Tuesday, January 14, 2020

The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes: Reading Room Review

For some time I've had a fascination about the pack horse librarians in Kentucky, and I love reading my history through historical fiction, well researched by the author for authenticity. Reading about Jojo Moyes' research for The Giver of Stars, I felt confident the story was well rooted in facts. This heartfelt story about the five women who comprised the group of Pack Horse Librarians in a small town in southeastern Kentucky, part of the Appalachians, was a love letter to those amazing women who worked in the WPA Pack Horse Librarians Program during the late 1930s into the early 1940s and to reading as a salvation for those who had little else. Books brought hope and light into a depression era world of poverty and back-breaking labor, and the pack horse librarians brought the books every week to two weeks to different remote areas in the mountains, where isolation was a way of life. And, this book, The Giver of Stars, also tells the history of the plight of women in a man's world and the strength that came from friendships with other women, and the story raises the awareness of the chokehold that the coal companies had on the people of Appalachia. Life was hard and it took a special kind of determination to try to make it better. The pack horse librarians had that determination, spurred on by the encouragement of our country's first lady at the time, Eleanor Roosevelt. 

Alice Wright thought that leaving her home in England and marrying American Bennett Van Cleve would bring her relief from her critical parents and stifled life. She dreams of living in a big city where life is exciting and fresh. But, Bennett and his father live in a small town in Kentucky, Baileyville, not a big city, and Bennett is satisfied to live in the family home of his father, where his father rules with an iron fist. Alice has simply traded one prison for another. When there's a town meeting asking for volunteers for the Pack Horse Librarian Program, she sees an opportunity to get out of the oppressive household for long days away delivering the books. 

Heading up the small group of women for the Pack Horse Library is Margery O'Hare, an independent, unconventional woman who lives by herself in a cabin outside of town with her dog and her mule, and as well as knowing the land and its paths through the mountains like nobody else, she is a toughened survivor from a family of a bootlegging father who beat her and her brothers with impunity. Margery is just the person to take an incongruous mix of women and turn them into an efficient group of reliable, responsible librarians on horseback (or muleback). Each woman has her strengths and weaknesses, and each one is determined to succeed. Alice, with her English accent and unfamiliarity with the people and mountains brings her horsemanship and need to find some meaning in this new life she's chosen. Izzy doesn't let her struggle with a leg shortened by polio affect her conquering her fear of riding a horse, as she needs to prove to her parents that she isn't an invalid to be coddled. Beth, who smokes and curses, coming from a household with brothers and a father but no mother, has dreams she hasn't dared to speak because they are so far from where she is. Sophia doesn't ride, mainly due to her being black and the community not being accepting of that. She was a former librarian at a black library in Louisville where her skills of organization and book repair save the new Pack Horse Library of Baileyville from becoming a disorganized mess of ruined books. Later, another local woman, Kathleen, joins the group. Kathleen is a recent widow, whose family benefited from the books delivered by Alice, and whose husband Alice read to as he lay dying from black lung disease. This disparate group of women find strength, friendship, and purpose in their jobs as Pack Horse Librarians, and they develop a support system among themselves that proves to be life altering.

The juxtaposition of the altruism of the Pack Horse Library reaching out to those in need and the coal mine beating people down and keeping them entrenched in poverty is powerful. And, there is the resistance to change, from women being only subservient to being in charge, from people being uneducated and prone to manipulation to people being educated through reading and knowledgeable about their rights. At the head of the opposition to the librarians is Alice's father-in-law, Mr. Van Cleve, and he plays as dirty as dirty can get. While his son isn't the despicable lout his father is, Alice finds herself in a loveless marriage without any hope of it changing. So, the reader is on an emotional rollercoaster with being swept away by the beauty of the hills and the touching stories of lives improved by books and the friendship of five women, but then the heart breaks at the insidious actions of those who put the almighty dollar above life and truth. There is romantic love, too, in this multi-layered story, love that shows how men can love strong women without it being a battle for control or a need to dominate. Moyes describes what I think is the perfect definition of love in the following encounter: "Time flew, and each ended the night full and happy, with the rare glow that comes from knowing your very being has been understood by somebody else, and that there might just be someone out there who will only ever see the best in you."

This story is the first Jojo Moyes book I've read, and I'm eager to read another one to determine if all her books contain the beauty of thought and language that The Giver of Stars does. She creates magic from her words, with sentences the reader will want to read more than once to savor that magic. Enjoying the prose as well as the story is an absolute delight. The characters are inspiring. How all the women working for the Pack Horse Library change over the course of the story is masterfully developed by the author. Jojo Moyes has taken a piece of history and woven a story through it that should touch anyone's heart. I only hope that the movie version of it will capture just how special it is.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Favorite Reads of 2019

This post is always an exciting one for me.  I get to look back over a year of reading and revisit my favorite stories.  This year I divided the amazing books I've read into categories, including "Favorite 2019 Stand-Alones," "Favorite 2019 Novels from Series," "2019 Sequel to a Book," and "Favorite Already Established Series to Start."  They are not listed in any particular order in those categories.

The last category has the only book not published in 2019.  The Detective's Daughter by Lesley Thomson was published in 2013, with the most recent book in the series, The Playground Murders, out this past year.  

You'll see authors that have consistently made my list over the past years, as loving an author's writing and being able to count on their books being outstanding is a reader's paradise.  Recurring authors include Elly Griffiths, Anne Cleeland, Jane Harper, Hank Phillippi Ryan, Catriona McPherson, Hallie Ephron, Deborah Crombie, Rhys Bowen, Lyndsay Faye, Cathy Ace, Kristi Belcamino, Lucy Burdette, Terry Shames, Sara Driscoll (as Sara Driscoll and as Jen J. Danna and Ann Vanderlaan), Louise Penny, Jennifer Kincheloe, and Triss Stein.  If I start talking about these continuing favorite authors and their series and stand-alones, I'll never get to my list.  I think each of them and anyone I can grab a few minutes to talk with know just how besotted I am with the returning characters and new ones from these brilliant authors.  And with two books out, Wendall Thomas and Aimee Hix have made my list both years running now.  

This year, Jamie Mason and her outstanding novel The Hidden Things gobsmacked me and will have me reading Jamie's writing from now on.  Martin Edwards writes so many different aspects of the mystery/crime world's best writings, from thrilling fiction to unequalled (and award-winning) Golden Age non-fiction to editing those extraordinary British crime classic collections, and his novel Gallows Court stole my heart this year, too.  How I'm just now getting to Rachel Howzell Hall's and Lisa Jewell's and Carol Goodman's and Leslie Thomson's and Tim Johnston's and Ann Cleeves' and Tessa Arlen's books is beyond me.  I've been trying to catch up in that area, and discovering a new-to-me author's writing is so much fun.

And, there's Alan Brennert who wrote one of my favorite books of all time, Moloka'i, back in 2003.  He followed that book with two other remarkable reads, Honolulu in 2009 and Palisades Park in 2013.  If he were a mystery/crime writer I would have been pulling my hair out waiting for a new book.  Finally, this year he came out with Daughter of Moloka'i, and I fell in love all over again.  I visited the island of Moloka'i just because of his first book.

So, at last we come to my list, the list that could not be narrowed down.  Each one of the following books was a standout read for me, memorable and thrilling in a number of ways.  As I go through the list and look at the covers, I am once again transported back to the magic that is the adventure of reading, and I just want to hug all these books and sigh.

Favorite 2019 Stand-Alones

The Lost Man by Jane Harper
The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths 
The Hidden Things by Jamie Mason
The Murder List by Hank Phillippi Ryan
Careful What You Wish For by Hallie Ephron 
The Wrong Boy by Cathy Ace
Strangers at the Gate by Catriona McPherson
The Current by Tim Johnston
Gallows Court by Martin Edwards
The Victory Garden by Rhys Bowen
The Paragon Hotel by Lyndsay Faye
The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell
They All Fall Down by Rachel Howzell Hall
Coming for You by Kristi Belcamino
The Night Visitors by Carol Goodman

Favorite 2019 Novels from Series

The Stone Circle by Elly Griffiths
Murder in Just Cause by Anne Cleeland
Now You See Them by Elly Griffiths
A Bitter Feast by Deborah Crombie
No Man's Land by Sara Driscoll
A Risky Undertaking for Loretta Singletary by Terry Shames
A Deadly Feast by Lucy Burdette
A Better Man by Louise Penny
Drowned Under by Wendall Thomas
Murder in the Blood by Anne Cleeland
The Body in Griffith Park by Jennifer Kincheloe
Dark Streets, Cold Suburbs by Aimee Hix
Brooklyn Legacies by Triss Stein

2019 Sequel to a Book 

Daughter of Moloka'i by Alan Brennert

Favorite 2019 New Series Books

Poppy Redfern and the Midnight Murders by Tessa Arlen

The Long Call by Ann Cleeves

Favorite Already Established Series to Start

Leslie Thomson's The Detective's Daughter