Howdy, guys and dolls. Happy solstice! Now let’s all go gather herbs and dance around a fire.
But seriously. It’s been a while, because despite what T.S. thinks, June is actually the cruelest month. So. How ARE you? Nothing new on Planet Robyn. Just a boat against the current. A very lugubrious boat. With a dragon head. (Can you tell I miss Vikings?) And totally gratuitous Vikings gif happens now…
So this week it’s a TWO FOR ONE! I’m reviewing a book by one of my favourite authors, Spear of Summer Grass by Deanna Raybourn, and a book by another author, The Ashford Affair by Lauren Willig. Why a two for one, you ask? Because I read these books in one week and they are both set in 1926 Kenya. Imagine what that did to my head. It’s a miracle I didn’t pull a Diviners again and chop of all of my hair in a vain attempt to look like a flapper. Which is impossible if your looks can only be described as “Angelica Huston handsome.” Not complaining, just saying.
Before we begin, let’s do another round of shameful confessions. So Deanna Raybourn is one of my FLAs (Favourite Living Authors), maybe second only to the great Bernard Cornwell (Bernard, let me count the ways!). She’s the author of the Lady Julia Grey series of mysteries, featuring one of my most intense Book Crushes (BRISBANE), as well as a really great gothic stand-alone, The Dead Travel Fast. My shameful confession is that I have not yet written a blog about these exceptional books. And it’s not even because of my innate laziness. It’s because they’re too damn close to my heart for me to write about them objectively (or, frankly, coherently). I advise (read: beg) you to read them, of course, and maybe one day I will manage to write a post that does them justice. But in the words of the King: “It is not this day!”
On with the review!
Let’s start with A Spear of Summer Grass by Deanna Raybourn.
The Deal: Delightfully-named Delilah Drummond has finally found herself in one scandal too many. With whispers of her involvement in the apparent suicide of her second husband spreading around Paris like wildfire, even her infamous mother, no stranger to gossip herself, advises her to disappear from society until the rumours are forgotten for some new juicy story. Delilah’s empty pocket book and a desire for something new leads her to choose Kenya as her place of exile. Her stepfather’s place, Fairlight, has fallen into disrepair, but Delilah and her cousin Dodo have nowhere else to go. Her neighbours, a motley group of debauched expats, soon draw Delilah into their fold, and she dives headfirst into familiar vices.
The puzzle of Ryder White is one Delilah wishes she spent less time attempting to solve. An arrogant, condescending womanizer, Ryder is also a famously brave and canny hunter, utterly in tune with Kenya and its people. The two become uneasy friends, and with Ryder’s help, Delilah soon begins to appreciate the strange, complex beauty of a land where life is so vibrant, and too often, so fleeting. She soon realizes that just as she is changing the lives of those around her, so too is she being changed. When violence and conspiracy threaten the fragile place she has begun to love, Delilah has to decide if she will keep being the person she has been, or if she will risk all and try to be the person she can be.
Gods, I suck at the plot summaries, don’t I? Lolz.
Let’s start with the pros. Number one, Raybourn is a straight-up writing MASTER. Seriously. The prose is gorgeous. There are passages in this book that I just had to reread over and over again, they were so beautiful and descriptive and transporting. It was hazardous to one’s sense of reality. I will admit (shameful confession number two) to earnestly searching for jobs in Kenya while reading this book. I also felt that the language used by the characters was really authentic and vibrant. The conversations between Delilah and Ryder felt like conversations I’ve had, which is probably scary when you consider the kinds of conversations they have (cruel and taunting, which is why I am single). The setting is another great thing about this book. There has been a recent surge in books set during the Roaring Twenties, and while that seems to be one of the most beloved periods in history, it can get repetitive. How many sheiks and shebas sneaking into speakeasies and dancing the Charleston until the sun comes up can we have, right? So setting the story in Kenya was a really clever idea. Raybourn combines an era and a location that are seemingly incompatible, the one slick and stylish and modern, the other wild and rugged and ancient, and it really does work wonderfully.
I also appreciated that Raybourn incorporated native Kenyans into the story. Gideon, a Masai warrior and friend of Ryder’s, was one of the best aspects about the novel. His inclusion didn’t feel arbitrary or forced, nor was it – in my opinion – an instance of tokenization. Too often historical novels set in locations outside of Europe are guilty of extreme white-washing. This novel is further testament to Raybourn’s cultural and racial sensitivity, previously demonstrated in her earlier novels (again, BRISBANE).
Alas, there were some cons, too. The plot of the novel felt aimless at times, and the pacing was definitely off. Nothing happens for a long time, and then, BAM! Everything happens, and then it’s over. My chief complaint, however, is the characters. At the novel’s outset, Delilah is a complex, exquisitely crafted character, quite different from any character I’ve read. I didn’t like her, but I liked that I didn’t like her (and do check out this piece at The Atlantic for some interesting thoughts about likeable female characters in fiction). What bothered me was that I couldn’t reconcile the Delilah of the beginning of the story with the Delilah of the ending. Her apparent evolution from gleeful hedonist and unabashed brat to self-sacrificing and sensitive crusader felt (oh, how it hurts to write this) disingenuous, as though the plot demanded a martyr and so Delilah was thrust into the ring. Dodo was a cipher, though the minor characters were well-done. And as for Ryder – I love an emotionally inaccessible, Whitman-quoting Adonis who is as mean as he is hot as much as the next girl, but all I could think of was this:
Shudder. Please forgive me for that. (Scrubs brain with lye soap).
Verdict: Read it. Delilah is a fresh, interesting character, and we could all use a free trip to Africa, even if it only happens in our brains. Team Raybourn forever!
Best lines: The opening lines of the book are pretty boss. “Don’t believe the stories you have heard about me. I have never killed anyone, and I have never stolen another woman’s husband. Oh, if I find one lying around unattended, I might climb on, but I never took one that didn’t want taking.” (You go, gurl! YOLO and so on.)
Rating: Three and half out of five wrinkles on Robert Redford’s face. Sorry! I can’t help it! Argh! It won’t get out of my head!!!
Don’t think about Robert Redford’s face, don’t think about Robert Redford’s face. Must. Think. Of. Something. Else. Here, think of this:
Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. Much better.
Gulp. Moving on. And now, Lauren Willig’s The Ashford Affair.
The Deal: It’s 1926 and this girl is in love with this guy but he’s married to her cousin and even though that sucks and her heart is totally broken, she goes to Kenya to visit them because, geez, that’s always a great idea and I guess she didn’t have anything else going on, and also seventy years later the grand-daughter of the girl with no sense of self-preservation is a lady lawyer who also has lady problems like “having it all” and “leaning in” before that was a thing and maybe stumbling upon a family mystery /conspiracy/cover-up thing that, sadly, has nothing at all to do with aliens like all conspiracies should and YES I am still thinking about Tom Hardy and so are you probably and I know I should be summarizing this god-awful book but this is MY blog and I do what I want. MIC DROP.
Groan. Do I even have to do this? Fine.
I did not like this book. The best thing I can say about it is that Willig is a good writer. Even though I hated the story (stories?) and I hated the way it was told and pretty much everything else about it, it was well-written, in terms of form and style. The descriptions of post WWII England and Kenya were very evocative, and I had a very clear picture in my mind of the characters and events as I read. And that’s about as good as it gets.
What was so objectionable? Everything. Ok, really? I absolutely loathe the whole dual timeline thing. Willig does it in her Napoleonic spy series as well, but in those the frame narrative set in modern-day England is less obtrusive. In this novel, however, it was an epic fail. I couldn’t stand the false sense of urgency and suspense caused by the inclusion of the 1999 story-line. I didn’t care if the grand-daughter solved the mystery because it meant I, the reader, had to wait for her stupid ass to figure everything out before I could. Does that make sense? I hated the switch in story-lines at every crucial moment in the story. The 1926 story didn’t need the 1999 one. It just resulted in a bloated, clumsy novel that had no elegance, no vitality or charm.
The sad thing is that if the novel had been comprised solely of the 1926 story, I think it would have been much better. #WriterLessons
Verdict: Don’t read it. Just read A Spear of Summer Grass.
Best lines: “But it was fundamentally harmless, this little dream of love, based on a fine pair of eyes and a passing kindness, just something to send her to sleep with a smile after a particularly trying evening…” (p. 117)
Rating: One out of five stolen husbands. Because one stolen husband is better than none.
But let’s end on a positive note, shall we?
Yeah, you’re welcome.
That gif brought to you by the Tom Hardy part of the internet, which I discovered mere moments ago. Sigh. My hard-drive is not going to survive this.