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.

Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson

I’ve finally gotten my stack of books to be read down to three, with “Out Stealing Horses” included. I don’t remember where I got the book, but I think it may have been a gift. No matter, since it had horses in it, I figured it wouldn’t hurt taking up a space on my bookshelves.

But the problem is, I finally cracked the book open and read… and I really can’t stand it.

Now, some people are really into the type of writing style that Petterson (as translated by Anne Born) uses, where the text is almost a stream of conscious thought (prose).  I’m not one of those people. It’s hard for me to follow along and in this case, there’s flashbacks that take you from present to past and in doing so, causes confusion and disrupts the reader’s understanding.

As I said, there are some out there that love that kind of writing style, and if you are one of them, check this book out and tell me what you think. But if you are like me, I would pass on this one. As is, I only got about 20 pages in. Maybe I quit too early, but in reading the book summary on the back cover, it sounds like there wasn’t much more to the story than what I figured out in the first 20 pages.

For those that really want the summary: Trond Sander, an almost 70 year old man, helps his neighbor look for his lost dog in late one night. After moving out in the remote area, the sudden companionship of the neighbor throws Trond back into memories of his younger years with his mischievous friend Jon.

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

This book is another that has sat on my bookshelf but never been read. I’d seen the movie a few times, and knew it had to be good because I thought the movie was good. As always, the book was even better.

As I’m sure you all know (because seriously, this book has been out for TWO DECADES!) the novel is the fictional memoirs of a young girl names Chiyo (who becomes Sayuri) who was sold as a young child to an okiya, a geisha house. She suffers the loss of her family and abuse from those in her okiya, but finds hope when meeting a chairman who shows her an act of kindness. She eventually becomes a “little sister” under a great geisha named Mameha, and becomes a great geisha herself. All the while, she hopes that her training will bring her back to the chairman she met as a child, and does all that she dares to follow her own dreams, for once.

It’s a lovely story, and Golden has written it so convincingly (as far as I’m concerned) that several times I caught myself Googling to see if certain names were fictional or not! And because I had seen the movie, as I read I could hear the woman who narrated the movie narrate in my mind. I also really enjoyed the imagery in the novel- it was a good balance between descriptive and concise. Plus, the similes and metaphors were a really nice touch to really portray details in Sayuri’s feelings and environment. For example:

“The walls were covered with a pale yellow silk whose texture gave a kind of presence, and made me feel held by them, just as an egg is held by it’s shell.”

Another thing I appreciated was the conversational narration that reminded the reader of who a certain bypassing character was- as if Golden knew that if he didn’t add that information, the reader would go leafing through the pages to place the name.

Overall, I loved the ability to see through the eyes of Sayuri, and to spot the cultural differences not only in the geisha way of life, but in the Japanese way of life. Even though I had seen the movie and knew where the general story line was going, I got so caught up in the experience with her that many times I didn’t know that I already knew the outcome. It was a very good read, which of course I didn’t doubt, and I’ll certainly be returning it to my bookshelf.

Magic Hour by Kristin Hannah

Jumping right in, this short and sweet novel is about two sisters and a young feral child learning to communicate and trust one another. Ellie, chief of police in small town Rain Valley, is called onto the case when a small child is found with a wolf pup stuck up in a tree. Once rescued, the small child is observed to have serious  scars, animal instincts, and no way to seemingly communicate with those around her. Determined to find the girl’s parents, Ellie calls in her sister, Julia, a child psychologist, confident that she would be able to get the girl to speak about her past. Julia, on the other hand, is shaken to the core after recent events put her at the center of a tragic and scandalized event. Feeling like there was nothing left to lose, she returns to Rain Valley. Once she meets the little girl, she knows that though her confidence is shot, she has to remain strong to heal this girl.

As Julia, Ellie, and the little girl who becomes known as Alice grow closer, they know they would do anything to keep Alice safe.  Magic Hour is a quick and easy read, and though the story line is predictable, it’s keeps the readers attention with the hope for Alice’s happy ending.