A lookery at “Circling the Sun: A Novel” by Paula McLain

Circling the Sun

Circling the Sun: A Novel

Paula McLain

Random House Publishing Group – Ballantine

July 28, 2015

384 pages


Paula McLain’s Circling the Sun: A Novel is the fictionalized memoir of Beryl Clutterbuck Purves Markham, a woman ahead of her time. This novel of Beryl Markham’s youth takes you deep into the soul of this unusual and unconventional woman.

Abandoned by her mother before the age of five, Beryl is a maverick from the get-go, spending most of her childhood in the bush with her toto friend, Kibii, learning the skills of a young Kipsigis boy. Alongside her father “Clutt”, she learns how to assess, raise and train thoroughbred racehorses.

Beryl could not be tamed by Emma, the housekeeper her father brought into the home, nor by a governess, nor by a boarding school in Nairobi that expelled her after two and a half years.

When Clutt’s farm fails in her mid-teens, Beryl marries neighboring farmer Jock Purves, but is quickly disillusioned. She leaves her husband, who won’t grant her a divorce, determined to make her way as a trainer of thoroughbreds. Guided by a family friend with a vast stable, she is allowed to prepare for a license as an English Trainer; the first woman in Africa to do so. At the age of nineteen Beryl becomes the first licensed female racehorse trainer on the continent.

But Beryl is not schooled in the unique and unwritten social standards of the 1920’s colonial ex-pat community of the British East Africa Protectorate (eventually, Kenya). Her affairs, including an on-going secret relationship with Denys Finch Hatton — the lover of the Baroness Karen Blixen, who would later pen Out of Africa as Isaak Dinesen — become scandalous even in this loose society. She flees to England to escape the disgraceful reputation she has created.

She returns to Kenya with a sponsor, and begins to repair her status as a young woman of society and as a trainer. Eventually, Jock divorces Beryl, and she later marries Mansfield Markham.

A trail blazer, Beryl breaks barriers for women in the world of horse training, and later as the first professional female pilot in Africa. She has a deep love of the lush country she lives in — its wilderness as well as the natives who live on the land and who remain her lifelong friends.

Paula McLain shows us the beauty of the wild country as Beryl experienced it, and we feel Beryl’s passion for all things wild and untamed, much like Beryl herself. Beryl channels her energy into her love for the land and into challenging boundaries. The author’s storytelling in Circling the Sun: A Novel is as remarkable as the woman she writes about. Deeply visual, visceral, entrancing and exciting, Circling the Sun: A Novel is one of the best novels I’ve read in quite some time. As an author, McLain is a true thoroughbred.

Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher Random House Group – Ballantine for a preview copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own. 

A lookery at Lauren Willig’s “The Other Daughter”

The Other Daughter

The Other Daughter

Lauren Willig

St. Martin’s Press

July 21, 2015

304 pages


Rachel Woodley, raised in a remote English village by her widowed mother Katherine, is employed as a governess in France. After several years abroad, Rachel receives a telegram, maliciously and intentionally delayed by a member of the household staff. The news is horrible. Rachel’s beloved mother is bedridden with influenza and Rachel is summoned home.

She arrives home to find her mother dead and buried, and receives notice from the landlord that she has but a few days to move out of the home she has shared with her mother since the death of her father Edward, a botanist. Amongst her mother’s belongings Rachel discovers a recent photo of her father, now called Lord Ardmore, escorting his daughter Lady Olivia to a debutante ball.

Suddenly, the only life Rachel has known is a lie. Her father is an earl, her mother his mistress, and she has a half-sister — the legitimate daughter — she has never met or heard of.

A visit to her Cousin David, keeper of the family secrets, confirms that the Woodleys have been quietly living a lie for decades. Rachel storms out of her cousin’s digs, determined to confront the father she remembered so fondly, and who abandoned his by-blow family.

A chance encounter with gossip columnist Simon Montfort gives Rachel the opportunity to enter London’s aristocratic social circle of Bright Young Things under the assumed name of Vera Merton. Simon supplies the flat, the attire and image that Vera needs to gain a toehold with this crowd, and Simon gains a new subject for his column. Rachel’s ultimate goal — to be given an invitation to her father’s estate where she will challenge Lord Ardmore’s duplicity, and force him to acknowledge her.

Rachel soon finds out that there are a myriad of rules governing the behavior of the BYTs, and struggles to remain herself while pretending to be one of the fast crowd. She learns that even the most superficial and shallow of her new friends are complicated companions. Vera also discovers the far-reaching effects of The Great War on soldiers, their families and friends, nearly ten years after the Armistice.

In The Other Daughter, Lauren Willig displays a flair for societal and historical details, develops complex and conflicted characters, presents surprising plot twists and delves into the manner in which deceit and lies become tangled, taking on a life of their own. The conclusion of the novel is surprising and satisfying, and in keeping with the true personalities of the characters.

I have wanted to read one of Lauren Willig’s novels for some time. Courtesy of NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press, an advance copy of Willig’s latest novel The Other Daughter, was made available to me in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.

A lookery at “The Flying Circus” by Susan Crandall

The Flying Circus

The Flying Circus

Susan Crandall

Gallery Books

July 7, 2015

368 pages


Author Susan Crandall first caught my attention with her recent novel Whistling Past the Graveyard, which I always recommend to readers looking for a wonderful title. Her newest novel, The Flying Circus is likewise excellent.

Set in the Midwest shortly after the Great War, a trio of misfits come together by accident to form an aeroplane and motorcycle barnstorming act. Meet Henry Schuler Jefferson, on the run from his Indiana foster home and in great fear of being arrested for a heinous crime; Cora Rose Haviland, a tomboy of a socialite who escapes on her brother’s motorcycle the stultifying life as a marriageable debutante; and Charles “Gil” Gilcrest, a daredevil pilot and veteran of World War I — with a past, a secret and a death wish — who flies from town to town earning his living as a barnstormer. The new act, Mercury’s Daredevils, features Gil as the pilot, Cora as the racing motorcyclist with a mutt, and Henry, who acts as the show’s mechanic. The little group has modest success with their act until they encounter Hoffman’s Flying Circus — a professional air show featuring several pilots with shiny new planes.

It becomes obvious to the three friends that they must join the larger group in order to survive as an act and to keep flying. Cora has learned to fly, becoming a rare female pilot. She also has a strong desire to pursue daring stunts in the air. Henry signs on as part of the mechanical crew and a stunt coordinator and is thrilled to be on the move farther away from Indiana. Gil begrudgingly joins the Flying Circus too, moody as always with his secret past hidden at the bottom of a bottle.

When winter arrives, Hoffman’s Flying Circus goes on hiatus. Gil returns to his home while Cora and Henry strike out for Santa Monica, California. There, Cora hopes to find a career in films as a stunt pilot. What Henry and Cora find in California astonishes them and brings unwanted pain and attention to the fugitive and the debutante.

Each character is hiding a secret. As they return to their base camp, secrets and lies begin to unravel. Crandall slowly, teasingly, offers up bits of information on each intricately designed character. By the time all three of the show people are back together, it is uncertain how Henry, Gil and Cora are going to fare. The three of them are caught in their lies as their lives fall apart just in time for an air race in Miami with a big cash prize.

Susan Crandall brings to life both the post World War I prejudices as well as the flashy and phony life of early Hollywood. Her characters are flawed but genuine human beings, who have banded together to form a family. The awe-inspiring world of early aviation is explored in detail, illuminating the glory, the wonder and the disasters of flight.

The Flying Circus gives a glimpse into the current and future states of aviation. It also exposes the effects of war and narrow-mindedness in both the upper echelon of society and the working class. Susan Crandall’s novel shows her readers that everyone has a past and secrets that bring out the best and the worst in people. It also depicts the importance of family and friendship, which make us better human beings. One of the most anticipated releases of the summer, The Flying Circus will entertain readers on every page. And once you’ve finished The Flying Circus, read Susan Crandall’s Whistling Past the Graveyard, too. Neither novel will disappoint.

With thanks to NetGalley and Gallery Books for a preview copy of this novel in return for an honest review. All opinions are my own.