Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

“She gave me a complicated smile. “You’ve heard the joke, haven’t you? Are you married or do you live in Kenya?“”

When my book-loving coworker suggested I read this novel, it didn’t take me long to reserve it at the library, nor did it take me long to read it. 350 pages, each one full of a romantic view of life in the 1920’s British East Africa as experienced by Beryl Clutterbuck. Though a fictional novel, Clutterbuck, who becomes Markham after her second marriage, is actually a nonfictional character, as well as the others described in the novel. When I finished reading, I couldn’t stop myself from doing some more historical research, trying to piece together the timeline and get better images of the people involved. I love when a book does that to me- inspires me to learn more.

Anyways, we are introduced to Beryl as a young girl living with her family in colonial Kenya. Her father is running a horse farm as a trainer and breeder of racing thoroughbreds, and Beryl wants to follow in his footsteps. When her mother and brother leave to return to England, she decides Kenya is her home, and she wants to stay with her father on the farm. As she reaches her teen years, she rebels against her father’s wishes to become a more suitable woman by taunting her new governess and running away from boarding school. She isn’t interested in becoming the expected civilized housewife. Growing up in the bush, she’s followed her best friend Kibii step for step as he learned from his tribe how to be a warrior. Matching his courage and skills, Beryl knows she can take on any man’s job with determination and hard work, and succeed. However, when she reaches the age of sixteen, the tables are turned when she learns her father’s business has gone bankrupt, and he must sell the farm and train at another stable, leaving Beryl to decide if she should stay on the farm, go work for her father, or become a wife.

She decides to marry Jock, a man who just moved to the colony near her father’s farm. The merge leaves Beryl with her father’s horses, but also with a loveless relationship. When it becomes obvious that the marriage isn’t going to work out, Beryl decides to separate from Jock to go work as a trainer on her friend and mentor’s farm. A turning point for Beryl, she becomes the first English licensed female horse trainer (at least in Kenya, maybe the world). As her reputation builds for her training, she also gains a reputation for being a nontraditional wife, if you catch my drift. Despite her successes at the racetrack, her personal life causes her difficulties in keeping clients. After some time, she requests a divorce from her husband. He isn’t willing to grant the divorce because he doesn’t want to be seen as a man who can’t control his wife, nor take a hit to his reputation. They fight- him by drinking and getting into physical altercations, her by holding her ground and occasionally another man. As her relationship with Jock flames out, a new one with Denys Finch- Hatton fires up.

While reading, not only does the personal drama keep things interesting, but the romance of living in such wild country in Africa draws you in. I loved imagining the red clay, the safari trips, the rain season, the flamingo flocks near where Beryl exercised her horses… all the imagery was lovely, even in terrifying moments. Because of McLain’s wordsmithery, I was living right with Beryl in the environment that she loved so much.

With so much depth and strength to the characters, the setting, and the overall complexity of human relationships, I’d recommend it to anyone, and especially for those with the additional interest in the female empowerment and equality. I’m amazed at what barriers Beryl broke back in the 1920/1930s, of how much has changed since pioneers like her broke traditional female roles, and of how we are still pushing to get through the glass ceiling today. “Circling the Sun” is a must read.

Nights in Rodanthe by Nicholas Sparks

I’m a fan of Nicholas Sparks, but I have to admit that this book was more than a little sub-par for me, especially given the hype I had heard about it, and knowing that it did become a movie.

We are introduced to Adrienne, divorcee and mother of three, who recalls the time she spent in Rodanthe, NC, running her friend’s inn for a long weekend. There, she meets Paul, a divorcee doctor and estranged father of one, who decides to turn over a new leaf, starting in Rodanthe. He books the weekend at the inn and the two almost immediately fall for each other. They become intimately familiar with each other, but more than just on a physical level. By the end of the weekend, as Paul prepares to leave for Ecuador to follow his son and repair their relationship, Adrienne realizes that not only has Paul given her the chance to heal her broken heart, but he has also given her something to look forward to.

In the end, the book seems like a drawn out and up-close examination of their relationship, which then ends with a twist about parenting and undivided love. Though it wasn’t a bad read, it was too predictable and sappy (yes, even for Sparks) that I would have to pass on a reread.

The Dalai Lama’s Cat by David Michie

Another recommendation by a coworker, The Dalai Lama’s Cat was a quick and simple read.

It follows the life of (of course) the Dalai Lama’s cat, who goes by many different names including HHC (His Holiness’ Cat), Mousie-Tung, and Rinpoche, as she learns from the His Holiness himself. Through careful observation, she learns how to find true happiness, how to eat mindfully, how to release envy, and how to find love. For example, she observed this couple one afternoon:

“…a panel of more than two thousand people with smartphones and send out questions at random intervals during the week. Always they were the same three questions: What are you doing? What are you thinking? How happy are you? What they found out was that forty-seven percent of the time, people weren’t thinking about what they were doing.”

These types of observations, even though meant from a cat’s point of view, are meant to make the reader reflect upon them. So when I can upon this excerpt, I spent a few minutes thinking about what I was doing versus what I was thinking, and how happy I was about it. What’s funny is, this mention of mindfulness became a small lesson on how to be mindful. Michie wrote novel filled full of little teachable moments like that, passed off as personal observations from the Dalai Lama’s cat. It’s quite clever, truthfully.

While I appreciate those little moments, I found the novel overall to be lacking in action. There wasn’t a large climactic scene, or one giant overarching lesson- and if there was, it totally went over my head. So overall, I wouldn’t recommend the read unless you needed a little inspirational spurring.

 

The Hearts of Horses by Molly Gloss

It took me about two days to tear through this ‘modern’ western. Written in 2007 yet set in 1917, this novel was meant for horse girls like myself- dreamers of what life in the wild west would be like.

The novel follows central protagonist Martha Lesson as she set out into Elwha County in search of horses to break for ranchwork. Leaving hometown Pendleton and an abusive father behind, Martha is determined to make her dream of riding through unfenced, open, wild west country come true. Though unsure at first, she finds work with George and Louise Bliss on their farm, and eventually they help her start a riding circle in the county, breaking and riding horses from farm to farm. They introduce her to many old time and new settlers who become prominent figures in her new life, and eventually she comes upon reason to stay.

It’s a lovely little book that has excitement, humor, hard life, and romance. Gloss did a great job weaving in the history of settling the west with the then current events surrounding World War I, and still keeping the plot moving forward with the interaction between the characters.

I think I’ll be keeping this one on my bookshelves.