Elizabeth Schieber

“Circling the Sun” by Paula McLain

Circling the Sun 9780345534187_5a2b2I picked up an advance of Paula McLain’s new novel, Circling the Sun, knowing that it centers fully on the life of Beryl Markham. I knew that Beryl was an aviatrix, that she had short hair, and that she had written the popular memoir West with the Night. If I’d have had to guess, I would have guess that she was from London. Or that she went to grade school with Amelia Earhart stateside. And that was the extent of my knowledge. As it turned out, I had been operating under false assumptions. Beryl Markham was MUCH cooler than I could have imagined!

Although I was correct in assuming she was British – she didn’t grow up in London, but rather deep in the heart of Kenya. The setting alone made this an incredibly entertaining and worthwhile read. She was tough, she was opinionated, she was also naive and brash and a little bit wild. The novel only briefly touches upon her life in the sky, instead focusing on her life before she discovered airplanes. Her father was a horse trainer, a breeder and an owner and Beryl followed closely in his footsteps (unheard of for a woman at the time). She fell into a fast moving crowd and struggled to keep up, making multiple missteps as she tried. Scandal seemed to follow her around in the most delicious ways (for a reader, at least). I loved getting to know her through this fast moving, entertaining novel. Every other famous Brit living in Kenya during this time (the 1920s and onward) makes a cameo in this book, or is a central character: Idina Sackville, subject of The Bolter, Karen Blixon and Denys (author and love interest in Out of Africa) – all the ones that you could name are here. 5 stars.

If you, like me, are fascinated by this sort of wild and uninhibited period of time in Africa, here are some other books that fit the bill (that are also great!):

  • Wildflower by Mark Seal
  • The Bolter by Frances Osborne
  • Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen
  • West with the Night by Beryl Markham

Circling the Sun: A Novel by Paula McLain (Ballantine Books | 9780345534187 | July 28, 2015)

Among the Ten Thousand Things by Julia Pierpont

AmongTheTenThousandThings9780812995220_dd7ffSometimes all you need to get you out of a reading funk is a well-written story of a messed up family. Guess what? I found one!

If you look at the front cover, you’ll see that Jonathan Safran Foer gave a pretty nice blurb for this debut novel–reason enough for me to pick it up. He’s a favorite of mine, and one who doesn’t blurb often.

Page one tells us that the husband in this family drama, Jack, has had an affair. The recently scorned Other Woman has printed out an entire novels worth of all of their emails and texts, wrapped it up with a bow and sent it off to Jack’s wife, Deb. Pretty common groundwork for any novel that includes an affair, I thought.

However! Usually in these novels, I find one of the two (Jack or Deb, in this case) completely unsympathetic. The wife is too wishy-washy, the husband too unconvincing, why were they ever even married in the first place? What did they see in each other?

In Among the Ten Thousand Things, I liked both sides. I totally believed that there was love in that relationship, love that would make you really consider staying or leaving. Yes, the story is sort of depressing. Yes, there are children involved who are directly affected by the marital drama. But yes, there are some hilarious moments and great lines.

Among the Ten Thousand Things by Julia Pierpont (Random House | 9780812995220 | July 7, 2015)

Review: “The Book of Speculation” by Erika Swyler

The Book of SpeculationDear Booksellers,

Remember all of those customers who found themselves unlikely fans of The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern? Or the ones who keep looking for something like The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield? Well. Here is one you can confidently put in their hands: The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler.

Early reviews have also compared it to Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. And while I (just recently) read and loved Geek Love–I think that comparison is a little bit off. Where Geek Love is darkly tragic, morally blurry, and pretty intense, I found The Book of Speculation to be more commercially appealing. Closer, I thought, to the movie Practical Magic with Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock if the movie were about circus performers instead of witches.

Our hero is Simon–a young librarian who lives in his childhood home on the East Coast. And by “on the coast” I don’t mean somewhere out East. It is literally ON THE COAST. In fact, it is dangerously close to falling off a cliff in the Long Island Sound. Pretty quickly, we learn that Simon’s mother drowned in the sea below their house, and also that his mother, sister Enola and Simon himself all have the uncanny ability to hold their breaths for dozens of minutes at a time.

The novel opens with a mysterious package arriving on Simon’s doorstep–an old, old book filled with dates and names and cities. The old log book from a travelling circus. Quickly noticing that some of the names were familiar, he discovers that some of the “mermaids” in the circus’s log are related to him, and that a shocking number of them died by drowning, all on July 24th of different years. The same day as his mother’s death. As the date gets closer and closer, he frantically tries to solve the mystery/break the curse/connect all the dots in order to, so he thinks, save his sister’s life. I’d give it 4 stars and think it will be an easy sell (especially since the cover is great).


Elizabeth Schieber

The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler (St. Martin’s Press | 9781250054807 | June 23, 2015)

“The Girl on the Train” by Paula Hawkins

“The Girl on the Train” by Paula Hawkins

9781594633669_GirlOnTheTrainA solid twenty-four hours after finishing Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train my heart is still racing and I have the nervous sweats. I think I can count on one hand the number of thrillers I’ve read, and I don’t really want to call this a “thriller” because I liked it so, so, much and thrillers just aren’t my thing.

To start with, the cover is so great. SO GREAT. Second to the cover art, one of the blurbs on the jacket calls The Girl on the Train “Hitchcockian,” a phrase I both love and find incredibly appropriate. If Hitchcock were still around, he’d have optioned this novel before it ever hit the shelves. I can just picture one (or two) of his blondes in the leading roles.

Here is the set up: Rachel, an alcoholic, divorced, unemployed frump of a woman rides the train into and out of London every morning/evening. On her way to and from, the train she takes usually comes to a stop at a certain bend in the track and if she looks out of her window, she can see a row of houses. One of the houses she can see used to be her own – and now her ex-husband lives there with his new wife and their little baby. Another of the houses she can see from her train window is a few doors down and belongs to an attractive young couple that Rachel thinks of as “Jess and Jason.” She loves watching them, seeks them out every time the train stops at this certain bend, often with a pre-mixed gin and tonic or a few mini bottles of wine. And then one day, “Jess” disappears. And drunk, drunk Rachel butts herself right into the investigation.


At the end I felt like I should have seen it coming, but I didn’t and it was wonderful. If you are in a reading slump, read this right away.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (Riverhead | 9781594633669 | January 13, 2015)

“Etta and Otto and Russell and James” by Emma Hooper

“Etta and Otto and Russell and James” by Emma Hooper

etta_otto_russell_james_9781476755670_9f6afThere are a handful of novels that I think of as falling into the category “fit for most women readers.” This genre would include things like Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and Jim the Boy. The everywoman’s novel, perhaps, that is touching and deep and full of characters that hit home. Heartfelt. Tender. Funny. Easy-to-sell. Ones that I enjoy right along side of my mother and grandmother. Initially in my mind, I put Emma Hooper’s Etta and Otto and Russell and James into this category. Partly because the copy on the book jacket makes it sound like the twin novel of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Partly because the story starts out sweet and heartfelt and feel-good. And although I normally love these easy reads I feel ashamed to have lumped Etta and Otto in with them. Etta and Otto is something wonderful and rare.

The novel opens with a note to Otto, from Etta. Gone to see the ocean, it says. And Otto knows that she will have taken off on foot, and that she will have taken the longest route (can you see why it reminded me of Harold Fry?) What follows is the perfect story. Maybe it is just perfect for me, for my tastes, but it has everything I love to read: small farm town with a one-room schoolhouse, families bursting with brothers and sisters and work to be done. Best friends (Otto and Russell), love stories, a war story, whimsy and art and nature. I was expecting this tale of a woman who walks out of town to be sentimental, rewarding, ending in a happy bow. It was SO MUCH MORE. Every few pages I would find myself thinking “I love Otto best.” And then a few short pages later, “No, Russell is my favorite. I love Russell.” Again, but with Etta and then back to Otto and so on. James, the coyote that accompanies Etta on her journey, was perfect for what he was (a coyote, only mildly lovable).

That is how I feel, but it doesn’t really tell you anything about the story. So here is what I’d say: Etta has gone walking to see the ocean. She is old and maybe ill prepared. She leaves Otto behind at home with a box full of recipes and a promise that she’ll return. Russell, Otto’s best friend, has spent his lifetime loving Etta from the farm next door. As Etta walks, we get the story of their youths – Etta and Otto and Russell – from their childhoods through the war and back again to poor farmsteads. There was WAY more in this novel that I expected to find, I was blown away and think that most readers will be too. Plainsong meets Jim the Boy meets Mutant Message Down Under.


Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper (Simon & Schuster | ISBN 9781476755670 | January 20, 2015)