.  He needed to be a good son so he could be in the regime and in the ranks of North Korea’s Eternal Leader, Kim II-sung.  As time passed and despite his complaints, Sungju would never return to Pyongyang.

Throughout the author’s heartbreaking story, I kept trying to push him forward.  I thought of the song “When You Believe” sung by Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey.  The lyrics speak of hope, and it was this hope which I was trying to infuse in Lee.  He endured many hardships at the tender age of 11 and suffered for five years before finally escaping the torment of his country.  Compared to other books highlighting political struggles and the impact on its citizens, this was one of the most compelling stories.  Unlike Chinese Cinderella, a deeply saddening story of a disowned little girl, everybody around Sungju loved him.  They were trying their hardest to make ends meet, but to say more would take away from Sungju’s story.

On a scale of 1 to10, Every Falling Star definitely deserves a 9 for its well-written passages and amazingly illustrated emotion.  Because Lee was not a native English speaker, when he came to the United States, he received help from Susan McClelland to lay out his story.  After finishing the book, I read an excerpt from him, saying that many of the characters’ (family members and brothers) names were changed because they were still living in North Korea.  This was done to protect them.  Please check out this book and be drawn into an intriguing story of overcoming life’s worst obstacles.

-Maya S.

Every Falling Star by Sungju Lee is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library

The Star Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi

startouchedqueen_roshanichokshiBeautifully illustrated from the first line, Chokshi’s fantastical The Star Touched Queen shows the path an Indian queen who finds her way to the light.  Through thick and thin, obstacles and triumphs, Mayavati searches from hiding behind her own shadows to grasping the stars that lay above her.  My favorite part of the novel was the writing style, especially the amazing imagery used when describing the young queen’s journey.  Mayavati, a very dynamic character, grew along with the words throughout the tale.  At the start, when her story was a routine of palace life and a shameful astrology, the vocabulary chosen was more ominous.  However, there was always a light, a small hope, which rose and fell as Maya (for short) ventured through the times.  And, upon reaching the final few chapters, the writing climaxed to a breath of new life.

At the same time the queen was a strong, ferocious, and gallant leader, she was still the vulnerable seventeen-year-old introduced at the start of the novel.  This clashing of alternate personalities describes teenagers very well.  So, it always brought me back to the song “Vincent” by Don McLean.  The piece, emotional and ballad-like, tells the story of Vincent Van Gogh.  The first line, “Starry, starry night” is a reference to one of his most famous paintings.  But, it also ties in well with Mayavati’s destiny.  The two are both artists:  one, an illustrator of life and the other, a storyteller.

I can usually sense when a book is an author’s first publication.  However, in Chokshi’s case, the novel was very well written, and she was able to truly capture the life of the characters.  In addition, I have no doubt her second book, released in March of this year, will be no different.  It will be in the same universe, but delving more into characters briefly introduced in The Star Touched Queen.  This first book; however, was one of those novels which olds a special place and one I will definitely read again.  So, if you are intrigued, check it out!

-Maya S.

The Star Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library

The Watch That Ends the Night: Voices from the Titanic by Allan Wolf

watchthatendsthenight_allanwolfBeautifully crafted, Wolf’s words hit close to home in this lyrical story of the Titanic. The wealthy. The refugee. The captain. The iceberg. The voices on the ship which went down. Allan Wolf, along with a writing team including Angela Dawe, Laural Merlington, and Natalie Ross, have created another view of the tragedy which occurred on April 15, 1912 aside from its Hollywood adaptation.

Starting with the iceberg, Wolf creates a feel of the circle of life, as well as the known aura of foreboding death.  However, the scene quickly switches to the maybe-naive, maybe-ignorant lives of the humans boarding the boat.  There is a father and two sons, a Lebanese refugee immigrant, the rich, the con-artist, the crew, and 2,228 others.  Throughout all of the introductions of the book, I thought of an excerpt from Tchaikovsky’s “Winter Daydreams”.  The subtle light strings with the hint of suspense in the undertone of the bass line imitated the tone of Wolf and his co-workers.  I really enjoyed this style of his writing, for he developed each character, fictional and not, as if it had a rich library of history books published.  However, as some writers would take several chapters to illustrate this, Wolf masterfully sculpted it into a few pages of lyrical prose.

The journey the reader takes across the 480 pages start and end with the iceberg itself.  Every few voices, the iceberg would appear, as if the reader needed a reminder of its unquestionable existence.  With it, I always would think of a leitmotif of Host’s “Saturn, The Bringer of Old Age—The Planets Suite”.  Its dark and brooding sound, especially as you reach the bridge, reminds me of the sad truth of death.  Wolf’s writing about the iceberg paints these notes into the reader’s mind.  And, as the distance between the ship and iceberg becomes narrower, I think of the Holst’s piece, growing louder and louder as if in an unheeded warning.  And, as his piece ends, the fate of the ship does as well.

The Watch That Ends the Night was one of the best books I have read in a while, and it was due to the amazing writing and imagery the authors weaved into it.  I would recommend this to any reader seventh grade and up.

-Maya S.

The Watch That Ends the Night: Voices from the Titanic is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library

My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand

myladyjane_cynthiahandOnce upon a fantastical time, there was an alternate reality where a queen lived for nine days. Her life is described by the combined efforts of My Lady Jane authors:  Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows.  There was once a time that all men were special, amazing creatures called E∂ians.  It was the ability to change into the form of an animal.  But, after some evolution of man, these abilities were hidden, and only sometimes found.  And, now in the 1530s, these E∂ians were either looked down upon or admired.

Lady Jane Grey, of the Tudor house, is to be married to a stranger.  And so is Gifford Dudley, son to the lord of the king.  The two are to produce an heir who will become the king of England. However, they are not fans of this arrangement.  There are rumors saying Gifford spends time with the ladies at night.  It is also said that the reason why Jane always has a book by her side is to hide her ugly face.  What sort of relationship is to develop if neither of them likes the other?  And, according to history, what does it matter, if the queen only has nine days to live?

At this point in the book when these most-talented authors rewrote history, the way it actually was, I was reminded of the song, “On the Dark Side” by John Cafferty.  Though the song title seems out of place in this context, the story is not dark.  However, the slipping into another reality is portrayed by the lyrics and is similar to the happenings in this novel.

This is one of the best books I have read in a while, and I rightfully give it a 10/10, for its originality, humor, and great character and plot development.  If you are looking for a funny, unique, fantastical and sweet novel, I would really recommend checking out My Lady Jane.

-Maya S., 9th Grade

My Lady Jane is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library. It can also be downloaded from Overdrive

Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

sixofcrows_leighbardugoIn the dark, murky alleyways of the merchant town of Ketterdam, a story begins to unfold with a crazy team and a perilous heist.  And, it all starts out in one of the biggest gangs, the Dregs.  Kaz Brekker, a cripple and the head of the Barrel, the hangout of the Dregs, is back at it again.  He receives an offer from Van Eck, a powerful merchant, describing a mission to kidnap a certain scientist.  And, not being able to resist the pile of money, he starts to pick out his team.

First, there is Inej, a young woman who has been traded in trafficking but whose freedom has been purchased.  Now, she serves as The Wraith, a great climber and spy.  And, though she is the right-hand (wo)man to Kaz, there may be other reasons she is joining the mission.  Inej’s character reminds me of the song, “Selecter” from James Bond.  The whole mood and rhythm of the song matches Inej’s outlook to each task she is given.  Next, Jesper, is a trick-shooter who cannot seem resist a game of poker.  His back story is slowly revealed as the heist unfurled.  Then, Matthais and Nena, a pair with an unknown story, have to work together once again, even as memories emerge from their past.  And, last, the newest member to join the gang, and the most cultured of them all, is Wylan.

If this novel was turned into a film, a leitmotif for it could be Henry Mancini’s “Peter Gunn” for its strong espionage-like quality of music.  Due to the heist, whenever situations get tense, this theme would pop into my head.

Six of Crows was a crazy whirlwind of a book including an unforgettable heist.  The novel was entirely riveting between the obstacles they overcame and how each character grew.  I enthusiastically  give a 9.8/10 to this Leigh Bardugo story.  The only point deduction was the confusing introduction, which only proved to be a small bit useful later in the journey.  Be sure to check out this novel as well as the recently published, Crooked Kingdom (second in the sequel), as well as the Grisha trilogy!

-Maya S., 9th grade

Six of Crows is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library. It can also be downloaded from Overdrive.

Taken by Erin Bowman

taken_erinbowmanIn the small town of Claysoot, enclosed by a Wall, lives a 17-year-old boy named Gray. Today is the day of his older brother’s 18th birthday.  However, in Claysoot, when a boy turns 18, he disappears. They all do. And, everybody just accepts it.  So, tonight, as it turns midnight, Blaine, Gray’s brother, will be Heisted.  But, Gray is not ready.  He is not ready for his best friend and brother to leave him.  He is not ready to see Blaine’s little daughter’s face when she sees her father will never come back.  But, how can Gray stop fate from happening?

Well, there is one thing.  But, anyone who has ever tried it comes back blackened and burned as a result of climbing the Wall.  Gray considered climbing over it, but always thought it to be too dangerous.  Instead, Gray spends his last day having as much fun as he can with his brother.  But, it didn’t feel real.  Every moment, he would think that just at this very time tomorrow, Blaine would not be there.  He would be gone.

Forever.

But, Gray had to accept it.  So, as he walked up to the stage during Blaine’s Heisting ceremony, he said his final goodbye.  At this point in the story, I was reminded of the classic Italian song, Time to Say Goodbye made popular by U.S. singers Bocelli and Brightman.  It’s heart wrenching chorus brings alive the emotion that Gray is feeling. As Gray gave his brother a hug, Blaine did something strange. He winked. This made Gray very confused, but the time had come for Blaine to be Heisted.  The ground rumbled, there was a flash and his brother was gone.

Forever.

Or so he thought… If this were a movie, here I would insert in the suspenseful tri-tone bum bom bam! to intensify the mini cliff hanger.  Read the book to find out what happens next!  I really enjoyed it!  And, I give the first book in this Taken trilogy a 9/10 for its intriguing dystopian literature.

-Maya S., 9th Grade

Taken is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library