The Cooking Gene

by Michael W. Twitty
First sentence: “The Old South is a place where people use food to tell themselves who they are, to tell others who they are, and to tell stories about where they’ve been.”
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Content: There are a few swear words, and the use of the n-word. It’s in the Cooking reference section of the bookstore.

This is essentially two things in one: Twitty’s personal memoir and his professional cooking journey. One part of that — his cooking journey — I found incredibly fascinating. Twitty has dedicated his career and life to recreating and understanding the food and cooking methods that the enslaved people used when they were brought to this country. I think that’s fascinating and valuable, and I found those portions of the book to be interesting. The other part — his personal memoir — was rooted too much in DNA testing and DNA connections to his ancestors as he tried to figure “himself” out. I enjoyed the parts where he was talking about his youth and growing up, but I didn’t connect so much with his musings about ancestors. I get that it’s important to him — especially with his work — but I just didn’t connect with it.

Part of that was the circular method that Twitty used to tell is story. It seemed to start in the middle and wrap around itself and while parts were fascinating, the whole was just a bit outside of my reach.

In short: I really wanted to like this a whole lot more than I ever actually did.

Libertie

by Kaitlyn Grenidge
First sentence: “I saw my mother raise a man from the dead.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: March 30, 2021
Content: There is tasteful on-screen sex and use of the n-word. It will be in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

It is the middle of the 19th century, and Libertie is a free Black girl being rasied by a single mother who has the audacity to become a doctor. And who wants only the best for Libertie. Which is to say, she expects Libertie to follow in her footsteps and become a doctor as well. The weight of that is so much for Libertie, that before her mother can find out that she flunked out of college, she marries and runs off with a man — her mother’s assistant — to Haiti. Only to find that the freedom she was hoping for isn’t there.

It’s less about the plot, though, than it is about Libertie and her relationship with her mother. There is very much a push-and-pull there; with Libertie wanting love and unconditional acceptance, and her mother showing her love with the expectation of excellence. It’s set in a world where there is slavery, racism, and colorism but that only brushes up against the plot. It’s mostly about expectations: those that are placed upon us by others — parents, spouses, society at large — and the ones we place on ourselves.

Greenidge is a very talented writer, and I think Libertie is a character that will stay with me for a while. I’m not sure I thought the ending was realistic, but I appreciated it. It was a good read and I’m glad I read it.

When You Trap a Tiger

by Tae Keller
First sentence: “I can turn invisible.”
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Content: There are a few heavy subjects, like a loss of a parent. It would be in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore if it hadn’t won the Newbery. As such, it’s in the Newbery section of the bookstore.

Lily has always been the quiet one in her family. It’s her older sister, Sam, that is loud and opinionated and always in trouble with their mom. But when their halmoni (their grandma) gets sick and the sisters and their mom move in with her to help, things change. Lily is convinced — by a magical tiger — that her halmoni stole something from the tigers god and if Lily just gave it back, her halmoni would get better.

This is such a lovely little book. A testament to the power of stories and passing those stories on. And not just book stories, but the stories of family, of Home (whether it be spiritual or ancestral). There are no stories that shouldn’t be told; even the sad ones have merit. It’s also a sweet book about family connection, surviving loss, and being strong and brave and what that means. Plus, it’s incredibly well-written and feels just perfect; not a single word or scene that’s out of place.

Definitely earned that Newbery it won. Excellent.

Audio book: Eat a Peach

by David Chang and Gabe Ulla
Read by the author
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is talk of suicide and mental illness. There is also lots of swearing, including many f-bombs. It’s in the Cooking/Food Reference section of the bookstore, but would also work in Creative Non-Fiction or Biography.

Chang starts his memoir stating that he’s too young to write a memoir, that this all feels too pretentious. And yes, in a way he’s right: he’s only 43, and his life — well his work life — has been a mix of luck and obsessively hard work. That said, since the only thin I know about him is Ugly Delicious from Netflix (which I really enjoyed), I was fascinated to learn all about Momofuku and the path that Chang took to where he is today.

It’s not an easy path. Chang had an okay suburban childhood, but not an especially happy one. And while he went to college, it wasn’t an especially good experience. It was when we worked in Japan (for a year? I think?) that he finally got an idea of what he wanted to do: he wanted to bring excellent food to the masses, and recreate the experience of Japanese noodle bars. And thus, Momofuku was born.

I really appreciate what Chang is doing: pushing the boundaries of food, mixing cultures and inspirations to come up with something wholly new. I really would love to eat at one of the restaurants, just to see what he and his team have created. I also appreciated that he was super candid about his mental health. He was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder, and was frank about the ups and downs and the medications. He’s his own harshest critic and is adamant that failure is an important part of growth. If one doesn’t fall down, then one can’t grow. And I get that.

And as a narrator, he wasn’t bad. He kept me pulled up to the table (metaphorically) to listen to his stories. I just wish I could have had a plate or two of his excellent food as I did.

Deacon King Kong

by James McBride
First sentence: “Deacon Cuffy Lambkin of Five Ends Baptist Church became a walking dead man on a cloudy September afternoon in 1969.”
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Content: There is swearing, including many f-bombs, and the use of the n-word. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

The plot of this one is almost incidental: Deacon Cuffy “Sportcoat” Lambkin (who also gets called Deacon King Kong for the amount of hooch he drinks) shot (but did not kill) a local drug dealer, who used to be a kid that played on a baseball team Sportcoat coached and umpired in the projects in Brooklyn. And, because of this, Things Happen. What the Things are doesn’t really matter: this is a novel that is propelled by the characters. And there’s a whole mess of characters. So many that when I tried to listen to this on audio, I got lost with who was who. But, reading it helped keep some of them straight. It’s a whole neighborhood full of characters, their wants and needs and desires and connections to each other. And McBride truly captured a moment in time, and a place, as the people of this Brooklyn neighborhood lived their lives and tried to keep things together as much as they could.

I didn’t absolutely love this book, but I didn’t dislike it either. It’s funny at times, and always interesting, if you like charioteer-driven novels.

Concrete Rose

by Angie Thomas
First sentence: “When it comes to the streets, there’s rules.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There swearing, including f-bombs, some tasteful sex, and talk of drug use. It’s in the teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Maverick Carter is just trying to live his life. He’s got a girlfriend he adores, and friends — including a cousin, Dre — that have his back. But then, his life is upended: a girl he had a one-night stand with (the condom broke) got him to take a DNA test to see if her baby was his. And sure enough, it was. Then she dumped the baby in Maverick’s lap and left (she was suffering from postpartum depression, so I get it). Which meant, all of a sudden, Maverick has to take stock of his life. Does he want to be involved in the King Lords and sell drugs, even though the money is good? How can he help his mom out (especially since dad’s been in prison since Maverick was eight). And then after a tragedy happens where Dre is killed, how can Maverick just go on?

In this prequel to The Hate U Give (you don’t have to have read that one first), Tbomas explores what it’s like to be a Black man in the inner-city in the late 1990s/early 2000s. When really all anyone expected of Maverick was for him to be a part of a gang, and to get a couple of girls pregnant. It’s all about Maverick finding it within himself to not be a stereotype, to not fall into the life his father lived, to be something — and someone — different. And, because Thomas is a gifted writer, she is able to bring life to this world and this character without making it seem preachy or trite. It really is an excellent story, and one that makes you feel for Maverick and his struggles and situations.

Thomas’s not just an important writer doing important work, though. She’s an excellent writer telling good stories. And that’s what really matters.

Felix Ever After

by Kacen Callender
First sentence: “We push open the apartment building’s glass door, out into the yellow sunshine that’s a little too cheerful and bright.”
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Content: There’s some teenage drinking and pot smoking, swearing — including multiple f-bombs — and some tasteful making out. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Felix is a trans young man who is struggling. Not just with his father — who won’t say his name, just calling Felix “kid” — but fitting in at St. Catherine’s, an elite art prep school in New York City. Felix has one friend, Ezra, who is totally and completely accepting of who Felix is. However, not everyone on campus is. When one day during the summer term, an “installation” of Felix’s dead self complete with his deadname shows up, Felix is determined to find out who did that, and exact revenge. But things don’t go as planned.

I’ve not read a lot of trans fiction, especially for young adults, but I adored the way Callender handled this (one expects it would be handled beautifully, considering Callender identifies as non-binary). I adored Felix and felt his struggles to be accepted as his true self, even though he’s still kind of questioning his identity. I am glad Callender reminded readers that gender is a spectrum and perhaps labels aren’t always the best thing. But beyond that, I loved Felix and Ezra together, and the tension between Declan (who was a former boyfriend of Ezra’s) and Felix. I loved the emphasis on art, and how art can express inner feelings the way words sometimes can’t. And I still think Callender is a beautiful writer. They capture things on the page about being trans and black and queer and trying to fit into this world that doesn’t want them. It was powerful and challenging and wonderful all around.

I am definitely a fan of Callender’s now.

Super Fake Love Song

by David Yoon
First sentence: “Every superhero has an origin story.”
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Content: There’s some mild swearing and in the older brother has a drinking problem. It’s in the YA section (grade 6-8) of the bookstore.

Sunny Dae (yes, that is meant to be punny) is a Nerd. Not only self-declared, but declared by the student body of his super rich California high school. Which is fine with Sunny. He and his friends Jamal and Milo have their own thing: a DIY FX YouTube channel for people who want to make their own cosplay outfits. It’s a perfectly fine existence, and aside from the fact that Sunny’s older brother Gray won’t talk to him and his parents are always working, one that Sunny is happy with.

Then Sunny meets Cirrus Soh, who accidentally thinks that Gray’s old room — full of guitars and “cool” things — is Sunny’s. And Sunny leans into that lie: yes, he plays guitar. Yes, he fronts a band. Yes, he’s “cool”. And all of a sudden, he has to make good on his lie. He ropes his friends into it, and gets the girl. The problem is: he’s kind of liking the “new Sunny” but he’s letting his friends down. Can he find a way to balance everything?

This book was super fun! Okay, so the romance part of this book wasn’t the best; Sunny and Cirrus were a bit forced and their romance never really felt real to me. What I did love, though, was Sunny. I loved his grappling with being nerdy and realizing that not everything or everyone fits neatly into boxes. I loved his family and their relationship to each other. For me, that was where the most interesting drama took place. I adored Milo and Jamal, and thought the three friends were brilliant together. And loved passages like this:

“My two best friends wore what they normally wore, which was to say a combination of low-performance joggers and blank polos that were so normcore, they went though dadcore and into weekend dadcore beyond.”

And this:

“The cynic would say Sunset [Boulevard] was like any other street in the godforsaken post-apocalyptic wonderland. But it wasn’t. It was a twenty-some-odd-mile-long serpent behemoth whose head had no idea what its tail was doing.”

No, it’s not brilliant fiction. But it is a lot of fun! And right now, that’s what really matters.

Audio book: Sia Martinez and the Moonlit Beginning of Everything

by Raquel Vasquez Gillliland
narrated by Inés del Castillo
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There’s swearing, including many f-bombs and description of sexual assault as well as almost-sex. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

It’s been three years since Sia’s mom disappeared in an ICE raid that sent her back to Mexico, a place where she had never been, having been brought to the US by her mother when she was young. Sia’s mom since disappeared, and was presumed to be dead. By everyone. So, for three years, Sia has been harboring grudge and aching for revenge on the sheriff who turned her mother in.

And… here’s where everything gets a little weird. I was enjoying this book about a girl who was dealing with her mother’s death, with the inherent racism in her town, with trying to keep her best friend together, with liking a new boy who just happens to turn out to be the estranged son of the sheriff. And then the book slants sideways and there are aliens? An Sia’s mom is not dead, but instead has spent the past three years being tested on in a secret government conspiracy? And it took half the book to get there?

I don’t know. I wanted to like this one more than I did. I adored the narrator; I think, in the end, she is what kept me listening (that, and I wanted to see just how far this alien thing would go) because I was annoyed. Annoyed that the jacket blurb gave away the aliens. Annoyed that they didn’t show up until halfway, and yet were so vital to the plot. Annoyed because it was a good book about a girl who was dealing with grief and loss and moving on, and all of a sudden: ALIENS AND YOUR MOM ISN’T DEAD.

I know there are people out there who liked this one. I’m just not one of them.

King and the Dragonflies

by Kacen Callender
First sentence: “The dragonflies live down by the bayou, but there’s no way to know which one’s my brother.”
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Content: There is some parental abuse, and kids run away. It’s in the middle grade section of the bookstore.

King’s brother Khalid recently died, and he and his parents are struggling to adjust to the new reality. It doesn’t help that King things his brother has come back as a dragonfly. And that his old good friend, Sandy, has come out as gay. In their small, conservative Louisiana town, and with Sandy’s abusive father as sheriff, that doesn’t bode well. Not for Sandy and not for anyone who wants to be his friend.

King spends the book coming to terms with both his brother’s death and with Sandy’s revelation (and the realization that he might be gay as well). It’s a quiet book, but it’s captivating. Callender is a phenomanal writer, and the feelings and emotions they invoke are incredible. They capture not only grief but friendship and parents struggling to do what they think is best. It’s a journey, one that is not readily summarized in a plot, but that is incredibly moving all the same.

Definitely deserving of the National Book Award it won, and highly recommended.