Circling the sun: review

Circling the Sun (NetGalley)
Paula McLain
Ballantine Books

There was a time when I thought I was born in the wrong time and place–a time when I dreamed I was meant to stand on the wide savanna scanning the horizon, when I thought I might have my own antelope calf as a pet and sit on the veranda of a house that nestled at the foot of a mountain.

I read Isak Dinesan’s Out of Africa (and saw the movie, too, but it wasn’t nearly so good) and all of Elsbeth Huxley’s books (the best being The Flame Trees of Thika and this time the Masterpiece Theater production was nearly as good!), and Beryl Markham’s West With the Night. The sad thing is I read them all in a period of several months and so keeping the women and their experiences separate is nearly impossible these thirty years later. Instead, I have colorful blur of colonial Kenya in my mind’s eye.

Writer Paula McLain, best known for The Paris Wife, writes about the life of Beryl Markham, who, in her eighties, Circling the sunpublished her autobiography–that West With the Night I read so many years ago. Because of my reading muddle, the only thing I could remember about Markham was her accomplishment as an aviator—but Circling the Sun gives us much more than that.

Beryl Clutterbuck had a childhood marked by a sort of wild freedom that we really can’t relate to today. Her father moved the family from England to Kenya to farm and train horses. But Beryl’s mother couldn’t take the rough life and she left the family and returned to England before Beryl was six. After that, her father pretty much left Beryl to her own devices. She had a roof over her head, food in her belly, plenty of native friends to play with, animals galore, and at least one neighbor, Lady D, who tried to mother her as best she could. Beryl was Lakwet, “a very little girl”, living in wild and wonderful Africa.

All that changed when Beryl was nearly twelve and an evil step-mother (of sorts) entered the picture. Mrs. Orchardson (first introduced as the new housekeeper) expected Beryl to wear shoes and take lessons. No more killing snakes or hunting warthogs. English clothes, not her Kenyan shuka.  Beryl is finally packed off to a girl’s school in Nairobi for a little bit of book learning and (hopefully) a lot of taming.

When Beryl turned fifteen, her father lost their beloved ranch Green Hills. She made a disastrous marriage and, in order to deal with the fall out of that, began her journey towards independence: training to become the first female horse trainer in Kenya.

While Beryl succeeded in her professional life, her personal life was another story—hearth and home would not come easy for her. There was that first marriage. An affair or two. An abortion. Another marriage. A son. A rumored affair with royalty. And all the while her greatest love was just out of reach. McLain gives the impression that colonial Africa was very much a place where staid English men and women could throw off the strictures of polite society and live and love more freely–but where a double standard was still in place when it came to looking away from the “indiscretions” of women.

For me, the novel went on too long in those years between Beryl’s early success as a horse trainer and her life as an aviator, which, surprisingly, filled little of the book.

But I enjoyed Circling the Sun in a special way since it gave me a peek into a world I had once loved so much.

The Truth According To Us (review)

The Truth According To Us (NetGalley)
Annie Barrows
Random House

The charm of writer Annie Barrow’s Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is legendary, especially in the book club world. How many modern “literary societies”, I wonder, have read the novel since its publication in 2008? I know it had everything I love in a good book: quirky characters, strong women, slow-grown love, and a happy ending. Throw in a little-known setting and tell the story in a series of letters … what’s not to like?

I approached Barrows’ new novel, The Truth According to Us, with some trepidation. First of all, Barrows was the The Truth According To Uscoauthor of Guernsey, so my guard was up. But it turns out, she wrote that first novel with her aunt—or, more accurately, revised it extensively before publication, as her aunt was quite ill and could no longer work on the book. Her aunt, sadly, didn’t live to see the novel published. (Barrows’ is also the author of the popular series for middle readers, Ivy and Bean.)

Let’s just say I wasn’t disappointed with Barrow’s first novel for adults authored on her own.

Layla Beck arrives on the doorstep of the Romeyn family as a boarder; she’s  to  write the history of the small West Virginia town of Macedonia working for the WPA’s Federal Writer’s Project. Unbeknownst to the Romeyn’s, Layla is an imposter of sorts. While she is working for the Depression era social works agency, Layla has really been tossed out of her senator father’s D.C. home for living the life of a socialite, but refusing to marry a befitting (read, “wealthy”) suitor. She needs to make her own way in the cold, cruel world.

Macedonia’s sesquicentennial is approaching and a history is just what is needed to memorialize such a grand affair. The town’s elite (I use the word loosely) want their family trees to be reflected on with proper dignity–it might even be acceptable to stretch the truth a bit.

But most Macedonians don’t put up with fools lightly. And in her white suit and silk dresses, Layla looks just that in the oppressive summer heat. Her landlady Jottie Romeyn is closing in on spinsterhood, raising her brother Felix’s two girls, Bird, 9, and Willa, 12. Felix comes and goes on mysterious business trips, and it is pretty clear the Romeyn’s have seen better days.

It isn’t long before the work Layla so resisted begins to give her a purpose—and her research begins to reveal that the history the city fathers have in mind is often far from the truth.

Layla also discovers that she isn’t the only one pretending to be something she’s not; the Romeyns also have secrets. And it’s twelve-year-old Willa who starts to unravel the mystery of the family’s past, first to feel closer to her father and then to “protect” Felix from (as Willa sees it at least) the wily Miss Beck. But like most histories, the Family Romeyn’s has a dark side.

I was put off, at first, with what seemed an awkward narrative style—one chapter would be written in third person narrator, then the next might be a first person account by one of the characters. I’d sometimes forget who the “I” was. (I did, however, finally settle into the style.) And while I loved Willa, I couldn’t help but see her as some sort of hybrid of Scout Finch and Flavia De Luce–and I couldn’t decide whether or not this was a good call on Barrow’s part, or if I felt like she was a bit heavy-handed with her parallels.

It’s true for so many of us that the story we write is often the story we’d like to tell about ourselves, rather than the truth … but in the end, Layla Beck, the Romeyn’s, and Willa work it all out.

The Sound Of Glass (review)

The Sound of Glass (NetGalley)
Karen White
New American Library

You’re strong at the broken places.

This novel starts with a bang–literally–on a hot summer night in Beaufort, South Carolina. Edith Heywood senses an eerie change in the night sounds as she works in her attic studio, then sees a flash of fire explode across the sky. A thump hits the roof and something scrapes along the shingles, sliding into the yard with a thud. Grabbing her young son C.J. from his crib, she opens the front door to chaos: neighbors running, sirens blaring, lights flashing. Still not quite sure what has happened, Edith locates the object that landed in her back garden: a suitcase. It’s then Edith realizes she had witnessed a plane crash. Nervously, fearfully awaiting her husband’s late night return, Edith almost seems to expect the knock at the dreaded knock on her door. The police officer. The chaplain.

Fast forward fifty years and we meet another Heyward widow, Merrit, in the office of the lawyer who is in charge of transferring that same house–her late husband’s childhood home– into her care. A Maine native (who is blissfully unaware of her Yankee-ness, at first), she has left everything to take on the job of restoring the three-hundred-year-old home and cataloguing its antiques. She must also take on the job of restoring herself after her brief marriage to a hard and difficult man. Merritt is a woman who doesn’t want to call attention to herself, content to blend into the shadows.

And then another widow enters the scene. Loralee Purvis Conners is packing her ten-year-old son Owen into the car and moving from Georgia to—you guessed it—South Carolina to meet his older sister for the first time. One Merrit sound of glassHeyward.  Loralee is a Southern gal through and through, right down to her high heels, big hair, and flawless makeup. She records bits of wisdom and lessons learned in the Journal of Truths she is writing, everything from “Sometimes it’s necessary to tell a lie when the truth will break a heart” to “Never give a lady a tube of lipstick without a mirror.” Loralee is as vibrant and alive as Merrit is bland.

And so Loralee and Merrit’s lives intersect, but not without some considerable conflict. Both women have secrets. Merrit’s secret has shattered her past and Loralee’s, her future. But like the sea glass wind chimes that hang on the porch of the Heyward estate, they tumble and toss together until they lose the sharp edges and become something beautiful. We learn about the death of Merrit’s mother and her estrangement from her father after his September-May romance with Loralee; we learn about the secrets Edith kept in her attic studio and buried in her garden. Throw in an adorable (and very precocious) little brother and a drop-dead gorgeous brother-in-law, and the novel is perfect summer reading.

This is a story about coming to terms with our past. Loralee and Merrit and Edith don’t suggest that we reinvent ourselves, really, but rather we come to find out the who our past may have obscured.

Where Women Are Kings (review)

Where Women Are Kings (NetGalley)
Christy Watson
Other Press

There are three places where women are kings …Nigeria, childbirth, and heaven–these are the places where anything is possible for women.

Elijah is a wizard. Not many little boys have wizards trying to creep out of their skin, and Elijah tries desperately to keep him in. Because the wizard uses its power to hurt the ones Elijah loves.  Mama and his papa moved to England Where Women Are Kingsfrom Nigeria shortly after their marriage. Like so many immigrants before them, they wanted a better life. But life away from Nigeria–“a place like heaven”—is far from idyllic. The flat is small and dirty, papa is gone to work and school for long hours, the neighbors are shifty, and Mama has begun to see the red car following her. And then tragedy strikes. Mama runs to Bishop Fortune at Deliverance Church for help, the wizard grows in Elijah, and Mama becomes very, very sick.

So then there were Gary and Sue and Linda and Pete and Nargis and Darren. The wizard, it seemed, couldn’t stay contained for long. At his last house there was a fire. But then Elijah came to live with Nikki and Obi. He had a Granddad, an Aunty Chanel, and a real cousin, Jasmin. (She was a girl, but still. And even better, “the wizard never woke up when she was near.”)

Nikki and Obi knew little about Elijah’s past, other than his birth mother was in Greenfields Women’s Psychiatric Hospital. That he had “thin scars in lines across his chest and back.” And there was that fire. Their social worker and play therapist navigate them through the adoption process and they grow to love this winsome little Nigerian boy with a terrible secret.

The characters in Christie Watson’s novel are spot on. Nikki and Obi love honestly and imperfectly. They worry. They read books like Parenting a Traumatized Child; Healing With Love;  Resilience and Outcomes. Granddad loves with an open heart and a big booming laugh. Chanel is a breath of fresh air as she tries to be so hip and inclusive it’s comical. There wasn’t a whole lot not to like in the novel.

Writer Christie Watson alternates telling Elijah’s story with Nikki and Obi and letters his Mama writes him from the hospital. Be forewarned: Watson’s story is heart-breaking, and as Elijah’s history unfolded it was difficult to read.

But it’s a story worth telling because sometimes love just isn’t enough.