Monthly Archives: October 2019

Shadows of Hemlock – KM Pohlkamp

I posted a few weeks ago with the cover and title reveal for KM Pohlkamp’s next book, the followup to Apricots and Wolfsbane. After the shocking end of the first book, this second instalment follows Lavinia’s apprentice, Aselin Gavrell, as she deals with the aftermath of her actions in the closing pages of Apricots and Wolfsbane. So although this is a direct sequel, Shadows of Hemlock feels very different, because we have an entirely new protagonist, and being inside her mind is nothing like being inside Master Lavinia Maud’s.

I received a copy of this book from the author.

Shadows of Hemlock (Apricots and Wolfsbane #2) – KM Pohlkamp

sofh_frontfordigitalRegret is a bitter poison.

In a desperate grasp for prestige, Aselin Gavrell betrayed her master to the execution block for the advantage of the onyx pendant now around her neck. Shelter from her master’s crimes comes with an unwanted allegiance and a list of innocents to murder. But the Guild of poison assassins will not be so easily pacified and charge Aselin to develop an antidote as retribution of her betrayal.

Unprepared for the independence she craved, Aselin is forced to seek aid from a fickle contact who wants only one means of payment: a ruby ring with a mare’s head. To save herself from her master’s fate, Aselin must navigate a growing list of debtors eager to toss her aside and confront her guilt in this fast-paced tale of growth and redemption in Tudor England.

I thoroughly enjoyed this second trip into Tudor England to follow the adventures of a female poisoner. This time, having read Apricots and Wolfsbane, and engaged my brain, I wasn’t expecting any magic to jump out, so that was one of my stumbling blocks from the first book overcome.

Secondly, there was far less of a religious aspect to this book. Aselin is simply cold-blooded and doesn’t seem to have the same religious convictions which grated on me so in the first book. I realise this is utterly a personal preference, but I actually much preferred reading about Aselin’s self-centred grab for power, because although I didn’t like her, I definitely understood her. Far more so than I did her predecessor.

Lots of the same strengths from Apricots and Wolfsbane are visible here. The story is solidly plotted, building on plot threads set up in the first book, but discretely enough that it stands on its own, for the most part. Some of the events of the first book are alluded to without enough detail to jog my memory. I was left wondering who that person who’d been killed was, and why or how Lavinia and Aselin had been held captive and tested on prisoners. Perhaps that’s my own fallible memory, though, and those kind of reminders aren’t necessary for most.

I really sincerely enjoyed this book. I raced through it, much like its predecessor, while dreaming of fine jewels and lush dresses, as well as devious poisons. Aselin is thrown far out of her comfort zone from the beginning of the book, and over the course of the plot realises the terrible mistake she’s made in betraying the one person who truly cared for her. The death of her brother, from the first book, also comes back to haunt Aselin, and she spends much of the novel very isolated. Over the course of the book and her personal journey, she develops more humanity which means she evolves from being a self-centred, heartless killer to a self-centred, potentially slightly heart-full killer. Not too far removed from her origins, but enough to make this a thoroughly enjoyable ride.

Aselin’s story doesn’t end as finally as Lavinia’s, and I would definitely be excited to see more of her adventures. There are still some threads which could carry through into a third or fourth novel, but this one stands well and concludes the plots it set up. Thoroughly enjoyable.

Four Stars
****

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The Demon World (The Smoke Thieves #2) – Sally Green

I received a copy of this book on NetGalley.

I read the first in the series earlier this year as well, but I didn’t review it, for reasons that I can’t quite recall. Possibly guilt that I’ve had the book for ages (literally years?) and hadn’t read it yet. But anyways. The second in the trilogy, The Demon World.

The Demon World (The Smoke Thieves #2) – Sally Green

41451622._SY475_.jpgAfter narrowly escaping the fall of Rossarb, Princess Catherine leads a rag-tag group of survivors into the barren wasteland of the Northern Plateau.

With the Brigantine army snapping at their heels, Edyon and Ambrose become separated from the group, while demon hunter Tash leads Catherine and March to an unlikely refuge – the hidden tunnels of the demon world itself. They soon find that the tunnels hold their own dangers and, while Tash travels deeper, hoping to learn more about their mysterious inhabitants, Catherine and March must return to the surface to resume the war.

But the world above is in turmoil. King Aloysius’s army has captured the Pitorian prince, Tzsayn, and is poised to overrun the whole country. To have any hope of challenging her father’s tyranny, Catherine needs to form her own army, but when danger lurks at every turn, how can she tell an ally from an enemy? What Tash discovers in the demon tunnels could change everything, but if the message doesn’t reach Catherine in time, the war might already be lost . . .

I don’t know what it was about this book that absolutely didn’t do it for me. It just felt like everything in it fell kind of flat. I wasn’t behind any of the relationships, I had no real interest in the characters, and I was sick of everyone being referred to as ‘blue-hairs’ and ‘red-tops’ (which makes them sound like tabloid newspapers).
I think it was mostly that I was cranky, as there was some great stuff in this book, with depth and nuance being added to the demons, and Tash’s loneliness at the death of Gavrell seeping through her every chapter. The characters felt less disjointed than the prequel, and there was a more cohesive story. It didn’t feel like I felt half of the book waiting for things to get going, which was definitely a step up from The Smoke Thieves. But I just didn’t love this. It was missing that je ne sais quoi. A pretty average read, for me.

It was also incredibly difficult to read this particular galley, because the fl and fi characters didn’t render. So words like fire, flat, difficult, because re, at, dif cult. That probably added to my dissatisfaction.

Further, I’m not wild about the cover art. I thought the cover of the Smoke Thieves was fabulous, and this, the sequel, is somewhat disappointing. I guess I’m just cranky in general.

Three Stars
***

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Impossible Causes – Julie Mayhew

I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. However, it was beautifully illustrated with tarot cards, and I recommend a hard copy so that you can properly appreciate the artwork.

Impossible Causes – Julie Mayhew

46757883._SY475_.jpgThe Crucible meets The Craft in this brilliantly dark thriller about isolated communities, rumours and suspicion.

The arrival of three strangers on Lark, a remote island with a population of 300, is the cause of much speculation. The first, a young teacher – the only male teacher on the island – the other two, a mother and her teenage daughter. What have they come to escape? And what will they find waiting for them in Lark?

In Julie Mayhew’s mesmerising and compelling thriller, an isolated and deeply religious island with a history of paganism is riven when a man is found dead in a stone circle. As rumours spread and tensions rise, three Lark teenage girls and the new arrival from the mainland find themselves accused of witchcraft – and murder.

Impossible Causes is Julie Mayhew’s first foray into writing for adults. Set on an isolated island miles from the coast of the UK, it’s accessible only by ferry, and only in the summer months. Told over the course of a winter, between the last ferry in Autumn and the first the following April, the story jumps between times and between characters, never lingering too long in one spot, contributing to the tense, claustrophobic feel of the island and the community on it.
Lots of really interesting stuff in here, but I think there were too many characters to fully delve into the mindsets of the Larkians and the coycrocks, or outsiders. Shifting perspectives also made for jarring transitions between chapter sections, and it took me a long time to figure out what the actual timeline was.
However, the book itself is still wonderfully atmospheric and spooky, with elements of witchcraft intertwined with elements of hysteria. It reminded me of Sanctuary by VV James, and in a good way. Perfectly pitched for an October read, with a cloying, claustrophobic atmosphere that seemed at times almost too tense to handle, the tension oozed off the pages, with assumptions being made regularly, none of them ever being right. A source of frustration throughout the book was that nobody ever seemed to just talk openly, but that frustration felt very real – in a close, restricted community, everything is communicated in what’s left unsaid, the assumptions that are made and the whispers behind people’s backs.
Rising tension as we approached the climax of the book left me feeling jumpy every time I picked it up, afraid for what was going to come next, but it didn’t quite hit the mark for me as it climaxed, and I was left deflated and a tiny bit disappointed. But not enough to not enjoy this spooky, witchy book, and look out for more from Mayhew in the future.

Three Stars
***

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The Secret Commonwealth – Philip Pullman

The His Dark Materials trilogy was one of my favourite sets of books when I was young. I thoroughly enjoyed the trilogy, and read them many times. So when Pullman announced he was returning to the world of Lyra’s Oxford with a new trilogy, a companion to HDM, I was delighted. I read La Belle Sauvage, the first book in the trilogy, in mid-2018. Although I was gifted a copy by my uncle for Christmas, it took me until May of the following year to actually pick it up. Probably because it’s quite a hefty book, and was taking up too much space in my bag. But because I enjoyed it so much (I gave it five stars, and gave it a mini-review here, as well as naming it one of my top 10 books of 2018) I took a very different approach to The Secret Commonwealth. I bought that on release weekend, only a few days after it had been published, and then lugged it around with me in the hopes that I would actually sit down and get going with it. It wasn’t until last week, when I went into Central on the Tube, that I actually got a decent chunk of it completed, and then finished it once I got home that night. But although I was much more excited to read The Secret Commonwealth, my response to it was much more lacklustre.

The Secret Commonwealth (The Book of Dust #2) – Philip Pullman

19034943.jpgIt is twenty years since the events of La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust Volume One unfolded and saw the baby Lyra Belacqua begin her life-changing journey.

It is seven years since readers left Lyra and the love of her young life, Will Parry, on a park bench in Oxford’s Botanic Gardens at the end of the ground-breaking, bestselling His Dark Materials sequence.

Now, in The Secret Commonwealth, we meet Lyra Silvertongue. And she is no longer a child . . .

The second volume of Sir Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust sees Lyra, now twenty years old, and her daemon Pantalaimon, forced to navigate their relationship in a way they could never have imagined, and drawn into the complex and dangerous factions of a world that they had no idea existed.

Pulled along on his own journey too is Malcolm; once a boy with a boat and a mission to save a baby from the flood, now a man with a strong sense of duty and a desire to do what is right.

Theirs is a world at once familiar and extraordinary, and they must travel far beyond the edges of Oxford, across Europe and into Asia, in search for what is lost – a city haunted by daemons, a secret at the heart of a desert, and the mystery of the elusive Dust.

There was lots of great stuff in this book. Similar to La Belle Sauvage and the HDM trilogy, Pullman has built a world which is complex and interesting, and he’s developing the role of the Magisterium in the eight years since Lyra and Will’s actions in The Amber Spyglass, where they changed the flow of Dust and the theories of the multiverse. The relationship between Pan and Lyra is complex and nuanced, and their experiences together as children resonate through their adult life in ways that they might never have been able to predict when they split on the edge of the Land of the Dead.

There are threads and plotlines all interweaving in this book, drawing together aspects from HDM, like Dust and Lyra’s past, and from LBS, like Malcolm and the terrifying presence that was Bonneville and his three-legged hyena demon. Throwaway details from HDM are revisited with fresh eyes several years later, and this deepens our relationship with this world. As the middle of a trilogy, this book suffers badly from middle book syndrome. Everyone is on a journey, and we know where they’re going to converge, but they have to get there, so for the majority of this book everyone is just travelling east, and it can drag a little. But there’s enough cutting between different characters to keep things interesting, particularly since we’re witness to the machinations of the Church and how its many disparate entities cleave together and apart, with an insider’s view in the form of Delamare as well as the outside view from Lyra and Malcolm. We see more of the gyptians, and as we’re partway through the book we also begin to understand the meaning of the term The Secret Commonwealth. Oakley Street makes its reappearance and old characters are cast in new light as they cross from one book into another.

But I had a major, major, huge problem with this book. And it was so huge it overshadowed all of my enjoyment of the story, the characters, the world-building, and everything to do with that. It *IS* a spoiler, so if you don’t want to be spoiled on plot points, stop reading here, and I’ll just look away so I don’t see you leaving.

 

Image result for beware all who enter here

Okay. Spoiler territory begins now.

Malcolm, from relatively early in the book, realises that he’s in love with Lyra.

Firstly, ew. He literally changed her nappies. That is not the kind of feeling you should be having for someone whose nappies you changed.

BUT, that said, we met Lyra as a child, and Malcolm didn’t make an appearance, so perhaps it wasn’t so bad, he only develops these feelings when he meets her as a twenty-year-old?

Nope. Malcolm has a specific scene where he reminisces about how she used to smell when he taught her history four years ago. So, when she was sixteen. A child. To his … 27 years of age at the time. Gross. I cannot countenance this kind of ridiculous thinking.

Let me tell you, I’m younger now than Malcolm Polstead is in The Secret Commonwealth, and the twenty-year-olds I see at work are in no way, shape, or form attractive to me. They are barely formed adults, and are only just working out who they are. Adding to that the idea that Malcolm literally cared for her as a baby, and there are just too many layers of ew to even go into this.

What’s worse, however, than Malcolm’s ‘love’ for Lyra is that when he goes to speak to his old friend Alice, not only does she realise that he’s in love with her (again, ew), she encourages him. Again, Alice is a person who LITERALLY changed her nappies. The two of them together acted as surrogate parents for Lyra throughout the events of La Belle Sauvage, and have watched over (to varying degrees) her throughout the rest of her life. So not only is it utterly inexplicable that Pullman would decide to write these feelings into Polstead, it’s doubly inexplicable that he would have Alice not just accept them, but approve of them. Not try to advise him away from the frankly creepy abuse of power and strange dynamic that would inevitably be inherent in his interactions with Lyra, but actively encourages it? There’s just too much strangeness here for words. I can’t get on board with it.

As I read the page where Malcolm fantasises about interacting with a teenaged Lyra (in a very chaste way, I might add, but the creepiness just oozes off the page in the narrative), I was so disturbed that I started making faces at the page. Ronan, who was sitting on the couch with me, actually asked what was wrong, my reaction was so visceral.

And let me be clear, my objection here isn’t to the notion of a relationship between a 20 year old and a 31 year old (although there are serious questions to be asked there). It is specifically to the notion of any kind of romantic feelings on the part of Malcolm towards someone who he cared for as a baby, as well as someone who he taught when she was a teenager. There is just no logical way for that dynamic to shift to romantic love, and I really, really don’t understand why Pullman would write it that way.

I’m really hoping that Pullman will come good in the third instalment of the trilogy, and have Polstead come to his senses, realise that pursuing a relationship with Lyra would be a gross abuse of power and could never result in an equal partnership, and firmly put an end to any such notions. But the hints threaded throughout the text, combined with Lyra’s mooning over Malcolm (which, if it was that direction alone, I could easily forgive, as she specifically thinks about her relationship with older men, and how she gravitates towards them because they’re so different to Will), makes me more than worried that Pullman is going to try and match these two as a romantic pairing. The mere suggestion of the possibility has me entirely disconcerted, so much so that I can’t in good conscience rate this book any higher than a three.

Three Stars
***

 

 

 

 

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The Iliad – Homer

I’m quite annoyed with myself over this one. As part of my Books before I’m 30 challenge, I downloaded and started reading Homer’s Iliad, only to realise when I was about a quarter of the way in that only The Odyssey is on my list. So that was an irritating thing to discover. Nonetheless, I hate to leave things unfinished, so I kept going on The Iliad, and finished it earlier today. Actually, literally minutes ago, as I listened to the end of it while I was drafting this blog post.

The Iliad – Homer

25561629The Iliad, together with the Odyssey, is one of two ancient Greek epic poems traditionally attributed to Homer. The poem is commonly dated to the 8th or 7th century BC, and many scholars believe it is the oldest extant work of literature in the Greek language, making it the first work of European literature. The existence of a single author for the poems is disputed as the poems themselves show evidence of a long oral tradition and hence, multiple authors. The poem concerns events during the tenth and final year in the siege of the city of Iliun, or Troy, by the Greeks.

https://librivox.org/
Free public domain audiobooks, read by volunteers from around the world.

I’m really unsure how I felt about The Iliad. Generally I love Greek or Classical stories, and devour them with abandon. And The Iliad is a classic. The oldest European work of literature, this epic poem tells the tale of the Trojan war. It’s full of human and godly fighting, backstabbing, whims, and betrayals. It also leans heavily on the theme of fate, where Hector and Achilles are both driven by their fates, and unable to really change anything.

There was loads of great stuff in The Iliad, from the vagaries and whims of the gods to the delightful relationship between Patroclus and Achilles, and the depth of Achillles’ feelings as the book comes into its latter parts.

There is, however, also some decidedly dull stuff. There are huge lists of people who are killed in the war, together with their lineage. There must be hundreds of characters whose only appearance is to be killed by one of the larger characters. There’s also a surprising number of them were stabbed near the nipple. I don’t know what Homer had about nipples, but he sure mentioned them a lot. There was also one utterly bizarre scene where a mother whipped out and shook her breast at her son, begging him not to betray the breast which fed him. Was that normal in Greece? Is it a reaction to the heightened tensions of war? Was it because this mother had already lost several children already? Who knows. I did have quite a giggle at that one, though.

I particularly liked how very human the gods were. They might be divine beings with ichor rather than blood, but when one got cut on the hand, she immediately went running to her daddy to solve her problems, and I was 100% behind her on that one.

Overall, this was a really interesting and epic story of a war which lasted years, but takes place over a relatively short period of time. There’s clearly a reason why it survived so long, and there’s loads for scholars to unpick. As someone whose interest in classical mythology is mostly in it for the drama, though, this one didn’t quite hit the mark. Too many names of people killed, not enough turning into swans.

Three Stars
***

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Top Ten Tuesday: Extraordinary Book Titles

I’m doing a meme! A book tag! I liked the look of this one. The theme for TTT by That Artsy Reader Girl this week is Extraordinary Book Titles. I saw this on PPPD and new I had to do it myself.

So here’s my list of my Top 10 Extraordinary Book Titles, of books that I’ve read or want to read!

  1. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake
  2. The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle
  3. The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window and Disappeared
  4. Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men
  5. Why Does He Do That?
  6. Shadow of the Fox
  7. All Rights Reserved
  8. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
  9. The Statistical Probability of Love At First Sight
  10. Motherfoclóir: Dispatches from a Not-So Dead Language

What does this list of ten books tell us? Well, largely that I like very long titles, I think. But other than that, I don’t think it tells me very much. Still, though, they’re all fun to say out loud. And actually only one of the books on this list (the first) remains unread.

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On Unlikeable Protagonists

As part of my Before I’m 30 challenge, I read, over the last few weeks, both Madame Bovary and Great Expectations. Neither sat particularly well with me, and both for the same reason, so I’m reviewing both here in a single blog post. The reason is in the title of the post – I thought both main characters were eminently unlikeable.

Great Expectations – Charles Dickens

7387952.jpgThis classic tale tells of an orphan, Pip, who through a series of strange circumstances first finds a trade as a blacksmith’s apprentice and then learns that he has “great expectations” of a future inheritance from an anonymous benefactor. He soon learns to live the profligate life of a gentleman as he gradually sheds his associations with the gentle souls of his past, Joe (the blacksmith) and Biddy (a level-headed young lady). He throws his money at improving the prospects of his roommate and friend Herbert and his heart at an “ice princess” whose heart will never respond. But then an escaped convict from his distant past comes calling, and all Pip’s hopes dissolve. (Summary by Mark F. Smith)

Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert

20655606.jpgPublished in book form in April 1857, the novel focuses on a doctor’s wife, Emma Bovary, who has adulterous affairs and lives beyond her means in order to escape the banalities and emptiness of provincial life. Though the basic plot is rather simple, even archetypal, the novel’s true art lies in its details and hidden patterns. Flaubert was notoriously perfectionist about his writing and claimed to always be searching for le mot juste (the right word)”. (Summary from Wikipedia).

I didn’t enjoy either of these books because I had absolutely no sympathy for either of the main characters. Not because they weren’t nice – the Count of Monte Cristo certainly isn’t nice, and I thoroughly enjoyed his tale- but rather because not only did neither Pip nor Emma have any redeeming qualities, they weren’t even interesting in how they went about being thoroughly terrible people.

Pip is selfish, self-absorbed and completely up himself, having great expectations and an obsessive, possessive love for a girl who has absolutely no interest in him romantically. By the end of the novel, he hasn’t really redeemed himself at all – his attitude towards Biddy in particular made me roll my eyes, and feel like Pip saw women as things to be owned, rather than people in their own right. Even when the novel ends, I didn’t have any sympathy for Pip. His apparent redemption, which happened entirely off-page, was not enough to undo the years of horrible, careless, selfish behaviour which dragged others in his orbit into debt, misery, and even death.

Similarly Emma Bovary, a dull, lifeless character whose only trait was being dislikeable. Her constant malcontent at where her life has brought her is exacerbated by her gender and station in life, and her actions in seeking release from her dull, quotidian life brought me no pleasure to read about.

I hated both Emma and Pip, and consequently didn’t really enjoy either of their books. Great Expectations, at least, had some intrigue, and one truly good character (Awh, Joe, I love you) as well as some interesting side characters (Miss Havisham takes the dramatic breakup to new extremes) so I had a bit more good feeling for Dickens than Flaubert. Perhaps as an examination of human consciousness, introspective and thoughtful novels about the need for everyone to have something to strive towards, or an inspection of the blindness of unfailing love, these novels have some redeeming factors, but it wasn’t enough for me to enjoy either of them.

Great Expectations: Three Stars ***

Madame Bovary: Two Stars **

 

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September Roundup

October has landed already. It’s time for Hallowe’en and spooky everything, and pumpkin spice in all your drinks. I actually don’t like pumpkin spice, but I did have an autumn themed hot chocolate in Costa which was quite tasty – it was like, bonfire themed or something, I don’t quite recall. Not only are kids back to school, but slightly bigger kids are back to uni, and I’m not ready for them to have landed in. I have so many lectures to write! And yet I seem to spend my time reading instead… Clever.

Books

  1. The Smoke Thieves (The Smoke Thieves #1) – Sally Green
  2. Girl Up – Laura Bates
  3. The Liars – Jennifer Mathieu
  4. The Perseverance – Raymond Antrobus
  5. Skylarks – Karen Gregory
  6. The Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas
  7. Cilka’s Journey (The Tattooist of Auschwitz #2) – Heather Morris
  8. Great Expectations – Charles Dickens
  9. The Silent Patient – Alex Michaelides
  10. The Giver of Stars – Jojo Moyes
  11. Feminists Don’t Wear Pink & Other Lies – edited by Scarlett Curtis

Short Stories/Novellas

None this month

Cover Art

 

 

 

Favourite Book This Month

I’ve had Skylarks on my shelf for months – perhaps even a year, at this point – but I never got around to reading it. It was only when I decided I should pass it on to my sister, who also likes Karen Gregory, that I thought oh, I should read this first, though. I’m so glad I did read it, during a time when I had the freedom to really binge it. I read Skylarks on trains and planes, sitting on squishy couches at home, and waiting for my parents to get up. I love it. It is an absolutely beautiful piece of work, and I really, really enjoyed it. Karen Gregory writes so beautifully.

Least Favourite Book This Month

There was one book this month that I really didn’t like (The Liars) and one that really didn’t work for me (The Perseverance) but which was definitely just that it didn’t click with me, rather than being any judgment on the book itself. I wasn’t sure which of those I would class as my least favourite, but I think it’s going to have to be The Liars, because I really disliked the pacing and plot, the conclusion, the narrative style, and, well, most of it. That’s why I haven’t reviewed it fully on the blog – it would be quite a negative review, and I’m not in a negative place right now!

Favourite cover art

I actually couldn’t decide which is my favourite cover art this month. Instead, I have two favourites. I think it’s clear from looking at both of them together that I have a deep appreciation for white space on a cover – you only have to look back at my favourite cover art from throughout the year to see that. I also really like the colour schemes of both of these books, and the very different moods of two – ostensibly similar – sets of cover art. Thumbs up all around.

 

Other…

It took FOREVER, which is probably why this month has not very many books in it, but I finished the Count of Monte Cristo. I moaned A LOT about how long it was taking to read, but actually, I did quite enjoy it. So that’s something.

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The Giver of Stars – Jojo Moyes

I was delighted to see that Jojo Moyes has gone back to writing things outside of her Will and Louisa trilogy, so when I saw The Giver of Stars was on NetGalley, I knew I had to request it. It took a while, but eventually my request was approved (only two weeks before publication day!) and so shortly after, I dived into Depression-era Kentucky with naive newlywed Alice Van Cleve, to explore the mountains and the WPA Packhorse Library. Moyes is on fine form in this sweeping narrative, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The Giver of Stars – Jojo Moyes

44288564._SY475_.jpgSet in Depression-era America, a breathtaking story of five extraordinary women and their unforgettable journey through the mountains of Kentucky and beyond, from the author of Me Before You and The Peacock Emporium

When Alice Wright agrees to marry handsome American Bennett Van Cleve and leave behind her stifling life in England for a new adventure in Kentucky, she’s soon disenchanted by her newlywed status and overbearing father-in-law, owner of the local coal mine. So when a call goes out for a team of women to deliver books as part of Eleanor Roosevelt’s new traveling library, Alice signs on enthusiastically.

The leader, and soon Alice’s greatest ally, is Margery, the smart-talking, self-sufficient daughter of a notorious local criminal, a woman who’s never asked a man’s permission for anything. Alice finds Margery as bracing and courageous as anyone she’s ever met–and comes to rely on her, especially as her marriage starts to fail.

They will be joined by three diverse women and become known as the Horseback Librarians of Kentucky.

What happens to these women–and to the men they love–becomes a classic drama of loyalty, justice, humanity and passion. Though they face all kinds of dangers–from moonshiners to snakes, from mountains to floods–and social disapproval to boot. But they believe deeply in their work bringing books to people who had never had any, expanding horizons and arming them with facts that will change their lives.

Based on a true story rooted in America’s past, the storytelling itself here is enthralling–the pages fly, and the book is unparalleled in its scope and its epic breadth. Funny, heartbreaking, and rewarding, it is a rich novel of women’s friendship, of true love, and of what happens when we reach beyond our grasp for the great beyond.

I thoroughly enjoyed this sweeping story about Alice and Margery, the men they married and loved, and their experience as packhorse librarians. Backed up by a cast of other librarians and local characters, the blurb of this book says it’s the story of five women, but it’s definitely not. It’s the story of two. That’s not a criticism, by any means, and the female friendships which develop between the packhorse librarians is beautifully drawn. It’s just that there are more than five women involved in the library, and those five mentioned in the blurb are no more or less developed than several other characters.

Alice and Margery carry the story, driving the plot, and carrying the reader along with them. And to suggest that the book is equally about Beth, Sophia, and Izzy does an injustice to the structure of the book. That’s not to say that their stories aren’t compelling – they are, and all three characters are hugely interesting, developed, and add depth to a story which otherwise is very white and able-bodied. But I don’t see that Izzy’s story is any more compelling or developed than, say, Kathleen Bligh’s. Again, this isn’t a criticism of the book. I actually love how developed the stories of the secondary characters are, and think Kathleen’s story is beautifully done.

Overall, though, I really enjoyed this book. Alice is a compelling main character, and Margery is tough, take no nonsense, and also vulnerable, and sweet, and fragile in unexpected ways. Alice’s relationship with her husband Bennett, who swept her off her feet and whisked her away to Kentucky, is soured by the looming presence of his father, Mr Van Cleve, whose rigid ideals and disapproving countenance overhang the book as a whole.

Alice and Margery join and run the WPA Packhorse library, bringing them freedom and interaction as they deliver books, magazines, and pamphlets around the mountains and residences of rural Kentucky. The growing love Alice has for her surroundings is contrasted sharply against the cold, withdrawn nature of her marriage, and Alice’s character developing as she becomes the fully realised woman she evolves into at the end of the book. To see her grow was a thoroughly enjoyable journey – mostly on horseback – and one that I would happily recommend.

I did have a few disappointments or quibbles with the book – Sven, Margery’s partner, felt underdeveloped at times, occasionally nothing more than a generic male presence to bounce off Margery. And Alice’s acceptance of Margery’s unconventional lifestyle seemed too hurried to really countenance. There was some – but not a lot – exploration of racial tensions in the mines and the towns, but it was brushed off without much thought, which was somewhat disappointing. Alice’s actions in the final pages, once she reads the booklet, were surprising, and honestly, I thought her religious beliefs weren’t wonderfully portrayed, or developed, especially as her behaviour throughout the book does gradually throw off the confines of religion. These were relatively minor, though.

Overall, this is a thoroughly enjoyable book, a tour de force of female friendship and women forging new paths for themselves in a time when to do so was not easy. Two vibrant main characters sparkle on the page and their interactions and intertwined lives are a joy to read. The historical background of the novel feels natural and unforced, and highlights an initiative that I was previously entirely unaware of. I gobbled this book up, enjoying every delectable page, and will be recommending it around with joyful abandon.

Four Stars
****

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