Best New Books, E-Books, and E-Audiobooks: March 8, 2021

  • What’s Mine and Yours by Naima Coster (e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Family Drama): “If there’s something I’ve learned in this country, it’s that your address decides everything.” That piece of advice is tucked among the rich character descriptions in the opening chapter of Naima Coster’s second novel, What’s Mine and Yours. What could be taken as a passing remark is actually a poignant thesis for the story that follows as it unfolds from the 1990s to the present. In early 2000s North Carolina, Jade is thrilled that her son, Gee, and other students from their part of town will have the opportunity to transfer to the predominately white Central High School. The newspaper reports that the merging of the city and county school systems is popular among the town’s residents, and pilot programs provide incentives for students to transfer across the system. But at the crowded town hall meeting before the start of the school year, Gee doesn’t share his mom’s enthusiasm. He’s sure this isn’t a welcoming committee; he’s heard white parents plan to protest. Lacey May is among those pushing back. She hasn’t had it easy; after her husband went to jail, she chose to couple up with a man who could provide for her and her three daughters. Lacey May’s oldest, Noelle, is embarrassed by her mother’s actions and is sure they’re motivated by the color of her new classmates’ skin. Noelle and her sisters are half-Latina, though they pass for white. She concocts a plan with Central’s theater teacher: They’ll put on a Shakespearean performance to build a bridge between existing students and newcomers. The play brings Noelle and Gee together, even as their mothers continue to rage outside the classroom. In vividly detailed scenes spanning more than 25 years, Coster illuminates the impact of Noelle’s and Gee’s families and formative years. The pair is the heart of What’s Mine and Yours, but Coster allows every major player their time in the spotlight. Her rich character development illustrates the many ways family and circumstances can influence who we become.
  • Sweet & Bitter Magic by Adrienne Tooley (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; YA Fiction): Tamsin is a witch, but unlike other witches her age, she has spent the last five years banished from the witches’ land of Within, cursed to never feel love as punishment for a terrible deed. Now she ekes out a lonely existence as a harsh, callous village witch among the Ordinary folk. Wren is a source: someone who is magic but cannot use magic. But unlike other sources, she didn’t travel to Within when her magic appeared, as the witches’ governing coven requires. Instead, she stayed behind to care for her ailing father, hiding the evidence of her relationship to magic as best she could. When a dark plague sweeps across the land, Tamsin hopes to return to Within and hunt for the witch who cast it, potentially earning the right to return home. Determined to rescue her father from the plague, Wren seeks Tamsin’s aid. The girls strike a bargain and set off to Within. The romantic arc of Sweet & Bitter Magic trods an enjoyable if well-worn “opposites attract” path. Chapters alternate between Tamsin’s and Wren’s perspectives, and each young woman exhibits both flaws and growth that readers will find relatable, perhaps even healing. Tamsin must outgrow her tendency to be selfish and let go of her guilt over her past mistakes, while Wren struggles to prioritize her own desires and develop confidence in her own abilities. Debut author Adrienne Tooley’s magical system of witches and sources is simple but intriguing, and the novel’s setting evokes a mix of European fairy tales and medieval society. The land of Within is filled with such strange and vivid imagery that readers will be reluctant to leave it behind. With its combination of fresh and familiar elements and two heroines whose emotional journeys are sure to resonate, Sweet & Bitter Magic is a treat for readers who loved the queer fantasy of Melissa Bashardoust’s Girls Made of Snow and Glass and the atmospheric, witchy vibes of Peternelle van Arsdale’s The Beast Is an Animal.
  • Can’t Take That Away by Steven Salvatore (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; YA Fiction): Carey Parker has a show-stopping singing voice just like their idol and namesake, the legendary Mariah Carey. But as a genderqueer teenager who’s faced bullying at school from classmates and teachers alike, Carey has learned to avoid the spotlight and the negative attention it draws. When Carey’s voice catches the ear of Cris, a cute and talented musician, Cris encourages Carey to try out for their school’s upcoming production of the musical Wicked. Carey should be a shoo-in for the lead role of Elphaba, the misunderstood Wicked Witch of the West, but they’re reluctant to audition, as their confidence still hasn’t recovered from their best friend Joey’s cold reaction to their coming out. Landing the role turns out to be only the beginning of the battle, as a bigoted teacher tries to force Carey and the director out of the musical entirely. Though Carey takes center stage in Can’t Take That Away, debut author Steven Salvatore surrounds them with characters who demonstrate the vital role that support networks play in the lives of queer teens. From the book’s opening scene, in which Carey’s favorite teacher gives them color-coded bracelets to “express their gender identity on any given day,” Carey and their friends constantly help each other grow and fight together for what they believe in. Aspiring fashion designer Monroe crafts Carey the perfect audition outfit for maximum confidence, while Carey’s therapist patiently works with them to uncover the root of their fears. Although the book’s antagonists sometimes behave with almost cartoonish prejudice, it’s still satisfying when Carey and their friends band together to oppose them. Music is also central in Can’t Take That Away, and Salvatore excels at describing how it grounds and connects Carey to the world. Sometimes music is a source of comfort for Carey, as when they recite Mariah Carey trivia to help them get through panic attacks. Other times, however, it’s a source of bittersweet pain. Carey shares their love of music with their grandmother, whose health has deteriorated and who can no longer sing along with the songs they used to perform together. The book is filled with big emotions that swell and crash with all the drama of the artists Salvatore frequently name-drops. Even readers unfamiliar with the musical references will be able to understand Carey’s emotional connections to them as they belt songs out with passion. In the climactic confrontation with the school’s administration over its discriminatory behavior, Salvatore’s characters stand up for their rights with clarity and conviction. There’s an admirably practical emphasis on creating tangible, actionable change, rather than settling for empty promises or rhetoric. As empowering as it is entertaining, Salvatore’s debut novel hits all the right notes.
  • Vera by Carol Edgarian (Historical Fiction): “I sometimes wondered what it would have been like to be raised a normal girl,” says the narrator of Carol Edgarian’s novel Vera. “But that was not my story.” It is 1906, and Vera Johnson is being raised in a “respectable” household by a widowed Swedish woman pretending to be her mother. Vera’s real mother, however, is Rose, the madam of San Francisco’s most infamous brothel. Rose has kept Vera a secret for nearly 15 years while continuing to provide for her financially. Then the destructive San Francisco earthquake happens, shaking more than the ground beneath their feet. Readers may come to Vera for a tale about the San Francisco earthquake, or for a juicy novel about the women who populate society’s underbelly. But the novel is actually about motherhood and Vera’s struggle to be cared for as she needs to be. Vera yearns for her mother’s love and respect, and she doesn’t care about how Rose’s disreputable place in society could impact her own life. The many memorable characters populating Vera may provide interesting fodder for book club conversations. Vera is feisty and chafes at the confines of life in this era; her refusal to conform brings to mind a more street-savvy Scout Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird. She is forced to be stronger than any 15-year-old should have to be. And Rose intriguingly demonstrates the tough choices a woman of her time must make in order to be truly free.
  • The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner (e-book available on the Libby or Axis 360 app with your library card; Historical Fiction): When an author threads a story with multiple perspectives that span years, they run the risk that readers will prefer one character’s voice over another, creating a divide in investment that’s difficult to bridge. With The Lost Apothecary, first-time novelist Sarah Penner takes that risk, weaving together the tales of three women separated by more than two centuries but united through pain, fear and hope. In Penner’s case, the risk pays off in a spellbinding way. In 1791 London, Nella works in her apothecary shop with a very specific purpose: making discreet poisons to help women rid themselves of the dangerous men in their lives. Nella’s work is solitary for good reason, until she meets Eliza, a 12-year-old whose curiosity transforms her from unlikely client to unlikely friend. Meanwhile in the present, Caroline is making a solo journey to London in the wake of her husband’s infidelity. As she wanders the city, a chance discovery reawakens her long-buried passion for history, and as she seeks her new purpose in life, she just might find it in the story of Nella and Eliza. What’s most striking about The Lost Apothecary is not how expertly Penner braids the three strands of her story together, though the structure and pacing are certainly well done. What is most admirable is that, as she leaps between first-person perspectives–including two women who are often reflecting on the exact same events–the sense of character never once falters. Their presences and voices are distinct, even as they’re bound by an emotional link that is clear to the reader (though not always clear to the characters). There’s a powerful unity to this story, making it nimble yet sturdy, light yet satiating. Like in a well-brewed potion, all the ingredients have been given exactly the right level of care and time, and the result is a novel that simply overwhelms with its delicate spell.
  • Perfect on Paper by Sophie Gonzales (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; YA Fiction): Darcy Phillips is a love guru. Through her top-secret relationship counseling service–she emails advice in response to notes her classmates pass discreetly into long abandoned locker number 89–Darcy can solve any romantic woe, no matter how epic or seemingly trivial. When popular senior Alexander Brougham spots Darcy opening the locker, however, he quickly pieces together her secret, putting both her business and her reputation at risk. Darcy agrees to help Brougham win back his ex-girlfriend in exchange for his silence, but the task will put her relationship knowledge to the test in more ways than one. Sophie Gonzales’ Perfect on Paper effortlessly conveys the complex web of social interactions that high school students navigate every day. Darcy’s frank, thoughtful and not quite self-aware narration is captivating and genuine, an authentic depiction of young adulthood in the 21st century. Teen readers will connect with Darcy’s struggles, cheer for her relationships, cringe at her missteps and maybe even take a piece of advice from locker 89 to heart. Gonzales’ novel also admirably reflects recent shifts in the representation of LGBTQ+ characters in YA literature. By including both queer and transgender characters whose sexuality and gender identity are neither their defining trait nor the source of the conflicts that drive their narratives, Gonzales reflects the lived experiences of teens today and delivers a relatable read with multiple points of identification. Heartfelt, witty and thoroughly entertaining, Perfect on Paper is an enthralling tale of young love and the joy, heartbreak and growth it brings.
  • How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Literary Fiction): In 2017, Imbolo Mbue won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for her novel Behold the Dreamers, but it’s taken 17 years for the novel she began before that one, How Beautiful We Were, to reach publication. Readers who enjoyed Behold the Dreamers will be pleased that Mbue persisted to tell this powerful story of the fateful clash between an American oil company and the tiny African village forced to live with the consequences of its environmental destruction. Set in an unnamed country that Mbue says bears some resemblance to her native Cameroon, the novel chronicles more than four decades in Kosawa, the only one of eight “sibling villages” that must live with the “curse that came from living on land beneath which oil sat.” As the deaths of their children mount and the damage to their agriculture becomes more catastrophic, the villagers’ frustration turns to desperation. They kidnap several oil company representatives, which initiates a series of events that brings both disaster and hope to the community. Mbue narrates her story through the voices of five members of Kosawa’s Nangi family–Thula, a young woman who evolves into an activist; her mother, Sahel; grandmother Yaya; uncle Bongo; and brother Juba–along with a collective of Thula’s contemporaries she calls the Children. While there are clear villains and heroes, the political and ethical questions faced by Mbue’s characters are never presented in black-and-white terms, even when Mbue describes Kosawa’s response to the oil company’s intransigence. Mbue devotes considerable attention to issues like patriarchy and the beauty and role of myth and magic in the lives of Kosawa’s villagers, deepening and contextualizing the novel’s tragic elements. How Beautiful We Were proceeds at a deliberate pace that’s appropriate for the moral gravity of the story and the fateful choices–wise and unwise, but always undeniably human–made by Mbue’s characters. To those disinclined to question the role that economic exploitation plays in supporting our modern lifestyle, reading this novel may prove an unsettling experience.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s