Romance, Historical, Contemporary, Paranormal, Young Adult, Book reviews, industry news, and commentary from a reader's point of view

experienced heroine

REVIEW:  A Spear of Summer Grass by Deanna Raybourn

REVIEW: A Spear of Summer Grass by Deanna Raybourn

Paris, 1923
The daughter of a scandalous mother, Delilah Drummond is already notorious, even amongst Paris society. But her latest scandal is big enough to make even her oft-married mother blanch. Delilah is exiled to Kenya and her favorite stepfather’s savannah manor house until gossip subsides.

Fairlight is the crumbling, sun-bleached skeleton of a faded African dream, a world where dissolute expats are bolstered by gin and jazz records, cigarettes and safaris. As mistress of this wasted estate, Delilah falls into the decadent pleasures of society.

Against the frivolity of her peers, Ryder White stands in sharp contrast. As foreign to Delilah as Africa, Ryder becomes her guide to the complex beauty of this unknown world. Giraffes, buffalo, lions and elephants roam the shores of Lake Wanyama amid swirls of red dust. Here, life is lush and teeming-yet fleeting and often cheap.

Amidst the wonders-and dangers-of Africa, Delilah awakes to a land out of all proportion: extremes of heat, darkness, beauty and joy that cut to her very heart. Only when this sacred place is profaned by bloodshed does Delilah discover what is truly worth fighting for-and what she can no longer live without.

Dear Ms. Raybourn,

I’ve read – and enjoyed – most of your Lady Julia Gray mysteries. Your foray into the gothic in The Dead Travel Fast wasn’t as much of a hit with me. Still when I noticed this book at Netgalley, my antennae perked up and I zipped over my request to read it. A book set in the 1920s and in Kenya? Cool and so NOT a Downton Abbey clone. Bring it!

A Spear of Summer Grass by Deanna RaybournMy initial impression was these people are J Peterman catalog come to life. Both in Paris and in Kenya, the crowd among whom Delilah lives and with whom she was brought up are just the type of people to have perfumes designed just for them and carried in special handcrafted fitted leather train cases. This is the smart, sophisticated set who do live it up, use cigarette holders and dance until dawn in riotous clubs run by androgynous managers. This is the age when people still monogrammed linen and flatware upon which divorce changing names would wreck havoc. And that’s before we even get to Africa and the safaris. Thank goodness for the dukas there where one can stock up on those little necessities like duck confit, goose pate, champagne and whatnot before heading out into the bush. One must be civilized after all.

Kenya is only referred to by that name a few times – usually it’s “Africa” that is said but is this what the white settlers and visitors would have used given the colony’s name? I’m wondering how the race relations aspect of the book will go over. It’s not all “white settlers arrive and teach the natives a thing or two” or worse yet “whites arrive to save the day.” In fact, the political unease is already simmering and the whites are aware that things might not stay quiet for long. In trying to salvage a bad situation, Delilah even makes things worse before she does the “grand gesture” that saves someone – and wrecks his life.

At times Delilah is not an easy heroine to cheer for nor an easy woman to even like much less love. But she is unique and as her mother writes her, if one is going to hell one might as well dance all the way and give people something to remember you by. She’s a true image of a 20s flapper with a Parisian couture wardrobe to die for, a taste for Sobranies, sex and the ability to slug back massive quantities of booze. She is also abrasive if she’s annoyed, hellbent on getting her own way and a damn good shot. I found her fascinating and cheered as she got the better of just about everyone in the story.

Ryder is larger than life as well. Truly a man’s man in a man’s world. He’s suave, fearless, has bedded most of the white women in the colony, has the natives fighting to be porters on his safaris, can also down rivers of alcohol, smokes like a faulty 2 cylinder engine, can track any animal across the savannah and then deliver a horse whipping to cads in full view of the crowds at the Nairobi train station. Yet he can be gentle to Delilah’s poor cousin Dora and is far ahead of his time in terms of conservation.

Delilah and Ryder are of course much alike in that they’ve been badly hurt in love before but in different ways. Delilah might as well have crawled in the grave with her first husband while Ryder learned too late whom his first wife really loved. Both have tried to cover their hurt in similar fashion – by partying and by indulging in a glut of one night stands and – in Delilah’s case – ultimately empty marriages. Though she did be faithful to each husband while married to him. The pain they’ve each suffered cut so deeply that they’ve evolved ways to dull it to a haze of oblivion and show me more by their actions than any protestations that “they’ll never love again.”

As such, it takes a lot for either one to show the cracks in the facade much less let someone into their hearts. They fight almost like it’s foreplay and end up attacking each other as much as it’s having sex. There’s truly nothing pretty about that encounter. So if it’s not nookie that brings them together, what is it? Something I like to see even better and which means more to me about how two people think about each other – in their every day actions. Delilah proves she’s got the grit to not only survive but thrive in Africa. She takes care of what needs doing even if it’s distasteful to her, she has standards below which she won’t sink, she’ll stand up for what is right and heaven help anyone who crosses her. Ryder is loyal to his friends, willing to bend the law when the occasion demands and it’s for a good cause and cheerfully takes advantage of idiots who only want to go out and shoot something. He also comes through in the end with a grand gesture of love – even if Delilah initially has to have it spelled out for her

In the end, neither Delilah nor Ryder is perfect. I foresee fights and smashed liqueur bottles galore as they work out their relationship but they’ve come so far from where they were and have helped each other heal that even with the probable fireworks, I think they’re well suited and headed for a HEA. B

~Jayne

AmazonBNSonyKoboAREBook DepositoryGoogle

REVIEW:  The Typewriter Girl by Alison Atlee

REVIEW: The Typewriter Girl by Alison Atlee

Alison Atlee is the creator of the DA Wednesday author interviews that were initially about first books and have branched out into topics.

Dear Ms. Atlee:

Janine actually turned me on to this, your debut novel. I now owe her a big present, because I hate to think that this story would otherwise have escaped my attention. The book is marketed as historical fiction rather than romance, but I will go out on a limb and say that even though it’s only January, The Typewriter Girl is easily one of the most romantic books I’ll read all year.

The Typewriter Girl by Alison AtleeThe story begins with Betsey Dobson, a young woman working in a typing pool in Victorian London. She’s got plans to move on (and hopefully up), though, and to do so she needs a character letter from her employer. Knowing one will not be forthcoming (she’s rebuffed her boss’ advances), Betsey forges one and is caught. The incident ends with her slamming a door on her lecherous supervisor’s fingers and more or less fleeing before she can face arrest for assault.

Betsey is a tough cookie, smart and capable and looking to better herself. She finds herself stymied, as no doubt many working women in Victorian England were, by the lack of opportunities and the lack of protection a young single woman was faced with. She’s risen from a maid’s position (one she was fired from after her employer’s son seduced her) and she is capable of rising still further, if only someone will give her a chance. She thought she’d found that when she’d met John (nee Iefan, in his native Welsh) Jones while taking notes at a meeting he’d attended.

John perceived Betsey’s intelligence and drive (and found something familiar in them, for he too came from poor circumstances) at that first meeting, and impulsively offered her a job at the hotel he works for in the resort town of Idensea. Betsey is to manage outings for hotel guests, an opportunity beyond any she could find in London. But now she’s without the character she was told she must have and short the train fare she needs to get to Idensea. She gets on the train anyway, having nowhere else to go. Thus she arrives in disgrace, all of her worldly possessions (a small valise and a caged bird) with her and in real danger of being jailed as a fare jumper. Luckily, Mr. Jones is at the train station (awaiting the arrival of a young woman he’s courting and her family) and takes pity on Betsey, paying her fare and smoothing things over with the stationmaster.

Betsey is sure that after this latest humiliation, her dream of getting the hotel job is definitely dead. But Mr. Jones decides that he still wants to take a chance on her. In doing so, he opens up a whole new world for Betsey.

Idensea is a far cry from gritty London. The hotel is sumptuous, but Jones has plans to make the quaint seaside town a real destination with the pier and pleasure railroad he’s constructing. He has encountered resistance from Sir Alton Dunning, who is on the resort’s Board of Directors and who fears an influx of the common folk should Idensea become a destination for “day trippers.” Jones believes in his vision; he’s also simply anxious to finish up his work on the railway and be gone, onto the next project. Like Betsey, John is eager to get ahead in the world.

One of the pleasures of The Typewriter Girl is seeing Betsey come into her own as tour manager. She represents untold smart young women of her era, who only needed to be given the opportunity to actually do a job that utilized their brains and assets. Betsey quickly comes up with ways to make the tour operation more profitable, though these put her into further opposition to Sir Alton. John backs her us, as does Tobias Seiler, the kind and wise hotel manager who acts as something of a mentor to Betsey.

Each chapter opens with a brief passage from How to Become Expert in Typewriting, which apparently was an actual book published in 1890. The quotes are usually at least subtly relevant to the goings-on in the story at the moment, or sometimes simply ironically amusing:

None but clean fingers should ever touch even the margin of the paper. (Alas! that it is necessary to say this.)

Sit in an erect and comfortable position close to the machine.

Never fail to use Mr., Esq. or some other title when addressing a gentleman.

The issue of Betsey’s sexual experience and John’s relative lack of same is dealt with in an interesting way. John has learned the hard way to be wary of his carnal appetites. Betsey’s romantic adventures have not always ended well (her latest paramour keeps cropping up and causing trouble), but the lesson she’s learned from that is to take her pleasure on her own terms and no one else’s. She won’t allow herself be “had”; she is an active participant in her own sex life, which seems like it would have been a rarity, at least for a single woman, in Victorian England.

At first the romance feels a little unbalanced; John is far from a cad but he’s so focused on his own idea of success – which includes marrying up (ideally, to a lovely but rather shallow girl named Lillian Gilbey) – that he doesn’t really consider Betsey as a long-term romantic prospect, for all that he’s drawn to her. Betsey falls in love with John more quickly (who wouldn’t? he is eminently lovable), but knowing they have no future makes her wary and, at times, prickly.

Idensea is painted in idyllic terms, particularly as seen through the gaze of those, like Betsey, unused to fresh air and clear vistas. But beneath the beauty, life is still going on, with all its joy and sorrow. A tragedy occurs a bit past the midway point of the book, and it cast the slightest pall over the rest of the story for me. What came after was bittersweet, though the book does have an HEA.

The Typewriter Girl is brimming with interesting and well-nuanced characters: not only are John and Betsey compelling and worth rooting for, but so are the friends Betsey makes, such as Sarah, the owner of the boardinghouse where Betsey finds a home and Sarah’s adolescent son Charlie, who develops a crush on her. Even the “villain” of the piece, Sir Alton Dunning, is painted in shades of gray rather than stark black. An ex-composer, he earned his title through his musical contributions and his fortune through his wealthy wife. But nothing seems to make him very happy, and he seems intent on making those around him similarly unhappy; notably, his son, Noel, who wants to be a musician himself. As John astutely notes, Sir Alton “dreads…risk” and his decisions “come from fear.” Somehow knowing these things made me feel a bit for Sir Alton, even as he tries to manipulate John via Betsey.

Reading this, I was reminded a bit of some of the books of Eva Ibbotson; not in all aspects (most of Ibbotson’s heroines were a good deal more naive than Betsey), but in the lyrical prose, the slightly magical feel of the setting and the warm depictions of the characters. I can hardly think of a higher compliment in my book. My grade for The Typewriter Girl is (a high) A-.

Jennie

 

AmazonBNSonyKoboAREBook Depository