Best New E-Books: February 24, 2021

  • Mazie by Melanie Crowder (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; YA Fiction): It’s 1959, and 17-year-old Mazie Butterfield dreams of becoming a Broadway star–no easy feat for a Nebraska farm girl who waitresses as a carhop for meager tips. When her beloved grandmother dies and leaves her a small inheritance, Mazie breaks up with her boyfriend, Jesse, and heads to New York City. Mazie knows getting a part in a Broadway musical will be tough, but she’s not prepared for the callousness of show business. Before she’s even opened her mouth to sing, casting directors dismiss her for her broad stature, freckles and quaint surname. Just when her money runs out, she gets a part in a traveling stage production that puts her at odds with a lecherous director. Mazie always knew that running toward a dream would be hard; she just never realized the heart she’d break could be her own. The farm girl with big-city dreams is a classic Hollywood trope that feels fresh and contemporary in Melanie Crowder’s capable hands. The titular protagonist of Mazie is hardworking, if a tad naive. She’s open to new experiences, including getting acquainted with Broadway’s underground gay scene. Her confrontations with men who abuse their positions ring frustratingly true even in our #MeToo era. The conflict between Mazie and Jesse highlights the tough choices faced by those who seek stardom, leaving behind family and friends and altering their appearances and even their names to appease audiences. Although Mazie is white and Christian, she is asked to lose weight and slough off her country manners in order to be more palatable to Broadway producers. Crowder has clearly done her research as she brings the golden age of musical theater to life, but readers may find themselves just as nostalgic for the quiet life of a small Nebraska farm as for glitzy, postwar Manhattan by the time they finish Mazie’s story.
  • J.D. and the Great Barber Battle by J. Dillard and Akeem S. Roberts (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Children’s Chapter: Ages 6-8): In J.D. Jones’ family, nobody gets a haircut until they turn 9, when they receive a home buzz cut. J.D.’s mom has been busy lately, so J.D. is glad for a chance to spend time with her when she cuts his hair before the first day of third grade. He hopes she can manage a basic fade, but when he looks in the mirror to check out his new hairstyle, what he sees is…not good. J.D. is used to his classmates’ teasing over his hand-me-down clothes, but being mocked for his hair is a new low, so he springs into action. He tries his mom’s hair relaxer, which only makes his hair look worse. Next, he uses the family’s clippers, but not before testing them out on his little brother first. Fortunately, it turns out that J.D. is a haircutting whiz. Not only does he escape punishment for cutting his brother’s hair without permission, but soon everyone is asking J.D. to work his magic on their hair, lining up to pay him for his haircuts. He sets up shop on his back porch and is quickly flush with cash, until the owner of the only barber shop in town tries to shut him down. Desperate, J.D. challenges him to a haircutting competition that will put all of his new skills to the test. Debut author J. Dillard is a former master barber, and he effortlessly welcomes readers into J.D.’s small hometown of Meridian, Mississippi, where “everyone…knows everything about everyone else.” It’s a lively place, where J.D. is surrounded by a close-knit group of family and friends, where money is always a little tight. Like most kids his age, J.D. longs to define himself and to discover where he can excel, and young readers will enjoy watching him gain self-confidence along with his skills as a barber and entrepreneur. Dillard has a sharp ear for dialogue, and J.D.’s conversational narration paired with the story’s gentle humor and perfectly placed pop culture references will ensure a wide appeal. Akeem S. Roberts’ cartoon-style illustrations of J.D. and his friends are packed with personality and make this a great choice for readers transitioning into chapter books. The first book in a planned series, J.D. and the Great Barber Battle feels like a winner.
  • The Kitchen Front by Jennifer Ryan (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Historical Fiction): Grab a cup of tea and a scone, and curl up with The Kitchen Front, Jennifer Ryan’s positively delicious novel about four British women competing in a cooking contest during World War II. The winner will become the first female host of a BBC radio show called “The Kitchen Front,” which guides listeners in creative ways to use food rations. Ryan, author of The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir and The Spies of Shilling Lane, continues to excel at creating warmhearted, intriguing homefront drama. Both the book and the contest are divided into three rounds, in which each contestant must cook a starter, main course and dessert. The stakes are high for the competitors, each of whom yearns for the career-boosting prize. There’s Audrey, the anchor of the book, a struggling war widow with three sons, as well as her estranged, wealthy sister, Lady Gwendoline, who’s trapped in a loveless relationship with her abusive husband. Lady G’s shy young kitchen maid, Nell, is also competing, as well as a professional cook from France named Zelda, a single woman who’s trying to hide an unplanned pregnancy. Ryan uses alternating chapters to explore each woman’s personality, moving the drama steadily along with brisk dialogue and action. This is very much a book about women’s rights, strengths and abilities, and the class differences among characters add drama and a dash of complexity. Recipes are included for each round, some adapted from wartime leaflets. They’re fun to read, and each is well integrated into the unfolding drama. Readers are likely to be more inclined to try some (vegetarian Lord Woolton pie or Audrey’s fruit scones) than others (Lady Gwendoline’s sardine rolls). Historical details sprinkled throughout are equally fascinating, such as the fact that during the war, the moat around the Tower of London was drained to grow cabbages and potatoes that fed struggling Londoners in the East End. Though the four contestants each face personal difficulties, endure shortages and fear bombing raids, their village of Fenley feels removed from the raging horrors of World War II. Ryan injects humor into their sorrow–as well as empowerment–as the group gradually learns to band together and pool their talents instead of facing off as kitchen opponents. While The Kitchen Front goes down like a spoonful of sugar, Ryan manages to instill substance and plenty of food for thought in its creative and ultimately uplifting story.

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