Less schematic and more down to earth than her first novel, Diffenbaugh’s latest confirms her gift for creating shrewd,...

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WE NEVER ASKED FOR WINGS

Question: What kind of parent leaves her two children home alone while she takes off in pursuit of her own mother, who's heading back to Mexico?

Answer: A parent like Letty Espinosa, the troubled heroine of Diffenbaugh’s (The Language of Flowers, 2011) second novel, who suddenly finds herself flying solo and unready to cope. Love and upbringing, the core themes of Diffenbaugh’s bestselling debut, also drive her tightly constructed new novel, which uses its compelling opening to establish Letty’s fecklessness, her 14-year-old son Alex’s prematurely grown-up sense of responsibility, and 6-year-old daughter Luna’s needs. Without her own parents, who have been doing all the child care up till now but whose return to Mexico turns out to be permanent, single mother Letty is going to have to juggle the children, work, and housekeeping by herself for the first time, and to start with, it doesn’t go well. But Letty’s doubts give way to hope as she switches the children to a better school in San Francisco (admittedly, using a false address) and learns from helpful colleague Rick how to mix cocktails that increase her bartending tips. Letty’s story is paralleled with Alex’s: he’s a clever teenager struggling to avoid his mother’s mistakes while falling for classmate Yesenia and coming to know the father Letty hid from him his whole life. With its hardscrabble setting and undocumented characters, Diffenbaugh’s latest is less overtly romantic than her first; it's strong on social issues but sometimes dragged down by a protagonist whose tendency toward self-criticism can be tiring. The tidy plot and satisfying storytelling are winning, though, and ultimately Diffenbaugh delivers a heartwarming journey that mixes redemption and optimistic insight in equal measure.

Less schematic and more down to earth than her first novel, Diffenbaugh’s latest confirms her gift for creating shrewd, sympathetic charmers.

Pub Date: Aug. 18, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-553-39231-9

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Ballantine

Review Posted Online: June 4, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2015

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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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