Cover Image: Picture in the Sand

Picture in the Sand

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Ali Hassan's grandson Alex decides to move overseas and join a terrorist cell as a holy warrior in response to post-9/11 world events. In an effort to save his beloved, Ali writes a series of letters that share the story of his involvement in political rebellion in 1950s Egypt. The story also details Ali's participation in the filming of Cecil B. MeMille's The Ten Commandments. The revelation of a grandfather's secret past inspires Alex to continue his activism until the story takes a turn that motivates him to leave his newfound lifestyle. 
I appreciated the insight into Egyptian life and history from the 1950s. And the film history was interesting, too. I didn't feel mesmerized by the storytelling, though. And the ending is too neat and tidy for my preference.
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A story set in two times as a grandfather relays a story to his grandson in order to show him that he does understand the grandson's choices and tries to offer guidance to him. The narration of the grandfather talks of the contentious political atmosphere in Egypt during the filming of the 10 Commandments movie. The grandfather was at the center of the movie filming and the political upheaval.
I felt the story moved slowly. I only held out because I wanted to know what ultimately happened with the grandson because the rest seemed somewhat predictable.
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Entertaining historical fiction about an era and culture that I have not read about frequently.  I enjoyed the structure of this novel - shifting between past and present, tied together with letters between a grandfather and his grandson.  It started a little slowly but ~1/2 way through I was invested in the characters.  Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for a free copy in exchange for my honest opinion.
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Peter Blauer’s fictional story of Egypt in the 1950’s speaks through a grandfather’s emails to his grandson. He is trying to save his grandson from seemingly repeating the mistakes that he himself made as a young man a whole world away. Of course the grandson sees that his elderly grandfather must not understand the modern world that he is now living in. No one knows the entirety of the grandfather’s story until he feels compelled to tell his grandson.

Now, we, the reader are along for the ride as Egypt is thrown into turmoil after turmoil from one regime to the next and the people of the county struggle to define sides and decides who they will follow into the future. It is not only the future of Egypt that hangs in the balance but the grandson, who has become wrapped up in his own battle with the holy war.

As a child of a family who left Egypt in the 60’s, I remember hearing stories from my father of the beauty of Egypt before the regime changes began. The days of his youth were filled with cosmopolitan cities that are not easily found any more. I remembered his love of taking me to the cinema to watch Aladdin and Genie of the Lamp or Saladin and Voyage of the Seven Seas. He would watch The Ten Commandments with me on TV and his favorite film was Fiddler on the Roof. Reading about the grandfather in Picture in the Sand and his love of the cinema brought my father’s memory back to me.

As my father grew old, his mind would wander to the days when neighbors were from every country and people lived joyfully. He always wanted to tell my children about his days of Egypt, but as with the grandson in the novel, they only saw his as an old man who didn’t understand the modern world. They loved him as any grandson would love his grandfather but they were too busy. I wish there was time for them to hear his story. Who knows what they would have learned?
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Picture in the Sand by Peter Blauner was a gripping and suspenseful historical fiction novel that was partly about Egypt’s turbulent history during the 1950’s. The social and political upheaval Egypt and its people faced in the 1950’s was portrayed in great detail in this book. Picture in the Sand also explored the presence of modern day terrorism and extreme Islamic beliefs in a post 9/11 world. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Pictures in the Sand was the arrival of Cecil B. DeMille in Egypt where he hoped to film the movie of The Ten Commandments. Even though I have seen the movie of The Ten Commandments several times over the years since it was first released, I never imagined all the political restrictions, precautions and occurrences that happened during the production of the film. It was a time of regime changes, assassination attempts and the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood. 

Ali Hassan grew up in Cairo, Egypt as a respectful and bright Muslim boy. Both of his parents worked in one of the larger hotels in Cairo. Ali’s mother worked as a housekeeper and his father was a golf caddy for the rich and affluent guests. His mother and sister had died and so it was just Ali and his father looking out for another. After Ali’s mother and sister died, his father took to drinking a little too much. Ali had been bright enough to go to university. He had always been interested in films and sometimes even wrote reviews for some of them. Some of Ali’s fondest memories was going to the movies with his mother and sister. When Ali learned that Cecil B. DeMille was coming to Egypt to film The Ten Commandments, Ali thought of nothing else but wanting to work for him. Ali’s father was able to pull a few strings and ask one of his rich clients to get Ali an interview with Mr. DeMille. With a little fabrication to his resume, Ali secured the position of Cecil B. DeMille’s personal assistant and driver. Ali was over the moon with excitement! This experience would change the course of Ali’s life in ways he never could have imagined.

Alex Hassan was Ali’s American born grandson. Ali had immigrated from Egypt to the United States. It was now post 9/11. Ali could not have been prouder of his grandson, Alex. He had recently found out that Alex had been accepted to an Ivy League university. What could be better than that? He was a very proud grandfather. Alex had other ideas though. One day, Alex sent an e-mail to his family that informed them that he had chosen to travel to the Middle East and had joined the Holy War. Alex had also changed his name to Abu. His e-mail informed his family that they couldn’t change his mind about what he was doing. Alex would not be able to communicate with them very often. He explained that he would use encrypted e-mail addresses to let them know that he was doing okay. He could not tell them where he was. Alex’s family was distraught about the choice Alex had made. 

Learning about the path Ali’s grandson had chosen to follow broke Ali’s heart. Ali saw so much of himself in his grandson. Their lives were more connected than either had known or realized. Ali shared the book about his life growing up in Egypt during the 1950’s with his grandson to try and influence his decisions. Over many e-mails, Ali divulged things to his grandson that he had not spoken about to very many people. Some things Ali told Alex were painful and embarrassing for Ali to recall. Ali’s goal was to dissuade his grandson from making some of the same mistakes he had made when Ali was also young and idealistic like his grandson. It was frustrating for Ali, to discover that his story was having the totally opposite effect on his grandson. Could Ali’s story prevent Alex from making similar mistakes that his grandfather had made all those years ago? 

I really enjoyed reading Picture in the Sand by Peter Blauner. It was a sweeping multigenerational saga that was told through an exchange of emotional and passionate e-mails between grandfather and grandson. Picture in the Sand was fast paced, well plotted and impeccably researched. I loved the characters in this book and admired Peter Blauner for his excellent storytelling. Picture in the Sand was about family, love, sorrow, death, mistakes, trust, assassination plots, prison, spies and terrorism. It was well written and well plotted. Although this was the first book that I had the pleasure of reading by Peter Blauner, I will definitely look forward to reading more books written by him. I highly recommend this book.

Thank you to Minotaur Books for allowing me to read the digital version of Picture in the Sand by Peter Blauner through Netgalley in exchange for an honest and voluntary review.
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The core of this story was interesting, but some of the execution was lacking. For starters, Picture in the Sand starts with a frame narrative that I hated. College graduate Alex has been indoctrinated into a terrorist cell and he is emailing his grandfather about how his family will never find him. His grandfather had randomly suspected this might be a problem way back when Alex was younger and decided to write his life story -which he has never told anybody, even his son, Alex's father- and just kept on the off chance it would one day be relevant exactly to Alex's life. Sure. 

I don't love this, but to get a story going, sure. But what I really didn't like is every single email from Alex throughout this story. What a one note, unrealistic, mouthpiece of a "character". So Alex's grandfather emails him the file for the book, and every few pages, Alex stops reading to email his grandpa again about what he's read so far. It's THE DUMBEST EMAILS. I would have much rathered little interludes where Alex just *thinks* about what he's read before, but his emails are the worst part of this book. It'll be like: 
*actual story* "so I met a girl, and she was beautiful." 
-email "wait, so this is grandma? I totally understand why you think you wanted to tell me this, but I am still not coming back, you'll never see me again, take care of yourself, I'll still read more when I have time though. 
~three more pages take place, another email ~

I'm exaggerating but it's hard to explain just how jarring and ridiculous I found these emails. And the past-Grandfather story is supposed to be teaching Alex lessons, and so we get emails about his life too, and...it's just a very unnuanced portrayal of why people join terrorist groups. It's basically "white rich people are bad...wait, maybe they aren't ~all~ bad?!" 

Anyway, onto the actual meat of the story. It was decent. It revolves around a film shoot in Egypt from the film Ten Commandments, Grandpa Ali is hired to work on the film and has dreams of being a successful actor. He sees Yul Brenner and Charles Heston and all these big movie stars and is swept away in the magic. But his brother recruits him into a terrorist sect that wants to use the spotlight of the big film to do something to make a statement. Ali feels drawn to his brother's cause, but doesn't want to make trouble. The crux of this story is good, although I think this section of the book could have used another ~50~ pages, because the book was pretty short. The ending of the book was okay, but I was left wanting a bit more from it all. 

I switched between audio and physical and the audiobook was very good. I probably would have DNF'd otherwise.
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This book really just took me for a ride. I loved the build up, the character development, and the writing. I would definitely read more from this author!
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A St. Martin's Press ARC via NetGalley.
Many thanks to the author and publisher.

This book is incredible. You can tell that the author spent time researching and painted a vivid Picture in the Sand. Every chapter you want to keep finding out about Ali and Alex. I highly recommend reading this and I feel sorry for the next books of this year that have to follow this one.
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Peter Blauner’s “Picture in the Sand” is a relevant and timely tale about the dangers of radical extremism, and the bonds of family. This intergenerational saga alternates between the emails of young Muslim American, Alex, and his grandfather, Ali, who describes his past as a young man working with Cecil B. DeMille, in Egypt, during the making of The Ten Commandments. A novel 20 years in the making, “Picture in the Sand” is a worthwhile and fascinating read for fans of historical fiction.

Thanks to NetGalley, St. Martin’s Press, and Minotaur Books for providing the opportunity to read this book in exchange for my honest opinion.
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a moving story that will capture your heart. past meets future when Ali has to reveal his past to save the future of another. a wonderful read.
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This one was a bit of a struggle to rate - 3 stars is a stretch.  While I enjoyed Ali's story, I loathed his grandson, and although his character really only had a small part in the story, it was large enough to really detract from Ali and his story.  And as much as I enjoyed a fair amount of the book, I truly struggle to understand how this book took 20 years to write.  Based on the reviews, I'm clearly in the minority, but this book just wasn't for me.
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This book was fantastic! I really enjoyed it and it kept me guessing throughout, which is difficult for most books to do. I felt like I connected with the characters and really enjoyed the plot!
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Picture in The Sand is a good page-turner. It is part suspense and part drama. 

It does a few things well. It not only takes you to the set of the Ten Commandments production (a big chunk of the book focuses on around the filming of the movie and shortly after) and shows you this fictional set, it also transforms you to 1950's Egypt. The author's attention to detail with the setting of this story is apparent. 

The author, stealthily, educates you about the country's complicated political history. I very much appreciated it. The author (a former journalist) clearly did his research well. 

Now the drama in the book became too much at parts and I could have done without the torture scenes in the prison. So just know it gets graphic in a couple of scenes but they are skippable. 

I initially had a tiny issue with the story with mostly Muslim characters being written by a non-Muslim, non-Middle Eastern author. But as I read it I didn't find anything overtly wrong or distasteful with the way these characters were portrayed.
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This is an interesting Grandfather to Grandson cautionary tale.  Timely in it topic of radicalism and classic in its
generational wisdom.   The writing style and choice of words gives clues to the read as to how each man is
evolving in his thoughts and behaviors.  Excellent book choice for discussion especially with multi generaltional
groups.
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Fascinating story that encapsulates a time of political and religious precariousness. I learned quite a bit from this novel all while engaged in the story unfolding before me.
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When his grandson disappears to join jihad, grandfather Ali finds himself telling the story of his own experiences in politics and violence through his work with Cecil B. DeMille filming his Ten Commandments in the deserts of Egypt, hoping to be able to reach his grandson, his story brings back memories, hopes and disappointments. Exceptionally well written and entertaining, highly recommended reading!
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It’s 2014 when young Alex decides to ditch his plans of going to Cornell University in order to join a terrorist group fighting in Syria instead. As an Arab American kid growing up in the aftermath of  9/11, he’s long felt ostracized by his own nation. Too much unsupervised Internet time leads to his recruitment by terrorists, who come up with a plan to help him travel to the Middle East. He sends his family a farewell email, asking them to never contact him again.

Of course, his frantic family ignores this request, but it’s perhaps his grandfather Ali, the first member of their family to immigrate to America, who has the best chance at reconnecting with his idiot grandson. Ali was once a disaffected youth too, and recognizes the urge that would turn a young man toward violence and destruction, having felt it himself so many decades ago:

QUOTE
I wanted to feel strong instead of broken. I pictured high-velocity shock waves [...] destabilizing the structure and causing it to come crashing down, flimsy as a house of matchsticks, nails and planks flying, the giant brought to its knees, collapsing in a mighty thundercloud and leaving only smoldering wreckage.

My pulse began to quicken as I imagined being part of something so momentous and devastating. I would not have to think of myself as a loser who had disgraced himself in Sinai. Who wouldn’t want to be a warrior instead?
END QUOTE

Once upon a time, Ali was an Egyptian teenager dreaming of making movies in Hollywood. When he hears that the legendary Cecil B DeMille himself is coming to the country to film The Ten Commandments, he does everything he can to attach himself to the production. With the help of his dad, a caddy for rich tourists, he manages to get hired as an assistant to the famous director, a position well beyond his wildest dreams. He’s ready to make the most of it, hoping to impress DeMille enough to launch his own career in film.

But a terrible accident on his very first day on the job puts both himself and the production in jeopardy, even before they’re summoned to meet Egypt’s new de facto leader. Gamal Abdul Nasser has overthrown President Mohamed Naguib, and is scrutinizing every single one of his predecessors’ contracts, including the agreement to let DeMille film. He puts the Americans, and Ali, on notice that he’s watching their every move.

As Ali spends time escorting DeMille and co from Cairo to the Sinai Peninsula to Alexandria, he begins to grow more and more disillusioned with these people he’d once dreamed of joining. It doesn’t help that the young woman he’s been in love with since their first meeting in college is paying more attention to the filmmakers than to himself. When his firebrand cousin Sherif approaches him with an offer and a threat – help Sherif and the Muslim Brotherhood destroy DeMille’s film set or have Sherif reveal the truth behind the accident he was involved with – he doesn’t know how to say no. He isn’t even sure that he wants to.

Decades later, Ali is finally ready to come clean about this dark time in his life, hoping that sharing his own misgivings and heartache with his grandson will persuade the latter to abandon violence and the inevitable misery that comes with it. He attempts to draw parallels between his own plight and the increasingly tenuous circumstances Alex eventually admits to finding himself in, as the young man’s flight to Syria turns out not to be as courageous or noble as he imagined. Working with this, Ali admits that he had his own fear-filled reasons for staying a course he increasingly doubted:

QUOTE
After all, Naguib still had the title of president and there were more than a million Muslim Brothers in the country. If they were inspired to rise up in revolt, he might regain power and put Nasser in chains. Even in my hopeless fallen state, I recognized my own self-interest in this. Under a new Ikhwan-backed regime, I might be marked for death as a traitor. Unless I could show some value as an asset.
END QUOTE

Peter Blauner has delved deeply into the history and culture of both Egypt and Hollywood filmmaking to produce this remarkable tale of a grandfather trying to save his grandson from going down the same ruinous path he once flirted with himself. The depiction of 1950s Egypt is colorful and persuasive, as is the description of the festering frustrations in the heart of barely adult men who feel that they’re owed power and respect. The characterizations otherwise can sometimes feel flat, but there’s no denying the passion and genuine care that drive this historical, generation-spanning thriller.
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Picture in the Sand combines some of my favorite things: beautiful and original storytelling, old Hollywood during the filming of The Ten Commandments, and an intergenerational family saga. I really enjoyed a historical fiction novel that took me to Egypt in the 1950’s. A very interesting and entertaining read.

Thank you to St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley for this ARC.
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Ali Hassan tries to stay connected to his grandson who has run off to the Middle East after 9/11 to join the jihad.  Through a series of emails and letters, Ali reveals a mysterious past in the hopes of changing his grandson’s mind.  I really wanted to like this book but just had a hard time connecting with characters and sticking with the slower plot pace. Thank you to Netgalley for the chance to read and review this book.
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A historical fiction book based on true events. This book was a poignant and powerful view of 1950’s Egypt and a grandfather trying to dissuade his grandson to change his views and come back home. This book was brought to my attention by NetGalley and St Martin’s Press was kind enough to gift me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. I was completely enthralled by this book, the storytelling by Blauner is excellent, from start to finish. You read this book with all your senses, you live through Ali’s experiences and feelings. We have love, actions, and intrigue, it has it all and for most of the book I just wanted to smack Alex in the head but although it was slow, he gradually realized that his idealism wasn’t as bulletproof as he thought. I'm glad I have a copy because I will treasure it and have it in my re-read list.
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