Hope at the bottom of the box, not least for more from this talented author.

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THE BIRD HOUSE

An intergenerational school project unlocks a Pandora’s box of unsettling truths.

Ann, 70, is aging gracefully in the well-appointed Bryn Mawr home she once shared with her architect husband Theo, who died young of a heart attack. She is still haunted by the death of her daughter Emma at age four, a death, which, she hints at the beginning, she caused. Up to now, Ann has had a perfunctory, holidays-only acquaintance with her young granddaughter, Ellie. Ellie’s father, Ann’s son Tom, a lawyer, is married to Tinsley, an overprotective parent even by today’s standards. When Ellie seeks Ann’s help in compiling a scrapbook of family memories, their relationship blossoms. But digging through musty memorabilia forces Ann to relive the precipitous decline of her once-proud Philadelphia Main Line family. Demented and cancer-ridden, Ann’s mother finished her days in a nursing home after Ann’s father absconded with the family fortune. Ann rebuffed her father’s efforts to explain his conduct, and he died unforgiven. The story alternates between 2010 and 1967, a momentous year when Ann, still nursing infant Tom, is diagnosed with breast cancer and undergoes a mastectomy. That same year, she has a soul-wrenching affair with Peter, a high-school sweetheart she’d never really gotten over. Tinsley, upset that Ann “crossed boundaries” with Ellie by telling her about breast cancer, threatens to stop Ann and Ellie’s “play dates.” If Ann must resort to blackmail to see Ellie, she has the ammunition: proof that Tinsley has been unfaithful to Tom. Ultimately all of Ann’s assumptions about her family history will be upended. But Simmons’ exposition is so sparing—revealing tiny inconsistencies rather than smoking guns—that the book’s resolution is needlessly opaque. The writing is so evocative and detailed in its depiction of the inevitable reckonings that come with age, and of Ann’s subtle, possibly calculated memory slips, that more “explainers” would have been welcome.

Hope at the bottom of the box, not least for more from this talented author.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 2011

ISBN: 978-1-4391-6093-0

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Washington Square/Pocket

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2010

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Dark and unsettling, this novel’s end arrives abruptly even as readers are still moving at a breakneck speed.

THEN SHE WAS GONE

Ten years after her teenage daughter went missing, a mother begins a new relationship only to discover she can't truly move on until she answers lingering questions about the past.

Laurel Mack’s life stopped in many ways the day her 15-year-old daughter, Ellie, left the house to study at the library and never returned. She drifted away from her other two children, Hanna and Jake, and eventually she and her husband, Paul, divorced. Ten years later, Ellie’s remains and her backpack are found, though the police are unable to determine the reasons for her disappearance and death. After Ellie’s funeral, Laurel begins a relationship with Floyd, a man she meets in a cafe. She's disarmed by Floyd’s charm, but when she meets his young daughter, Poppy, Laurel is startled by her resemblance to Ellie. As the novel progresses, Laurel becomes increasingly determined to learn what happened to Ellie, especially after discovering an odd connection between Poppy’s mother and her daughter even as her relationship with Floyd is becoming more serious. Jewell’s (I Found You, 2017, etc.) latest thriller moves at a brisk pace even as she plays with narrative structure: The book is split into three sections, including a first one which alternates chapters between the time of Ellie’s disappearance and the present and a second section that begins as Laurel and Floyd meet. Both of these sections primarily focus on Laurel. In the third section, Jewell alternates narrators and moments in time: The narrator switches to alternating first-person points of view (told by Poppy’s mother and Floyd) interspersed with third-person narration of Ellie’s experiences and Laurel’s discoveries in the present. All of these devices serve to build palpable tension, but the structure also contributes to how deeply disturbing the story becomes. At times, the characters and the emotional core of the events are almost obscured by such quick maneuvering through the weighty plot.

Dark and unsettling, this novel’s end arrives abruptly even as readers are still moving at a breakneck speed.

Pub Date: April 24, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5011-5464-5

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Atria

Review Posted Online: Feb. 6, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2018

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A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

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THE GIVER OF STARS

Women become horseback librarians in 1930s Kentucky and face challenges from the landscape, the weather, and the men around them.

Alice thought marrying attractive American Bennett Van Cleve would be her ticket out of her stifling life in England. But when she and Bennett settle in Baileyville, Kentucky, she realizes that her life consists of nothing more than staying in their giant house all day and getting yelled at by his unpleasant father, who owns a coal mine. She’s just about to resign herself to a life of boredom when an opportunity presents itself in the form of a traveling horseback library—an initiative from Eleanor Roosevelt meant to counteract the devastating effects of the Depression by focusing on literacy and learning. Much to the dismay of her husband and father-in-law, Alice signs up and soon learns the ropes from the library’s leader, Margery. Margery doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her, rejects marriage, and would rather be on horseback than in a kitchen. And even though all this makes Margery a town pariah, Alice quickly grows to like her. Along with several other women (including one black woman, Sophia, whose employment causes controversy in a town that doesn’t believe black and white people should be allowed to use the same library), Margery and Alice supply magazines, Bible stories, and copies of books like Little Women to the largely poor residents who live in remote areas. Alice spends long days in terrible weather on horseback, but she finally feels happy in her new life in Kentucky, even as her marriage to Bennett is failing. But her powerful father-in-law doesn’t care for Alice’s job or Margery’s lifestyle, and he’ll stop at nothing to shut their library down. Basing her novel on the true story of the Pack Horse Library Project established by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, Moyes (Still Me, 2018, etc.) brings an often forgotten slice of history to life. She writes about Kentucky with lush descriptions of the landscape and tender respect for the townspeople, most of whom are poor, uneducated, and grateful for the chance to learn. Although Alice and Margery both have their own romances, the true power of the story is in the bonds between the women of the library. They may have different backgrounds, but their commitment to helping the people of Baileyville brings them together.

A love letter to the power of books and friendship.

Pub Date: Oct. 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-399-56248-8

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Pamela Dorman/Viking

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

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