Live from Cairo features sharply drawn youngish adults confronting the Middle East’s refugee crisis in the midst of Egypt’s revolution in 2011. Each of Ian Bassingthwaighte’s characters tries to pursue and protect her or his own agenda in the face of utter confusion and inescapable misery. Charlie and Aos, the legal aid workers, together with Hana, the Iraqi-American resettlement officer, combine romantic idealism and a sense of purpose with jaded exhaustion and an overarching hopelessness. They also share some personal spark impelling them to go rogue. Dahlia, Omran and the other refugees suffer from terrible past trauma and find themselves trapped in a bleak and inhuman refugee crisis. Desperate as their situations are, the refugees persist in their struggle to maintain personal relationships and care for each other. Red tape, violence and mind-numbing uncertainty are the enemies.
Live from Cairo‘s premise is reminiscent of the film Casablanca in that an interesting assortment of desperate individuals find itself trapped in a corrupt, dangerous place rocked by trauma and violence. The tense mix of fear and personal desire in an unforgiving environment where everything keeps changing is not quite as horrific as it sounds, because, like Casablanca, there are some deft comic aspects to the characters and the situations. I found myself so invested in these characters that I really needed to now what would happen to them and how they would react.
I particularly admired the way in which Bassingthwaite managed to provide so much information about a significant number of characters in his brief and highly active narrative. The reader’s situation mirrors that of the novel’s characters, who have to pick up information about each other through short bursts of information and relatively brief encounters. Like the characters, the reader also has to decide quickly who is trustworthy. The dialog between characters is particularly sharp and advances the narrative brilliantly.
I recommend this novel as highly informative and entertaining all at the same time.
Shelley DeWees’s Not Just Jane — Rediscovering Seven Amazing Women Writers Who Transformed British Literature provides a fascinating look into seven successful, yet relatively unknown, British women writers of the 18th and 19th centuries. Born of her love of Austen and Bronte, in this book DeWees sets out to discover other women writers who were pioneers of their times. I had never heard of any of the writers featured in this book. Charlotte Turner Smith, Helen Maria Williams, Mary Robinson, Catherine Crowe, Sara Coleridge, Dinah Mulock Craig and Mary Elizabeth Braddon all enjoyed some success in their day. Their stories tell us a lot about what was going on in England during their life times. Many of them faced poverty and had few honorable options for earning a living. They might become a governess or they might become prostitutes. Faced with these options, one way or another these women became writers, and some of them became expert networkers as well. Sara Coleridge’s story is a bit different. She was well educated and didn’t suffer poverty, but her father, the famous poet Samuel Coleridge basically ignored her existence. Under those circumstances it seems a shame that so much of her work was devoted to organizing her father’s work posthumously.
I have yet to read one of their books, but I certainly enjoyed reading about their lives and their environments.
Shanghai Redemption, a Chinese mystery featuring Chen Cao, the recently demoted chief inspector of the Shanghai Police Department. Chen, who has hitherto maintained an enviable reputation as an honest and resourceful detective, is now inexplicably in jeopardy. Trying to figure out where he went wrong or which of his investigations proved too hot for his enemies compels Chen to navigate the treacherous waters of modern day China. A rat’s nest of party politics, corruption and disgraced cadres proves difficult to unravel and exceedingly dangerous. The author does a stellar job of revealing Chen’s personality, perceptions and strategies. Seeing events from Chen’s perspective, as well as the perspective of some of his old allies, makes for a great narrative. This novel also provides a wealth of interesting characters with all kinds of connections to Chen and his enemies. I did find it difficult to keep track of the names of so many characters who drop in and out of the narrative in no particular order. If I had it to do over again, I would keep a list of who the characters were and when they first appeared, because many of the names sounded very similar me.
I’m increasingly interested in mysteries from the Far East, and Shanghai Redemption is a stellar entry in the genre. This is the first Inspector Chen novel I have read, but it’s not the first in the series. I plan to go back in time and read some of the earlier novels, because this is a very intelligent and compelling series with a unique detective.