The Night of the Mi’raj by Zoë Ferraris

Abacus| 16 August 2012 | 360 pages| e-book edition| My own copy| 4*

The Night of the Mi’raj (published as Finding Nouf in the USA) is the first book in Zoë Ferraris’  Katya Hijazi series, set in modern day Saudi Arabia, featuring Nayir al-Sharqi, a desert guide and a laboratory technician Katya Hijazi. When sixteen year old Nouf ash-Shrawi disappears from her home in Jeddah, just before her arranged marriage, her brother, Othman, asks his friend, Nayir to find her. After searching the desert for ten days, Nayir fails to find her, but then Nouf’s body is found in a desert wadi. It appears that her death was an accident and that she died by drowning in the wadi after a sudden storm.

Nayir is puzzled. Why did Nouf run away to the desert, leaving behind her fiance and a luxurious life with her wealthy family? He’d never failed before to find a lost traveller and he assumed if she had run away it was because she didn’t want to be found. Her family accept the verdict of accidental death, but when Katya tells Nayir she has found evidence that Nouf was murdered he feels compelled to uncover the truth about her death. The more the two of them discover the more problems and challenges arise.

What is most fascinating in this book for me is not the mystery, but the developing relationship between Nayir and Katya and the description of life in Saudi Arabia. Nayir is not a Bedouin or a Saudi, he’s a Palestinian. But the Bedouin had taught him about the desert:

From here he had a sprawling view of the desert valley, crisp and flat, surrounded by low dunes that undulated in the golden colour of sunset. … The wind picked up and stroked the desert floor, begging a few grains of sand the better to flaunt its elegance, while the earth shed its skin with a ripple and seemed to take flight. The bodies of the dunes changed endlessly with the winds. They rose to peaks or slithered like snake trails. The Bedouin had taught him how to interpret the shapes to determine the chance of a sandstorm or the direction of tomorrow’s wind. Some Bedouin believed that the forms held prophetic meanings too. Right now, the land directly ahead of him formed a series of crescents, graceful half-moons that rolled towards the horizon. Crescents meant change was in the air.

I was puzzled by the title of the UK publication – The Night of the Mi’raj, so I was pleased that Zoë Ferraris explained why she chose it in her Author’s Note. The mi’raj is both a physical journey and a spiritual climax, a moment of revelation for Mohammed. She states that; ‘In this book Nayir’s journey to learning the truth behind Nouf’s death is, for him, both a physical and a spiritual discovery too.’

There are two more books in the Katya Hijazi series: City of Veils and Kingdom of Strangers.

Two Novellas in Now and Forever by Ray Bradbury:#NovNov22

HarperVoyager| 25 June 2012| 240 page| e-book| 4*

Now and Forever is the first book by Ray Bradbury that I’ve read. It contains two novellas – Somewhere a Band is Playing, in which a young writer discovers that all is not as it seems in a nostalgic community, and Leviathan ’99, a retelling of Moby Dick set in space. Two very different stories, each one fascinating, and both with a long history, as Bradbury wrote each one over several decades. They contrast both in style and content. I enjoyed both, but Leviathan ’99 is my favourite.

In the first, Somewhere a Band is Playing, (102 pages) a reporter James Cardiff arrives in Summerton, a small town in the middle of Arizona, a town which seems perfect, a quiet peaceful place. He can hear in the air the quiet sound of a band playing. But the more he explores the more mysterious Summerton becomes. For one thing there are no children and no hospitals or doctors because no one gets ill and even stranger the graves in the cemetery are empty. The story has a nostalgic feel, a sense of melancholy and myth as James, under the guidance of a beautiful young woman, Nefertiti, discovers the truth about Summerton.

Bradbury’s introduction to Somewhere a Band is Playing explains that he begun writing a screenplay and short story about a small town somewhere in the desert and how he had kept encountering Katharine Hepburn either in person or on the screen and was attracted by the fact that she remained youthful throughout the years. Then in 1956 she had made the film Summertime and this had led him to put her at the centre of a story and so Somewhere a Band is Playing slowly evolved. Another element of the story came when he saw the film, The Wind and the Lion and was so taken with the score that he wrote a long poem based on the enchanting music. He then put these elements together to produce this novella, which he dedicated to Anne Hardin, who had encouraged his work and to Katharine Hepburn.

Leviathan ’99’ (101 pages) is dedicated to Herman Melville because after spending a year writing the screenplay for John Huston’s Moby Dick he’d fallen under the spell of Melville and his ‘leviathan whale’. Bradbury then wrote his first script of Leviathan ’99’, which was eventually produced by BBC Radio in London, then as a longer version as a play in 1972. Finally thirty years later he finished writing it as a novella as his ‘final effort to focus and revitalize what began as a radio dream.’

I haven’t read Moby Dick, but I enjoyed this story about spaceships instead of sailing ships, mad astronaut captains instead of seafaring captains and the blind white comet instead of the great white whale. It’s set in 2099 and begins as Ishmael, an astronaut joins the Cetus 7, the largest interstellar ship ever built. The spaceship is on a mission, travelling beyond the stars. His cubicle roommate is Quell, a seven feet tall, green spider who is a telepath. The captain is mad, obsessed with finding the comet, Leviathan, the largest comet in history that had blinded him thirty years earlier. As Quell described it ‘the universe set off a light-year of immensity of photographic flash. God blinked and bleached the captain to this colour of sleeplessness and terror.’

It is an incredible achievement transposing Melville’s 19th century epic into a hundred page novella set in the future.

Two Short Reviews: Coffin Road by Peter May and The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

Two more short reviews as I try to catch up on the books I’ve been reading. Both are excellent books, each one with a great sense of location and descriptive writing bringing the scenes and characters vividly to life.

First, Coffin Road by Peter May, is a standalone novel, set on the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides. I read it because I loved his Lewis trilogy. There are 3 strands to the story. There’s a mystery surrounding a man, washed up during a storm on a deserted beach on the Isle of Harris. He is wearing a life jacket, is battered and bruised – and has no idea who he is or where he is. The only clue to why he is living on Harris is a folded map of a path named the Coffin Road and following the route marked on the map he finds some hidden beehives that are familiar to him. In the second strand DS George Gunn investigates the murder of a bludgeoned corpse discovered on a remote rock twenty miles to west of the Outer Hebrides. And thirdly, a teenage girl in Edinburgh is desperate to discover the truth about her scientist father’s suicide.

It is fast-paced, almost impossible to put down, and full of intrigue and mystery. Each strand of the story kept me guessing, wondering what the connections between them were. It’s tense with the sense that time is running out for all the characters and I wasn’t sure whether any of them were reliable narrators or were who they appeared to be.

In addition the bees have a major role in the story. All the facts about the bees slot seamlessly into the story and I learned quite a lot about bees that I didn’t know before, especially their role in climate change.

The Wonder is a very strange story. It’s uncomfortable reading, but I felt I just had to read it. And although it moves at a slow pace I read it quickly in large chunks. It is tense, full of atmosphere and just like Coffin Road, I found it almost impossible to put it down, such is the power of Emma Donoghue’s storytelling.

The plot is simple: it is set in a small village in the Irish Midlands in the 1850s. Eleven-year-old Anna O’Donnell stops eating, but remains miraculously alive and well. A nurse, Lib Wright, trained in the Crimea by Florence Nightingale, and a nun, Sister Michael are hired by a committee of influential locals to spend two weeks observing her to make sure she is not being fed secretly.

Lib observes Anna in scrupulous detail, noting Anna’s symptoms. At first she seems a healthy little girl but as the two weeks go by she develops worrying symptoms – downy cheeks, scaly skin, blue fingertips, and swollen lower limbs and hands. Lib begins to realise that it is not just a question of how Anna is managing to exist without food, but also why. What is motivating Anna to persist in saying she is not hungry and doesn’t need to eat? The answer seems to lie in her religious beliefs, and maybe religious hysteria is playing a part as well as the clash between medical science and faith. But is there more to it? Lib wonders about the family’s relationships and the effect of Anna’s brother’s death just a few months before Anna stopped eating.

As Donoghue explains in her author’s note The Wonder is an invented story, inspired by almost fifty cases of so-called Fasting Girls in the British Isles, Western Europe and North America between the 16th and 20th centuries. A film of the book is available on Netflix, but I don’t think I could bear to watch it.

The Island by Victoria Hislop: A Short Post

I have been struggling to write posts recently. I haven’t been able to settle down to writing after finishing a book, either because I’m too eager to read the next book, or like Heavenali I’ve been so distracted and mithered by other things going on in my life, mostly minor that shouldn’t really bother me, but do, that I am finding it hard to concentrate on writing.

So, that is why I haven’t written about a number of books I read earlier this year. Some of them are books that qualify for the Wanderlust Bingo CardThe Island by Victoria Hislop, The Fellowship of the Ring by J R R Tolkien, The Night of the Mi’raj by Zoë Ferraris and Coffin Road by Peter May. These aren’t the only books I’ve read that need to write about, but it’s a start.

The first one I’m writing about is The Island by Victoria Hislop, her debut novel and one of my TBRs. It’s been on my bookshelves for years and I did start reading it soon after buying it, but I didn’t get very far and put it back on my bookshelves. Since then I’ve read three other books by Victoria Hislop and enjoyed them so I decided to try it again, especially as it fills the Island Square (set in Greece) on the Wanderlust Bingo card. I began reading it in August, when I took it away with me, visiting family, but didn’t find much time to read it and had to set it to one side. After I returned home I went on to read other books until October when I picked it up once more.

It is historical fiction set in Plaka on the island of Crete and in Spinalonga, a tiny, deserted island just off the coast of Plaka. I wasn’t very sure I would like it when I read the first chapter about Alexis Fielding longing to find out about her mother’s past. Sofia had never told her anything about it and all that Alexis knew was that Sofia had grown up in Plaka, a small Cretan village before moving to London. She gave Alexis a letter to take to an old friend, Fotini, promising that through her she will learn more. And once Fotini entered the story I was hooked as she told what had happened to Sophia’s grandmother, Eleni and her daughters, Anna and Maria after Eleni caught leprosy and was sent to live on Spinalonga.

Beginning before the Second World War the story moved between Plaka and Spinalonga and I loved all the details of Elena’s life on Spinalonga, but then when the narrative moved on to describing her daughters’ lives I began to lose interest. Instead of a fascinating historical novel about leprosy it changed into a historical romance, which I didn’t enjoy as much as the earlier part of the book. Overall, I think it’s too long and drawn out, and the ending is a bit too neat. So I’m giving this book 4*, combining 5* for Eleni’s story and 2-5* for both the beginning and the ending.

I’m hoping to write similar short posts for the other three books.

White Rose, Black Forest by Eoin Dempsey

Rating: 3 out of 5.

This is the second of several short posts as I try to catch up with writing reviews of books I read earlier this year.

White Forest, Black Rose by Eoin Dempsey is a World War 2 novel which is different from other books set during the War that I’ve read before, told from the perspective of a German who opposed the Nazis. It is set in the Black Forest, Germany in 1943, where Franka Gerber is living alone in an isolated cabin, having returned to her home town of Freiburg after serving a prison sentence for anti-Nazi activities.

It is December and the Forest is blanketed in deep snow when she discovers an unconscious airman lying in the snow wearing a Luftwaffe uniform, his parachute flapping in the wind. Taking him back to the cabin she saves his life, but whilst he is unconscious she hears him speak in English and so it seems that he is not who she first thought he was. Both his legs are broken and, having been a nurse, Franka is able to set the bones, and tries to discover his true identity. Trapped in the cabin they both gradually reveal details of their past lives and learn to trust each other.

It is a tense, claustrophobic novel and as soon as he is able to walk they decide to leave the cabin and so begins a race against time, as they are hunted by the Gestapo. Can they trust each other enough to join forces on a mission that could change the face of the war and their own lives forever?

White Rose, Black Forest is a novel inspired by true events, although the author doesn’t clarify what is fact and what is fiction. I enjoyed it, especially the historical aspects. The White Rose movement in Germany was a non-violent intellectual resistance group in Nazi Germany, who conducted an anonymous leaflet and graffiti campaign that called for active opposition to the Nazi regime.

It slots into the Forest box in the Wanderlust Bingo card and is also one of my TBRs, a book I’ve owned since 2018.

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

Once more I’m behind with reviews of some of the books I’ve read in June, July and August, so this is the first of several short posts as I try to catch up with writing reviews.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I loved State of Wonder by Ann Patchett!

After a slow start I began to realise that this was a book I was really going to enjoy. In some ways it is similar to Heart of Darkness by Graham Greene, but set in the Brazilian jungle along the Rio Negro instead of the Belgian Congo in Africa. It slots into the River box in the Wanderlust Bingo card. It is also one of my TBRs, a book I’ve owned since 2015 and so qualifies for the Mount TBR Challenge.

Dr. Annick Swenson, a research scientist, is developing a drug that could alter the lives of women forever. But she refuses to report on her progress, especially to her investors, whose patience is fast running out. Anders Eckman, a lab researcher, is sent to investigate. When Dr. Swenson reported that Anders had died of a fever in a remote part of the jungle, Dr. Marina Singh, a former student of Dr. Swenson, is sent to find out what has happened to him.

From that point onwards it gets more and more complicated. First of all it’s very difficult for her to meet Dr. Swenson, and when she does eventually reach her there are all the dangers of the rain forest to deal with, including deadly snakes, hundreds of insects, mysterious natives and exotic diseases plus the intense heat. There are also secrets and lies that are only gradually revealed.

The novel raises questions about the morality and ethics of research into the use of extreme fertility treatments and drug studies in general, along with the exploitation of native populations. It is wonderfully descriptive and I could easily imagine that I was there in the jungle, experiencing the oppressive heat and humidity. I found it all fascinating and I was totally absorbed in the story.

The Night Hawks by Elly Griffiths

Quercus| 4 February 2021|e-book| Print Length 321 pages| My own copy| 4*

Synopsis:

Dr Ruth Galloway returns to the moody and beautiful landscape of North Norfolk to confront another killer. A devastating new case for our favourite forensic archaeologist in this acclaimed and bestselling crime series.

The Night Hawks, a group of metal detectorists, are searching for buried treasure when they find a body on the beach in North Norfolk. At first Nelson thinks that the dead man might be an asylum seeker but he turns out to be a local boy, Jem Taylor, recently released from prison. Ruth is more interested in the treasure, a hoard of Bronze Age weapons. Nelson at first thinks that Taylor’s death is accidental drowning, but a second death suggests murder.

Nelson is called to an apparent murder-suicide of a couple at the isolated Black Dog Farm. Local legend talks of the Black Shuck, a spectral hound that appears to people before they die. Nelson ignores this, even when the owner’s suicide note includes the line, ‘He’s buried in the garden.’ Ruth excavates and finds the body of a giant dog.

All roads lead back to this farm in the middle of nowhere, but the place spells serious danger for anyone who goes near. Ruth doesn’t scare easily. Not until she finds herself at Black Dog Farm …

My thoughts:

The Night Hawks is the 13th book in the Dr Ruth Galloway books. I’ve enjoyed the earlier books, despite the fact that they are written in the present tense. But it’s been a while since I last read one, 5 years to be precise and I’ve missed a few of them as the last one I read was the 9th book, The Chalk Pit.

So, Ruth’s life has moved on the three books I haven’t read! There is a Who’s Who of the main characters at the end of the book giving their backstories which helps if you haven’t read the earlier books, and reminded me of who they all are and their relationships.

Ruth, the central character, is now Head of the Department of Archaeology at her old university, the fictional University of North Norfolk, having been promoted after the retirement of her old boss, Phil Trent. Her replacement as the archaeology lecturer is David Brown, who Ruth finds annoying. She doesn’t really know why as they have the same academic speciality, the prehistoric era, particularly as that is partly why she employed him to teach the courses that she used to teach. She is also a special advisor to the north Norfolk police.

Her complicated relationship with Detective Chief Inspector Nelson, the father of her daughter, Kate, now ten years old, continues in this book. Nelson thinks of himself as an old-fashioned policeman. But Superintendent Jo Archer is keen to bring the force into the twenty-first century and wants him to retire. He dismisses that idea, maintaining that the police force needs his experience and know-how. He has no plans to retire and avoids talking to her whenever he can.

A body is found on the beach at Blakeney Point, a young man who Nelson guesses is an illegal immigrant, an asylum seeker, and then a skeleton, buried in a mound of what appears to be Bronze Age weapons, discovered by the group known as the Night Hawks when they were searching for buried treasure.

The police are also investigating what at first appears to be a case of murder-suicide at Black Dog Farm, an isolated farm said to be haunted by the Black Shuck. Shuck is the name given to an East Anglian ghostly black dog that is said to roam the coastline and countryside of East Anglia, a large, shaggy dog said to be an omen of death. And there had been quite a few sightings of such a dog near Black Dog Farm.

I was thoroughly entertained by this mystery, glad to get re-acquainted with Ruth, her family and her friends and colleagues. There is a really strong sense of place, so much so that I could easily visualise the scenes and gain a sense of what it’s like to be there at the beach, with the shingle and the sand dunes at Blakeney Point and the north Norfolk countryside.

I hope to read books I’ve missed, namely The Dark Angel, The Stone Circle and The Lantern Men, before too long, and then the 14th in the series, The Locked Room.

A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute

Rating: 4 out of 5.

First published in 1950 A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute is one of those books I’ve been meaning to read for years and now I have at last read it. It was not quite what I had imagined it to be, about Alice Springs in Australia. It is actually set in three parts, with just the third part set in Australia, not in Alice Springs but in Willstown, a fictional town in the outback.

Narrated by Noel Strachan, a solicitor, this is the story of Jean Paget. It begins a few years after the Second World War, when he tells her she has inherited a considerable sum of money from her uncle. But it is held in trust until she reaches the age of thirty five. Until then she will receive about £900 a year to spend. She wonders what to do with the money and eventually decides she wants to go back to Malaya, where she had been a prisoner of war, to dig a well. She tells Noel about what had happened to her in Malaya.

The second part is about that time in Malaya during the War at the time when the Japanese invaded the island. Jean and a group of European women and children were forced by the Japanese to walk for hundreds of miles from place to place before finally managing to stay in one village. Able to speak Malay and being courageous and resourceful, she takes on the role of the leader of their group. She met an Australian soldier, Sergeant Joe Harman, also a prisoner, who was driving a lorry for the Japanese and they became friends with disastrous consequences. This section is the best in the book to my mind.

On her return after the War she writes to Noel telling him how she set about organising the villagers to dig the well so that the women would have fresh water close to their houses and also build a washing-house. And it is here that she learns more about what had happened to Joe and decides to carry on travelling to Australia to find him and thank him for the help he had given her and the other women.

The third part is set in Australia. Jean is an organiser and on her arrival in Willstown she discovers that this is a place where the young women leave as soon as they are old enough. There are no jobs or entertainment to keep them there. So Jean decides she wants to make the town into a town just like Alice Springs. And she does this with remarkable success building a workshop for the girls to make shoes and handbags, providing an ice cream parlour and a public swimming pool and shops. At the same time her search for Joe is eventually successful. She continues writing to Noel about her life in the Australian outback, letters full of detail about her enterprises and the difficulties of cattle ranching in such isolated places – a bit too much detail for me really. But the episode where Jean helped in rescuing an injured stockman is full of drama.

This is really just the bare bones of the story – there is so much more to it than that. Others have commented on the casual racism in the book. It tells it as it was, how people lived at the time, and reflects the attitudes that people had. Jean is of course the main character, a woman somewhat ahead of her time with great strength of character, determination and entrepreneurial skills. The resourcefulness she showed in Malaya is developed in Australia.

In his Author’s Note Shute explains that the forced march during WW2 took place in Sumatra and not in Malaya and the women in the group were Dutch and not British. As in his novel, the local Japanese commander was reluctant to assume responsibility for these women and, to solve his problem, marched them out of his area and took them on a trek all around Sumatra that lasted for two and a half years.

Jean Paget was based on Mrs Geysel, whom Shute had met when he visited Sumatra in 1949. She had been one of the Dutch party, then aged 21, recently married and with a young baby she had carried for over twelve hundred miles around Sumatra. A remarkable story that I really enjoyed.

Stamboul Train by Graham Greene

Vintage Digital/ 2010/ e-book/ Print length: 216 pages/ My own copy/ 4*

Stamboul Train was first published in the UK in 1932 and was renamed Orient Express when it was published in the USA. My copy is an e-book, with an Introduction by Christopher Hitchins.

I read it in February and didn’t find time to write about it then, so this is just a mini review that really only skates over the surface of the novel. I enjoyed it, set in the early 1930s, about a three day journey on the luxurious Orient Express travelling from Ostend to Constantinople (Instanbul or Stamboul), via Cologne, Vienna and Belgrade.

Greene weaves a web of subterfuge, murder and politics around his characters, including Carleton Myatt, a Jewish businessman, who trades in currants; Coral Musker, a dancer, a chorus girl on her way to join the Dunn’s Babies dance troupe in Constantinople; a journalist, Mabel Warren, a lesbian who drinks too much; Dr Czinner, a Yugoslavian on his own mission of revolution (as Hutchins describes it), a dissident communist leader, travelling under the name of schoolteacher Richard John – Mabel has recognised him as Dr Czinner and is after a scoop from him for her newspaper; and Josef Grünlich, a murdurous burglar. .

It’s a dismal book in some respects. Written in 1931, it reflects the anti-Semitism of the period, although I think Greene’s description of Myatt’s generosity towards Coral in giving her his berth in a first-class sleeping compartment shows some sympathy towards Jews. Having said that, I also think the characters as a whole are stereotypical, but the tension that he builds around them is palpable.

Greene’s storytelling saved the book for me, with descriptions of the train itself and the glimpses of the countryside as the train speeds along – as well as Myatt’s dramatic car journey through the snow-laden countryside to and from the railway station at Subotica on the Yugoslavian border. Written just as the Nazi party was preparing to take power in Germany there is a sense of unease throughout the novel.

The Honourable Schoolboy by John Le Carré

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I read Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor, the first book in John le Carré’s Karla trilogy, a long time ago and I remember enjoying it very much. The story continues in the second book, The Honourable Schoolboy, which I think is brilliant. First published in 1977, it won the Gold Dagger award for the best crime novel of the year and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

It’s wide ranging, set in 1974 in London, Hong Kong, Thailand, Vietnam, Phnom Pen (Cambodia), Vientiane (the capital and largest city of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic) Laos. My paperback copy has a map which is on such a small scale and is so detailed that it’s hardly legible. But, at least I could just about make out the main locations!

To say this has a complicated plot is a huge understatement. The amount of detail is staggering and for a while I was rather confused about what was happening. It certainly isn’t a book to read when you’re tired – you need to read it with a clear mind and be prepared to let yourself get fully immersed in the story. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy ends as George Smiley unmasks the identity of the ‘mole’, recruited by Karla, his Russian counterpart, as a spy within the British Secret Service. So, if you haven’t read Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy you may want to read it before reading The Honourable Schoolboy because le Carré reveals the identity of that ‘mole’ in the first paragraph.

He then goes on to tell what happened afterwards as Smiley set about dealing with the consequences of that mole’s betrayal. He is appointed as a caretaker chief of the British Secret Service, known as ‘the Circus’, the name derived from the address of that organisation’s secret headquarters, Cambridge Circle. Smiley has Karla’s photo on his wall, determined to chase him down in revenge. Safe houses were closed and spies were recalled from abroad. In his search for Karla, Smiley sends Jerry Westerby, the eponymous Honourable Schoolboy to Hong King, undercover as a reporter, where he discovers a money laundering operation run by Moscow Intelligence and also an opium smuggling operation.

There are many characters and the action moves rapidly between Smiley in London and Westerby as he travels all over the various locations in the Far East. Le Carré’s style is clear and straight forward, the spy jargon, with the defined interwoven into the narrative, moving rapidly from one set of characters, all fully developed, to the next. Smiley, although the controlling character, is not present in much of the book. He is an enigmatic character, a lonely man, a ‘round little man in a raincoat’, as he walks alone in the evenings around the byways of London, immersed in his thoughts crammed with images, always ending in front of his own house where his estranged wife Ann lives.

From a slow start the pace steadily rose until the finale. It was gripped, eager to know how it would end. It was so much better than I thought when I began it and it’s definitely a book I’d like to re-read as I’m sure that I missed a lot in this first reading. But not right now as I’m keen to get on with the next book in the trilogy, Smiley’s People.