Best Physical Books, E-Books, and E-Audiobooks at the Library: September 19, 2021

  • Matrix by Lauren Groff (physical book available at the library; historical fiction): Lauren Groff’s fourth novel, her highly anticipated follow-up to Fates and Furies, takes place almost 800 years ago, yet it feels both current and timely. Set in a small convent in 12th-century England, Matrix looks back in time to comment astutely on the world as we now know it, exploring big ideas about faith, gender, community and individualism. Abbess Marie is based in part on Marie de France, France’s earliest known female poet and one of the country’s most well-regarded literary stylists. As a teenager, Groff’s fictional Marie is banished from Eleanor of Aquitaine’s court and sent to molder in an impoverished abbey. Marie soon rises to the senior position of abbess, and she transforms the convent into a thriving estate. Marie’s modifications to the abbey are guided by visions that draw imagery from the real Marie de France’s tales of courtly love. These visions are the motivation and impetus for many of Marie’s boldest innovations: the successful scriptorium where gorgeous new manuscripts are produced; the abbess house where Marie offers comfort and privacy; and the impenetrable labyrinth that girds the abbey, protecting the women who live inside. Groff brings a bold originality to Matrix and a compassion for her characters, no matter how prickly some of them may be. This is a heartening story of one woman’s vision and creativity, unthwarted and flourishing, despite all odds.
  • Defy the Night by Brigid Kemmerer (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; young adult fiction): King Harristan and his brother, Prince Corrick, have inherited a kingdom plagued by a deadly sickness, and the only cure, an elixir made from rare moonflower petals, is in dangerously low supply. As the citizens of Kandala revolt, demanding that the cure be made more widely available, Harristan and Corrick crush all dissent with cruelty and violence. Meanwhile, healer Tessa Cade and her partner, Wes, a mysterious thief, steal and redistribute moonflower petals to those in need. But as the sickness spreads, tensions rise between those who can afford cures and those who can’t. Desperate, Tessa sneaks into the castle–only to discover that Kandala’s corruption is far more complicated than it appears. In alternating chapters narrated by Corrick and Tessa, Defy the Night hits the ground running and never slows down, leaping from one charged moment to the next. From horrific public executions to tense council negotiations to shocking rebel counterattacks, author Brigid Kemmerer takes readers on a breakneck journey about power, deceit, and the price of progress. The book achieves a nuanced view of politics by depicting how individual characters impact and are affected by wider systemic issues in Kandala. Tessa sees how the poor struggle to stay alive and how their dissent transforms into revolution, while Corrick witnesses how those with power are willing to violate personal and moral boundaries to keep it. Tessa and Corrick offer opposing but equally convincing perspectives on complex ethical questions. How should a limited resource be distributed? Are some people more deserving of help than others? What makes someone worthy of living, and what justifies a death? As Kemmerer’s characters wrestle with these dilemmas, readers are sure to rethink many of their own opinions. An eventual connection between Tessa and Corrick reveals what can happen when individual people are empowered to make real, lasting change. Thoughtful, multifaceted and truly character-driven, Defy the Night is ultimately a hopeful story that shows how those who dare to envision a better future also have the power to make it a reality.
  • Beautiful Country by Qian Julie Wang (physical book available at the library; memoir): From ages 7 to 12, Qian Julie Wang lived as an undocumented immigrant in Brooklyn, New York. Her hunger was regularly so intense that she broke into cold sweats–which, according to her Ma Ma, meant Wang was growing and getting stronger. One classmate referred to Wang’s family not as “low-income” but “no-income.” Her world was simultaneously frightening and normal as she sat listening to scuttling cockroaches with her parents nearby. She describes childhood trenchantly in Beautiful Country, allowing readers to feel her anger, longing, loneliness and fear–and to observe her parents’ desperation. In Beijing, Wang’s mother was a published professor who spoke Mandarin, the language of intellectuals. But in Brooklyn, her mother lamented, “All these Cantonese assume that if you speak Mandarin you’re a farmer from Fuzhou.” Wang’s mother got a job sewing in a sweatshop, where “there was no day or night; there was only work.” Wang’s parents regarded her as their best hope for a future, optimistic that she would be suited to this Mei Guo, “beautiful country.” They were right to believe in her. By fourth grade, Wang wrote so well that her teachers suspected plagiarism, and now Wang has written a memoir precise enough to chill her readers. The narrative is full of sharply rendered scenes, such as one in which Wang’s mother suffers in a cold sushi factory before coming home to warm herself in front of a pot of boiling water. Wang dedicates her memoir to “those who remain in the shadows.” Indeed, Beautiful Country shines light on the childhood that continued to haunt Wang into adulthood, even as her professional accomplishments mounted. She is vulnerable in revealing her uniquely American trauma: a bruised wrist that never quite healed; a hunger that was never quite sated; a feeling that everything, at any moment, could suddenly be taken away. Wang, who is now a civil rights lawyer, is a voice we need. Readers will be grateful for the courage she has displayed in persevering and speaking up.
  • The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris and William DeMeritt (e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 and Libby apps with your library card; historical fiction): Actor William DeMeritt’s deep, measured narration enhances the elegant, evocative prose of Nathan Harris’ debut novel, The Sweetness of Water (12 hours). In the waning blood-filled days of the Civil War, Georgia farmer George Walker hires formerly enslaved brothers Landry and Prentiss to work his peanut farm–and perhaps to ease his restless soul. When George’s Confederate soldier son, Caleb, unexpectedly returns home, and Caleb’s romantic relationship with another soldier comes to light, tensions between George’s family and the town’s disapproving residents boil over. Only the cool, determined leadership of George’s wife, Isabelle, offers a path to healing. DeMeritt’s performance of this Southern cast of characters reveals an actor in full control of his range. Particularly for the male roles, DeMeritt narrates with such skill that the listener can envision some of the characters’ faces just by the way their voices sound. Amid this world of unbridled change, DeMeritt illuminates subtle yearnings, quiet dangers and a persistent sense of hope.

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