Teen Book Reviews: Warcross & Call Down the Hawk

Teens: did you know that you can earn community service credit for writing a book review and submitting it to us? Today, we’ll hear from two teens who did just that. Find out more about how to earn community service hours from home at cheshirelibrary.org/teens/.

Warcross by Marie Lu. Reviewed by Ella K.

Warcross is a book perfect for teens and young adults who enjoy science fiction and future societies. The story is set in a world where a young fourteen-year-old boy, Hideo Tanaka invents a pair of highly sophisticated virtual reality glasses called the NeuroLink. The glasses work by tricking the brain into thinking what it is seeing is real. In order to market the product, Tanaka also creates a video game that can be played within the virtual reality construct. This game, called Warcross, involves two teams battling to steal the other’s gem, called an Artifact, while avoiding a series of obstacles and the other team.

Emika Chen, a struggling hacker makes money in the only way that she can with her criminal record, as a bounty hunter. After failing to get a $5000 bounty that would have saved her from eviction, Emika turns to that fake reality to escape her problems. In the process, she accidentally hacks her way into the Warcross international tournament and makes the news worldwide. After this display of talent in hacking into one of the world’s most secure systems, Emika is invited by Hideo Tanaka himself to visit his headquarters in Japan. He offers her a ten million dollar reward to discover the identity of a hacker, nicknamed Zero, who he believes is a threat to the entire NeuroLink system. Emika has to use her hacking abilities, wit, and deception skills in order to remain undercover and thwart Zero.

The creation of this science fiction world is a shift away from the dystopian works that most know Marie Lu for, specifically her work in the Legend series. In this story, Lu showcases her writing and world building abilities by creating a world that many video game players dream of. The book’s plot is enticing outside of the new society that the reader gets to experience. While the betrayals and spy work that the reader gets to experience is captivating, the addition of a romance seems cliche in the midst of the situation that Emika finds herself in. It is well written, but Emika has been a powerful and independent person for most of her life. Her troubled childhood ensured it. Her interest in a powerful man takes away from that aspect of her character in a way. Overall, this hardly takes away from the book, and some readers, particularly those interested in romance, will enjoy the addition.

4 stars.

Call Down the Hawk by Maggie Stiefvater. Reviewed by Mia V.

Call Down The Hawk, the first book in the Dreamer Trilogy by Maggie Stiefvater, is a spin-off from the Raven Cycle series, following Ronan Lynch. The original Raven gang has all been split apart due to college, with Adam studying at Harvard, Gansey and Blue taking a gap year to travel and Ronan going off on his own. In the second book of the Raven Cycle, we find out that Ronan can pull objects and creatures (such as his pet raven, Chainsaw) out of his dreams. This power is incredibly rare and powerful, which makes Ronan vulnerable to being killed by those who don’t approve of his power or captured in order to make use of this power.

In Call Down The Hawk, however, Ronan’s power seems to be acting strange. Ronan feels as if he is dying if he is not near the ley lines, or the Barn at all times. Ronan also finds he is being hunted again, as threats loom from all different directions. Ronan meets other people with similar dreaming issues as himself, such as Jordan Henessey, who battles her own fears and nightmares which manifest themselves in real life due to her powers. As Ronan runs from those who want him dead, he also tries to help Hennessey deal with her own issues with her power. Call Down The Hawk takes a break from the search for Glendower and instead dives deeper into Ronan’s power and his own personal struggles both with himself and with his family.

I would definitely recommend this book. I would especially recommend it to someone who has read the Raven Cycle and has loved Ronan. Ronan was one of my favorite characters in the Raven Cycle, so I was very excited when Maggie Steifvater’s new Dreamer Trilogy was released and was set to focus more on Ronan. Although I was expecting the book to take a different direction, I still found the plot interesting and exciting.

4 stars.

One Book, Two Readers – Teens Review “They Both Die at the End”

Teens: did you know that you can earn community service credit for writing a book review and submitting it to us? Today, we’ll hear from two teens who did just that, and get their different takes on the same book. Find out more about how to earn community service hours from home at cheshirelibrary.org/teens/.

They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera. Reviewed by Jessica N.

They Both Die at the End, the title itself is intriguing and Adam Silvera does a fantastic job creating a book that lives up to its engaging title. He allows us as the readers to think and reflect about our own lives and what we would do if we found out that we would be dying in the next 24 hours.

The book starts off with the two main characters, Mateo and Rufus, getting Death-Cast calls that they will be dying that day. This news changes their lives for the little amount of time they have left. They have to figure out how they are going to spend their last day, also known as their “End Day”, and leave their final mark on Earth. The novel also brings up topics of friendship and relationship. The Death-Cast company provides an app for the people that are going to die and allow them to make a new friend, a Last Friend, for the day.

Through this app and each character in the novel, each person has a significant story and the book itself is told from multiple perspectives. So not only are us the readers tasked with reflecting on how they would spend their last day on Earth, if we knew it was our last day, but, we get to see how people of different ages, ethnicities, and popularities spend their last days. This book is an emotional one that is well worth the read, and even though the readers know what is going to happen at the end (the characters both die), the ending is still very gutting and astonishing. Also, the author, Adam Silvera is expanding the story and coming out with two new further novels. The next one (the second one) is projected to come out later this 2022 year and titled The First to Die at the End, so there is something more to look forward to after reading the beautiful story of They Both Die at the End!

4 stars.

They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera. Reviewed by Claire J.

Overall, this book covered many intriguing events and evoked a variety of emotions. The “ spoiler” being in the title of the book is what drew me to pick it up, still having hope throughout the book that they would both live despite the title. It is a darker book, with themes of violence such as guns, so I do not recommend it for younger readers. The positive portrayal of LGBTQ relationships is evident throughout the book, which was pleasant to read.

Silvera takes the reader on a rollercoaster of emotions as we follow the two main characters rated to die on their last adventures on Earth. Both boys were also trying to run from their own issues aside from death. From sick fathers to running from the police, they were already struggling with the real world struggles. Although the book showed rather interesting plot points, some felt a bit boring, hence why the rating is not as high as expected. The pacing of the book was also rather slow in my opinion, although this could have been due to the fact that I do not typically read books of this genre. Another criticism of the book is that some characters were underdeveloped. Although the two main characters were well rounded with great writing skills used to make them, some other characters I felt were not as developed. Even though they had smaller roles in the overall story of the book, I thought that they could have their characters elaborated on a bit more.

I still greatly enjoyed the book, however, it was a wonderful book to read in my down time! I recommend this book to middle-schoolers and older. For science fiction and fantasy readers looking out to try realistic fiction novels, this book is a great transition.

3 stars.

Teen Book Reviews: We Are the Ants and Zen and Gone

Teens: did you know that you can earn community service credit for writing a book review and submitting it to us? Today, we’ll hear from a teen who did just that. Find out more about how to earn community service hours from home at cheshirelibrary.org/teens/.

We are the Ants by Shaun Hutchinson reviewed by Ali A.

We Are the Ants is a book about a 16-year old boy named Henry Denton. Henry Denton suffers from depression because his friend Jesse committed suicide. It doesn’t help that Henry gets bullied at school and gets periodically abducted by aliens. Although it might be a delusion, Henry absolutely believes he gets abducted by them while aliens run experiments on him. In one of the abduction sessions, the aliens try communicating with him. They show him a button and say that the Earth will end in 144 days unless he presses the button. Henry at first decides he will never press the button because there’s nothing on Earth to live for. He argues that no matter what humans do they will die anyway and their lives would have been useless, so Henry might as well end everyone’s lives quicker. Henry asks everyone he knows about whether they would press the button or not. At school Henry gets bullied more than usual until one day a new kid shows up to class, Diego Vega. Diego and Henry instantly become friends, but Diego never talks about his mysterious past or why he lives with his sister rather than his parents. One day Henry is in the locker room when 3 bullies assault him and beat him up. Henry wants to kill himself and share the same fate with Jesse, but Diego is the only thing Henry looks forward to in life. Later in the book Henry and Diego are at a fair when one of the bullies tries to hurt Marcus. Diego gets mad and punches the bully, which sends Diego to court. I’d rate this book 2/5 stars because of the terrible plot and ending. The author never says if the alien abductions are real or mere hallucinations, and the author never tells us if Henry pressed the button or not.

2 Stars.

Zen and Gone by Emily France reviewed by Ali A.

Zen and Gone is one of my all-time favorite young adult books. The novel takes place in Boulder, Colorado, and revolves around the lives of Essence and Oliver. Essence, a buddhist, is trying to take care of her little sister, Puck. Her mother works at a pot shop selling legalized intoxicants so she’s high and irresponsible most of the time and can’t give the care her children need. Oliver on the other hand is a kid with a mysterious past in Chicago. He was sent out to Boulder because of an incident involving his sister. Olliver rarely speaks about his past and feels sadness everytime he thinks of it. Essa and Olliver both take part-time jobs at a kite shop and become friends. Essa then invites Olliver to come with her other friends, Micah and Anish, to a hiking trip in the Rocky Mountains. Things start to go wrong when Essa and her friends realize that Puck stowed away on the trip to join them. Essa decides to bring Puck back home and cancel the dangerous expedition through the woods, especially when she finds a creepy guy roaming the woods in the dark, but it starts to thunder so they have to find shelter. Things go EVEN MORE wrong when Essa wakes up at 3:00 AM and discovers that Puck and Oliver are missing. However, Oliver comes back a few minutes later claiming that he was using the bathroom. Essa and her friends search everywhere in the woods, but can’t find Puck. Did this have anything to do with the strange man they saw earlier? Or did it have to do with Oliver, who she had just met a month ago? Plus, she barely knew anything about his life in Chicago, or his sister’s incident. Brilliant, touching, and spooky, Zen and Gone is the perfect book for readers who love adventure books and mysteries.

5 Stars.

Made in China

Every now and then you read a book so disturbing you change your life because of it. That’s how I felt about Amelia Pang’s book, Made in China. I have not been so disturbed by a book since Road of Lost Innocence, by Somaly Mam. 

In 2012 Julie Keith opened up Halloween decorations, only to find a note in broken English, asking her to “kindly resend this letter to the World Human Right Organization. Thousands people here who are under the persecution of the Chinese Communist Party Government will thank and remember you forever.”

Julie did – contacting Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, The United Nations Human Rights Council, and Anti-Slavery International.

None of them called her back.

Through her own research, she slowly learned the extent that America’s cheap consumer goods are, too often, being manufactured illegally by political prisoners in China, who work in concentration camp conditions amid torture and starvation.

 It wasn’t until she spoke to Immigration and Customs and Border Protection that she got anyone to listen – ICE and CBP are the agencies responsible for preventing forced-labor products from entering US markets. ICE made a formal request to visit the “reeducation center” where the product was made. China refused. Keith learned that China has never allowed inspection of their manufacturing facilities, and one piece of evidence isn’t enough to push further.

But Keith couldn’t stop thinking about the person who wrote the note. She wound up doing an interview for The Oregonian, and suddenly found herself in the spotlight of Chinese dissident news, CNN, Fox, and more. Through the group Human Rights Watch, Keith found out it’s almost impossible to prove human rights violations – Kmart insisted the factory had been audited every 6 to 12 months, absolutely within the law, but audits cost money and mostly check for cleanliness and quality control. They never check for the source of labor. When you have a hundred thousand subcontractors, and each audit is $1,000, the costs and time add up to impossible.

Sun Yi and his letter

Sun Yi was the man who wrote that note in 2009, three years before Julie Keith found it. He was imprisoned and tortured for belonging to a meditation group that fell into disfavor with the Party. After two years of  starvation, torture, and working sometimes 24 hours a day in inhumane conditions, he was released. CNN interviewed him, blocking his face so he could not be identified. Sun Yi decided that, while he could get the information out, he wanted to write a letter to Julie, thanking her. He included his email address. Sun realized if he was to live, he had to leave China, and slipped out to Indonesia before the Chinese authorities could stop him, since Indonesia didn’t require a visa for Chinese citizens. There, he had free communication with the world.

In March of 2017, Julie Keith flew 36 hours to Indonesia, to meet Sun Yi in person, something she always wanted to do. The meeting was bittersweet, and Keith learned much about Yi’s poor treatment.

In October of 2017, Sun Yi died mysteriously of a lung infection and kidney failure. He was said to have been befriended by a Chinese woman not long before. She wasn’t seen in Jakarta afterward. No autopsy was performed.

This book tore at my heart. It’s short, easy to read, and always engaging. As we flip past internet bargains and snap up dollar deals, think twice before buying cheap merchandise. Ask if the item was made in the USA, and try (oh yes, it’s difficult) to buy items made only in countries who pay fair wages and rely on fair trade. Does that pop-up ad on social media look beautiful, at a reasonable price? Google the company. If there’s little to no information on it, it may be because it’s fly-by-night. You might get a nice product, but the company may fold in one town and open up under a different name three blocks away in the same Chinese city, using the same illegal workers. 

I got suckered in by that myself: researched the company, found no red flags, ordered what I thought was a hand-made item by a small Mom & Pop company, until a few weeks later when I got an email telling me my package had just cleared customs from China.

Huh? 

The package arrived with a label that had a New York State company address – slapped directly over the label that was on the envelope that arrived from China.

Think when you purchase something. Without demand for cheap products, there will be less demand for labor. Ask yourself: Do I really need this? Is the price too good to be true? Where was it made? Who made it? Who is profiting from my buying it? Was someone harmed by my decision to purchase this item?

Sometimes, the answer might be yes.

Book Review: Cuba: An American History by Ada Ferrer

Sandy, our Head of Technical Services, shares this review of a recent read.

I love history. I studied it in college and in graduate school. It is the only thing I read, along with the occasional dark Scandinavian mystery.  That said, I have avoided reading any histories of Cuba. As the child of Cuban immigrants, the subject has always been too personal for me and I relied instead on the history given to me by my parents and grandparents. It was biased and it was raw and until recently, it was all that I had. I reluctantly decided to pick up Ada Ferrer’s book Cuba: An American History at the beginning of the year to see if I could rectify those gaps in my knowledge.

Ferrer was born in Cuba in June of 1962 and left the island as a baby with her mother, 10 months later. The prologue felt familiar to me. She talks about families left behind, meeting new family in “exilío” (exile), the pervasive feelings of loss, and the stories told by family members.  Stories about Cuba before the revolution, speculation about family and friends who stayed, and stories about an end to the Castro regime. She starts the history of the island in the 15th century with Columbus’ “discovery” of the region. Her discussion of this early period is thorough, outlining why Cuba became such a crucial part of trade in the region. She dives deeply into Cuba’s relationship with Spain as one of its most valuable colonies as well as Cuba’s early relationship with the United States. I think one of the most interesting things in how Ferrer tackles the history of Cuba in her work is that she puts it in the context of its relationship to the United States. The two nations have always been tightly bound to one another from their very early days, be it through trade, war, investments, and amendments that gave the US the power to intervene in the island.

Her discussion of the tumultuous period after the Cuban War of Independence in 1898 illustrates both how the US was able to further consolidate power in the island as well as how the stage was ultimately set for the revolution of 1959 and Fidel Castro’s rise to power. She takes the reader through Cuba’s resistance to the US via the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis, the relationship between the island and the Soviet Union in the 70s, and the fall of the Soviet Union and Cuba’s subsequent special period in the 90s; a time marked by extreme austerity measures and the mass exodus of citizens to the United States.  She talks about the hope the Cuban population felt with the thawing of relations under Barack Obama’s presidency and the despair brought on by the renewed efforts by the US government to tighten travel restrictions and the sending of remittances in 2016. The book ends in 2020 with a discussion of the effects of Covid-19 and the growing protest movements in the summer of that year.

The book is beautifully written.  Perhaps because she has spent so much of her life researching and working on this project or maybe because she is the child of Cuban immigrants, Ferrer is able to capture the essence of the Cuban people, their humor, and their ability to adapt and persevere both on and off the island. I think one of the things I appreciate most about the book is the way in which she chose to tell the history. She sums it up best when she writes, “as we ponder the sweep of centuries, it is important to pause at those lives, not just to invoke them, but to endeavor to grasp history through their eyes… It is an impossible endeavor in many ways… but the attempt itself is essential.” This book felt personal to me because of my relationship to my family and the island more broadly but I think that Ferrer’s approach to history will allow any reader without any personal stake to feel for the place as well as the people, both those that left and those that stayed behind.