Friday, April 26, 2013

Book Review - Deanna Raybourn's A Spear of Summer Grass

A Spear of Summer Grass by Deanna Raybourn
ARC Provided by the Publisher
Published by: Harlequin MIRA
Publication Date: April 23rd, 2013
Format: Paperback, 400 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

"Picture it. May of 2011. Two writers having drinks in the lounge of the Yale Club after a tough day signing books at Book Expo America.

Then picture two glasses of prosecco simultaneously sloshing over as Deanna and I discovered that we were both working on books set in 1920s Kenya. Around the same group of people. At the same time. Well, maybe not exactly the same time: Deanna’s was 1923 and mine was 1926. But close. Our characters had come from the same sorts of background and found themselves in the same milieu. Once we got our jaws back in place—and ordered some more prosecco—we were both bouncing in our chairs, chattering a mile a minute, comparing notes and sources, so delighted to have someone working in exactly the same world.

We tried to get Tasha Alexander to start writing 1920s Kenya, too—just so we could all keep going on tour together—but, sadly, she resisted our blandishments." - Lauren Willig

"I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass."

- Walt Whitman

With her latest scandal, another husband dead, this time via suicide, and a fight for the his inheritance of the Volkonsky jewels arising, Delilah Drummond's family has come together in Paris to discuss her exile. She must remove herself from public scrutiny or face being cut off forever by her Grandfather back in New Orleans. The imperial "they" have decided that she will hide herself away at her ex step father's house Fairlight, in Kenya. Delilah doesn't have much of a say and agrees to the arranged banishment, knowing full well that as soon as the allotted time is over she will be back in Paris, or New York, or whatever city will have her, probably not New York... that pesky Volstead act kind of puts a kink in ones cocktails.

Arriving in Africa with her "devoted" cousin Dodo as her chaperon, Delilah doesn't quite know what to make of her situation. Firstly, Fairlight is in far worse shape then she was led to believe. Secondly, she is now a part of Kenyan society. A society made up of the outcasts of respectable civilization, meaning mainly people Delilah already knows. It's quite a shock to be relocated but still surrounded by those who were a little too outre for everyone else. There is a part of Delilah that feels at home picking back up where she left off before getting married to husband number two with the artist Kit Parrymore, located near at hand on the Fairlight property. Also the dinner parties hosted by Rex and Helen Farrady, as the reigning King and Queen of Kenya, are just the kind of social occasions Delilah is used to with booze flowing and witty conversation larded with innuendo. Though Helen's private parties are another story...

Soon Delilah is fighting not just her new found love for Africa and the new world and experiences she has reluctantly embraced, but she's also fighting her attraction to Ryder White. Ryder, that great white hunter. The man of contradictions, who believes in the preservation of Africa and it's animals, while also leading Safaris for those who are willing to overpay him. For the first time Delilah isn't giving in immediately to her fleeting fancies... but that could be because Ryder rankled her with placing a bet that he would be the first to bed her. Is it wrong that she took delight in sleeping with Kit so fast just to make him lose? Yet, how long can she deny that she has stumbled into everything she's ever needed?

Like the Whitman poem the book takes it's title from, there's a freshness, a freeness to Deanna's Africa with its overt sexuality that makes this book an addictive and delicious read. While I feel that this is the best Raybourn book I have read I have a feeling that the rawness and sexuality might deter other readers, whereas I felt that it perfectly captured the time and the place that was epitomized in Delilah. Raybourn is able to take old tales and stories from the Happy Valley Days and inject a new life to them. Helen's bathtub, and in fact Helen herself, with nods to Idina Sackville, doesn't feel heavy with the baggage of multiple retellings. Deanna was able to incorporate aspects and anecdotes of the time without making it feel like you've heard it all before, which is a true gift after all the books on Africa I have recently read. Deanna made Africa feel new to me, and I don't think there are many authors or books I can say that about. Delilah had so much life that, while we do get a mystery buried deep down, A Spear of Summer Grass is more a character study then a whodunit, and I didn't regret that for a minute.

The most refreshing aspect though was that while Delilah had the Great War baggage and the night terrors and all the typical signs of PTSD, we are not forced to dwell on this. As I have ranted before, so many modern books belabour this point and make more of it then what it is, not a part of the character, but something that is bigger then the character and becomes a separate entity weighing down the whole book. Delilah is damaged, but everyone in Africa is damaged in some way according to Ryder. Blessedly Deanna handles this balance just perfectly and I didn't have to read about guns in the distance causing flashbacks, yet again.

Being a book that is more a character study, it was the originality and the connection between these characters that made this book get devoured by my eyes. While I do really really like Ryder as the hero and his luscious Han Solo Harrison Fordness which was tailor made for the fair Princesses among us, he wasn't the big draw for me. The two characters I connected with most are Ryder's best friend Gideon and his little lame brother Moses, who are native Masai. The way Gideon becomes Delilah's best friend and how they bond over just talking about the simplest of things, like the Masai words for plants, made him far and away my favorite character in the book. He was so real that he walked right out of the pages and into my heart. Likewise his younger brother Moses. To not only have a connection because of his being a sweet boy with a lame leg who doesn't speak, I mean, how could you not love the little Tiny Timness of him? But to then have that couched in the language of what these things really mean within Masai culture, and how his disability means that he is not only different, but that because of this he can't get cattle to raise and if he doesn't get the cattle then there is no way he can afford a dowry and without that he will never marry and have a fulfilled life. The fact that Delilah hires him, that this simple gesture means that Moses could have a real and full life because he is now able to contribute, makes you have the feels all the more. I would even go so far as to say that because of Deanna's integration of characters and culture, that you get to read a deeper book them most of the books on Africa out there.

But if you really want more Ryder, and I can't really blame you, you should check out his little prequel novella, Far in the Wilds. Now I must go listen to some music, because if there is only one flaw in the book, it's that now I can't get Tom Jones's Delilah out of my head...


I haven't read anything written by this author yet, but these days I need an "addictive and delicious read". Great review! :D This book is now on top of my wishlist!>_<

I have a feeling this will hit my re-read list quite soon. Such fun!

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