The Giver of Stars
By Jojo Moyes. (Pamela Dorman Books, 400 pages, $28.)
Marriage is not the escape that Alice Van Cleve was hoping for. She threw off a suffocating life in England to follow her handsome husband back to Kentucky — romance and independence is what she wants. But once settled in the big house in a small town, Alice quickly finds herself adrift, lonely and literally unloved. In eastern Kentucky in 1937, there aren’t many options for women, even the daughter-in-law of the all-powerful mine owner. She is expected to keep house and make babies, neither of which she can do. She is, she feels, “so lost, as if she had made a mistake that there was simply no coming back from.”
Relief comes in the unlikely form of the Great Depression and the WPA Packing Horse Librarians program. Alice enlists and joins a team of strong-minded women who deliver books and magazines to Appalachian people even more isolated than she is. Before long, there’s more than books involved. The library sisterhood moves to empower area women and thwart the grasping powers-that-be. When they start getting that uppity, trouble inevitably ensues.
Jojo Moyes’ historical fiction — yes, there really were Packing Horse Librarians — follows her bestselling “Me Before You” trilogy. Here she delivers a romantic, sometimes melodramatic, tale of hard work and heroism. While the evil father-in-law remains cartoonish, the librarians and their allies form a cast of believable characters that readers can cheer on. The novel makes only glancing references to real-life events such as the mine confrontations in nearby Harlan County. Instead, Moyes stays true to her narrative and takes full advantage of the sense of place she gained from repeated trips to the area. Her vivid description of rescue efforts in a flash flood is absolutely riveting. “The Giver of Stars” is a stirring novel sure to please Moyes’ many fans.
A Better Man
By Louise Penny. (Minotaur Books, 448 pages. $28.99.)
Armande Gamache returns as a high-ranking member of the Canadian Surete, this time humbled by a demotion from chief inspector to head of homicide due to events in the most recent two books of this richly told Canadian crime series.
But no one can humble the deeply principled Gamache more thoroughly than he humbles himself. Infused with self-disappointment after a drug raid gone bad, he’s being harangued on social media as a coward and a failure as he reassumes control of a detective team he long ago trained.
His pride keeps him intact as he tries to rally his officers around menacing floodwaters that could break river levees protecting the great city of Montreal and its suburbs. Even the quirky residents of Three Pines, Gamache’s beloved home village, are furiously sandbagging to hold off the rising river. It’s a fitting metaphor for what Gamache is going through.
Tensions build from all corners. Gamache’s daughter Annie and his loyal protégé Jean-Guy Beauvoir, Annie’s husband, are moving to Paris in a few days with Gamache’s grandchild to escape the violence and disillusionment of police work, a decision that has ripped Gamache apart. And an unexpected death rocks the village of Three Pines amid the chaos of the encroaching floods. The death touches Gamache close to home, playing on all his fears and insecurities as the social media scavengers trash his career with lies.
Penny’s lyrical writing opens up Gamache’s soul-searching in an almost poetic way. “A Better Man,” it turns out, isn’t so much a novel to wrap up certain story lines in this 14-book series, but one to breathe new life into them.