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.

Dual Citizens

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Alix Ohlin
Genres: Literary Fiction, Canadian Lit
Pub. date: Jun. 2019 (read Feb. 2020 on Audible)

Dual Citizens is one of the those weird creations of Canadian literature that I ended up really loving, yet wouldn’t necessarily recommend to everyone. It’s a bit of an artsy story with a meandering plot, but it’s ultimately about family and sisterhood and that really resonated with me.

Lark and Robin are sisters that grew up in Montreal and received little attention or praise from their young mother. So they instead look to one another for support and long for the day when they can branch out on their own. Lark is shy but very studious and does well in school, earning herself a scholarship for a college in the States. Robin learns to play the piano and has a natural talent for it. She is dismayed when Lark leaves her behind to go to school and within the year she runs away to live with Lark.

Eventually Lark discovers a love for film and Robin is accepted to study piano at Julliard. But the pressure of music school gets to her and as Lark dives further into her film degree, the sisters begin to grow apart. The separation between the two sisters was jarring and upsetting for me. They were all each other had and I felt as set adrift by the separation as Lark did. The sisters are very different and Lark struggles to understand why her sister suddenly distances herself and they begin to grow apart, each caught up in their own struggles and insecurities.

Lark spends a lot of time working in the film industry and is quite successful, but she reads like a character who just moves through life without actually engaging in it. She is passive in every scenario and I really felt like part of her was missing during her estrangement from Robin. I’m not really an artsy person and I don’t care for film, but I really loved the storytelling in this book. I just felt this ache throughout for the relationship that Lark and Robin once had and the strain and impact that the loss of communication had on Lark. The feeling of incompleteness while the two were separated and the tenseness that continued between them even once they were reunited. It’s scary to watch two people that were so close become disconnected to the point that they don’t really know who the other person is anymore.

It really reminded me of the feelings of nostalgia and sadness that you get when you return home and realize that the people you loved and spent so much time with have all changed. The feeling of moving on, but thinking fondly of the experiences you once shared, but the sadness of realizing that some experience meant more to one person than the other.

It’s hard to describe, but Lark’s longing for both motherhood and a renewed relationship with her sister were so authentic. It’s a slow moving story with little driving the plot, but I related so keenly to Lark. I think Ohlin captured a very flawed, but real relationship, and I felt really invested in Lark’s life. I don’t think it’s a story for everyone though and I’m not sure I’d want to read it again because of the emotional toll, but I’m glad to have picked it up and thoroughly enjoyed the audiobook. A great story with a lot of depth!

Bloodlust & Bonnets

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Emily McGovern
Genres: Graphic Novel, LGBTQIA+
Pub. date: Sep. 2019 (read Jan. 2020)

I’m a little bit delayed with this review, but I picked up Bloodlust & Bonnets at a bookstore in New Zealand because I liked the colourful artwork and thought it looked like the story might have a Nimona-style brand of humour. I was correct on both fronts!

Bloodlust & Bonnets is set in Victorian times and tells the story of Lucy, Byron, and Sham, a bunch of “queer misfits” looking for an adventure in the form of destroying Lady Travesty, the leader of a vampire cult. Their adventures take them all over Britain, with each character struggling with their own personal hang-ups while they all try and get used to being part of a team.

It’s the kind of hilarious, feel good, nonsense that despite all its shenanigans, still has a ton of relevant social commentary buried in it about gender norms, identity, and equality. It made me laugh out loud, but I also loved it for its portrayal of kick-ass female heroines, suave male poets that also like to wear fancy dresses, and gender non-conforming vampire hunters that just need to learn to trust other people. It’s a romping good time!

Dear Girls

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Ali Wong
Genres: Memoir, Humour
Pub. date: Oct. 2019 (read Nov. 2019 on Audible)

I don’t think I even knew who Ali Wong was a year ago, but suddenly she is everywhere and she is hilarious. I think I first heard of her when I read this buzzfeed article about how awesome her glasses are and how she finds the frames by converting sunglasses into glasses. I was like, this woman sounds cool, so I watched both her comedy specials on Netflix when I was home sick one day and thought they were hilarious. I made my husband watch Always Be My Maybe with me, and while I had some issues with the movie, I still enjoyed Ali’s acting and comedy.

If you’ve seen her comedy specials, then you’ll probably like this book. She recycles some of the same themes, but it just serves in making you feel like she’s actually a friend of yours. It’s like, “oh yeah, I remember her mentioning that before”, but she’ll take it off on a new tangent and you just feel like you’re getting to know her a little better. Dear Girls is funny, but it’s also meaningful. It’s crafted as a series of letters to her two daughters. It still has Ali’s signature brand of crassness, but overall, its less crass then some of her comedy and she talks about a lot of relevant things.

Some of the book is advice for her daughters on funny things that have happened to her, while other advice is really thoughtful points on comedy and what it means to be a visible female minority. I liked that she talked about how frustrating it is to have your success pinned on your race and gender, but also about how annoying it is to also constantly be asked about it. She will never be “just another comic” and will always be defined and asked about what it’s like to be female and Asian and a comic.

I was dying to request a copy of this from Netgalley, but I decided to hold off so that I could listen to the audiobook instead. The fact that it’s narrated by Ali makes it so much better. She does cycle around a lot of the same ideas though, so I was glad she didn’t overdo it by making the book too long. Personally, I thought she hit a great balance and would definitely recommend both her audiobook and Netflix comedy specials!

The Toll

Rating: ⭐⭐.5
Author: Neal Shusterman
Genres: Science-fiction
Pub. date: Nov. 2019 (read Dec. 2019)
Series: Arc of a Scythe #3

Oh boy, this book. Holly Black’s Cruel Prince trilogy and Neal Shusterman’s Arc of a Sycthe trilogy both concluded around the same time and I read them one after the other. I had mixed feelings about all the previous books in both series. I liked them, but didn’t love them. While Holly Black’s conclusion totally shocked me in the best possible way, Neal Shusterman’s conclusion had the opposite effect.

I would actually give the edge to Shusterman’s first book over Black’s because while I also find his writing style kind of boring, his plot had a lot of depth and the first book made me think a lot about humanity, death, technology, and AI. While I’m fuzzy on the details of Thunderhead now (except for that crazy cliffhanger ending), it also raised a lot of interesting social commentary about different ways of thinking and how prejudice and power can corrupt and turn people against one another.

I thought Shusterman lost all of this in The Toll. This book was super long and inspired no critical thought from me. I don’t really understand why the Thunderhead decided to mark everyone as unsavoury and keep it that way and I felt like Shusterman totally abandoned his themes about AI and how involved they are in our life. The Thunderhead starts to become a sentient being, but I feel like it’s not really discussed in the book the impact that would have if our robots suddenly started feeling and how unlikely it is that society could recover from all-knowing robots suddenly having the ability to feel.

I felt like the plot totally went off the rails, with Shusterman trying to make this more of a blockbuster action story rather than the thoughtful, scary dystopian world he created in the first book. I also recently finished reading the Golden Compass series and I had similar thoughts about Philip Pullman’s final book in that both authors completely lost the subtlety of the first two books, which made for a much less interesting or impactful read. I felt like this book was self indulgent. The plot didn’t feel at all clever because nothing ever seemed to link together. While all our main characters do eventually end up in the same place, I felt like I was reading separate and unrelated storylines the entire book. Plus like, what was actually the point of it all?

SPOILERS AHEAD
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Honestly, the ending was just a huge disappointment for me. I feel like Shusterman avoided actually dealing with the monster he created in Goddard and I felt like it was cheap to just get rid of him with a random “fail safe” that basically just killed off all the scythes. Shusterman just used space travel to avoid the whole trauma of how you deal with death in a society that can no longer die. It was disappointing. I wanted a different kind of showdown between the new order scythes and the old order that better represented how the general population would feel about the whole thing. The general population would still hugely outnumber scythes and I would have like to see more of a revolution from them. The Thunderhead marked everyone unsavoury – I feel like they would be pissed off and revolt. Plus the whole idea of new vs. the old and different trains of thought leading to extremism is so relevant to our society today, I would really have liked to see these themes developed in a way that was more relatable than space travel.

Anyways, this was never my favourite series, but I’m impressed that I actually saw it through when I’ve since given up on better fantasy series. Overall, a very disappointing ending and I’m relieved to just be done with it.