Andrea Brunais

Romantic images of Lawrence of Arabia and sunbaked, hospitable Bedouins well up from Western books and movies about the desert. That evocative landscape plays a seminal role in Zo∧#235; Ferraris' first novel as well, but in her masterful hands Saudi Arabia's mysteries are free of overheated symbolism.

In Finding Nouf, we look into the minds of trackers who can tell a story from footprints in the sand, their etchings unique as fingerprints. We share the frustrations of Miss Katya Hijazi, a highly trained crime-scene investigator, who must dodge the religious police and her father's worries whenever she leaves the house. But most of all we feel the pain and puzzlement, the idealism and yearnings of Nayir, a Palestinian who has grown up in Saudi Arabia and is put in charge of investigating a 16-year-old girl's death, and finding her killer.

Young Nouf drowned in an onrush of water in a desert valley not long before her wedding. But did she run away, as her wealthy family chooses to believe? Or was she kidnapped and murdered? Nayir devotes himself to uncovering the facts even as the grieving family gives mixed signals about whether they want the truth.

Ferraris crafts her main character so skillfully that the reader roots for Nayir despite his judgmental attitudes toward women who show too much skin, even an ankle or a forthright gaze. Miss Hijazi's forwardness grates on him, her behavior as unsettling as the hushed-up evidence of Nouf's bloody injuries. Nayir and Miss Hijazi become unlikely partners as they attempt to find justice for a girl who in death gained the ultimate release from an oppressive society.

The story proceeds at a flawless pace, with landscape and characters deftly drawn. The reader enters places few Americans ever see, including the inner sanctum of a Saudi family, which Ferraris knows first-hand: she lived in Jeddah with her then-husband and his Saudi-Palestinian family following the Gulf War. Her remarkable debut is a tale of manners, romance and intrigue with a literary feel that will make readers hope she follows her first novel with a second.

Andrea Brunais writes from Tampa, Florida, and Bluefield, West Virginia.

Romantic images of Lawrence of Arabia and sunbaked, hospitable Bedouins well up from Western books and movies about the desert. That evocative landscape plays a seminal role in Zo∧#235; Ferraris' first novel as well, but in her masterful hands Saudi Arabia's mysteries are free of overheated symbolism. In Finding Nouf, we look into the minds […]

You don't have to be a lover of war literature or a fan of historical fiction to appreciate City of Thieves. Author and screenwriter David Benioff's second novel, set during the siege of Leningrad, crosses genre lines (even as his characters cross battle lines) to become a story with universal appeal.

Virginal 17-year-old protagonist Lev Beniov possesses a Woody Allen-esque charm—full of immaturity, precocious intelligence and desire for accomplishment. Having fallen into Russian military hands for breaking curfew and looting in his native Leningrad, Lev is deployed on an impossible quest in exchange for having his life spared, accompanied by a charmingly grandiose young soldier-turned-deserter, Kolya. His implacable sense of the absurd accompanies him throughout a forced sojourn into the frigid Russian countryside, where starvation and cruel Einsatzkommandos await.

Despite the obvious similarity of the Benioff-Beniov names, Benioff says City of Thieves is not his grandfather's life story. Yet the work offers not just verisimilitude but also truths: It carries the hallmarks of intensive research, including interviews with his grandfather, enabling depiction of the time period in detail. Cannibalism, casual bullets to the brain, dead soldiers serving as frozen signposts, dogs loaded with armaments in a futile attempt to thwart German tanks—Lev encounters these sights and more in a book that is, incredibly in the face of such details, fun. It is as riveting as the Odyssey, and, like Homer, Benioff is a master of rising and falling action. Just when the blood and snow and mayhem seem unendurable, Lev and Kolya stumble upon a warm house and a meal with Russian beauties held hostage, forced into pleasuring their German captors. Of course soul-searing horrors soon rear up as the girls recount how the Germans punished the 14-year-old who ran away.

With deft phrases like "the plane's burning carcass falling like an angel cast from heaven," Benioff puts the action in grand context. Lev says of his own people, the Russians, "we were the children of a thousand lost battles and defeat was heavy in us." And yet the tale holds many moments of humor, and heartbreak yields to hope.

Andrea Brunais is a writer living in Tampa, Florida, and Bluefield, West Virginia.

 

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You don't have to be a lover of war literature or a fan of historical fiction to appreciate City of Thieves. Author and screenwriter David Benioff's second novel, set during the siege of Leningrad, crosses genre lines (even as his characters cross battle lines) to become a story with universal appeal. Virginal 17-year-old protagonist Lev […]

Needlepoint, corsairs, Cornwall's coast – such subjects and setting seem like an echo from the past. Yet in The Tenth Gift, Jane Johnson makes plot relevant and characters sparkle as contemporary heroine Julia Lovat flees from heartbreak and her historical counterpart Catherine Tregenna seethes in the hold of a vessel on pirate-infested seas. The dual stories dramatically alternate, with Johnson creating verisimilitude in both the 17th and the 21st centuries.

The storyline springs from rumors of a congregation kidnapped from a Cornwall church during a slave trader's Sunday raid. As Johnson discovered while researching a family legend, the rumors were true. Few records remain of those English captives' experiences in North Africa. Johnson recreates their ordeal through the observations of Catherine both as character and as a diarist, since Catherine's journal has fallen into Julia's hands as a farewell gift from her married boyfriend. Julia studies the archaic language and imagines Catherine's plight, described in lines like these, written from the ship: “This verie mornyng old Mrs Ellys expired at last from weaknesse &andamp; shock of losyng her poor husbande, but no one has taken her bodie, she lyes in the ordure &andamp; addes to the stink.” To learn more about Catherine's plight, Julia leaves London for Cornwall in a rush and then, even more impulsively, takes off for Rabat. Johnson's storytelling skills are great. Almost 200 pages pass before either character gets to Morocco – Julia by air and Catherine in chains – and yet the stories of their daily lives enchant from page one.

Johnson, publishing director at HarperCollins UK, comes by her knowledge of Morocco honestly. She met and married a man on a trip to Morocco, and they now live part of the year in a Berber village. Her writing is mostly free of stereotypes. Even the archvillain Al-Andalusi, Catherine's chief captor, exposes his softer side. His murderous passions spring from the Inquisition's destruction of his own family.

The Tenth Gift explores love, forgiveness, work, captivity in its various forms and the meaning of life. Characters strive to build their faith whether they understand everything that happens to them or not. A based-on-true-life plot makes for a riveting tale, all the way to the improbable if emotionally satisfying ending.

Andrea Brunais writes from Tampa, Florida, and Bluefield, West Virginia.

Needlepoint, corsairs, Cornwall's coast – such subjects and setting seem like an echo from the past. Yet in The Tenth Gift, Jane Johnson makes plot relevant and characters sparkle as contemporary heroine Julia Lovat flees from heartbreak and her historical counterpart Catherine Tregenna seethes in the hold of a vessel on pirate-infested seas. The dual […]

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