A Master of Djinn, by P. Djèlí Clark

A Master of Djinn, by P. Djèlí Clark, was a completely enchanting novel. I was instantly hooked on this adventurous mystery featuring Fatma el-Sha’arawi, of Cairo’s Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities. Decades before the novel opens, a mysterious sorcerer connected our world with the world of the djinn. Magic flooded into the world. In 1912, when the story is set, people like Fatma try to keep everything in harmony between the magical and the mundane. I loved everything about this novel: the characters, the setting, the plot. I can’t praise it highly enough.

Note: The narrative makes frequent references to a previously published story. I was able to read A Master of Djinn without it, but I was thrilled to see that Tor republished the story to accompany the publication of the novel. If you’d like to read the story, you can find “The Angel of Khan el-Khalili” on Tor’s site.

Fatma is the kind of person who lives for her job. She rarely has any downtime. (Of course, since most of that downtime is spent in the company of the captivating Siti, Fatma can’t really talk about it with others in the still fairly conservative Cairo.) That little bit of downtime vanishes almost entirely when a group of British men (and one Egyptian woman) are mysteriously murdered. They are burned to death by a fire that didn’t touch anything else. The Ministry is called in to investigate. We know a little bit about what happened because of the prologue, but we have to learn along with Fatma about who did it, why, and how on earth they can capture what appears to be an almost omnipotent opponent.

The action never stops after Fatma arrives at the crime scene. Along with her new partner at the Ministry, Hadia, and Siti, Fatma dives into a case that involves a colonialist secret brotherhood, djinn and angels, intersecting plots, masterful deceptions, and cults that worship the old Egyptian gods. I loved every minute of this book. I don’t want to say too much about it because that would ruin the mystery for other readers. I will say that the mystery element of the story escalated into an incredible climax that had me breathlessly reading until Fatma, Siti, and Hadia found a way to fight fantastically powerful enemies.

Right! That’s it for this review before I give away too much! Go read A Master of Djinn. It is outstanding in every way and I am already looking forward to more historical fantasy/mysteries featuring Fatma, Siti, Hadia, and all of the delightful characters in this imaginative series.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

The Book Smuggler, by Omaima al-Khamis

Compared to the world of Mazid ibn Abdullah al-Hanafi, I live in a paradise. Whenever I have a question, I have access to an incalculable amount of information. I can call up Google, Wikipedia, and the catalogs and databases of two libraries at any time. Mazid, however, has to travel across deserts, mountains, and seas to get to libraries that may or may not have copies of books that can answer his questions. He also has to contend with growing sectarian violence, anti-intellectualism, and fracturing caliphates on his way to those libraries. Omaima al-Khamis takes us to the second decade of the eleventh century and drops us onto a caravan route between Baghdad and Jerusalem in The Book Smuggler, translated with a lovely medieval flavor by Sarah Enany.

All Mazid has ever wanted was to read books and learn. Once he is old enough, he leaves the Arabian desert and travels to Baghdad. Unfortunately for Mazid, Baghdad is no longer the shining city of learning that hosted the House of Wisdom. There are some remnants. Mazid’s abilities as a scribe and his love of learning help him find those remnants, but it isn’t long before increasing fundamentalist violence sends Mazid out into the world again—this time with a precious cargo of books full of translated Greek philosophy and science.

The Book Smuggler chronicles Mazid’s travels across the Abbasid, Fatimid, and Córdoban caliphates, from Baghdad to Jerusalem to Cairo and finally to Córdoba. (At the time, Córdoba was believed to be a haven for science, literature, and the arts). It’s a journey that takes Mazid years to complete as he moseys his way across the Islamic world. I’m not terribly familiar with medieval Islamic writing, but al-Khamis (via Enany’s translation) sounds medieval to me. Mazid interrupts his narration with side stories and the text wanders as much as he does. He also has a habit of falling instantly in love with the women he encounters. He spouts poetry at the drop of a hat and blames any bad health on imbalanced humors. The medieval flavoring takes some getting used to. Once I was in, I was hooked.

Mazid’s physical journey is mirrored by his intellectual journey, which I found almost as interesting. (I love a book that can transport me from my couch in the twenty-first century to a camel in the eleventh.) When we first meet young Mazid, he is in awe of the people and places of Baghdad. It is the city he always dreamed of as a child at his grandfather’s knee. He has complete faith in the Qu’ran and Mohammed. Although he remains a faithful Muslim, he starts to have serious questions about the imams who teach in the mosques and their followers who “police” the streets. The philosophy he reads add to his questions.

It’s never easy to be a questioner, but Mazid has a mission to guide him. Before he leaves Baghdad, he is inducted into a society called the Voyagers. These men shepherd books—especially translations of the ancient Greeks and radical thinkers from around the Islamic world—from city to city. They sell the books to intellectuals who share their questioning values, but mostly they want to make sure that these books will be safe from anti-intellectuals who want to burn anything that might make them question what they’ve been taught.

The Book Smuggler was an amazing read. It was the closest I’ve ever come to time traveling I’ve ever had while reading.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

Tabula Rogeriana, by Muhammad al-Idrisi, c. 1154 CE (Image via Wikicommons, note that the map is oriented with Africa and the Arabian Peninsula at the top of the page)

A World Beneath the Sands, by Toby Wilkinson

In A World Beneath the Sands, by Toby Wilkerson, we see the sordid, exciting, criminal, exhilarating history of the first 130-ish years of Egyptology. Wilkinson begins with Napoleon Bonaparte’s Egyptian expedition in 1798 and ends with Howard Carter’s opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922. In that time period, Wilkinson takes us from days in which European knowledge of ancient Egypt was entirely informed by the bible and semi-accurate accounts from Greek and Roman historians to modern regulations and regimented archaeology. This might sound bland and more academic than most people would want, but I was highly entertained by the anecdotes Wilkinson found to punctuate discussions of translation and digging. I was also highly infuriated at the high-handed and sticky-fingered ways of the early European Egyptologists. I expect most readers will finish this book with the same feelings I did: wonder and irritation in equal measure.

When I think of archaeology, I think of a dirt field with grids stretched across it with string. Brushes, tools, and bits of pottery or stone are strewn around, lying in situ to be photographed and documented before it is whisked away to the labs at a museum. Early archaeology was…very much not that. The earliest Egyptologists were a cross between scholars and graverobbers. Wilkinson’s recounting of their activities often looks like this: European arrives, hires a bunch of local workers, frantically digs up anything that looks interesting, grabbing anything that looks good, and hauling it off to the British Museum, the Louvre, or the Berlin Museum. (It was decades after Napoleon’s expedition that the Cairo Museum was founded and even later that Egyptians were in charge of granting digging concessions.)

There are a few heroes in A World Beneath the Sands, all of them flawed. Jean-François Champollion, who is given credit for translating ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, was an obsessive who deeply resented anyone stealing his limelight. William Flinders Petrie was one of the first people whose work looked like modern archaeology, but he often worked naked and required everyone to eat tins of more-or-less spoiled food. (In one excerpt from a person who worked with Flinders Petrie, it was rumored that cans were thrown and only eaten if they didn’t explode on contact.) Muhammad Ali was the first independent ruler of Egypt in centuries and did much to modernize Egypt, but he was also a ruthless dictator who instituted the hated corvée system—which took abled bodied men away from their homes to work on labor-intensive, dangerous jobs. There were also quite a few men out there in the sands who were more graverobber than anything else.

I’ve always been interested in the history of different sciences for a lot of reasons. A World Beneath the Sands hit a lot of those reasons. First, ethics always lag behind practice. A lot of crimes can be committed before laws are created to actually make things illegal. Second, everyone is making things up as they go along. The early Egyptologists didn’t have photography; they relied on their own notes and drawings to document their finds—assuming they even bothered to make notes or drawings. Because some of those things are now standard practice, I wonder if there are better ways of doing things or if there are things we’re doing now are causing unforeseen problems. Third, I love getting the context around the big discoveries. We take so many of these discoveries for granted—being able to read hieroglyphics, knowing all the monarchs and dynasties, being able to see Tutankhamun’s funerary mask or Nefertiti’s bust—has me looking at Egyptology in a new light. I knew that a lot of the Egyptian collections in European museums were stolen, but I was astounded at how casual Europeans were about packing things up and shipping them home. On the other hand, I marveled at how Champollion, Thomas Young, and others were able to translate something as challenging as Egyptian languages mostly through sheer determination.

There are some places in A World Beneath the Sands that drag, but I found it to be engaging and terrifically researched. Wilkinson’s history of Egyptology is a fantastic read, partly because the test is full of well-chosen quotes that let the early Egyptologists speak for themselves (only sometimes shoving their sandy shoes in their mouths). Wilkinson also does an excellent job of putting Egyptology into its political context. All of this philology and science and art theft plays out against a constantly shifting background of alliances, betrayals, nationalist sentiments, rebellions, and oppression. I really appreciated that Wilkinson kept reminding me of the plight of ordinary Egyptians, the ones who were doing all the heavy lifting with very little (if any) pay only to see the bulk of what they dug up shipped off to Europe. A World Beneath the Sands was everything that I could have hoped for in a work of historical nonfiction.

The unbroken seal on the door to Tutankhamun’s tomb, 1922 (Image via Wikicommons)

A Pure Heart, by Rajia Hassib

After her sister is killed by a suicide bomber in Cairo, Rose uses her skills as an archaeologist to do the only thing that might help her grieve: figure out how her sister came to be in that place at that time. In A Pure Heart, by Rajia Hassib, perspectives shift between Rose, her sister Gameela, Rose’s husband Mark, and a few others to answer that question. This premise blossoms over the course of the book to look at troubled family relationships, religion, and the way that we all show different parts of ourselves to the people in our lives.

Gameela is the religious one in her family of middle-class Cairenes. Unlike her sister and mother, she wears a hijab. Her piety creates friction in her family, especially with her sister—and especially after Rose marries an American journalist. Rose and Gameela don’t part on the best of terms when Rose emigrates with Mark to New York, to get her PhD in archaeology from Columbia. They speak on the phone, but they never see each other again. The friction, misunderstandings, and emotional baggage all pile on to Rose’s grief, threatening to pull her under.

When the book opens, Rose is sifting through her sister’s belongings to try and figure out what happened during the last months of her life. She learns that her sister had quite her job some time ago without telling anyone, that she had been traveling but no one knew where, and that she was married to a man Rose had never heard of. The discoveries floor her. The discoveries, I think, also pull the focus of the book away from the specific question of how Gameela came to be killed. Instead, A Pure Heart seems to be more interested in what we choose to hide from the important people in our lives. Mark, Rose’s husband, is comfortable with his many roles: husband, son, nominal Muslim, journalist, Egyptophile, and so on. Gameela is more tortured by her secrets. She’s even a bit tortured by the parts of herself that she does reveal. For example, she’s frequently mocked for her faith and hijab. By the end of the book, I couldn’t help but see Rose as caught between two people who are different sides of the same coin. Both want to be good and do good things. The difference is that one is comfortable with his world view and various selves. The other hasn’t found an easy balance.

This review leaves out a lot of plot, but I found the family and religious and moral dynamics more interesting. Besides, this book is technically a mystery. I don’t want to ruin the joy of figuring things out for other readers. And I would definitely recommend this book to others. Book clubs will find plenty to talk about and readers who like to mull over original family conflict. As a bonus, Hassib does sterling work in recreating a Cairo that many of us Westerners are not familiar with. There is the odd pyramid, but A Pure Heart takes us to a variety of neighborhoods with passages that evoke sights, smells, and the feel of the ancient, still lively city.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.


Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommend to readers who need to find a way to get along with family who have different points of view. This book might help remind them of the price of refusing to really listen to each other.

The Hakawati, by Rabih Alameddine

I’ve seen other books described in reviews as dazzling and mostly thought of the adjective as just a synonym for great or wonderful. But as I finished Rabih Alameddine’s monumentally imaginative novel, The Hakawati, I really felt dazzled. At its heart, the novel describes the emotional and physical journey a son makes to visit his father as he lies dying in a hospital in Beirut. But because our protagonist, Osama, is the grandson of a hakawati (an itinerant storyteller), his story is just a kernel for a profusion of other stories. Some of the stories show us Osama’s family history. Others are entirely fantastical and feature demons and djinn. Yet others are a blend of myth and history. This book is stuffed but never feels too long. I would happily have sat at the feet of the storytellers in this book for more.

The primary narrative features a middle-aged Osama returning to Beirut after decades in the United States. He had left the country in the early years of the Lebanese Civil War to study engineering in California. Before he left, Osama was part of a tightly-knit, sprawling family of cousins, aunts and uncles, his parents, and his notorious grandfather. The more we learn about his family, the more we realize that Osama was not just running from violence. He was also running from a philandering father and a brittle mother and warring relatives. I loved the parts of the novel that revealed Osama’s grandfather’s history in pre-World War I Lebanon; it’s like looking into a vanished world.

A second narrative that runs through the entirety of The Hakawati. In this narrative, a woman named Fatima turns her strong will into magic. Her sections are some of the funniest and the bleakest parts of the novel. I adored her entrance. Fatima is the servant of an emir who wants a son. To date, his wife has delivered daughters. The emir learns of a witch who has the secret of bearing a male child. Because he can’t go himself, he sends Fatima. Fatima doesn’t take a large escort because she doesn’t think it’s necessary. So, of course, she and her small party are almost immediately set upon by bandits. To get out of being raped and murdered, Fatima starts to spin a story about how her lover (her “plaything”) is a powerful demon and that none of the bandits could satisfy her. This story causes the bandits to attack each other…and also starts Fatima on a long, strong journey in and out of the underworld.

The last major narrative does a lot of heavy lifting. It’s framed as a story that the emir from the second narrative to his wife while she’s pregnant, to inspire their unborn child to become a great hero. It’s also referenced in Osama’s story as a family favorite. Ultimately, this story—which relates the almost entirely fictional adventures of a real-life historical figure, Mamluk sultan Baibars—blends prophecy, propaganda, and a smidgeon of history. Late in The Hakawati, a young Osama is shocked to learn that this beloved story is mostly not true. His Uncle Jihad tells him that it doesn’t matter whether or not a story is literally true. Rather, stories are the official versions of our own histories. Stories, literally true or otherwise, are what we want to remember and pass on to the next generation.

These three narratives are surrounded by tangents and side stories. All of these stories not only frame each other (there are so many layers in this book!), they also reinforce each other by repeating motifs. We see couples desperate for male children (Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Isaac, and Ishmael make several appearances), lots of jealousy, poor decisions and misuse of magic, plenty of sex and death, family obligations, feuds, and so much more. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to spot the thesis of the book for several chapters. Every theory I came up with would be exploded by a new tale that didn’t fit. Thankfully, I gave that up when I realized I was overthinking things. The Hakawati is a celebration of stories and their power. Because it is full of so many kinds of stories, with so many different characters and plots and endings, The Hakawati has something for everyone—especially for readers who are never tired of hearing a new yarn.

Death on the Nile, by Agatha Christie

Cover of Death on the Nile

The best laid plans of murderers oft gang agley—especially when Hercule Poirot happens to be on the same Nile trip. Those little grey cells don’t rest, even when they’re supposed to be on vacation. In Death on the Nile, Poirot ends up investigating what turns into a series of murders. Christie’s novels are always interactive for me (in a strange kind of way) because I can’t help but try to compete with the venerable Golden Age detective. Whenever I read one of her books, I’m not just reading it to see what happens. I’m also gathering clues and evaluating witnesses just like Poirot is. I haven’t managed to beat him yet.

This novel is classic Christie. There are multiple suspects with multiple plausible motives. Timelines are important and the crime looks impossible until Poirot puts everything together for us. Little things he noticed or overheard (which aren’t always revealed in the text, so I think Christie is a bit of a cheat because her readers can’t ever figure it out before her detectives) turn out to be critical clues. Once it’s revealed whodunit, it makes so much sense that I can’t see any other possibility.

Death on the Nile takes some time to warm up. The book opens about a year before the main action of the plot. A number of characters (and their motives) are introduced to set things up. About a third of the way in, the plot settles down as Linnet Doyle and a variety of other characters all end up on a ship traveling south down the Nile. Linnet and her new husband, Simon, have been stalked by Jacqueline, Simon’s former love, all along their honeymoon. The strain is starting to show by the time Linnet and Simon bump into Poirot in Egypt. Linnet asks him to try and make Jacqueline go away, but she will not be dissuaded. After some conversations heavy with foreshadowing and after a little bit of sight-seeing, Linnet is murdered in her cabin, Simon is shot, and Poirot is on the case.

I can’t say any more, because the fun of Christie’s books is seeing the mystery get solved. I, like Poirot, don’t want to give anything away. I can say that I was surprised by the ending—though I shouldn’t have been after reading Murder on the Orient Express. Not only didn’t Christie fool me again, but I am surprised at Poirot’s attitude about a lot of the criminal activity taking place on the boat. I had forgotten about Poirot’s occasionally flexible morality. It seems that he is a sucker for a love-gone-wrong story.

While I enjoyed the mystery of Death on the Nile, I was constantly flinching at the casual sexism and racism. Murder on the Orient Express isn’t as bad as this one. Several characters in this book have not aged well. The things some of the men say would have been totally acceptable when this book was published in 1937; they are definitely not okay now. So, gentle readers, if you’d like a good, complicated mystery and are thinking about reading this book, be prepared.

Undated postcard of the Great Pyramids, Egypt (Image via Wikicommons)
Undated postcard of the Great Pyramids, Egypt (Image via Wikicommons)

The Map of Knowledge, by Violet Moller

In The Map of Knowledge, Violet Moller traces the transmission of knowledge from the ancient Mediterranean, via the Abbasid and Umayyad caliphates and centuries of scholars and translators, from 500 CE to the European Renaissance. This summary might sound a little dry, but Moller’s semi-conversational style and the content made her overview of a thousand years of history highly readable. Outside of academia, I don’t know that many people know how much of a debt we Westerners owe to the ancient world. The ancient Greek and Graeco-Egyptian scholars gave us (again, Westerners) our start on the scientific method, philosophy, geometry, medicine, and so many other topics. We would have lost so much if it hadn’t been for medieval Arab scholars and translators. At the same time, however, I lament what we lost anyway to time and deliberate destruction.

Moller was inspired to write this book while working on her dissertation. She visited the library of Dr. John Dee, an Elizabethan polymath, who helped create an English translation of a hugely influential book: Euclid‘s The Elements. She started to think about the long journey the text had taken for the centuries and dug into the historical and bibliographic history of The Elements; The Almagest, an astronomical text by Claudius Ptolmey; and the physician Galen‘s enormous body of work. Even though Ptolemy and Galen have been subject to heavy revision since the Renaissance, these three books represent the ancient foundation of a lot of Western science and thought. Moller begins her chronology in Alexandria, an early center of scholarship and learning—as well as a particularly aggressive book acquisition program that makes me, as a librarian, blush.

From Alexandria, which collapsed as a place of scholarship by 500 CE, Moller begins her historical journey around the Mediterranean and the Middle East. She charts the rise and fall of what she begins to call, Houses of Wisdom, after the name of a loose confederation of scholars and scientists in her first stop after Alexandria: Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid caliphate. Moller takes us from Baghdad to Córdoba, the Umayyad capital; to Toledo; Salerno, Italy; Palermo; and finally Venice. As she jumps time and place, Moller gives us the names (as far as we know) of the people who made it possible for us to have as much as we do of our ancient texts. She finishes up with the European invention of moveable type and printing, a critical innovation that helped fuel the Renaissance.

As she makes her way through time and space, Moller develops her thesis of what is needed to create new knowledge on the scale of ancient Alexandria. She argues that tolerance, political stability, and a strong support for learning are vital to create communities like what is now called La Convivencia, a period of time when Córdoba flourished under the Umayyads. Sadly, these convivencias seem to last shorter and shorter periods of time (at least in this account) as outside invaders or internal strife tear it all down. I wondered more than once where we would be now, as a species, if these cultures hadn’t been interrupted all the time or if later translators hadn’t erased the new knowledge and corrections Arab scholars had added to the ancient texts.

The Map of Knowledge may not be for everyone. For bookish folk with a historical bent, however, this is a wonderful read. Even for me, who fits that bill, I enjoyed this book more than I expected. I appreciated that Moller doesn’t talk about these texts as objects for book hunters—who tend to value books because they are old or rare. Instead, she very much keeps her focus on the value of the content. It shouldn’t matter what language they’re in or if they in a beautiful binding or not; the words are the most important thing because they are what transmit knowledge through time and make it possible for us to “stand on the shoulders of giants.”*

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

The Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba, Spain (Image via Wikicommons)

*Quote attributed to Bernard of Chartres.

A Cloudy Day on the Western Shore, by Mohamed Mansi Qandil

Trigger warning for rape.

41806096A Cloudy Day on the Western Shore, by Mohamed Mansi Qandil and translated by Barbara Romaine, presents two lives. On one side, Aisha lives a life of surprising good luck and appallingly bad luck, pursued by literal and figurative wolves in early twentieth century Egypt. On the other, Howard Carter faces his own ups and downs on fortune’s wheel as he struggles to luck into a big find in Egypt’s ancient necropolises. The characters meet twice in the first two thirds of the novel, bumping into each other purely by chance. In the last third, they meet once more and Carter persuades Aisha to accompany him to the Valley of the Kings, convinced that she will change his luck.

At the beginning of the book, we are given no clue that the novel will culminate with the unsealing of Pharaoh Tutankhamen‘s tomb in 1922—at least until Carter arrives on the scene. A Cloudy Day on the Western Shore opens with Aisha fleeing with her mother to a Catholic (possibly Coptic) convent in Asyut. Aisha’s lecherous uncle will do terrible things to her if she is not taken in, her mother argues. This is the start of Aisha’s drifting through life. Flooding chases her from the convent a few years later and she fetches up at the home of a rich friend from the convent school. Her gift for languages helps her reach a certain amount of independence in Cairo before her past catches up to her. Meanwhile, Carter appears in Aisha’s life in spectacular fashion at a party, during which he points out to everyone how much resembles paintings of a beautiful ancient Egyptian princess. He then pours out his life’s story to her during their two meetings.

Carter’s biography (somewhat altered by Qandil) makes for very interesting reading—as long as one doesn’t mind reading about a white man in a colonized country barreling around arguing with people about the best way to do things. Aisha, on the other hand, became less interesting to me as she faded into a listener. There are times when I thought I understood her, but she mostly serves as a target for other characters’ whims. She has so little agency in this book that I was angry on her behalf. Feminist readers will probably be put off by how this book treats her.

The best part of the book (apart from Aisha’s brief stint as a translator for the Egyptian political newspaper, al-Liwa) is the last third, which contains a counterfactual history of the last part of Pharaoh Akhenaten‘s reign and how Tutankhamen came to the throne. Carter manically searches for a big find while Aisha grows more fearful of the warnings of local Egyptians for them to leave things alone.

Romaine ably captures Qandil’s take on Carter’s story by preserving the long, sometimes fanatical speeches given by characters who are utterly convinced of the rightness of their behavior. Like Aisha, we are expected to listen to all of these ideas and thoughts and left to judge the characters who speak them as guilty, innocent, sane, insane, prejudiced, tolerant, and so on. Qandil’s prose took some getting used to. I hung on because I was so interested in reading an Egyptian version of Carter’s story. Readers who can stomach Aisha’s story may enjoy seeing Qandil’s perspective on the rapacious world of early Egyptology.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 16 October 2018.

The_unbroken_seal_on_Tutankhamun_s_tomb,_1922

Unbroken seal on Tutankhamen’s tomb before excavation (Image via Wikicommons)

Time Was, by Ian McDonald

29976283A good find at a used book sale might be a copy of a book that was missing from a series, a first edition, or a signed first edition. Emmett, the protagonist of Time Was by Ian McDonald, is hoping for good hardbacks about World War II to sell online when he visits the closing sale of the Golden Page in London. Instead, he accidentally acquires a mysterious collection of poetry that leads him down a deep research rabbit hole and into an even stranger story of love and weird science.

Emmett discovery of an anonymous book of poetry—Time Was, by E.L.—is just a prelude to another find. The book contains a surprising love letter from one soldier to another soldier. Love letters from World War II are not so rare; soldiers wrote to their (female) sweethearts and vice versa all the time. But love letters between soldiers of the same sex are vanishingly rare (possibly none existent). This stunning find leads Emmett on a quest to find out who Tom and Ben were and what might have happened to them. Then, an archivist friend tips Emmett off to the possibility that Tom and Ben might have been alive and together…in World War I.

Time Was contains an astonishing number of discoveries for such a brief book. One thing leads to another in short order. The more Emmett learns, the weirder and more gripping the novel gets. It is packed with things I love: unusual love stories, time travel, and deep dives into archival material. I had a great time reading this fast-paced novella.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 24 April 2018. 

The Last Watchman of Cairo, by Michael David Lukas

35791972Joseph, like many other literary sons, only really learns who his father is after his death. A few weeks after his father dies, Joseph receives a package with a letter written in an archaic form of Arabic that turns out to document his family’s long history of serving as watchmen for the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo. The Last Watchman of Old Cairo, by Michael David Lukas, moves back and forth in time from the first watchman, to the discovery of the Cairo Genizah, to Joseph’s attempts to find out about his father’s life.

The Last Watchman of Old Cairo starts in the eleventh century, when Ali becomes the first watchman for the synagogue. Through his eyes, we see a thriving Jewish community in the middle of Muslim Cairo. We also learn about the synagogue’s greatest treasure, the Ezra Scroll, believed to be a perfect torah scroll created by the scribe Ezra. We then jump to the present, to Joseph, who is currently the last in the al-Raqb family. Joseph is the son of a Jewish woman and a Muslim father. Technically, this makes him both Jewish and Muslim. In a way, Joseph is the culmination of the tangled history of the al-Raqb family and the Cairene Jews.

Meanwhile, The Last Watchman of Old Cairo gives us chapters from the perspective of Agnes and Margaret Smith. The Smith twins were linguists and Biblical scholars who played an important role in the recovery of the Cairo Genizah at the end of the 1800s, though credit mostly goes to Solomon Schechter. Ali and Joseph’s chapters are interesting, but the Smith sisters’ parts were my favorite. I wanted to know more than the book gave me about the contents of the genizah. I also wanted more wrangling about who really owns the genizah materials, which are now scattered across several different university collections. I felt squicky at the way the Smiths and Schechter essentially snatched the genizah from the Cairene Jews.

The Last Watchman of Old Cairo is a fast read about a small community and the people who get drawn into it. While I wish it had devoted more time to character development and ethics, I was hooked. This book will be great for readers who like their historical fiction with a heavy dose of academia.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 13 March 2018.