White Settlers, Pre-Independence Kenya - "Out of Africa" style books
This list is mostly historical non-fiction written by and about people who settled in Kenya before its independence from Britain. If you're heading for a tented safari experience, you'll certainly want to pick up a few of these to get in the mood!
West with the Night by Beryl Markham, one of my favorite books about Africa, it's a beautifully written autobiography. Beryl was raised in Kenya and became a record setting female pilot, racehorse trainer and close friend of Bror Blixen and Denys Finch-Hatton.
The Flame Trees of Thika by Elspeth Huxley, another beautifully written autobiography of a childhood in colonial Kenya. Her family were pioneering settlers, they built a house of grass, ate off a damask cloth spread over packing cases, and discovered—the hard way—the world of the African.
African Hunter by Bror Blixen, an autobiography of one of the first big-game hunters and husband of Isak Dinesen, This is a well-written book filled with fascinating details about Kenya's wildlife and what it was like to organize hunts during those days.
Straight On Till Morning by Mary Lovell about the life and times of Beryl Markham. I loved West with the Night so much, I was curious about how Beryl spent the rest of life, and this book did not disappoint, it's fascinating.
Out in the Midday Sun, by Elspeth Huxley is a series of vignettes and stories about Kenya when she returns as an adult in 1933. Lots of society gossip about the same era as Out of Africa.
Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen, an autobiography about the time the Danish author spent running a coffee farm in Kenya and her love affair with the charming Denys Finch-Hatton.
Too Close to the Sun by Sara Wheeler about the life and times of Denys Finch Hatton. A good read for those who'd like to know more about Denys, before he met Karen Blixen.
The Bolter by Frances Osborne about the life and times of socialite Lady Idina Sackville. Lady Idina was at the heart of the "Happy Valley" crowd, if you're fascinated with the wild parties, affairs and strange lives of these Kenyan colonial settlers, you'll enjoy this book tremendously.
White Mischief - by James Fox, explores the murder of of Jossyln Hay, Earl of Erroll, a key figure in Kenya's "Happy Valley" crowd. A lady's man, Joss Hay ignored the "rules" of society, and indulged himself with who ever caught his eye, married or not. His murder in 1944, (he was shot through the head), marked the end of an era, but also the start of a murder-mystery, as no one was charged.
Green City in the Sun, by Barbara Wood. The novel follows a British family from the time they first settle in East Africa through British colonization of Kenya and Kenya's freedom from colonial rule.
Kenyan Fiction and non-Fiction Post Independence
Unbowed by Wangari Maathai, an autobiography written by a truly powerful force of nature, Nobel Peace Prize winning environmentalist, Wangari Maathai. This is a must-read for anyone visiting Kenya, interested in the workings of local politics and the challenges it poses to an educated woman trying to make a difference in the world. It's very well written, highly informative and will make you want to get out there and plant a tree to celebrate this amazing lady.
Matigari by Ngugi Wa Thiongo. This is my favorite book by Kenya's most eminent author (he was in the running to win the Nobel Prize for literature in 2010). Matigari is the main character, who returns home after being away from his family, to find that the reality is far from what he's been fighting for. The oral "story-telling" style is very interesting in this book, but you have to stick with it. Slightly more accessible, and also very good is The River Between.
Coming to Birth by Margorie Oludhe Macgoye. A lovely novel about a young woman trying to find her way from a simple rural life, to married life in Nairobi in the years leading up to, and post-independence. Interwoven with the "coming of age" tale are the political happenings, from Mau Mau to Uhuru and to the final statehood under Kenyatta.
I Dreamed of Africa by Kuki Gallman, is a memoir about her life in Kenya which is filled with beauty and tragedy. She moved to Kenya from her native Italy, in her 20's with a young son and second husband Paolo. They acquired a cattle ranch on the edge of the Great Rift Valley in Northern Kenya and lived happily until a double tragedy struck. Kuki still lives on the ranch, is deeply involved in conservation efforts as well as community development projects. Check out her foundation for more.
What price the Christmas goat by Njoki Kamau. This is her authors first novel, and it's an entertaining yet poignant and loving portrayal of modern Kenyans in various circumstances, their fears, hopes and aspirations. Great read for those who want to get an insight into modern day Kenya.
Constant Gardener by John le Carre is about Justin Quayle, a British diplomat whose activist wife is murdered. Believing there is something behind the murder, he seeks to uncover the truth and finds an international conspiracy of corrupt bureaucracy and pharmaceutical money. The movie is good too!
Tick Bite Fever by David Bennun is a very funny account of growing up in Kenya as a white child during the 1970's and 1980's. I thought I'd enjoy it more than I did, given that my childhood experiences in Malawi were quite similar, but it's still a fun, quick read. (Much better biographies by white children growing up in Africa (Rhodesia) include Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller, and Mukiwa: A white boy in Africa by Peter Godwin).
A Guide to the Birds of East Africa by Nicholas Drayson. A lovely novel set in modern day Nairobi and involving two suitors who both fancy Rose, the head of a local bird-watching club. The two suitors embark on a contest to see who can spots the most bird species in one week. The winner will then ask Rose out. Their bird-watching methods reflect their personalities as the shy Mr. Malik walks or drives around Nairobi, while the bombastic Harry Kahn flies all around Kenya. It is similar in style and pace to the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith.
The Hanging Tree - David Lambkin - Palaeontologist Kathryn Widd is called to the Kenyan wilderness to investigate a set of hominid skull fragments. As she studies the ancient fossils, she becomes intrigued by the tale of a 1908 safari and the British nobleman who died mysteriously near the site of her dig.
Wildflower by Mark Seal, a biography about naturalist Joan Root. From her passion for animals to her storybook love affair, to her hard-fought crusade to save Kenya’s beautiful Lake Naivasha, Joan Root’s gripping life story is a stunning and moving tale featuring a remarkable modern-day heroine.
Wildlife and Culture Books
An African Love Story - Dame Daphne Sheldrick, a fascinating and lovely memoir of a life dedicated to conservation, elephant rehabilitation, and a beautiful romance with Tsavo's first warden, David Sheldrick.
Born Wild - by Tony Fitzjohn, the extraordinary story of his passion for lions (he worked with George Adamson) and for Africa.
The White Masai by Corrine Hoffman, is a true love story between a European woman and an African warrior who met while she was on holiday in Kenya. It combines adventure and the pursuit of passion as two star-crossed lovers from vastly different backgrounds try and make it work.
The Tree Where Man was Born by Peter Matthissen -- describes his travels through Kenya and Tanzania during the 1960's with lots of excellent descriptions of nature, culture and politics of the time.
In the Dust of Kilimanjaro by David Western, former director of the Kenya Wildlife Service (now chairman of the African Conservation Centre), describes his career in African wildlife conservation, beginning with his childhood in the bush of Tanganyika.
Coming of Age with Elephants - by Joyce Pool, passionately documents her groundbreaking work with 800 elephants at Kenya's Amboseli National Park, discovering the intricacies of elephant social structure, sex cycles, communication, intelligence and remarkable empathy.
Birds of Kenya and Northern Tanzania, by Dale Zimmerman et al. I find birding books more useful than any mammal guide, it's especially wonderful to identify birds in and around your camp or lodge, and even in the center of Nairobi. This is the best birding book out there, to my knowledge, but look around for birding guides that you can download to your tablet, they are getting better and saves luggage space.
The Safari Companion: A Guide to Watching African Mammals by Richard Estes, is a good guide if you're interested in knowing more about mating rituals, animal behavior, tracks, habitats etc. This guide are nice to page through after a morning game drive, but hopefully the guide you have with you on safari will be able to offer just as much information!
Rough Guide to Kenya - in my opinion the best guide book to Kenya for independent travelers. But anyone visiting to Kenya will benefit from the coverage of Kenya's wildlife, music, history, and culture.
Lonely Planet Guide to Kenya - a close second to the Rough Guide, an excellent practical guide for independent travelers in particular.
Swahili Phrase Book (Lonely Planet) - Martin Benjamin, a very useful phrasebook for those who plan to spend more than a few weeks in Kenya, or if you're heading to the more rural areas. The guidebooks above also have a phrase section that should be adequate for short visits.