Shelf Control #98: Circling the Sun

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Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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Title: Circling the Sun
Author: Paula McLain
Published: 2015
Length: 366 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Brought to Kenya from England as a child and then abandoned by her mother, Beryl is raised by both her father and the native Kipsigis tribe who share his estate. Her unconventional upbringing transforms Beryl into a bold young woman with a fierce love of all things wild and an inherent understanding of nature’s delicate balance. But even the wild child must grow up, and when everything Beryl knows and trusts dissolves, she is catapulted into a string of disastrous relationships.

Beryl forges her own path as a horse trainer, and her uncommon style attracts the eye of the Happy Valley set, a decadent, bohemian community of European expats who also live and love by their own set of rules. But it’s the ruggedly charismatic Denys Finch Hatton who ultimately helps Beryl navigate the uncharted territory of her own heart. The intensity of their love reveals Beryl’s truest self and her fate: to fly.

How and when I got it:

I won this book in a Goodreads giveaway back in 2015 — and I swear, I so appreciate it and was super excited to win and absolutely planned to read it right away… and then I just didn’t. I’m sorry, Goodreads! Please forgive me!

Why I want to read it:

The synopsis doesn’t make this entirely clear, but Circling the Sun is biographical fiction about the life of the great Beryl Markham. My book group read her beautiful memoir West With the Night earlier this year, which inspired me even further to finally read this novel. I really will try to make a point of getting to it in early 2018!

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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
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Flashback Friday: Don’t Let’s Go To The Dogs Tonight

ffbutton2Flashback Friday is a weekly tradition started here at Bookshelf Fantasies, focusing on showing some love for the older books in our lives and on our shelves. If you’d like to join in, just pick a book published at least five years ago, post your Flashback Friday pick on your blog, and let us all know about that special book from your reading past and why it matters to you. Don’t forget to link up!

This week on Flashback Friday:

Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight

Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller
(published 2001)

 Synopsis (Amazon):

In Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Alexandra Fuller remembers her African childhood with candor and sensitivity. Though it is a diary of an unruly life in an often inhospitable place, it is suffused with Fuller’s endearing ability to find laughter, even when there is little to celebrate. Fuller’s debut is unsentimental and unflinching but always captivating. In wry and sometimes hilarious prose, she stares down disaster and looks back with rage and love at the life of an extraordinary family in an extraordinary time.

And from Publishers Weekly:

A classic is born in this tender, intensely moving and even delightful journey through a white African girl’s childhood. Born in England and now living in Wyoming, Fuller was conceived and bred on African soil during the Rhodesian civil war (1971-1979), a world where children over five “learn[ed] how to load an FN rifle magazine, strip and clean all the guns in the house, and ultimately, shoot-to-kill.” With a unique and subtle sensitivity to racial issues, Fuller describes her parents’ racism and the wartime relationships between blacks and whites through a child’s watchful eyes. Curfews and war, mosquitoes, land mines, ambushes and “an abundance of leopards” are the stuff of this childhood. “Dad has to go out into the bush… and find terrorists and fight them”; Mum saves the family from an Egyptian spitting cobra; they both fight “to keep one country in Africa white-run.” The “A” schools (“with the best teachers and facilities”) are for white children; “B” schools serve “children who are neither black nor white”; and “C” schools are for black children. Fuller’s world is marked by sudden, drastic changes: the farm is taken away for “land redistribution”; one term at school, five white students are “left in the boarding house… among two hundred African students”; three of her four siblings die in infancy; the family constantly sets up house in hostile, desolate environments as they move from Rhodesia to Zambia to Malawi and back to Zambia. But Fuller’s remarkable affection for her parents (who are racists) and her homeland (brutal under white and black rule) shines through. This affection, in spite of its subjects’ prominent flaws, reveals their humanity and allows the reader direct entry into her world. Fuller’s book has the promise of being widely read and remaining of interest for years to come.

I read this brutal yet often funny memoir with my eyes hidden behind my hands half the time. It’s terribly straightforward and often hard to take, yet also contains moments of humor and warmth. I couldn’t help being horrified by the truly awful parents and their attitudes about issues from race to child-rearing, as well as the carelessness that constantly imperiled their family. It amazed me that the author actually survived her childhood — a real train-wreck, yet surprisingly hard to look away from. This is a fascinating and memorable book.

What flashback book is on your mind this week?

Note from your friendly Bookshelf Fantasies host: To join in the Flashback Friday fun:

  • Grab the Flashback Friday button
  • Post your own Flashback Friday entry on your blog (and mention Bookshelf Fantasies as the host of the meme, if you please!)
  • Leave your link in the comments below
  • Check out other FF posts… and discover some terrific hidden gems to add to your TBR piles!

♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥

Do you host a book blog meme? Do you participate in a meme that you really, really love? I’m building a Book Blog Meme Directory, and need your help! If you know of a great meme to include — or if you host one yourself — please drop me a note on my Contact page and I’ll be sure to add your info!

Flashback Friday: The Hanging Tree

Flashback Friday is my own little weekly tradition, in which I pick a book from my reading past to highlight — and you’re invited to join in!

Here are the Flashback Friday book selection guidelines:

  1. Has to be something you’ve read yourself
  2. Has to still be available, preferably still in print
  3. Must have been originally published 5 or more years ago

Other than that, the sky’s the limit! Join me, please, and let us all know: what are the books you’ve read that you always rave about? What books from your past do you wish EVERYONE would read? Pick something from five years ago, or go all the way back to the Canterbury Tales if you want. It’s Flashback Friday time!

My pick for this week’s Flashback Friday:

The Hanging Tree by David Lambkin

(published 1995)

From Publishers Weekly:

Magic and science, past and present, collide in Lambkin’s fast-paced thriller, which was a bestseller in South Africa. Kathryn Widd, a paleontologist specializing in violence, goes to Kenya to examine an ancient skull and gets involved in a mystery surrounding a death that occurred on a 1908 expedition, led by John Henry Patterson, to the same locale. From her office in present-day Johannesburg, she recounts the tale of her expedition in a foreboding tone. Accompanied by researcher Ray Chinta, museum administrator Victor Macmillan and his beautiful and enigmatic wife, Marion, Widd makes historic discoveries among the fossils that lend disturbing insight into the origins of human violence. But as the expedition continues, the party begins to relive events that occurred during the ill-fated Patterson expedition. Soon, they find their research straying from the exactitude of science into the realm of magic and mysticism. Looking for metaphysical heft, Lambkin juxtaposes scientific theory with black magic, quantum physics and Bach and uses the metaphor of a fugue to add layers of depth. He falls short of illuminating the implied connections among his many competing themes, and his characterizations rarely rise above stereotype. He does, however, deliver a page-turning puzzler filled with suspense and a richly evoked sense of the African landscape.

I first heard of The Hanging Tree one day while driving home from work listening to NPR. The brief review made this book sound like one not to be missed — but going the way things often do, it was several years before I finally came across a copy and remembered hearing about it.

The Hanging Tree is a fascinating but not always smooth read. The writing style took some getting used to, and the storyline was not really what I’d expected. That said, I couldn’t pull myself away. As the book progresses, we follow the story of a modern-day archaeological dig as well as an earlier expedition — but ultimately the story encompasses new discoveries going back to the earliest humans and what this knowledge proves or disproves about us as a species.

Overall, I’d say that The Hanging Tree is an unusual but engrossing reading experience, and while I didn’t always love the narrative voice, by the end I was completely caught up in the story and its shocking developments and outcomes.

♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥

Do you host a book blog meme? Do you participate in a meme that you really, really love? I’m building a Book Blog Meme Directory, and need your help! If you know of a great meme to include — or if you host one yourself — please drop me a note on my Contact page and I’ll be sure to add your info!

Book Review: A Spear of Summer Grass by Deanna Raybourn

Book Review: A Spear of Summer Grass by Deanna Raybourn

Is this an awesome cover or what? I know, I know, don’t judge a book by its… but hey, this really is lovely. I love the white flapper dress, the image of a woman outside of her natural element, and the gorgeous African landscape. Aren’t you just dying to know what it’s all about? This is definitely what I would consider a successful cover — it draws you in, piques your interest, and makes you want to know more.

A Spear of Summer Grass opens in Paris, 1923, with a young woman in a great deal of trouble. Delilah Drummond thrives on scandal. The quintessential flapper, she’s the life of the party, basking in male attention, always the center of the action, never known to turn down a drink, a cigarette, or a lover. But when the latest uproar refuses to die down and Delilah’s escapades threaten to embarrass not just her hard-partying mother but her moneybags grandfather, drastic action is needed, and Delilah is packed off to her stepfather’s Kenyan estate to cool her heels and wait for the media vultures to move on to the new scandal du jour.

Delilah is not one to go quietly — anywhere — and as she settles into life in Africa, she makes waves among the colonial government officials as well as among the upper class white settlers in her social mix. Yet at the same time, Delilah is charmed by the wildness and danger of her African surroundings and throws herself into the responsibilities of being mistress of an estate, treating the Kikuyu and Masai tribespeople with friendship and dignity.

Not that Delilah has abandoned her wild ways. She attracts the eyes of every adult male in the vicinity, and proceeds to wrap each and every one around her little finger, keeping them as objects of flirtation and sometimes more, but never letting anyone close enough to actually touch her heart. Only one man, enigmatic hunter Ryder White, seems immune to her wiles, and it’s this man who both captivates Delilah and is perhaps an equal for her strong-willed nature.

Delilah and Ryder have a bit of a Scarlett and Rhett vibe going for them. She’s used to being the belle of the ball, accustomed to having every man fall all over her to please and pamper her, hoping for just a bit of her attention and favor. Ryder is somewhat of a scoundrel; he’s respectable enough, but he goes his own way, society’s opinion be damned. They attract, repel, and frustrate each other. The physical attraction is certainly strong, and Ryder is perhaps the one man who can hold his own against Delilah. The outcome of the will-they, won’t-they dynamic is never really in question — it’s clear that these two are made for one another — but the getting there is tumultuous, to say the least.

There’s a lot to really like about A Spear of Summer Grass. The African landscapes and wildlife are described in lush detail. You can practically hear the wind through the savannah and smell the wildness in the air. It’s easy to see how the various characters, often against their will, get caught up in their lives in Kenya and can’t pull themselves away. I enjoyed Delilah’s transformation from spoiled party princess to something more, a woman of character. Delilah’s past is hinted at from the start, but over the course of the book we come to understand the suffering she endured as a result of world war, the losses that caused her to wall off her heart from any hint of vulnerability, and the slow evolution she undergoes as she starts, finally, to live and feel once again.

Ryder is, of course, a typical manly man with a heart of gold, quick to punish wrongdoers but dedicated to protecting the weak, whether people or animals, and righting wrongs wherever he sees them. Of course, he’s incredibly handsome in a rugged, Indiana Jones-ish way, and that doesn’t hurt in the least.

The author does a skillful job of portraying the flavor of expatriate life in colonial Kenya, showcasing the decadent lifestyle of the rich, white settlers, their loose morality, and their unwise indifference to the non-white majority of the country. The scandals, gossip, drinking, and sexual looseness all work perfectly to create a sense of a society adrift and out of touch with the world around them. Visually, there are some remarkable small moments, such as Delilah’s fine silks and delicate shoes falling victim to the blood and dust of Africa — details that convey deliciously the feeling of life lived on the edge of the wild.

What worked less well for me was the inevitability of the romance between Delilah and Ryder. The battle of wills notwithstanding, it’s obvious from the start that Delilah and Ryder are going to end up together, and there was nothing about their developing relationship that didn’t feel like something I’ve seen before. In fact — although this might be contrary to how these things usually go in popular fiction — I think A Spear of Summer Grass might have been a stronger story without the romantic subplot. In and of herself, Delilah is an interesting, strong-willed, trouble-making heroine, and I would have been perfectly content reading a novel that focused on her personal journey without the complication of her lovers and admirers.

That said, I did absolutely enjoy reading A Spear of Summer Grass, so much so that I stayed up past midnight to finish it and had dreams full of safaris and African skies. After finishing this book, I discovered that the author has also published a prequel, Far in the Wilds, as an ebook, and yes, of course I’m going to read it!

Review copy courtesy of Harlequin MIRA via Netgalley.

Flashback Friday: Brazzaville Beach

Flashback Friday is my own little weekly tradition, in which I pick a book from my reading past to highlight. If you’d like to join in, here are the Flashback Friday book selection guidelines:

  1. Has to be something you’ve read yourself
  2. Has to still be available, preferably still in print
  3. Must have been originally published 5 or more years ago

Other than that, the sky’s the limit! Join me, please, and let us all know: what are the books you’ve read that you always rave about? What books from your past do you wish EVERYONE would read? Pick something from five years ago, or go all the way back to the Canterbury Tales if you want. It’s Flashback Friday time!

My picks for this week’s Flashback Friday:

 Brazzaville Beach

Brazzaville Beach by William Boyd

(published 1990)

From Goodreads:

In the heart of a civil war-torn African nation, primate researcher Hope Clearwater made a shocking discovery about apes and man . . .

Young, alone, and far from her family in Britain, Hope Clearwater contemplates the extraordinary events that left her washed up like driftwood on Brazzaville Beach. It is here, on the distant, lonely outskirts of Africa, where she must come to terms with the perplexing and troubling circumstances of her recent past. For Hope is a survivor of the devastating cruelities of apes and humans alike. And to move forward, she must first grasp some hard and elusive truths: about marriage and madness, about the greed and savagery of charlatan science . . . and about what compels seemingly benign creatures to kill for pleasure alone.

I remember exactly where I was when I read this book about six or seven years ago: on a family vacation, hiding away in an air-conditioned room, shushing everyone who dared talk to me (how rude!), and basically refusing to go act like a social creature while I still had pages left in this engrossing book. Interestingly, what I can recall most vividly about the plot of the book is not the human drama, but the animal drama. The chimpanzees at the heart of the scientific research in Brazzaville Beach are fascinating, and while the people parts were great too, it’s the chimp saga that has really stuck with me.

I’m surprised, actually, that I haven’t read more by William Boyd, despite friends who love his works and have highly recommended other of his books to me. Clearly, this is a situation I must correct! Meanwhile, I definitely recommend this book for its evocative African settings and its hard look at human — and animal — behavior.

So, what’s your favorite blast from the past? Leave a tip for your fellow booklovers!

Note from your friendly Bookshelf Fantasies host: To join the Flashback Friday fun, write a blog post about a book you love and share your link below. Don’t have a blog post to share? Then share your favorite oldie-but-goodie in the comments section. Jump in!