The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

The Moonstone
by
Wilkie Collins

Rating:

Serious mystery readers may already know that The Moonstone is considered “the first and greatest of English detective novels.” Those are the words of T. S. Eliot, poet, playwright, literary critic and winner of the 1948 Nobel Prize for Literature. I read The Moonstone, which was first published in 1868, for the Whodunits mystery book club at the library where I work.

Wow. It’s a whopping, 482 pages of dense type, with footnotes, so I had to go hard to get it read by my deadline, but it was totally worth it!

The story begins in India, with the Storming of the Seringapatam by an English Imperialist army, during which a valuable gem is stolen from a religious icon. John Herncastle brings the famous Yellow Diamond back to England and, when he dies, it goes to his niece, Rachel Verinder, on her eighteenth birthday. It’s an act of revenge, though, because the gem is rumored to be cursed and Herncastle’s family hates him. And a mysterious trio of Indians has been lurking in the shadows ever since Rachel’s cousin, Franklin Blake, brought the Diamond, aka The Moonstone, to the family’s home in Yorkshire.

Rachel wears the Diamond for her birthday party and by morning it’s missing. The local police manage to offend the servants and soon, the famous Sergeant Cuff is called from London. He discovers an important clue, and the investigation takes off. Rumors from London suggest the gem been pawned and secured in a bank vault. If true, how did it get from Yorkshire to London?

The narrative is from many points of view, beginning with Lady Verinda’s butler, Gabriel Betteredge. He quickly becomes Cuff’s sidekick as they try to unravel the events that led to the lost Diamond. Other narrators include a poor relation, Miss Clack, who is eager to share her carpetbag full of religious pamphlets and Franklin, who was also Rachel’s love interest before the gem went missing, and is now under suspicion. Many additional characters contribute clues, but they don’t always lead in the right direction: Rosanna Spearman is a plain housemaid (and former thief) with a deformed shoulder, and she knows something. Philanthropist Godfrey Ablewhite is another love interest and “Limping Lucy” Yolland holds a letter that may explain a lot.

The mystery is set in both the coastal region of Yorkshire, where a scary tract of quicksand may have swallowed up some answers, and in London, where shady lender Septimus Luker has an office and family lawyer Matthew Bruff wields an imposing legal influence.

Halfway through the book and you wonder if the mystery will ever be solved. It will, but there’s a lot to discover, through briefly introduced characters in the beginning, and new characters, all leading towards a twisted and spectacular finish.

While not an easy read, I totally recommend The Moonstone as an example of how it’s done. I’m only giving it 4.5 stars, however, because of its difficulty.

And here’s something interesting: the book was originally published in serialized format by Collins’s good friend, Charles Dickens!

Have you read The Moonstone? What did you think?

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Mysteries and thrillers to keep you guessing

Image: Pixabay

I read some good mysteries and thrillers this year, some debuts and others by established authors. Great for seasoned readers of this genre and everyone in between! Take a look:


Back of Beyond by C. J. Box

Tense murder mystery set in Yellowstone National Park, with a suspended investigator on the heels of a wildnerness adventure tour, sure his son is in danger.


Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke

A conflicted Texas Ranger is in hot water with the force for helping out a family friend facing murder charges. Forced to turn in his badge, he goes rogue with a new investigation.


A Duty to the Dead by Charles Todd

Entertaining historical mystery, set in England during World War I. The first book of the Bess Crawford Mysteries, introducing Bess as a highly skilled young nurse aboard the doomed HMHS Britannic.


The Escape Room by Megan Goldin

When Vincent deVries of Stanhope & Sons summons his Wall Street investment banker team to a compulsory meeting, the last thing they expect is to be trapped in an elevator, meant to be the setting for an escape room activity.


Frog Music by Emma Donoghue

Fictionalized account of the 1876 murder of Jenny Bonnet, an enigmatic free spirit in San Francisco, who dressed like a man and earned a living catching frogs for restaurants.


The Glass Room by Ann Cleeves

Detective Inspector Vera Stanhope has another crime to solve when her neighbor, Joanna Tobin, goes missing and an influential professor is murdered. Could Joanna, who is off her meds, be responsible for the professor’s death?


Miracle Creek by Angie Kim

Debut novel and a mystery/courtroom drama in which a young mother stands trial for the murder of her 8-year-old autistic son.


The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

Alicia Berenson does something strange after she kills her husband. She stops talking. The only clue to explain her actions is a self-portrait, painted a few days after the murder.


Those People by Louise Candlish

On the problem of despicable neighbors, here’s a new book about a couple that moves into an idyllic and award-winning neighborhood in South London and drives the families to desperation.


What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman

It’s 1975 when two sisters disappear from a busy mall outside Baltimore, Maryland. They separate at the mall and never come home. Thirty years later, a mysterious woman returns and claims to be one of the missing girls.


Did you read any good mysteries or thrillers this year?

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Book Club Mom’s great reads of 2019

I read some great books this year. Here’s a list of my favorites!


Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

Is it good luck to survive a plane crash over the Atlantic? Most would think yes, but Scott Burroughs, after a heroic swim to safety, with four-year-old JJ Bateman clinging to his neck, may wonder. Because he will soon find himself caught between competing government agencies searching for a cause and the media’s ruthless pursuit of a story, any story, even if it’s unfounded. Winner of the 2017 Edgar Award for Best Novel and the 2017 International Thriller Writers Award for Best Novel.


In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Fantastic nonfiction novel, the first of its kind and considered Truman Capote’s masterpiece. The chilling depiction of a senseless 1959 murder of a Kansas family. Capote and his childhood friend, Harper Lee, went to Kansas to research the story and compiled over 8000 pages of notes. They were granted numerous interviews with the murderers, who by then, had confessed and were in jail awaiting trial. They moved to death row after their convictions, where Capote continued to interview them until their hangings. He became particularly attached to Perry Smith and related to his unhappy childhood.


Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

Fantastic memoir about Hope Jahren’s experiences as a scientist. Jahren’s field is plants, especially trees, and her interest in them is contagious. She explains the fascinating way in which they grow, reproduce and adapt. Jahren writes beautifully about her profession, its challenges and about her lonely childhood in Minnesota, college life and early years trying to make it as a scientist.


Less by Andrew Sean Greer

Arthur Less is turning 50 and he’s at the edge of a crisis: his writing career has stalled and his former lover is getting married. To guarantee he’ll be out of the country on the day of the wedding, Less accepts a string of unusual writerly engagements that take him around the world. His goal? Forget lost love and rework the novel his publisher has taken a pass on. In a comedic series of travel mishaps, Less bumbles through this symbolic journey in search of happiness. Winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.


Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

Set in New York during the Depression and World War II, the story begins with Anna Kerrigan as a young girl whose father has ties to organized crime. She accompanies her father on an errand and meets a mysterious man with powerful connections and won’t fully understand the impact until years later. I highly recommend Manhattan Beach to readers who like historical fiction and big stories with strong female characters.


Notes from a Public Typewriter – edited by Michael Gustafson and Oliver Uberti

Guaranteed to put you in a good mood, about the Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan, owned by Gustafson and his wife, Hilary. When they set up the store in 2013, they put out a typewriter, with paper, for anyone to use. It wasn’t long before customers began to type random, sometimes whimsical and often heartfelt messages for all to see. This book is the combined story of these messages.


Refugee by Alan Gratz

Terrific Young Adult historical novel about three refugee children, caught in different periods of conflict, who flee their countries in search of safety and a better life. In alternating stories, the children face unpredictable danger as they desperately try to keep their families together. Each discovers that, by being invisible, they escape many dangers, but miss chances for others to help them. Published in 2017 Refugee is now included in many middle and high school curriculums. A New York Times Notable Book, an Amazon Best Book of the Year, and both Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly Best Books of the Year.


Sounds Like Titanic by Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman

Great memoir about a woman who is hired to play violin in a prestigious touring orchestra, only to discover that the microphones are turned off. What’s turned on is a $14.95 CD player from Walmart, playing a recorded version of a composer’s music, performed by other musicians. The music sounds suspiciously like, but a strategic note or two different from, the score of the popular 1997 film, Titanic.


Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Kya Clark is six years old when her mother walks out of their shack, a place hidden in the marshes of North Carolina, where racial tension and small-town prejudices are firmly in place in the nearby coastal town of Barkley Cove. Soon her father’s abusive rages drive Kya’s older siblings away, leaving only Kya and her father. Then one day it’s just Kya, known in town and shunned as the wild Marsh Girl. The story begins in 1952 and jumps to 1969, when a young man has died. In alternating chapters, readers learn Kya’s story of survival and how she becomes part of the investigation into his death.


What books were your favorites in 2019? Leave a comment and share your best!

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Coffin Road by Peter May

Coffin Road
by
Peter May

Rating:

(and a half)

When a man washes ashore the Isle of Harris and a fellow islander asks what happened, he remembers and recognizes nothing. His only clue is a map in his pocket with a highlighted line up the island’s Coffin Road.

His neighbors know him as Neal Maclean, an author who is writing a book about the mysterious 1900 disappearance of three lighthouse keepers on one of the Flannan Islands. In conversations, Neal plays along, reluctant to admit he knows nothing and hoping his memory will soon return.

It isn’t easy to pretend, however, and after searching through his house, looking for anything to jog his memory, he comes up short. And it isn’t long before his life is in obvious danger. What is up on Coffin Road and what does it have to do with Neal?

In a fast-moving atmospheric mystery set in Scotland’s spectacular Outer Hebrides, where landscape, sky and winds contribute to the story’s mood and effect, Neal rushes to find answers to his ever-increasing list of questions. When a body is discovered on one of the Flannan Islands, he soon becomes entangled in a murder investigation. Is there a connection too, to the unsolved Flannan Island mystery from years ago? (For more about the Flannan Island lighthouse keepers, check out the movie The Vanishing, an excellent psychological thriller.)

Meanwhile in Edinburgh, Karen is a rebellious seventeen-year-old, angry at the world and trying to understand her father’s suicide. Her mother is moving on, but something isn’t right and Karen is determined to understand why.

I’ll stop here in describing the plot, because any more would give away too much, but readers should get ready for a much broader story, with global conspiracies and clandestine efforts that point to an environmental disaster.

I enjoyed this standalone novel from 2016 by Peter May, who is a former script writer and editor for British television. I read and liked The Lewis Trilogy (The Blackhouse, The Lewis Man, and The Chessmen) and was excited to read Coffin Road. I always like a good memory loss story, so Neal Maclean’s mysterious circumstances fit the bill.

A bit formulaic and with a couple incongruous situations, particularly at the end and regarding Karen’s plot line, I didn’t think this was as good as The Lewis Trilogy. A few typos and a grammar mistake (the old “I” instead of “me” no-no) took a little bit away. I don’t think this is the same publisher as his other books, so maybe it’s related to that. In addition, the environmental story line and implications were interesting, but I didn’t think they fit well into Neal’s mystery. But it was a fun read, always good during a busy time, and I’m looking forward to reading other books by May.

If you’re interested in The Lewis Trilogy, check out my reviews here:

The Blackhouse
The Lewis Man
The Chessmen

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Christmas books – there are more than you think!

I recently discovered a genre of fiction I’d never thought about much. Christmas themed books. I’m not talking about the classics, like those pictured here. I’m talking about Christmas mysteries and suspense, Christmas romances, sweet stories, warm stories and stories with dogs. Do a search on Goodreads, Amazon or your local library catalog. You will find too many to count! Here are some classics:

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote
Hercule Poirot’s Christmas by Agatha Christie
How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss
The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry
The Night Before Christmas by Clement C. Moore

And here are some others that caught my eye:


Are you looking for a holiday mystery? Many mystery writers are in the game.

19th Christmas by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro
Christmas at Timberwoods by Fern Michaels
Christmas Cake Murder by Joanne Fluke
Christmas Cookie Murder by Leslie Meier
Christmas Crumble by M.C. Beaton
The Christmas Scorpion by Lee Child
Cremas, Christmas Cookies and Crooks by Harper Lin
Festive in Death by J.D. Robb
Hark the Herald Angels Slay by Vicki Delaney
Homicide for the Holidays by Cheryl Honigford
Murder for Christmas by Francis Duncan
The Usual Santas by Peter Lovesey

How about a sweet story? There are plenty of those.

An Amish Christmas by Cynthia Keller
The Christmas Boutique by Jennifer Chiaverini
The Christmas Return by Anne Perry
The Christmas Train by David Baldacci
Dashing Through the Snow by Debbie Macomber
Home for Christmas by Nora Roberts

Books with dogs? Did you think there wouldn’t be any?

1225 Christmas Tree Lane by Debbie Macomber
A Cajun Christmas Killing by Ellen Byron
The Christmas Wedding Swap by Allyson Charles
Dachshund Through the Snow by David Rosenfelt
Pupcakes by Annie England Noblin
Puppy Christmas by Lucy Gilmore

Maybe you’re looking for something a little racy…I won’t tell!

Cowboy Boots for Christmas by Carolyn Brown
A Cowboy Firefighter for Christmas by Kim Redford
Dreaming of a White Wolf Christmas by Terry Spear
My Favorite Things by Lynsay Sands
An Outlaw’s Christmas by Linda Lael Miller
A Scottish Lord for Christmas by Lauren Smith

Or maybe something new or different.

Catching Christmas by Terri Blackstock
Christmas Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella
Royal Holiday by Jasmine Guillory
Skipping Christmas by John Grisham
Tru and Nelle by G. Neri
Wishin’ and Hopin’ by Wally Lamb

I may try one or two of these during the holidays, especially Tru and Nelle by G Neri, which is about Truman Capote and Harper Lee as children and Skipping Christmas by John Grisham, recommended by my work friend K. How about you? Do you like reading Christmas fiction? What are your favorites?

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Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Where the Crawdads Sing
by
Delia Owens

Rating:

Kya Clark is six years old when her mother walks out of the shack they call home. The falling-down structure is hidden in the marshes of North Carolina, outside the fictional coastal town of Barkley Cove, a place where racial tension and small-town prejudices are firmly in place. The shack is the only place the Clark family knows, where her father’s abusive rages have terrified Kya, her mother and her siblings. Soon her older siblings run, leaving only Kya and her father, who provides her with nothing but fear. And then one day it’s just Kya, known in town and shunned as the wild Marsh Girl.

The story begins in 1952 and jumps to 1969, when a young man named Chase Andrews has died. In alternating chapters, readers learn Kya’s story of survival and how she becomes part of the investigation into Chase’s death.

Kya may be a “marsh girl,” but she has extraordinary talents that enable her to devise ways to survive and battle her loneliness, trying to understand why everyone has left her. Fearful of other people, she learns how to live as one of nature’s creatures, reaching out to just a few trusted souls who help her.

Then one day, she meets a boy, Tate Walker, who shyly leaves her presents, and a tentative friendship begins. “She’d never had a friend, but she could feel the use of it, the pull.” Their relationship grows and changes with them, opening her eyes to a larger world. But time and outside pressure soon bring disappointment and loss, leaving Kya alone once again.

I don’t want to give away too much, because the joy of this fantastic story is in reading it first-hand. I have always loved books that include nature as a character, with themes of its strong influence on human behavior. Delia Owens, with her unique background as an award-winning wildlife scientist, has created a beautiful coming-of-age story in which nature’s beauty and harsh instincts play a major role. I read this book non-stop over the course of three days, not because I wanted to get through it, but because I was so invested in Kya’s world.

If you’re looking for a high-quality read to fit it before the end of the year, I highly recommend Where the Crawdads Sing. It measures up to all the hype and the hundreds of thousands of positive reviews on Amazon and Goodreads.

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Back of Beyond by C. J. Box

Back of Beyond
by
C. J. Box

Rating:

Cody Hoyt is a rogue investigator for Montana’s Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s Department, returning to his home town after the job and more went wrong in Colorado. He’s thirty-eight, divorced, and a recovering alcoholic. When his AA sponsor dies in a suspicious cabin fire, Cody is sure it’s murder. A clue points to a wilderness adventure outfitter and an upcoming trip to Yellowstone National Park. Is this the same trip his teenage son, Justin is about to take?

Cody is determined to stay on the wagon and avenge his sponsor’s death and he will do anything to protect his son. But how can he find Justin and the group which is traveling by horseback in the park’s back of beyond? It’s not long before he has broken too many rules to count and is forced to turn in his badge and weapon. As he goes off on his own, Cody’s only help comes from his ally in the department, Larry Olson.

In an exciting story that alternates between Cody’s investigation and the group’s trip, readers will try to assemble the clues and facts. Meantime, the power struggles and dynamics between the group and its guides is a fascinating study of human behavior. Several characters act suspiciously, some are downright unlikable, and some are fools or just plain weak. Justin is indeed on the trip, as well as two sisters from another family. One has sharp insight and the other has eyes for Justin, giving the story a nice balance of the teenage point of view.

As members dissent and others disappear, readers know it is only a matter of time before the killer is identified. But whether Cody can find the group in time is another matter. Good luck even trying to figure it out. You will need to read to the wild finish to learn all the connections!

Back of Beyond is a highly entertaining mystery adventure. This is the first C. J. Box book I have read and I’m sure I will read more. Of course, there is the required suspension of disbelief during certain developments, but I think that is part of the package in this genre.

What I liked best about the story is the way Box describes Yellowstone because it made me want to book a trip. An avid outdoorsman, Box takes pride in writing about things he knows. I’d say it shows.

C.J. Box is the author of twenty-seven novels, including the popular Joe Pickett series. Back of Beyond is a standalone novel and he has several others, including Blue Heaven (2009), which won the Edgar Alan Poe Award for Best Novel.

You can learn more about C. J. Box from this short interview from the 2016 ThirllerFest.

Have you read anything by C. J. Box? Are you a Joe Pickett fan? Leave a comment and let me know!

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Fool Me Once by Harlan Coben

Fool Me Once
by
Harlan Coben

Rating:

Here’s a fast and easy-to-read mystery/thriller about a tough-acting female veteran who is battling Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from tours in the Middle East and is caught in a twisted story of power, corruption and murder.

As an army helicopter pilot in Iraq, Maya Stern Burkett always made smart, calculated decisions, until one went horribly bad. Now she’s back in New York, trying to keep it together, but she has a lot of problems. Her sister, Claire is dead and she’s just buried her husband, Joe, the victim of a Central Park shooting. On top of that, debilitating nightmares about her final mission wreak havoc on her mental state. Maya’s only comfort is her two-year-old daughter, Lily.

As Joe’s widow in the ultra-wealthy and powerful Burkett family, Maya’s position has changed. She hadn’t questioned their involvement in Burkett family controlling decisions, including hiring Isabella as a nanny. But her suspicions rise when a disturbing image appears on the nanny cam.

Police are also investigating the murders and wonder if they are connected, while Maya digs in rogue style, always packing a concealed weapon. This mystery is full of slowly revealed secrets, some from happenings at Joe’s elite Main Line prep school outside of Philadelphia. It’s not sorted out until a showdown in the final pages, keeping true to the genre.

While Fool Me Once is not a heavy read, Coben explores serious issues, including the jarring difference between serving in the military and returning home to a normal life. He raises questions about how best to treat PTSD and other mental illnesses, noting that these are not things a person can just “shake off.” In addition, through Maya’s character, a serious gun-lover, he explores the hotly-debated subject of Second Amendment rights.

Coben introduces many suspicious side characters to the story, making it hard to guess where the plot will go. I like this technique because it gives the reader a lot to think about. Coben’s books are normally set in the New York and New Jersey and, having grown up in that area, I enjoy the references to towns and places I know. He also throws little nuggets of local knowledge into his stories, like where the good malls are, and I like this humor.

I thought Fool Me Once was entertaining, but in the end, just okay, due to many unbelievable plot developments. The movie is also in the works, starring Julia Roberts. I would recommend it as a good book to read on an airplane or on vacation or as a light read when you’re curled up on a couch. This is my fourth standalone Coben book. He also writes the Myron and Mickey Bolitar series, which I have not read. I still enjoy Coben as an author and will likely read more.

Have you read any books by Harlan Coben? Have you read his series? Leave a comment and check out these Harlan Coben reviews:

Caught
Run Away
Tell No One

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Two Nights by Kathy Reichs

Two Nights
by
Kathy Reichs

Rating:

Sunnie Night has retreated to a solitary life. After a violent altercation, she has voluntarily stepped down from her military cop job. Nursing a damaged eye and a deeply scarred past, Sunnie lives on the isolated Goat Island off the coast of South Carolina. Her only companion is a pet squirrel named Bob.

But her foster father, Beau has been keeping an eye on Sunnie and he pays her a visit with information of an investigative job he’s sure will help her escape the past.

The case involves a bombing of a Jewish school in Chicago. Opaline Drucker’s daughter and grandson were killed in the bombing and her granddaughter, Stella, is missing. Chicago police investigated for a year, with no solid leads. With a fat stipend, Sunnie heads out to see what she can find.

With an attitude that cuts through steel, Sunnie is an ace investigator with an uncanny instinct and she knows how to handle the bad guys. But she’s not as good dealing with colleagues and superiors who don’t appreciate her sarcasm and attitude. While painful memories often get in the way of her decisions, her sharp instinct saves her from many dangerous encounters. Needing extra support, she calls on her twin brother, Gus to help solve the case. Gus knows what he’s doing and he may be the only person who completely understands Sunnie.

The investigation soon uncovers a religious cult, determined to exact revenge on anything related to Islam. Sunnie is sure they have kidnapped Stella. She won’t stop until she finds her and brings closure to her own similar history.

I enjoyed reading this fast story, but in the end I thought it was just okay, with unremarkable characters. I also found it hard to follow the clipped dialogue and felt that many of the scenes and clues were unrealistic. Maybe that’s the case with the first book of a likely series.

Kathy Reichs is best known for her Temperance Brennan series. Her heroine, Brennan, is also portrayed in the popular Fox TV show “Bones.” Reader comments and reviews say this series is excellent and very different from Two Nights.

Have you read any books by Kathy Reichs? Have you watched “Bones?”

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The Escape Room by Megan Goldin

The Escape Room
by
Megan Goldin

Rating:

When Vincent deVries of Stanhope & Sons summons his Wall Street investment banker team to a compulsory meeting, the last thing they expect is an escape room activity in an elevator. They grudgingly put their plans on hold. Sam has missed his flight to Antigua and his wife is livid. Sylvie might still make her flight to Paris to meet her boyfriend, but she hasn’t packed. And Jules has downed a couple whiskeys on his way over. The group has intense, cutthroat relationships with each other and there are rumors of looming layoffs. Each knows they can’t afford to miss the meeting, which by the way is in an unfinished office building. Even Vincent, their boss, is unsure who really called them together.

In a locked and stalled elevator, the group goes to work on the cryptic clues, encouraged as they advance to the next levels. But soon they suspect they are trapped and begin to turn on each other. As time passes, dynamics between Vincent’s team deteriorate, leading to shocking power plays. What kind of life or death exercise is this?

In alternating chapters, we meet Sara Hall, a former Stanhope banker, who tells of joining Vincent’s team and enduring the grueling hours and impossible deadlines that are part of the ultra-competitive banking scene. Sara’s story advances as the elevator exercise deteriorates, and the reader must wait for the big reveal.

I enjoyed this modern and original setting that uses a tried and true dynamic – forcing people who hate each other into dangerous and confined situations and seeing what happens. I’ve always been a reader who likes to simply go along for the ride, instead of working out the angles, and I like how the conflicts between Sylvie, Jules, Sam and Vincent develop. I think the author does a great job showing how Vincent continues to try to lead the group, despite the hatred between its members.

Although the finish was a little far-fetched, I was otherwise satisfied with how the author tied up the loose ends and I liked reading about the double-edged flash and glamour of the investment banking world. I recommend The Escape Room to readers who like mysteries and thrillers in which characters are pushed to the extreme.

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