The Giver of Stars

Rating: ⭐⭐.5
Author: Jojo Moyes
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. date: Oct. 2019 (read Feb. 2020)

Gah, the disappointment! I am definitely the minority, but only 2.5 stars from me.

My book club voted for The Giver of Stars as our February pick and it came highly recommended. I was a bit weary of it because I didn’t love Moyes most popular book, Me Before You, but the content of this book couldn’t be more different, so I was optimistic that as a lover of historical fiction, I would enjoy it.

I didn’t not enjoy the book. It’s a fine piece of work that creates an interesting enough fictional narrative about a real piece of history (the pack horse library). I’ve since learned that this is the second fictional book about the subject though, so please note that there is another book called, The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson, which is also about the pack horse library. I liked the story well enough, but it was just so damn slow and I can’t deny I find Moyes writing a bit amateur.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Giver of Stars is about two women, Alice Van Cleve, a newly married Englishwoman who moves to rural Kentucky with her new husband Bennett, and Margery O’Hare, a free spirit who refuses to be defined by her father’s poor reputation or be forced into the narrow confines of what it means to be a woman in 1930’s Kentucky.

The women are recruited to be part of the Pack Horse Library, to deliver books to rural families in hopes of increasing education and literacy among the population. Despite initial suspicion of the library, the people are won over, finally getting access to information on everything from recipes, to their rights, and even clandestine info on the joys of “married love”. As you can imagine, the more conservative of the townspeople feel threatened by the women and tensions rise.

What I liked about the book was learning about the Pack Horse Library. It’s an initiative that was started by then first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and was incredibly successful. The writing of the early days of the library itself was somewhat dull, but It was interesting to learn about the conditions the women worked in, the amount of hostility they received, and how books eventually won the hearts of their readers. I found Margery’s character a bit more interesting than Alice’s, but they both had their own strengths.

But I do have to admit there was a lot I didn’t like about the book too. My biggest complaint is that I thought the author fell victim to the age old trap of ‘Show, Don’t Tell’. I really wanted to see the relationships between characters grow on their own, but I felt that almost every relationship in the book was dictated to me. Moyes tells me that Bennett was a caring and attentive suitor in England and I feel like it’s supposed to be a shock when he does a 180 when they arrive back in America, but as Alice provides no recollections of how the two fell in love, I wasn’t very torn up about the Van Cleve’s turning out to be assholes and thought they were just another sexist Southern family like many others during that era.

Likewise, there’s very little interaction between any of the women in the Pack Horse library to actually cement their friendships. I thought it was obvious the women would eventually become friends because women are generally pretty sociable and supportive of one another and have been finding great value in female friendships LITERALLY FOREVER. It’s sad that suddenly having female friends seemed to be a great revelation to almost every character except maybe Margery, but I didn’t believe it. No way none of these women wouldn’t have built any other meaningful relationships before this point. Although regardless, we weren’t given a lot of anecdotes about how these friendships developed, except for Kathleen, whose story arc I really liked. I guess they eventually all bond with Alice over their dislike of Bennett, but like, friendships are generally born out of mutual interest and respect rather than pity.

Disclaimer: Spoilers ahead, there’s really too much I want to discuss to keep it all spoiler free.
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The same went for the romantic relationship. Supposedly Fred loves Alice from the moment he sees her, but can anyone give me some interactions that led to their mutual interest in one another? I thought they had no chemistry and even though it was obvious Moyes was going to put them together, it was only because she told me they were constantly aware of the other and sneaking peeks at each other rather than any meaningful interactions that would cause two people to be attracted to one another. Maybe I’m a grump, but I wasn’t feeling it and thought the whole thing stank of Instalove.

On a similar note, I wasn’t impressed with how the author handled Bennett’s character. We never find out what his deal is. Is he gay? asexual? repressed from the era’s opinions on sex and therefore just uncomfortable with it? I’m fine with any of these reasons and think any of them are understandable. Personally, I would have loved to see a thoughtful look at how the church’s views on purity and abstinence impact both men and women and create unhealthy perceptions about sex, but I really don’t think that’s what Moyes was going for in this book. Mostly it seemed he just didn’t have any actual information on what sex is? When he marries Peggy at the end I thought “Oh, I guess he was just in love with someone else”. But when Peggy comes looking for the Married Love book I just felt bad for everyone involved and mad at the author and her characters for finding the whole thing funny, which I did not. Like goodness, you think they’d feel some compassion for unsuspecting Peggy who was essentially in the same position Alice had been months prior. It’s not like Peggy stole Alice’s husband – they had no reason to mock or resent her.

So I didn’t love it. It’s a good book in that it raises a lot of questions and I think it’ll be fun to debate at book club, but overall disappointing. I thought my biggest complaint was just going to be that I found it boring, but evidently I had a bit more beef with some of the characters. I was planning to give it 3 stars, but I might have to bump it down to 2.5 (I really don’t think it’s a 2 star book though). I felt it just didn’t measure up to its potential.

There were a lot of side narratives happening that didn’t seem to go anywhere. The birth of the travelling library was interesting, but it did beg the question, what is the story leading up to? We start to get a glimpse into the poor conditions in the mine and how the mining company was essentially tricking people out of their land. When this happened, I was like, “okay cool, I see where this is going now, the librarians are disseminating information on land rights that will start some kind class war between wealthy mine owner (Van Cleve) and the poor”, but that’s never really where the story went. It all seemed to just be ammunition for why we shouldn’t like Van Cleve (as if we needed any more) and to serve his feud against Margery.

Then there was the side story with the flood and the slurry dam. I was like, “OMG the mining company destroyed all this land with a toxic tailings pond that of course disproportionately impacts black people, this is going to start another class war that gets us thinking about how wealthy people get away with murder because the injustice is always perpetrated against poor people and minorities.” But then that storyline went absolutely no where too, so I can only assume it was just another anecdote to make us dislike Van Cleve even more and provide an opportunity for the women to shine by saving everyone from the flood. But honestly, the whole flood scene ended up seeming like it was just drama for drama’s sake, which I have very little interest in.

Overall there were just too many loose ends and undelivered plot lines. I couldn’t believe that with all these other great themes, Moyes decided to focus the climax of her book on a single random incident with a character (McCullough) who doesn’t feature in any other part of the novel! It felt so unrelated to the rest of what was happening. I would have much rather read about the women using their influence as librarians to lead a charge against Van Cleve and his poor mining practices. I know that never actually happened historically, but from what I understand Margery’s whole trial was fabricated anyways, so what’s the point in any of it.

That said, one thing Moyes got right was the righteous anger at how women are treated. Van Cleve was a bit too classically evil for my tastes, but he did serve the purpose of highlighting how rich white men can get away with whatever they want. Margery being thrown in jail and then FORCED TO GIVE BIRTH THERE was enraging and definitely upped the ante, but at the end of the day, I’m not sure what the point was? What theme was the author really trying to make? The only impact that the outcome of the trial has is that Margery gets to return to her family. There’s no ultimate consequence for Van Cleve. Nobody in the town really changes, they just eventually go back to business-as-usual with no lessons learned. Am I supposed to be impressed that Bennett is pushing for a concrete wall on the next slurry dam? Because I’m sure that idea will be steamrolled by his father in 2 seconds because neither of them ever sees any consequence to their actions.

The only message I’m left with is that women are resilient? Not really groundbreaking stuff. I felt like the whole narrative was just manipulative and trying to force an emotional response that I just didn’t feel. I felt like Moyes was constantly trying to tell me how to feel when her characters and writing should just speak for themselves.

Every Book I Read in 2019

2019 was the first year since 2013 that I didn’t surpass my reading goal. I read 120 books in 2018 and set my reading goal for 2019 as 100 books. Sadly I only read 91 books in 2019, so I was a little bit disappointed, but I know 91 books is still an insane number of books and I had a really busy year!

Sorry if you’re not interested, but I like to publish this list for personal reasons and so that I have a record of what I read. I keep a separate page every year to track my books, so I’ll be updating it shortly for 2020 if you’re interested. In the meantime, here’s everything I read in 2019:

  1. Becoming – Michelle Obama
  2. Nine Perfect Strangers – Liane Moriarty
  3. Keeping Lucy – T. Greenwood
  4. The Tea Dragon Society – Katie O.Neill
  5. Black Enough – Ibi Zoboi
  6. Nice Try, Jane Sinner – Lianne Oelke
  7. The Island of Sea Women – Lisa See
  8. The Demon King (Seven Realms #1) – Cinda Williams Chima
  9. Heidi – Johanna Spyri
  10. The Belles (The Belles #1) – Dhonielle Clayton
  11. Even the Darkest Stars (Even the Darkest Stars #1) – Heather Fawcett
  12. Internment – Samira Ahmed
  13. I’ll be Gone in the Dark – Michelle McNamara
  14. All the Wandering Light (Even the Darkest Stars #2) – Heather Fawcett
  15. Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen (DNF @ 60%)
  16. The Exiled Queen (Seven Realms #2) – Cinda Williams Chima
  17. The Gray Wolf Throne (Seven Realms #3) – Cinda Williams Chima
  18. The Crimson Crown (Seven Realms #4) – Cinda Williams Chima
  19. The Everlasting Rose (The Belles #2) – Dhonielle Clayton
  20. Don’t Call Us Dead – Danez Smith
  21. Daisy Jones & The Six – Taylor Jenkins Reid
  22. A Bend in the Stars – Rachel Barenbaum
  23. New Zealand’s 26 Best Road Trips – Lonely Planet
  24. Etta and Otto and Russell and James – Emma Hooper
  25. Songs of a Sourdough – Robert W. Service
  26. The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle – Stuart Turton
  27. When They Call You a Terrorist – Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele
  28. What the Wind Knows – Amy Harmon
  29. The Stories You Tell (Roxane Weary #3) – Kristen Lepionka
  30. Queenie – Candice Carty-Williams
  31. With the Fire on High – Elizabeth Acevedo
  32. A Very Large Expanse of Sea – Tahereh Mafi
  33. The Storied Life of AJ Fikry – Gabrielle Zevin
  34. The Next Great Paulie Fink – Ali Benjamin
  35. The Simple Wild – K.A. Tucker
  36. Next Year in Havana – Chanel Cleeton
  37. Say You Still Love Me – K.A. Tucker
  38. Saving Francesca – Melina Marchetta
  39. The Turn of the Key – Ruth Ware
  40. The Great Believers – Rebecca Makkai
  41. Miracle Creek – Angie Kim
  42. The Piper’s Son – Melina Marchetta
  43. Great Small Things – Jodi Picoult
  44. The Fellowship of the Ring (Lord of the Rings #1) – JRR Tolkien
  45. The Place on Dalhousie – Melina Marchetta
  46. The Great Alone – Kristin Hannah
  47. Rhymes of a Rolling Stone – Robert Service
  48. The Two Towers (Lord of the Rings #2) – J.R.R. Tolkien
  49. No Exit – Taylor Adams
  50. The Grace Year – Kim Liggett
  51. The Blackhouse – Peter May (DNF @ 67%)
  52. Wishtree – Katherine Applegate
  53. Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie
  54. Ask Again, Yes – Mary Beth Keane
  55. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous – Ocean Vuong
  56. Magic for Liars – Sarah Gailey
  57. Born a Crime – Trevor Noah
  58. Searching for Sylvie Lee – Jean Kwok
  59. My Sister, the Serial Killer – Oyinkan Braithwaithe
  60. When All is Said – Anne Griffin
  61. A Practical Wedding – Meg Keane
  62. A Woman is No Man – Etaf Rum
  63. Heads Will Roll – Kate McKinnon
  64. The Witches are Coming – Lindy West
  65. Lands of Lost Borders – Kate Harris
  66. Book Love – Debbie Tung
  67. Chase Darkness With Me – Billy Jensen
  68. The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials #1) – Philip Pullman
  69. The Subtle Knife (His Dark Materials #2) – Philip Pullman
  70. Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
  71. Things You Save in a Fire – Katherine Center
  72. If They Come For Us – Fatimah Asghar
  73. Return of the King (Lord of the Rings #3) – J.R.R. Tolkien
  74. Recursion – Blake Crouch
  75. Ember and the Ice Dragons – Heather Fawcett
  76. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – J.K. Rowling
  77. The Amber Spyglass (His Dark Materials #3) – Philip Pullman
  78. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets – J.K. Rowling
  79. Girls of Storm and Shadow (Girls of Paper and Fire #2) – Natasha Ngan
  80. Lord of the Butterflies – Andrea Gibson
  81. The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise – Dan Gemeinhart
  82. Educated – Tara Westover
  83. Wild Embers – Nikita Gill
  84. Verity – Colleen Hoover
  85. Grief & Loss & Love & Sex – Lara Margaret Marjerrison
  86. Dear Girls – Ali Wong
  87. Strange Planet – Nathan Pyle
  88. The Toll (Arc of a Scythe #3) – Neal Shusterman
  89. 77 Fragments of a Familiar Ruin – Thomas King
  90. The Queen of Nothing (Folk of the Air #3) – Holly Black
  91. The Cellist of Sarajevo – Steven Galloway

Deathcaster

Rating: ⭐⭐.5
Author: Cinda Williams Chima
Genres: Fantasy
Pub. date: Mar. 2019 (read Feb. 2020)
Series: Shattered Realms #4

I’m a bit torn on how to rate this book and I think I’m somewhere between a 3 and a 4. I still flew through it – loving all the different characters and relationships, but I thought the plot could have been a little stronger. I was still really engaged in the story, I just wanted a more!

It was nice to finally see some resolutions between characters and some new relationships forming. As always, I think Chima writes interesting and flawed, but relatable, characters. Lyss and Hal were probably my favourites of the series, but I also really liked Lila and had a bit of a soft spot for Destin. I liked that he was introduced as a bit of a villain in Flamecaster, but turned out to be really nuanced and even though he’d done some questionable things, you still really wanted to root for him.

So the series still gets full points for characterization, but let’s get into where I thought the plot suffered. I have two main complaints – the first is about pacing and the second is about where the importance of the story was placed.

A lot of information was revealed in this book. Chima holds on to a lot of secrets throughout the series. I think it’s a huge bonus when a series has an overarching mystery that continues throughout each book. But I also think it’s important to provide some answers and closure to other mystery elements as the series progresses. I think Chima held on to a bit too much information and as such, the story felt a little overwhelming at the end, with too many things being tied up too quickly.

For example, we have to wait through this whole series to find out who attacked Ash in the first book, what the Darian brothers are, who was behind the attack on Lyss, and who the mole at court is. When everything is finally revealed, the answers just feel a little anti-climactic. The plot elements weren’t necessarily large enough to carry this mystery through 4 books and I was left feeling disappointed by the answers. I think the individual books would have benefited had Chima given up a little more information earlier in the story.

That said, there were some elements where I think it made sense to string along your readers for 4 books, namely with the mystery of Celestine and her relationship to Jenna, Breon, and Evan. Which brings me to my second criticism – how Chima chose to frame the story around these 4 “casters”, but then didn’t really give their story the airtime if deserved.

The books are named for 4 individuals. I’m assuming that Celestine was ‘deathcaster’. Every thing about Celestine and the north islands and her dynasty is shrouded in mystery. We don’t know who she is or what her tie is to any of the other characters. We can tell she is seeking more power and represents a big threat to the realms. But Chima holds out on the significance of these individuals until the very last minute and then throws in a couple of (in my opinion) poorly cobbled together explanations of their relations and then quickly defeats the empress in a chapter. I was left not really understanding who the empress was or why she was so powerful, and then disappointed at how easily she eventually seemed to be defeated. It just left me wondering what bearing she really even had on the story, except providing enough of a threat to the realms to finally mend the relationship between the Fells and Arden. I just wanted SO MUCH MORE.

Like I said, overall I still loved the series. It just felt rushed and I felt we were still left with some unanswered questions. It wasn’t totally clear what happened with Raisa and Han and I would have loved a little more time devoted to Aedion and the healing of this family the reader has grown to love. Still a fan though and I am planning to read Chima’s first series, which I’m pretty sure is now the only one I have left. 3.5 stars overall – disappointed I never got a 5-star book out of this series.

Stormcaster

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Cinda Williams Chima
Genres: Fantasy
Pub. date: Apr. 2018 (read Feb. 2020)
Series: Shattered Realms #3

Stormcaster is where the characters all finally start to catch up with one another and we get an idea of where the story is really going. I’ve read a lot of reviews from people that think this is the strongest book of the series, but I think I still preferred Shadowcaster over this one.

Stormcaster starts out with yet another character POV, Evan Strangward. We’ve been introduced to Evan in other books, but here we finally get to learn what team he’s actually on and all about his history. Plus we finally get to learn more about Destin Karn! Evan and Destin feature heavily in the first 100-150 pages of the book, which I thought was really strong and exclusively tells Evan’s story, before Chima finally commits to the multi-POV book and starts alternating between all of her characters. We finally get to return to Ash, Hal, Jenna, Lyss, and Lila, but with so many characters constantly changing and with the plot going in so many different directions, I feel like not a whole lot was accomplished in this book. It was a relief to finally get the merging of stories, but in my opinion Stormcaster felt like a bit of a filler book with just enough action to progress the story. I still loved it, but I was left feeling the tiniest bit disappointed.

I don’t have a whole lot more to say about the plot; the characters continue to be the highlight of the series for me because there is no shortage of complex and interesting characters. I’m excited to see what happens in the final segment – but find it hard to believe so many character arcs and plot threads can be resolved in just one more book!

Shadowcaster

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Cinda Williams Chima
Genres: Fantasy
Pub. date: Apr. 2017 (read Jan. 2020)
Series: Shattered Realms #2

Okay, this book was awesome! I loved the story and the characters and I’m super into this series, but I thought it was a really interesting choice in execution.

Flamecaster focuses on two characters: Ash and Jenna, with a strong supporting cast. Picking up Shadowcaster is almost like starting a completely new book because suddenly Ash and Jenna are nowhere to be seen and we have new protagonists: Lyss, Hal, and Breon. I really liked both books, though I might give a slight edge to Shadowcaster, but it was a little disorienting to be separated completely from all the characters you spent the first book bonding with and have to build a bunch of new relationships. Especially when the first half of this book completely overlapped with the timeline of the first book. So even though we didn’t know the specifics, we pretty much knew what was going to happen. I kind of wish these two books had been combined to make one big book with many POV’s. Although I can see how a 1000 page book would be daunting to readers, but I could still see it working as 2 books with multiple POVs.

Anyways, that was the main flaw I had with this book. I still thought the storytelling, plot building, and character development were all excellent. I fell just as much in love with the characters in Shadowcaster as I did with the characters in Flamecaster and I excited to see them all together. The first half of the book was on the slow side because we were missing some of the tension because we ultimately knew what was going to happen, but the second half was a thrill!

I love Lyss and Hal! Not necessarily as a couple, but definitely as individuals. I wasn’t really into Ash and Jenna’s relationship in the last book and I while I felt Lyss and Hal’s could still have been drawn out a bit more, there was definitely more tension and less instalove. Though I could do without Hal constantly mooning over how Lyss “isn’t like the other girls”. But I did love Lyss!

Lyss’ story isn’t a story that hasn’t been told before, but I still loved it! She’s bold and brazen, but also caring and respectful. One of my favourite scenes was when she refuses to run off and start a war without first consulting the queen. I was totally expecting her to run off and make mistakes and ultimately be a hero, and it was cool to see her instead acknowledge another woman’s power. Then when she overhears her mother talking to Captain Bryne, again I thought she was going to run off and be reckless in revenge, but instead she just calls her mother out on lying to her. It was very mature and I loved how honest she is throughout the book. I don’t believe for a second she’s only 15 though. I’m not really sure why Chima insists on having all her characters be 15-16 years old. Literally none of these characters act like 15 year olds and I think the story would be a lot more believable if they were all in at least their early 20’s.

Anyways, despite my criticisms, I still loved this book and I’m already 100 pages into Stormcaster. A quick browse through the next book looks like we finally get to return to some of the characters from both books, but the first 100+ pages is still about yet another new character, so I guess Chima might have struggled to structure this series differently. Multiple POV stories definitely have a very different dynamic than 2-3 POV stories and I feel like maybe she was trying to avoid a confusing epic with too many characters and too complex a plot. Structured as is, the plot is still pretty easy to follow because we only focus on a few stories per book.