Best New Physical Books, E-Books and E-Audiobooks at Your Library: September 1, 2021

  • The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois by Honoree Fanonne Jeffers (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 and Libby apps with your library card; historical fiction): Nowadays, it’s easy to find out where you came from. Just pluck out some hair follicles or scrape your cheek for some cells, send them to a lab far away, and they’ll determine your genetic makeup. Even when science reveals these secrets about our bodies, however, ancestry and heritage are still complex elements of our personal identities. In her debut novel, The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois, celebrated poet Honoree Fanonne Jeffers weaves an epic ancestral story, showing that where any one person comes from is much more complicated than charts and graphs. Ailey Pearl Garfield, a young Black girl with a big family, takes center stage, and the history and intricacies of her ancestry drive the novel’s plot. We jump, sometimes dizzyingly, across space and time to trace her family line, and the result is a dazzling tale of love and loss. The story begins with a formerly enslaved man and his acceptance into a Native tribe, the first fateful moment of a vast history. Centuries later, Ailey is visited in her dreams by a “long-haired lady” who helps her to uncover their shared story. From slavery to freedom, discrimination to justice, tradition to unorthodoxy, this story covers large parts of not just Ailey’s heritage but also America’s. It’s the kind of familial epic that many Americans, particularly African Americans, can relate to, as Jeffers limns this family’s story with the trauma, faults and passions that we all harbor. Her masterful treatment of the characters and their relationships, paired with the thorough and engaging way the narrative is laid out, makes for a book that is easy to invest and get lost in–a feat for such a long, intricate work. Best yet, the novel incorporates the words of W.E.B. Du Bois throughout its 800-plus pages; those words are the story’s spine, its beating heart, its very life force. Comparisons to Toni Morrison are bound to be made and will be apt in most cases, as this novel feels as important as many of Morrison’s. The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois earns its place among such company, as Jeffers engages with and builds upon the legacy of African American literature as carefully and masterfully as she does the narrative of Ailey’s family.
  • The Maidens by Alex Michaelides, Louise Brealey, and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith (e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; suspense): Grieving the sudden death of her husband, group therapist Mariana Andros drops everything when her niece’s best friend is brutally murdered on the grounds of a quiet Cambridge college. As more young women are slaughtered, Mariana realizes that their deaths are not frenzied acts of madness but rather a coldly calculated and purposeful series of sacrifices, with a charismatic murderer at the center. In The Maidens (9.5 hours), Alex Michaelides draws heavily upon Greek mythology to create an absorbing thriller with more twists than the Minotaur’s labyrinth. The audiobook is narrated primarily by actor Louise Brealey, who has given life to complex female characters in the audio editions of The Girl on the Train and The Silent Patient, Michaelides’ first novel. Here, she does an excellent job of conveying Mariana’s confusion, courage and determination to solve the mystery at any cost. Actor Kobna Holdbrook-Smith’s nuanced performance as the killer reminds us that monsters are made, not born, and that within even the most heinous murderer is a shattered, lonely child.
  • Hero of Two Worlds by Mike Duncan (physical book available at the library; American history): In this engrossing biography, author and history podcaster Mike Duncan, who explored the Roman Republic in The Storm Before the Storm, illuminates the eventful life of the Marquis de Lafayette. Lafayette is, of course, a popular hero of the American Revolution. Hero of Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution broadens our understanding of his engagement in other major political movements, as well, chronicling his role in the French Revolution and the toppling of the Bourbon Dynasty in 1830. At first glance, nothing in Lafayette’s early history suggests his future commitment to liberal ideals. Lafayette (1757-1834) was born Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier in Chavaniac, France. A son of the nobility, he lost his father when he was only 2, making him the sole heir to the family’s fortune. His mother’s death when he was 12 left him in the care of guardians who made many decisions for him, including arranging his marriage to Adrienne d’Ayen at age 16. They were a devoted couple until her death in 1807. Duncan traces the origin of Lafayette’s embrace of liberty and equality to the summer of 1775, when he first learned of George Washington and the colonists’ struggles. Politics had cut short his career in the French army, so Lafayette decided to follow this new noble cause. He managed to become a major general in the Continental Army, and by age 24, he’d earned a stellar reputation on both sides of the Atlantic. In detailing Lafayette’s long career, Duncan takes a measured approach to his subject, making excellent use of primary sources, especially letters. The author effectively balances Lafayette the man with Lafayette the public figure and helps delineate the relationship between the United States and France. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of A Hero of Two Worlds is Duncan’s exploration of Lafayette’s long and enduring popularity with Americans. (Unlike the French, the Americans never stopped loving him.) In 1824, Lafayette was invited for a visit by President James Monroe as the nation prepared for its 50th anniversary. Lafayette received a hero’s welcome, his presence reminding “local and state leaders they were a single nation with a shared past and collective future.” Lafayette was a unique and unifying figure in American history, celebrated and revered by all political parties. As the United States approaches its 250th anniversary, Duncan’s impressive biography provides an insightful look at the American Revolution that can be appreciated by history lovers and general readers alike.
  • Seeing Ghosts by Kat Chow (physical book available at the library; memoir–family & relationships): Early in her debut memoir, Seeing Ghosts, journalist Kat Chow recalls one of the times her mom made a goofy Dracula face, an exaggerated grin with teeth bared. “When I die,” Chow’s mother told then 9-year-old Chow, “I want you to get me stuffed so I can sit in your apartment and watch you all the time.” This strange request haunted Chow in the years after her mother, Florence, born Bo Moi in 1950s China, died from liver cancer when Chow was 14. Florence’s too-early death informs this memoir, which delves into the quiet devastation of Chow, her two older sisters and their father, and how the family’s grief has shifted over the years. Along the way, Chow carries on a running conversation with Florence, addressing her and asking unanswerable questions. Chow recounts both her own youth and episodes from the lives of her parents, immigrants who met and married in Connecticut and whom Chow portrays with love and candor. Florence’s playful but odd sense of humor served as an anchor for her three daughters. (She enjoyed hiding around corners, jumping out to scare her kids and then hugging them.) Wing Shek, Chow’s dad, became unable to throw anything away in the years after his wife’s death, and Chow portrays this reality with compassion, as well. Late in the book, Chow recalls recent family trips to China and Cuba, which she spent searching for truer, more complete versions of the family stories she heard as a young person. For example, in Cuba, Chow looks for traces of her grandfather’s expat life as a restaurant worker in the 1950s. As Chow’s dad likewise searches for his father’s history, he begins to face his own long-lived but unspoken grief, and we see how far the family has come in their years without Florence. Like the experience of grief itself, Seeing Ghosts is meditative, fragmentary, sometimes funny and occasionally hopeful.
  • The Heart Principle by Helen Hoang (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; contemporary romance): The Heart Principle is easily one of the year’s most anticipated romances, as it stars a character who’s been a fan favorite ever since Helen Hoang’s 2018 debut, The Kiss Quotient. It’s finally time for charming, fashionable, motorcycle-riding Quan Diep to meet his match. That match is Anna Sun, violinist who recently went viral online and skyrocketed to success. But now she’s burned out creatively and emotionally, much to the dismay of her ambitious parents. What’s more, her longtime boyfriend proposes an open relationship instead of marriage. He’s surprised when she agrees, and even more surprised when Anna is actually motivated to find another partner for herself. When she comes across Quan’s profile on a dating app, she thinks he seems like a fun fling. But Quan exceeds her expectations with his supportive, sweet nature. Soon, Anna finds herself turning to Quan in stressful and upsetting situations, even more so after Anna’s father winds up in the hospital, which complicates their “casual” arrangement. Quan will instantly win over readers with his wonderful combination of bad boy vibes on the outside and an adorably gooey center on the inside. Given his litany of tattoos and his adrenaline-seeking personality, Quan is not the boyfriend Anna’s parents would have chosen for her. That sparks a hint of rebellion in Anna, who is growing tired of being the person her family, friends, boyfriend and the public expect her to be. Reading a Hoang romance often involves tears, given her knack for homing in on uncomfortable emotions and human vulnerability. The Heart Principle is no different, and it will offer much-needed catharsis to readers who can identify with Anna’s burnout and restlessness. And like Hoang’s previous romance novels, this is a heroine-centric story with intimate ties to the author’s own life experiences. (Don’t skip the author’s notes at the end of Hoang’s book!) Anna and Quan’s love story blossoms out of acceptance–both self-acceptance and being fully accepted by another person, even when plagued by thoughts of inadequacy. Those who have been fans of Hoang’s contemporary romances since the beginning will be overjoyed to finally get Quan’s story. It does not disappoint. And new readers will most likely sprint to the library to get their hands on Hoang’s other two books. That’s how much The Heart Principle lives up to the hype: Hoang has once again displayed her mastery of both complicated emotions and naturalistic, earthy eroticism.

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