DOGSTAR RISING takes place during the Egyptian summer of 2001. Makana is an exiled Sudanese policeman now working as a private detective in Cairo and he is hired by the owner of a struggling travel agency to look into the matter of some threatening letters that the agency has received. When he starts working undercover at the travel agency Makana meets a woman called Meera and it is her secret that begins to shed light on what might be going on. At the same time, a series of brutal murders of young boys is taking place in the city and suspicion is directed towards the Copts, a minority religious group. Makana becomes unwittingly involved in this case too.
Jamal Mahjoub has written five literary novels but it was his pseudonymous creations as Parker Bilal that were the subject of the session I caught at a local writers’ festival last month. DOGSTAR RISING is the second book to feature the character of Makana and I wish I’d read the first one as I did have the occasional sense I was missing out on something by not having read the story that introduced Makana. That aside though this is a terrifically atmospheric novel, offering the unique mixture of insights that only someone who was born in England to an English mum and a Sudanese dad and has lived in Sudan, Egypt, the UK, Denmark and (currently) Spain can supply.
The strongest element of the novel by far is the sense of time and place conveyed. Cairo is depicted as a place of poverty, corruption and a kind of vague, direction-less social unrest (it would take another decade for that to coalesce into something stronger). In some ways it is an exotic world very different to my own but it other ways, such as the ease with which ‘the mob’ can be manipulated to turn on minorities, is eerily and sadly familiar. The anti refugee sentiment in particular could be plucked from some of my own country’s present-day newspapers.
Makana lives on the fringes of his community mostly because few people let him forget for long that he is an outsider, though also I think because of the tragedies in his own personal history which have led him to choose a more solitary life than he might otherwise have led. But despite those tragedies and the harsh way he tends to be treated he is one of the good guys, aiming always to get to the truth of a thing even if that proves to be dangerous. He isn’t unrealistically wholesome though. In this novel he is presented with a very real moral dilemma and we see him struggle with the difficult decision in a credible way.
Although recognisably a work of crime fiction DOGSTAR RISING does offer a lot more than the standard whodunnit. In fact in some ways the mystery element of the book is the weakest due to some unnecessary complexities that feel a bit contrived. But overall this is a very entertaining and thought provoking novel that I would recommend to those who enjoy exotic locations depicted authentically (though I would read THE GOLDEN SCALES, the first book in the series, if you can lay your hands on that one first).
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Publisher Bloomsbury Publishing 
Length 309 pages
Format eBook (ePub)
Book Series #2 in the Makana series
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Be warned: in order to sensibly discuss this novel I do have to talk about one of the major events that took place in the first book, this is a spoiler if you haven’t yet read the first book.
The second novel to feature wealthy women’s suffrage campaigner and amateur detective Ursula Marlow takes place in 1912, two years after the events depicted in Consequences of Sin. Ursula is still grieving over the loss of her father (who was murdered) and is now struggling with the demands of keeping his considerable business interests afloat given the pervading belief that a woman shouldn’t be involved in business at all and a suffragette is an even less desirable business partner. When she travels to Egypt to work on textile contracts essential for her business she witnesses the murder of a friend of hers and is not convinced it was politically motivated as authorities suggest. Shortly afterwards she learns there has been a fire in a factory she had established near her home which offered work to destitute women and she returns home to ensure the investigation is carried out thoroughly.
The opening of this book provides a little too much detail about events that occurred in the first novel which slows the start down (and would also make it a fairly dull exercise for a new reader to go back and read the first novel if they hadn’t already done so). However the last three quarters of the novel offer a cracking read. The plot is complex but the various links and connections between people and events are logical, and the tension builds well as personal stories play out against the backdrop of world events such as the probable imminence of a war against Germany. There were several big plot twists that I didn’t predict and there was a realism in the fact that not everything was resolved happily.
Although it’s only a backdrop to the main story one of the things I enjoy most about this series is the way Ursula’s struggle to be taken seriously in business and her need to demonstrate she can do things on her own before she considers marrying the man she loves has a very credible feel to it. This book in particular captures a feeling that the women’s suffrage movement was about more than obtaining the right to vote, but was about trying to fight against the pervading attitude that women were not capable or intelligent enough to perform such a task. One interesting social element that shines through here is the way that people who might not normally see eye-to eye or even come into contact socially were drawn together by their support for or opposition towards the movement.
The Serpent and the Scorpion has terrifically drawn characters, absorbing historical details and a rollicking mystery that has personal and political elements for the players. The cliffhanger ending was a bit abrupt but I have to admit it has me hooked into waiting eagerly for the next installment.
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My rating 3.5/5
Publisher Publishing 
Length 256 pages
Format eBook (ePub)
Source I bought it
I’ve been sampling audible.com’s Agatha Christie collection for a few months and this week thought I’d listen to something which offers a new (to me) narrator in a new (to Christie) setting.
In a departure from her usual settings Agatha Christie set Death Comes as the End in Egypt around the year 2000BC. It tells the story of a wealthy family headed by mortuary priest Imhotep whose household consists of 3 sons, a daughter recently widowed and various employees and faithful retainers. Having been widowed himself for many years Imhotep returns to the family home from a trip away with a concubine, Nofret. This act seems to trigger an upset in the delicate balance of power and relationships within the household and it’s not long before the body count starts to mount rather alarmingly.
Given that Christie’s second husband was an archaeologist it’s not surprising that she chose this subject to experiment with something new for her writing and I’m sure her access to experts in the field added to the historical accuracy of the setting and lifestyle depictions contained in the novel. And while I did enjoy these details I found the rest of the novel rather flat and uninteresting.
On reflection I think the main reason for this is that the book has no real protagonist and therefore it lacks focus. Ostensibly Imhotep’s daughter Renisenb is, I think, supposed to be the focus of events but she is not a terribly active participant in events and neither is anyone else. The plot really consists of a lot of dialogue in which the household members guess who’s doing all the murdering and pray to the odd god or three. I thought the culprit and their motive fairly easy to pick from the outset and as more and more family members are knocked off it seems blindingly obvious by the end (by virtue of the ‘last man standing’ theory if nothing else).
The thing that I have enjoyed most about my recent re-discovering of Christie’s novels is that the very best of them are clever classic’ whodunnits that stand the test of time and have at least one or two engaging characters who advance the plot in interesting ways. I’m afraid that, for me anyway, Death Comes as the End had neither of these key elements as in addition to the fairly pedestrian plot the characters were fairly one-dimensional and not up to her usual standards. And while I’m sure the historical details included here are accurate even they do not go far enough to allow total immersion in the period (I’d recommend the Egyptian series of Paul Doherty or Wilbur Smith if you want to lose yourself in ancient Egypt).
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My rating 2.5/5
Narrator Emilia Fox; Publisher Harper Collins [this edition 2006, original edition 1945]; ISBN N/A; Length 7 hours 11 minutes
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Title: Crocodile on the Sandbank (the 1st Amelia Peabody mystery)
Author: Elizabeth Peters
Publisher: Warner Books (original edition 1975, this edition 1992)
Length: 262 pages
This is the first book to introduce the impossibly unbelievable heroine Amelia Peabody. It’s around 1880 and Amelia is a 32 year old single woman who has just inherited a sizable fortune. She leaves her native England and, after a short stop in Europe where she acquires a companion by the name of Evelyn who has been ruined by an unfortunate love affair, she heads for Egypt. While waiting for their boat to be ready for a trip down the Nile, Amelia and Evelyn meet the Emerson brothers, Radcliffe and Walter, who they later encounter at Armanah where they are excavating. When the ladies join the dig a mysterious mummy frightens the local workmen away but Amelia is not so easily scared.
This series is something of a guilty reading pleasure for me. I have always been a little obsessed with things Egyptian and so love the tales of the digs and discoveries that are full of fun and adventure. It’s rare for me to want to swap lives with the fictional people I read about but I’d happily switch places with Amelia if such things were possible. Peters clearly knows her subject as even in this first book the historical details are accurate and she takes care to depict the excavations and other events as they would have been carried out at this period (assuming that a force of nature such as Amelia had taken part any way).
This book does a nice job of introducing all the characters of the series: providing some back story but leaving some things too for revelation in later books. Over-the-top Amelia is able to master all manner of skills including medicine, archaeology, negotiation, languages and virtually anything else she turns her mind to. I’m sure she’d be annoying to be around at times but her total disregard for the social conventions of the day would, I think, make up for her superiority complex. The rest of the characters are either equally wonderful human beings (Amelia wouldn’t settle for anything less in her friends) unless they’re dastardly rascals intent on mischief.
If you fancy a girls own adventure with a heroine you can’t help but admire and a liberal dose of humour then try Crocodile on the Sandbank for yourself. The plot is a little convoluted at times but it all works out in the end and, anyway, I like these books more for their sense of time and place and can forgive some annoyances with the plot.
My rating 3.5/5