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on 21 July 2010
A woman's body is washed up on a beach, mutilated and unrecognisable. Detective Inspector Osama Ibrahim investigates. Meanwhile, Miriam Walker returns to Jeddah after a month's holiday back home in America, but shortly afterwards her husband Eric disappears. Could the American's disappearance be linked to the murder?

In her job as a technician in the local forensic lab, Katya is trying to piece together evidence that might reveal the murdered woman's identity, while trying to come to terms with the reappearance in her life of Nayir, a desert guide and devout Muslim. He is as troubled by his feelings for Katya, as she is about hers for him. She is clearly not the sort of girl who will accept the traditional woman's role of wife and mother, and when chance offers her the opportunity of a greater role in the investigation Katya jumps at it.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the way it highlights the position of women in modern Saudi society, the gulf between the fundamentalists and the modernists who risk the wrath of the so-called `religious police' by exposing their faces and seeking employment outside the home.

It's a tightly plotted story that unfolds at a gripping pace, once you get through the first third of the book. Until then I thought it was ok but nothing special - and I was waiting for the `maze of narrow streets' that so tantalisingly beckoned from the description on the front cover. Also (for me at least) there was nothing to give me a flavour of Jeddah itself. Apart from the heat and the repressive regime, the story could have been set in virtually any city. Certain aspects of the investigation, such as Nayir's involvement in it, seemed a bit unlikely too - after all, he's a desert guide, not a policeman.

The writing style is neither poetic nor particularly elegant, but fluent enough to make it an easy read. The main characters are well drawn, so you feel you know them and begin to understand how they think, even when their thoughts and beliefs are alien to your own. Nayir is the most interesting character, his experiences of meeting Miriam acting as a catalyst to his questioning of long-held ideology.

Don't be put off by a pedestrian start. It's not the greatest fiction but it's a good story that develops into something every bit as tense as the blurb suggests. With a touch of romance and its insight into Saudi society, it's so much more than an ordinary crime story. Well worth the read.
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The discovery of a young woman brutally murdered and found left washed up on a beach in Jeddah sets the scene for an intriguing murder-mystery in Zoë Ferraris' City of Veils, but the book is also rather more than a conventional crime thriller, the author in the process revealing a great deal about the attitudes and actions of men and women in Saudi Arabia.

The author's second novel features characters who first appeared in her debut, Night of the Mi'raj - desert guide Nayir and forensic scientist Katya - and between them they not only prove to be a strong team to investigate the murder, but also reflect the conflicts and the disparity between men and women in Islamic society. Nayir struggles with his conflicting desires between his religion and the woman he is in love with, while the independently-minded Katya struggles to not only earn the respect of her male colleagues, but has to pretend she is married in order to even keep her job. The case they are investigating - their even working together as a partnership is a serious and potentially dangerous matter - reveals however even deeper and more disturbing issues that lie behind the murder of the young woman and the seemingly connected disappearance of an American security guard working in the country.

While the investigation opens up several interesting lines of criminal activity and revolves around fascinating theological matters associated with to the Quran, underlying them all - and making the issue more complicated and difficult to resolve - are more day-to-day questions related to religious belief and its impact on Islamic society, particularly as it pertains to women. The novel skilfully interweaves the experiences of a number of women to show how their place in society, in the workplace, and in marriage - whether married, divorced or as second wives - is defined and restricted by religious belief and the authority of men. And not only Muslim women, but through the view of foreign women, trying to exist in a country where religious police have the power to monitor and arrest people for infractions of obscure and seemingly arbitrary rules and regulations, it gives the opportunity to show how these issues relate, or fail to relate, to the realities of the modern world outside.

The book is well balanced, not only in considering these issues in relation to the crime investigation, but also in how it also takes in the male perspective, since an understanding of their mindset - in particular their attitudes towards women, whether they are religious men or not - is crucial if the crime is to be solved. This creates a strange and fascinating environment for a crime thriller, one far from the conventional plots and characterisation that are all too familiar in the genre.
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on 8 December 2010
Set in the Saudi Arabian city of Jeddah, this novel opens with the discovery of a brutally tortured and murdered young woman whose body has been found on the beach. Detective Osama Ibrahim is assigned this case. Can the case be solved? So many murders of women are unsolvable in a city where the veils guarantee anonymity. And if this proves to be another murdered housemaid, then finding the culprit is likely to be impossible.
Women in Saudi Arabia are expected to live quiet lives within the boundaries of Islamic law and tradition. Yet there are some women, such as Katya who works in the medical examiner's office, who are determined to be more independent. Katya is convinced that the victim can be identified, and her killer identified and found. With the help of her friend Nayir, Katya discovers that the dead girl was a young woman named Leila.
Meanwhile, Miriam Walker (an American woman) has just returned to Jeddah after a holiday in the USA. Her husband Eric has a job in Jeddah and she is becoming concerned that he may wish to stay in Saudi Arabia. Shortly after her return, Eric vanishes. While trying to find out what has happened to Eric, Miriam discovers how difficult it is for a woman without male relatives to exist in this conservative Islamic city.

Katya's search for Leila's murderer and Miriam's search for her husband intersect, and solving the two mysteries makes for an interesting read. The story is told from the perspectives of a number of different characters and this provides different insights into the cultural aspects of life in Jeddah. In some ways, this was more intriguing than the crime-solving. The setting and the characters make this story interesting.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
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"City of Veils" by Zoë Ferraris is author's second novel in the series after "Finding Nouf" novel that introduced reader to Saudi Arabia setting and two main characters, forensic scientist Katya and her would-be suitor Nayir.

The story starts when body of a brutally killed unidentified woman is found in Jeddah, a case that will be almost impossible to solve in this part of world where women are carrying veils making them anonymous.
But Katya, who is forensic scientist who work at medical examiner office thinks opposite, she is sure that killer can be found and unfortunate woman identified.
Due to that reason, she will call her friend Nayir to help you in investigation and they two will find out that the killed woman is actually girl named Leila who worked as maker of documentaries why she wasn't popular in traditional Muslim circles and due to that she acquired herself a lot of enemies.

The story of missing American expat Eric, who is searched for by his wife Miriam is interwoven in novel, one unfortunate event that will also show the face of Arab society especially to women who are strangers.
Having only Leila's footage to help them find a murderer, while their investigation is moving, they will increasingly be drawn into the circle of prostitution, violence and woman exploitation; they will form unusual alliance with Miriam and finally if they don't give up in fear for their lives, that all could maybe lead them to the killer...

Although at first glance this novel is just another who-dunnit thriller, it's really about oppression against women in Saudi Arabia, and author through her gripping tale succeeds to disintegrate this motif into tiny details giving fairly clear picture of Arab society.
Also I'm pretty sure Jeddah wasn't just randomly chosen city in Saudi Arabia because it's one of the most liberal cities, and even there it's such a difficult situation for women to normally live.
And that's just the greatest quality of this work What makes City of Veils stand out is its nuanced and highly intimate portrayal of a woman's life in a repressive and paranoid country...where women's faces are shielded, voices are silenced, and lifestyles are infantilized.

I wasn't surprised learning that author together with her now ex-husband moved to Saudi Arabia given the apparent knowledge of the issues of their society and knowledge of details that other Westerners still consider exotic.
In her novel the author actually shown that there is no problem of women in Arab society, but the problem is the perception of women by men which can be easily seen in some episodes of the novel when "strong" men actually realize that despite bans women around them still have personality, and oppose crazy prohibitions...

Overall, "City of Veils" is thriller that isn't so much different to many others currently on market, but due to its setting and interesting subtopic it can be recommended for thriller fans.
It seems that in the end, the author manages to lift the veil from Arab women at least during the time you read this novel, and if for no other reason due to that it should be read.
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on 23 March 2012
I picked this up as I was intrigued to read a book set in Saudi Arabia, which is an unusual location for most contemporary fiction. I'm not ordinarily a crime reader, but this had me gripped from beginning to end. You weren't bogged down in technicalities, but there was enough gruesome description and clever red herrings that kept me turning the pages. I liked the way that Zoe Ferraris really set the scene with such vivid and stark descriptions of people, places and traditions. I felt like I got a bit of an insight into life in Saudi. I will definitely read the prequel to this, Night of the Mi'raj.
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on 17 April 2012
What a great follow up by Ferraris to her interesting debut. I thought this was quite a bit better than her first book which I in turn rated highly. This time I found the muder/missing person plot far more intriguing and it seemed that her writing had improved. As other reviewers have pointed out Ferraris is on a mission to explain the absurdities of living in Saudi Arabia and it works. Already one is feeling close to the characters despite their many and annoying flaws. Whatever you do read the first in the series (I take it is to be a series) first or you'll be lost in the desert.
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on 29 May 2012
I approached this book wondering if it could possibly be as good as the first one "The Night Of The Miraj" and I was not disappointed. Reading "Miraj" I got the sense that the author was laying down the foundations for a series and am I glad I was right. This is an excellent follow up with an intricate plot once again set in Jeddah. The principle characters are there and developing nicely. These books can be read out of order but if you are new to the author I strongly suggest you read the first one before plunging into this one as themes cross over.
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If you have ever wondered what it would be like to be a woman living in Saudi Arabia, then this novel may answer most of your questions. Confined to a black burqa which covers every inch of skin except for her eyes whenever she leaves her house, even when it is over a hundred twenty degrees outside, an unmarried woman must never be alone with a man. She must always be accompanied by a male member of her family, even, as occurs in one scene here, if the member of the family is only seven years old.

Women who do work outside the home often work for the media or for the police, but these women are nearly always married (because single women cannot interact with men), and whoever hires them must provide separate offices for them. Leila Nawar, whose grotesquely tortured body is found washed up along the Corniche in Jeddah as the novel opens, works as a videographer for a television station, but she is also secretly working on her own project about women and their sometimes miserable lives in Jeddah. She has made many enemies. When her body is identified, a rare event for women victims who have no fingerprints available, the police are anxious to study her recent films for clues to her death.

Detective Inspector Osama Ibrahim of the Jeddah Police/Security Department, needs women officers to help him by interviewing female witnesses or victims without their male escorts present. He depends on Faiza, and later Katya, within his department to bridge the communication gap with the women who need help, women like Miriam Walker, an American whose husband has vanished. The US consulate has been unable to find him. As the death of Leila Nawar and the disappearance of Eric Walker, the American, are investigated, several other plot lines also unfold, involving a large number of overlapping characters who are dealing with other kinds issues. Two unusual love stories provide personal interest and fascinating perceptions of Saudi religious culture.

As the daily lives of the women here become increasingly claustrophobic and frustrating, the limitations and, more importantly, the seeming impossibility of any change--ever--becomes increasingly obvious and increasingly difficult for the western reader to understand. The death of Leila reveals the hidden underside of Jeddah society, while the disappearance of Eric Walker reveals the attitudes toward foreigners (they are regarded as infidels under religious law). Her prose is efficient, and she keeps the story moving, in part through her strong reliance on coincidence to connect characters and resolve plot issues. Characters just happen to know other characters--or find their lives unexpectedly overlapping with them in surprising ways that bear no resemblance to reality. A number of extraneous subplots and many new characters seem to have been included to allow the author to expand her view of Saudi life. City of Veils is compelling, intricate, exciting, and sometimes violent-and readers of this novel will never again wonder why these women do not rebel. Mary Whipple
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on 15 August 2011
The sequel to The Night of the Mi'raj /Finding Nouf is another crime novel set in and around Jedda in Saudi Arabia. It could probably stand on its own without the first novel - but it does continue some of the character relationships that were slowly established previously (after a gap of 8 months or so).

The two main heroes from the first novel are once again central to the plot: Nayir, a desert guide and very devout Muslim, and Katya, a woman working in the Forensics department of the Saudi police force. Two other big new characters are now part of the plot: Osama, a police officer who is more confident and less spiteful around women than many other men, and Miriam, an American woman who lives in Jedda.

The story starts when a female body is found on the beach: badly burned, stabbed, beaten and decaying. Meanwhile, Miriam returns from a month-long holiday in America to be reunited with her husband, who promptly forgets to pick her up at the airport, and then, barely having brought her home, disappears.

This is the tale of an investigation into the murder - and also the tale of an American woman suddenly isolated and alone in one of the scariest places on Earth to be a woman in. The premise is interesting, to say the least.

The novel is a smooth read. This time, there is more tension worked into the plot. We're still not in serial-killer-territory, but there is a sense of peril around Miriam, and the murder, this time around, is very obviously a violent murder rather than a possible murder. (In the first novel, it is an unexplained death for the longest time, and there is not much of a sense that more violence might occur). More tension in this book means a brisker pace - but there are also more characters, and this imbalances the novel a little. Not every plot line is as tense as every other plotline, so it can sometimes feel like one chapter is hitting the accelerator, while another is shifting down a gear and meandering a little.

By far the most awkward angle of the novel is when it strays dangerously close into The Da Vinci Code territory. Its heart is never in it, and this is not a novel about religious conspiracies - yet there is a sprinkling of this in the plot, and as reader, I felt myself cringing and hoping that it would not develop into a Dan Brown clone. It never does - but it dabbles with the idea.

Much of the attraction of Night of the Mi'Raj was that it introduces an alien land that not many people experience. City of Veils feels even more immersive in Saudi Arabian culture - sometimes intentionally straying to the sort of scene a Western reader might have expected, but found missing in the first novel. Does it always convince? I'm not sure - the police is written about in a respectful and competent manner, and in many ways, these could be investigators in any country. Yes, there are cultural differences, but there are no fundamental differences in the characters of the people. Are people really more or less the same, all around the world, just adapting their lives into different behavioural patterns, but without deep-rooted differences? I don't know - this book makes it feel that way. It does not help that it's all written in English, so characters use swearwords like "f***" when things go wrong. Basically, everyone's speech patterns are American (with a few common Arabic words thrown in), while their behaviour patterns are Saudi.

I enjoyed this book a lot. I enjoyed it more than the first novel - it has more tension and peril in it. I also think it would probably make a fantastic movie. But it is somehow not quite perfect: characters are a bit too self-analytical, a bit too explanatory, the narrative tone a bit too removed to be fully immersed. It's a novel that comes within grasping distance of genre-defining greatness, but can't quite capitalise on its great ideas and concept to their fullest potential. Well worth a read, definitely, but not a second, third or fourth read.
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VINE VOICEon 8 October 2012
As with the first book, The Night of the Mi'raj (also titled Finding Nouf), the strengths of this book lay in the complex problems caused by women's position in Saudi society. Imagine trying to solve a serious crime where the victim is a female, but men and women cannot interact without the presence of a male family member.

The book opens with a brutally murdered young Saudi woman, dragged from the sea. She is unrecognisable - her face and fingerprints have been burned off with acid. If she is just another housemaid, there is little chance that the murder will be solved, but Katya happens upon some identification which turns the tables.
Katya is an independant young woman who we met in the first book. She works in the medical examiner's office and although she does cover herself up, she is less constrained by rules and determined to have a career of her own. Her boss, Detective Inspector Osama Ibrahim, respects her determination and finds her invaluable in bridging the gap bewteeen his male staff and females who need to be questioned.

Meanwhile, an American, Miriam Walker, returns from vacation in the States, to her husband Eric. He meets her from the plane, goes out for takeaway and disappears. She struggles to be taken seriously - perhaps he has just gone away for a few days? - perhaps he has another woman? - Nothing to worry about.

The two cases gradually appear to intersect, aided by Nayir, a desert guide. He has feelings for Katya, though he can't express them. How do men and women ever meet, we wonder? Nayir was also in the first book, where his character was a little more convincing. Here he is used more as a policemen and that didn't feel quite right.

I listened to the unabridged audio version of this book, but unfortunately my listening was spread over about a month. Perhaps this was why I didn't feel that the who-done-it aspect of the novel was particularly strong. Or maybe it was the over-use of coincidences. For me, the book is a great reflection of the problems caused by the restrictions of Saudi culture, rather than a crime novel, which was secondary.

This week I begin Kingdom of Strangers for a book group. Others have already spoken enthusiastically about it and I am looking forward to a good read.
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