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20 March 2014

Deanna Raybourn: City of Jasmine

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Last year Deanna Raybourn wrote "A Spear of Summer Grass", a delightful story about notorious socialite Delilah Drummond's escapades in mid Africa in the 1920's. "City of Jasmine" has a similar theme about a strong willed independent female travelling in the 1920's. The promo novella "Whisper of Jasmine" introduced us to  Evangeline (Evie) Starke and her whirlwind elopement with adventurer Gabriel Starke after they meet at a New Year's Eve party in 1914 held by matchmaker Delilah Drummond. Unfortunately the book itself didn't live up to the expectations in the novella.

Fairly quickly Evie's hasty marriage to Gabriel has turned sour and during their travels they parted company in China after a huge argument. Shortly afterwards Evie hears of his death with the sinking of the Lusitania. Five years later Evie has transformed herself into a famous adventurous aviatrix flying solo around the Middle East [She was actually taught to fly by Ryder Whitey, Deliah's love interest in Summer Grass.] Eve is in Rome and she is stunned when she receives a mysterious photo of Gabriel which seems to be taken recently. She tracks the source of the photo to Damascus and travels there (by train not plane) with her larger than life adventurous Aunt Dove and her pet talking parrot Arthur (whose favourite expression is to tell the Kaiser to bugger off).

The story then gets immersed in a travelogue for 1920's Damascus, a polyglot of mostly amateur and titled archaeologists exploring the ruins of a Caravanserai in the Syrian Desert led by enigmatic rude, ugly and grubby Oliver Rowan. Evie quickly gets involved in a host of strange adventures, including escaping into the desert to get away from dangerous enemies, being shot at, hiding in a cave and eventually living with a tribe of local Bedouins. It is only in the last few chapters that the story becomes interesting and a bit exciting and Evie has the chance to use her flying skills to chase down her enemies.

The middle of the book is enlivened by a few amusing and strange things. At a quiet time Aunt Dove is found reading the Q'uran to Arthur because "it's only fair because he heard Mass in Rome".  A couple of interesting characters are also introduced. Bedouin Sheikh Hamid ibn Hussein who just happened to go to school at Eton at the same time as Gabriel and mythical Saqr-al-Sahara who played a similar role to Colonel Lawrence in the war in southern parts of the desert.

It is always difficult for an author to keep up momentum on a new theme and unfortunately "City of Jasmine" was a bit of a disappointment after Summer Grass. Apart from the last few chapters I found this book didn't have the pizazz that made the previous book so enjoyable. The ending leaves an opening for a sequel and I don't think I shall be as keen to read it when it is eventually released.

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