This book ended my streak of so-so or downright bad books!

City of the Sun - Juliana Maio

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

 

I was really pleasantly surprised by this book. It's described as a "Casablanca"-style WWII mystery/thriller, set in Cairo. The reason I was initially concerned is that I don't like the movie "Casablanca" all that much. This book was a lot better, which made me happy.

 

Set in the early days of WWII, the story revolves around several groups of characters with competing and conflicting interests. The Germans, led by Rommel, are pushing their way through North Africa, and spying on the Egyptians and Allies alike. The British are fighting to stop the German advance and retain control of their control of the Egyptian colony. The Americans are fighting a secret war, having not yet formally entered WWII. The Egyptian people are divided - some are happy with the status quo, others are agitating for independence from the British. Even the Jewish community in Egypt is divided over the issue of creating a Jewish state in Palestine.

 

Against this backdrop, we get a love story, mystery, espionage, murder, and family drama. The story is tightly woven and as a result is a very fast read. The main characters are Mickey Connolly, an American reporter, and Maya, a German Jew on the run from the Nazis with her brother and father. Mickey's journalism career isn't going too well, but as luck would have it, he's enlisted by the American embassy and "Wild" Bill Donovan in an early forerunner of the CIA. He's tasked with finding a scientist, Erik Blumenthal, before the Germans do. Erik just happens to be Maya's brother. Mickey meets Maya by chance, and they fall for each other. Meanwhile, the Nazis have tasked their spy in Cairo with finding Erik as well. It's a race to see who can find him first.

 

All of the characters are well written and interesting, even though the supporting characters steal the show at certain points. Even though the historical timeline has been compressed, it doesn't take away from the narrative. The North Africa campaigns are a part of WWII that's largely overlooked, which is a shame, because it's very interesting history. You learn a lot about the Jewish community in Egypt pre-WWII and the origins of the Jewish/Arab friction that persists today. I also enjoyed reading about Cairo and Egypt after vacationing there several years ago. The descriptions are so interesting to compare to modern Cairo, since some things have changed so much, while others are exactly the same.

 

The only nit-picks I had were very personal and very nit-picky, so I will admit that right up front. Throughout the book, the author talks about "marines" at the American embassy and other official functions. Even though it's technically grammatically correct to use the lower case "m", anyone who has been a Marine or knows a Marine will tell you the "M" should always, always, always be capitalized. Always. (The New York Times corrected their policy in 2009). The other issue was the scene at the film premier toward the end of the book where the Marines are described as wearing red, white, and blue top hats - no. Assuming they were in uniform (how else would you know they were Marines and not civilian staff?), Marines never wear anything but the regulation cover for the uniform, and only outdoors. Marines don't wear covers inside. That just would. not. happen. Ever. Like I said, I know it's nit-picky and I'm probably one of a small minority of people that would even notice these two things, but it bugged me all the same.

 

Overall, this was a really good book and a fast read. If you're interested in WWII, spy novels or historical fiction, you should definitely pick this up.