I wrote and scheduled this post before the events in Oklahoma. What a nightmare. My prayers are with the victims and their families.
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. And I never meant to go to Africa. I blame it on the weather. It was a wretched day in Paris, grey and gloomy and spitting with rain, when I was summoned to my mother’s suite at the Hotel de Crillon. I had dressed carefully for the occasion, not because Mossy would care–my mother is curiously unfussy about such things. But I knew wearing something chic would make me feel a little better about the ordeal to come. So I put on a divine little Molyneux dress in scarlet silk with a matching cloche, topped it with a clever chinchilla stole and left my suite, boarded the lift and rode up two floors to her rooms.
So begins A Spear of Summer Grass by Deanna Raybourn, a book described to me as a cross between Out of Africa and The Great Gatsby. That description hinges on the book’s setting: Africa, 1923. In reality, it’s closer to Rules of Civility and Out of Africa the movie, although even that is a poor comparison.
Delilah Drummond is a free-spirited American cotton heiress who spends her time living and loving abroad, most recently in Paris, France. She is never without a man or a drink, and as such often finds herself in regrettable circumstances. Following her latest in flagrante delicto, she agrees it would be best if she waited for the publicity to die down at her stepfather’s estate in Africa. (Kenya, to be specific, but more on that in a minute.) Because she is a loose cannon, and because this is 1923, her 29 year-old virgin cousin, Dodo, chaperones her extended stay.
Almost immediately upon arriving in Africa, Delilah meets a pulsing sack of testosterone named J. Ryder White. I have made my position on character names pretty clear, so you can imagine what I thought of the name “J. Ryder (with a y) White” in a book set in British Colonial Africa. He goes by the name Ryder (with a y), so we don’t know what the J. stands for, although I assume it is John or James or Joseph or some similar name that people actually used in 1923.
I have never heard of Deanna Raybourn before this book, but I hear she is the author of a popular Victorian romantic mystery series called Lady Julia Gray. Like the Lady Julia Gray series, A Spear of Summer Grass is historical fiction with strong romantic elements rather than a true romance novel. Raybourn’s Lady Julia Gray fans are a passionate bunch, and many of them do not feel this book can compare to her Victorian series. I’ve gone through a couple of their most common complaints below.
Writing a book set in British Colonial Africa is tricky. And let me start with that, the geography. It’s actually Kenya. The book is set in Kenya, though it’s only mentioned in passing. Africa is a huge continent, and while the characters go on and on about falling in love with Africa, no one other than Ryder has traveled beyond the borders of Kenya.
This seems like something silly to take issue with, but perhaps the cast of jaded and privileged ex-patriots spouting declarations of love is what pushed it from annoyance to grievance. This brings me to the original point. It seems almost impossible to write a book set in British Colonial Africa from a white perspective without glamorizing colonization to some degree. This is the issue most detractors had with this book, and I agree. Raybourn’s treatment of the tribes, the Masai in particular, ran too close to stereotypical with the gentle warrior, the mystical grandfather, and the mute with a limp whose actions spoke louder than words.
The second issue Raybourn fans was with the amorality of Delilah Drummond. She was sexually aggressive, unapologetic about her hedonistic lifestyle, and shallow.
It was scarcely a fortnight later but all the arrangements had been made. Clothes had been ordered, trunks had been packed, papers procured. It sounds simple enough, but there had been endless trips to couturiers and outfitters and bookshops and stuffy offices for tickets and forms and permissions.
On this issue I didn’t agree. I didn’t find her any more amoral than the male characters in other books, or in this one. Funny, no one complained about Ryder sleeping around with most of Africa (remember, he actually left Kenya), but he did. In Delilah’s case, she used her sexuality as a sword and shield following the death of her 1st husband during WWI, a war in which she served as a nurse–hardly the act of someone shallow and selfish. Ryder wagers he will be the first man to bed Delilah in Africa (there’s a pool) and jokingly threatens to “violate” her in the bush (ha! ha! he’s so funny) but barely a peep about amorality from the peanut gallery because (1) he is a virile man and (2) his first wife broke his heart. Boo-hoo.
“I’m sorry you lost your bet,” I told him. “But let that be a lesson to you, Ryder. I’m no man’s foregone conclusion.”
I find it telling that we seek to comfort and tame the men who act out sexually but spurn the women who do the same. I don’t condone promiscuity or adultery, but neither do I condone double standards.
The uniform came back–or at least pieces of it did. Germans blew him to bits during the Battle of the Marne, and I don’t remember much of what happened after that. A black curtain has fallen over that time, and I don’t ever pull it back to look behind. It’s a place I don’t visit in my memories, and it was a long while before I came out of it. When I emerged, I chopped off my hair and hemmed up my skirts and set out to see what I’d been missing in the world. It had been an interesting ride, no doubt about it, but things had gotten a little out of hand to land me with banishment to Africa. I had handled my affairs with style and even a little discretion from time to time. But the world could be a hard place on a girl who was just out for a little fun, and I felt mightily put upon as the train churned into the station at Marseilles.
Men sow wild oats while women are hoes. I don’t buy it, and I applaud Raybourn for allowing Delilah to give as good as she got, for all the good it did her.
Since this post is also a giveaway, I can’t go into as deep a review as I do usually without giving a way major spoilers. Speaking in generalities, I enjoyed the first half better than the second, which had a conflict and mystery the came and left. Delilah’s voice was a scene stealer for me, excellent, really, but obviously not for those mentioned above so it’s a matter of preference. I’m a sucker for women with sharp, witty minds and am in the “try not to judge until you have suffered an unspeakable tragedy” camp. In response to her prudish cousin getting groped in a nightclub:
“Don’t bother,” I told the devil. “She’s English. You won’t find anything but bony disapproval there.”
I have two copies to giveaway to US and Canadian residents 18 years of age and older. In order to win, please leave a comment on this post. I will pick a winner in one week.
[image source: they are all stills from the movie Out of Africa, of course. It has nothing really to do with the book, and the character have little resemblance to those in A Spear of Summer Grass, but all I can say is Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. If you think I'm going to pass up an opportunity to even tangentially include pictures like this in a post, you must be new here. Hello and welcome.]
I have a writing tip for indie writers. A reader forwarded to me an article on the indie writing industry and the young adult/new adult genre. It’s hot. Super hot. We all know this. There are authors out there making a killing. This person wanted my opinion on the books and in order to give one, I’ve been reading most of the ones cited in the article and some others on my own. Some are good. Some are okay. Some I just don’t get. But good or bad, there is one annoying commonality that separates many of them from traditionally published young adult authors like Chbosky, Green, and company. Something so easy to remedy, too. It has to do with character names but first, some qualifiers.
First, I wasn’t even going to make this a post. This was going to be another one of my non sequiturs on Facebook, but lately I’ve been treating my Facebook page like another blog and I need to get out of that habit. It’s great for having back and forth conversations with people, but I don’t want to regurgitate content, which is easy to do when you are on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. If you follow me everywhere, you have lost any element of surprise when it comes to what I will blog about for the week. Sorry. Expect to see improvement soon.
Second, what I’m about to say can be taken for what it’s worth. I’ve never completed any fiction, though I have tried so I know how difficult it is to do. I am a pretty good editor, and part of me believes I was born to edit, not write. Hear me out on this and see if I don’t make a teeny bit of sense.
Character names. Writers, slow your roll with the creative names. If I read about one more character named Mace, Kayden, Layken, Zade, Reif, Holder, Caymen or Xandalyn, I’m going to lose my mind. Save that creativity for your plot. Every indie book I have read has been a contemporary young adult/new adult, so the setting is present day. The average character is between 18 and 20 years of age, which means they were born between 1993-1995 (God help me). Check the Social Security Administration website for popular names during the decade of your characters’ birth and select from that group for at least 75% of your characters. Here are the top 10 names from the 1990s.
Look at those names. Now look at the names of the characters in your book. The wackiest name for a girl in 1990 was Taylor. Taylor, a beautiful name that these days is considered a gender-neutral classic. Think about this when you name your characters. Think about what was going on when your characters were born, what their parents were thinking or doing. I’m old enough to know people who had kids in the 90s, and they weren’t naming their daughters Xandalyn. You give your character a name that reflects today’s trends and you date your book almost immediately. You also create unrealistic characters and setting. If your main character has parents who are dry and stuffy and intolerant, do you really think they would name their daughter Cyclamen instead of Jessica?
But wait, you say. Plenty of people had unique names in high school prior to 2010. Hey, you’re one of those people! You had a unique name, and you were born in the 70s! So true! And you know what? So does my husband, and he was born even earlier! Two people with unique names in a time of Michaels and Jennifers. But you know who else in my high school had a unique name? No one. I was one of 500. You know who else in my husband’s high school had a unique name? No one. He was one of over 1000. When you give me a book with 10 characters set in a high school and they all have special snowflake names, I’m going to think you’re living out your name picking fantasies instead of concentrating on your story.
So, while unique names happen and have a place in any contemporary young adult novel, you can get away with one, maybe two, because otherwise you will have to convince your reader that in your characters’ small town of Podunk, USA (rant for another day) an entire high school’s worth of parents all got together in 1995 and said let’s name our kids Mace, Kayden, Layken, Zade, Reif, Holder, Caymen and Xandalyn. Good luck with that.
I’m done here. Now go write me a book about a boy named Christopher who falls in love with a girl named Sarah.
p.s. One last thing since you’re taking requests. When Christopher and Sarah first touch–say they brush fingers when he hands her a pencil during Spanish–if you could leave out that line about them literally feeling currents of electricity or shocks or heat waves or any sort disturbance in polarity, that would be awesome.
Reasons I Fell for the Funny Fat Friend is one of the books I read a few weeks ago. Cute! Super light and easy–you’ll finish it in an afternoon. It’s a baseball practice book, if that makes sense. (Please don’t read this expecting classical literature.) The main characters are Brody and Hayley, so their names are plausible. I liked it because Brody narrates the book. As a mother of boys, I loved hearing a male voice. I don’t know how authentic it was since my boys aren’t teenagers, but I had fun reading it. I wasn’t thrilled with how quickly their sexual relationship progressed, and not just because I’m old fashioned. Young girls–junior high girls–need books that encourage body variety and acceptance. They don’t need to read about any of that other stuff, even if it is tame by almost any adult’s standards.
This is the real Ivan.
He died in August of 2012. He never did mentally overcome those decades in solitary confinement and become a mighty silverback once he was transferred to the Atlanta Zoo, but he died content, and at 50 years of age, he was one of the oldest gorillas in captivity. Here is one of his obituaries.
The writing was like poetry. So good, so evocative. I was laughing or smiling or sighing or crying but I was never editing. I never skimmed.
Some examples of a few favorites:
On imagination–here Ivan is contemplating a human friend’s ability to draw.
Someday, I hope I can draw the way Julia draws, imagining worlds that don’t yet exist.
I know what most humans think. They think gorillas don’t have imaginations. They think we don’t remember our pasts or ponder our futures.
Come to think of it, I suppose they have a point. Mostly I think about what is, not what could be.
I’ve learned not to get my hopes up.
Ivan contemplates his place in the world.
But many days I forget what I am supposed to be. Am I human? Am I a gorilla?
Humans have so many words, more than they truly need.
Still, they have no name for what I am.
In these two passages, Ivan is getting frustrated because Julia and her dad don’t understand the message he has left for them in paintings.
This is taking much longer than I’d thought it would.
Sometimes the make chimps look smart.
George gazes at the letters. He spins around to look at me. “Maybe it’s just a coincidence, Jules. You know, a once-in-a-trillion kind of thing, like that old saying about the chimp and the typewriter. Give him long enough and he’ll write a novel.”
I make a grumbling noise. As if a chimp could write a letter, let alone a book.
I could go on, especially about one scene that just took my heart and finely minced it like a cucumber for relish, but I don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t read the book. It’s not just a book for children. In fact, I don’t know that most kids could even appreciate The One and Only Ivan. Nico definitely not. Mikey maybe.
Sometimes you read #1 bestselling books and wonder what you’re not getting. Same thing goes with the award winning books. This book is both commercially and critically successful, and I get it.
EDIT: I had no idea Katherine Applegate is the author of Animorphs! That series is so popular at the school library!
I haven’t forgotten about book club this month. I had these great plans to read The One and Only Ivan with the boys, but this dumb cough lingers and I can’t read aloud for long. I’ve tried, but I end up scratching my throat. So. Time to let go of the dream and read it by myself, which I know I can do quickly. Besides, I’ve heard from several of you that it’s great, and I want to read what you all are talking about!
Wednesday. We’re doing this. Book club discussion on The One and Only Ivan!
I don’t know if I’ve ever shared the above image by Melanie Acevedo, but it’s one of my favorites. It’s the image that inspired the family room and its wall of bookcases. You probably don’t see much similarity between the inspiration and the reality. Our bookcases are dark, but that’s because we already had a few dark ones and it was cheaper to add more of the same finish. Our settee is actually a sectional in white and our pillows are green (that you know of–I recently bought new ones).
You’re right. Our family room doesn’t look much like the picture. One day I will have white bookcases and a little more color on the sectional. Specifically, blue and white because confession: I love blue and white. Second confession: I never use blue and white. I’ve found it’s a color combination that can go wrong quickly, or if not wrong, really, really specific.
Think blue and white and tell me what pops into your head. Never mind, I’ll tell you. Country manors. Geese. Toile. Chinoiserie. Ladies who lunch, cats, too many plants, tea, poetry, and the entire catalog of Merchant Ivory films.
Ignoring the fact that I actually enjoy quite a number of the above, you have to admit blue and white needs someone in its corner to defend it against that bully, neon. Because when blue + white is done right, it is so…right.
It’s possible one of those images does little to negate the blue + white = woman with too many plants stereotype, but you won’t hear the blogger with 15 houseplants complaining.
One more piece of blue and white, this one by Waterford. It’s the Evolution Menagerie Rose Bowl (6.5 inches) and I want it. I picked it out, so of course I want it. (It’s out of stock, but there’s an entire line with the pattern you can check out here.) It’s blue and white and traditional, but still modern. The pattern takes inspiration from the coat of an Ocelot, which is part of the reason I love it so much. Nothing else would allow me the opportunity to dip into my cache of randomly pinned images so tastefully.
Ann Margret with a baby Ocelot on a cheap blue photo backdrop. Sometimes, the awesome images find me.
You figured out I am giving away one Evolution Menagerie Rose Bowl, I’m sure. But do you know why? It’s because while you read this, I am most likely on my 100th walk of the year. (!!!)
Some disclosures and rules
I was not paid, perked, or gifted to run this giveaway. Waterford is a great company and I own several of their pieces. I felt this went well with the intentional home philosophy I’m always harping about and I thought you’d like it.
The same rules as always apply.
In order to be eligible to win, you must be at least 18 years old and a US resident. Please leave one comment on this post. There are no additional entries awarded for liking/following/tweeting/singing/or tapping out in Morris Code anything about Pancakes and French Fries, Waterford, or this giveaway. I will delete additional or duplicate entries. The giveaway will run through April 17, 2013 and the winner will be selected at random. I will announce the winner shortly thereafter and the results updated on this post.
UPDATE: Congratulations, Kate!