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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Those People by Louise Candlish

Those People
by
Louise Candlish

Rating:

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. Straight away, Darren and Jodie annoy the neighbors with dramatic home renovations in a style that doesn’t fit their picture-perfect street. Darren hacks away at walls and uses loud power tools and construction equipment, but that’s only the beginning. The couple also runs a used car business out of their driveway, and the unsightly vehicles soon take up spaces on the street. Tension grows when Darren refuses to move the cars for the street’s weekly Play Out Sunday, when neighbors clear the street of cars and traffic in order to let their children play safely. At night, even louder music and partying keeps the neighborhood awake, especially their direct neighbors, Ant and Em Kendall and their brand new baby.

This is a street of upwardly mobile families, who are used to getting what they want. They quickly organize a multi-pronged effort to either stop the new neighbors’ low class and unacceptable behavior or drive them out. Surveillance cameras, tough talk and complaints soon spiral out of control. Of added interest is a look at the families on the street, their marriages and relationships to each other. Each is nursing a private beef with a spouse, partner or neighbor and these inner conflicts cause them to make wildly irrational decisions, leading to a shocking fatal accident.

As inspectors investigate the accident, readers begin to wonder whether the author’s title refers more to the new neighbors or the rest of the group. I enjoyed reading their statements and interviews with the police and seeing how they dig themselves deeper into the pit of suspicion. These reckless behaviors lead to a second tragedy, muddled by the neighbors’ escalating dread of being implicated.

This is also a story chock full of unlikable characters, and not just Darren and Jodie. Candlish tells the story from different points of view and I liked trying to understand the neighbors’ thoughts. Some readers may not find that relatable, but I would much rather experience these people in the pages than on my street!

There are many red herrings and an abrupt open-ended finish, leaving the reader to imagine what may happen. I like this kind of ending and think it would be a great book club book. I recommend Those People to those who are looking for a quick read and enjoy vicarious conflicts!

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Run Away by Harlan Coben

Run Away
by
Harlan Coben

Rating:

Simon Greene is desperate to find his daughter Paige, who has dropped out of college, is addicted to drugs, and on the run with her user boyfriend, Aaron. Acting on a tip, Simon sees her in Central Park and is sure he can save her. But Paige runs and Simon may never catch up.

Harlan Coben’s latest action thriller looks at a seemingly normal family with highly successful parents and smart children as they struggle with one daughter’s addiction. How right it had all seemed when Paige went off to college! Now the future is anything but bright.

Before long, Simon and his wife, Ingrid are deep into trouble and surrounded by highly dangerous people. Murder, conspiracies, family secrets, paid assassins and a cult cloud and threaten their search for Paige and before long, Simon is packing a weapon.

I enjoyed this fast-paced story, with a plot that’s hard to explain without spoilers. Coben gives the reader a view of a happy marriage that comes close to crumbling and a family that, like many families, isn’t what it seems. As in the two other Coben books I’ve read, I like the author’s references to New Jersey and New York, an area where I grew up.

Run Away is entertaining, but the reader will need to accept several far-fetched plot developments. I was okay with them, but did not feel the story was as good as the other Coben books I’ve read (see below). Despite this comment, I would recommend Run Away to readers looking for a fast-paced, not-too-deep summer read and, since summer has just begun, the timing is right!

Looking for other Harlan Coben books? Try Caught and Tell No One

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What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman

What the Dead Know
by
Laura Lippman

Rating:

It’s 1975 when Sunny and Heather Bethany disappear from a busy mall outside Baltimore, Maryland. Under eye-rolling protest to her parents, Sunny had agreed to let her younger sister tag along and eleven-year-old Heather was thrilled to go. Maybe she’d spend her birthday money and they’d definitely get a Karmelkorn. But at fifteen, Sunny had her own plans and the two had separated when they arrived. ”I don’t want to do anything with you. I don’t care where you go. Just do your own thing and come back here at five-twenty,” she’d told her sister.

At 5:30, Dave Bethany waited and waited to pick up his daughters, but they never showed. What happened that day and when do you stop looking? Despite an intensive investigation, the case goes cold, and their exhausted parents’ lives are shattered.

Thirty years later, a mysterious woman returns to Baltimore and claims to be Heather. She knows a great deal about that day in 1975, the Bethany family, and the old neighborhood, but her wily personality is making the detectives suspicious.

In this character-driven mystery, the key players lead the reader through the day the girls disappear and the details of the case. Heading the investigation are Detective Kevin Infante, a twice-divorced ladies’ man and retired detective Chet Willoughby, who was so invested in the case he took the file home with him when he left the force.

The story is written in past and present and from various points of view and readers get a look at the Bethany family before and after the girls’ disappearance, including the parents’ imperfect marriage. I thought it was particularly interesting to see how Dave and Miriam Bethany cope and what they do as the years pass. They have both faced the same tragedy, but adapt in very different ways.

Heather or no, whoever this woman is, she has a painful past and has learned how to survive under the radar, mostly by using her quick mind and manipulative personality.

Lippman reveals key details as the story develops. Some are false leads, others suggest the truth. All is revealed in the final pages with a satisfying conclusion. I enjoyed reading this mystery, published in 2007. Laura Lippman is a New York Times best-selling author of nineteen novels, both stand-alones and the Tess Monaghan series. Her newest standalone, Sunburn, looks like a good summer read!

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Book Club Mom’s summer recommendations – grab a book and some fresh air!

Image: Pixabay

Summer reads have a certain feel about them and grabbing the right book can take you back to when you had long lazy days stretching out in front of you. Now, for many of us, it’s more a matter of creating the mood of an endless summer. So steal an hour, find a nice place in a park, in your yard or even at home with the windows open, and dig into a book that will grab you right away. Here are some recommendations to help you choose:


Dig Right In

The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin – light, entertaining historical fiction during the late 1800s when billionaire American families match their daughters with cash-poor dukes and princes in need of American money.

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer – set in Greenwich Village, NY, Greta discovers her 1985 self living in two other time periods, one in 1918 and one in 1941.

The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin – historical fiction and fascinating portrait of Truman Capote and his distinct sides, as both pet and confidante to the New York upper class, and serious writer.

Things We Set on Fire by Deborah Reed – great story about a mother who believes she is doing the right thing, but can’t see its impact until decades later.


Family Dramas

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler – a complicated family from Baltimore, full of secrets and an unacknowledged division between its members.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett – great family saga that begins in the 1960s with six kids from two different families, thrown together because of an affair, a divorce and then a marriage.

The Vacationers by Emma Straub – light beach read about a dysfunctional family on a trip from Manhattan to Spain for some forced family vacation fun.

When I Found You by Catherine Ryan Hyde – a man goes duck hunting and finds an abandoned baby boy in the woods, changing his life in unimaginable ways.


Historical Fiction

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín – classic tale about post-war immigration from Ireland to America.

The Hours Count by Jillian Cantor – set in NY in 1950 during the Red Scare, the story of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, arrested for spying for the Russians.

Miss Emily by Nuala O’Connor – biographical novel about Emily Dickinson and a fictional coming-of-age story about her young Irish maid.

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain – a look at Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Elizabeth Hadley Richardson and their six-year marriage, spent mostly in Paris.


Secrets and Suspense

The Dry by Jane Harper – atmospheric thriller set on the edge of the Australia’s bushland during a devastating drought.

Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey – an old woman on the edge of dementia falls into a confused world of memories and suspicions, certain that her friend Elizabeth is missing.

The Flight Attendant by Chris Bohjalian – a flight attendant wakes up after a night of heavy drinking and discovers she is in bed with a man who has been brutally murdered.

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart – Young Adult story about mysterious events of one summer, forcing a family through painful changes.


I hope you find a good place to escape for a bit. What will you read?

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Miracle Creek by Angie Kim

Miracle Creek
by
Angie Kim

Rating:

To what lengths would you go to achieve normalcy? To fit in? To have the kind of regular life that everyone around you seems to enjoy? Would you lie? Would you commit murder? Would you frame someone else for the crime? These questions are rooted in Miracle Creek, a mystery/courtroom drama in which a young mother stands trial for the murder of her 8-year-old autistic son.

In her debut novel, Angie Kim shows how a controversial treatment for autism and other health problems can lead to desperation. Parents and others in this story hope that hyperbaric oxygen therapy (H-BOT) will correct, reverse and improve autism, brain damage and even infertility, and give their families the normal lives they deserve.

The story takes place in 2008, in Miracle Creek, Virginia, and is set at the Yoo family’s H-BOT facility where they call their chamber the “Miracle Submarine.” After years of sacrifice, Pak Yoo, his wife, Young and their teenage daughter, Mary, have moved to Miracle Creek to set up their business. Young and Mary have been in the country for four years, waiting for Pak to join them. He has been a “wild-goose-father” in Korea, working for an H-BOT company and preparing to come to America. They are certain this is how they will secure a future for Mary.

Regulars include three hyper-focused mothers who are desperate to improve their children’s, and their own, lives and a young man seeking fertility treatment. During one evening session, an explosion rips through the barn where the chamber is housed. Two people are killed, including the boy, Henry Ward, and others are severely injured. Henry’s mother, Elizabeth, had chosen not to enter the chamber with her son that night and everyone suspects murder.

The story quickly advances one year to the trial where testimony and back stories fill in missing pieces, with just enough lies, secrets, rivalry and false friendships between the mothers to cast doubt on others besides Elizabeth. In a parallel story about fitting in, the reader also learns more about Pak Yoo, his family and their struggles to assimilate into American life, including the prejudice against and ignorance about their Korean culture.

Throughout, Pak is honor-bound to lead and protect his family and Young must decide whether to obey or to think for herself. In addition, Mary’s secret teenage life reveals a shocking relationship with repercussions that shake both their family and the others involved in the treatment.

One of the strongest parts of the story is how Kim’s characters experience a range of troubling emotions including resentment and wild fantasies about being freed from their burdens and contemplating whose life is more worth saving, a sobering look at the roller coaster lives of special needs families.

I enjoyed reading Miracle Creek because of its original ideas and engaging plot and recommend it to readers who like character-driven stories about the devastating impact secrets can have. I’m looking forward to future stories by Angie Kim!

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Book Club Mom’s May recap – books, birthdays and a graduation

I don’t know what happened to May, but here we are at the finish. It’s a big month for birthdays in my family and we squeezed in a college graduation too! It’s always nice to settle into a comfy chair during the down times and relax with a book, a show or a puzzle.

I’ve become a bit crazy with a word game I have on my ancient Kindle called Every Word: Crossings, and I have been playing it obsessively. I never look at that as a waste of time, though. Things like that always help me sort out my day.

And I went a little overboard with my Barbie doll posts (see below), but it’s been fun (for me, at least!) sharing something that I loved as a girl.


This month, I read and reviewed three regular books:

 

A Duty to the Dead by Charles Todd – if you like mystery series, this is the first of the Bess Crawford stories, set in England during World War I. I enjoyed both the characters and the historical setting. The author, Charles Todd, is actually a mother-son writing team.


More and more, it seems, fiction books are being co-authored and this month I wrote a post about this very thing!

Author teams and pen names – if the story’s good, does it matter? Not to me!


Lab Girl by Hope Jahren – in this memoir about becoming a female scientist, Jahren writes a compelling personal story about family, love, friendship, mental health and the difficulties of earning a living as a scientist. (Jahren made it big, after a long road, and has won many awards.)


The Beneficiary – Fortune, Misfortune, and the Story of my Father by Janny Scott – a biography of Robert Montgomery Scott, written by his daughter. A tale of four generations of a wealthy Main Line, Pennsylvania family and their 800-acre estate and the complicated relationships among family members.


As I mentioned above, I also started a series that celebrates books about the Barbie doll’s 60th birthday. Here are the first two posts, indulging my obsession. I’ll share my final Barbie post next week.

Dressing Barbie: A Celebration of the Clothes That Made America’s Favorite Doll and the Incredible Woman Behind Them – Carol Spencer

Look what Barbie’s wearing! Barbie Fashion 1959-1967 by Sarah Sink Eames


May was a busier indie author month. I introduced three hard-working writers:

Richard Doiron
Lucia N. Davis
Frank Prem

If you are an indie or self-published author and would like to be featured on Who’s That Indie Author, please email me at bvitelli2009@gmail.com. To shake things up, I’ve updated my interview with a new set of questions!


Next week, we’re starting a Summer Reading program at the library where I work, so I’ll be signing up for that. I plan to work these two books onto my list:

June book previews: Lot – Stories by Bryan Washington and Miracle Creek by Angie Kim


And last, I was sorry to see that American author Herman Wouk died on May 17, at age 103. I’ve enjoyed many of his books and think I will go back to some of them this summer. I had a fun time looking at these book covers – did you notice that the last two, The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, fit together to make a bigger picture?

Remembering American author Herman Wouk, 1915 – 2019

I hope you had a good month, out in the world and between the pages. I’m looking forward to a good summer!

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June book previews: Lot Stories by Bryan Washington and Miracle Creek by Angie Kim

Here are two books that have settled into a place on my coffee table. They have been patiently calling to me and I am determined to read them in June.


Lot Stories by Bryan Washington

A collection of 13 short stories set in the city of Houston, Texas. Told mainly by the son of a black mother and a Latino father, a young man who is just beginning to figure out who he is. “Bryan Washington’s brilliant, viscerally drawn world vibrates with energy, wit, and the infinite longing of people searching for home.” Because I like short fiction, I’m already drawn to this collection. I like that the stories are integrated and think I will enjoy this debut.


Miracle Creek by Angie Kim

I don’t know how best to describe this debut novel except to share parts of the inside jacket description:

“A literary courtroom thriller about an immigrant family and a young single mother accused of killing her autistic son…”

The book takes place in rural Miracle Creek, Virginia and is about “an experimental medical treatment device called the Miracle Submarine. A pressurized oxygen chamber that patients enter for therapeutic ‘dives,’ it’s also a repository of hopes and dreams…” During treatment, the oxygen chamber explodes and kills two people and these events lead to a murder trial.

I haven’t read a courtroom thriller in a long time, so I’m looking forward to what sounds like a unique story!

Do these books interest you? What is next on your list?

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A Duty to the Dead by Charles Todd

A Duty to the Dead
by
Charles Todd

Rating:

If you’re looking for an entertaining historical mystery, you’ll enjoy A Duty to the Dead, a story set in England during World War I. This is the first book of the Bess Crawford Mysteries, written by a mother-son duo, who introduce Bess as a highly skilled young nurse aboard the doomed HMHS Britannic. Bess narrowly escapes death when the ship hits a mine and soon an unfulfilled promise to a soldier on an earlier ship assignment nags her. Arthur Graham, a dying English soldier, begged her to deliver a curious message: “Tell Jonathan that I lied. I did it for Mother’s sake. But it has to be set right.”

Bess knows it would have been her failure if she had died before trying to reach Arthur’s brother. And although her father, the retired Colonel Richard Crawford, is grateful she’s alive, he advises her, “But you have a responsibility not to put it off again. A duty to the dead is sacred. I needn’t tell you that.”

When Bess delivers the message, Jonathan Graham acts strangely. She’s fulfilled her duty, but she can’t let go. A medical emergency delays her departure and soon Bess is caught up in the Graham family affairs. Her nursing skills prove helpful, but her curiosity leads to hints of a chilling family secret. There’s only one person who can explain, but he’s locked in an asylum.

I enjoyed this mystery as much for the story as for its cast of characters. The Graham family has a lot to hide and although the people in the small town of Owlhurst can’t figure things out for themselves, they help Bess put the pieces together. And it becomes clear that her duty to the dead extends way beyond her promise to Arthur Graham. Interesting side stories enhance this mystery as the reader sorts out facts and events.

A Duty to the Dead is a fast and light read, but it also includes serious themes such as the damaging effects of war on both soldiers and families left behind, as well as the young men deemed unfit to serve. In addition, the author challenges the reader to think about responsibility for a crime. Does the blame lay on just one person, or do conspiracy and complicity make others just as guilty?

I liked how the author used this time period to show what people do during wartime and how their perceptions of danger change. Bess Crawford, barely out of her teens, has developed a courageous, confident and independent character, which serves her well as both a nurse and an amateur detective. I expect she will handle many challenges in the next books with the skills she shows in her first adventure. A Duty to the Dead was published in 2009 and there are eleven more for fans to enjoy. You can see the full list here.

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Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

Before the Fall
by
Noah Hawley

Rating:

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.

When Maggie Bateman offers Scott a seat on her private plane, he sees the quick jaunt from Martha’s Vineyard to New York as a way to avoid the ferry. Scott, a moneyless artist and recovering alcoholic, is an unlikely passenger on a plane for the ultra-rich. The remaining passengers include Maggie’s husband, David, a cable news mogul, their two young children, Wall Street millionaire investor Ben Kipling and his wife, Sarah. A body guard, two pilots, and a glamorous flight attendant complete the list, each with a story. But only Scott and young JJ will survive to tell what they know of it. The media won’t believe Scott and JJ is only four. The rest is up to investigators.

Everyone wants to know what made flight 613 go down. Was it terrorism? A conspiracy? Something else? The news machine has plenty of fuel for the fire, fanned by sensationalist ALC News personality Bill Cunningham, whose means to get a story are not always above board. And initially lauded as a hero, Scott soon becomes the target of the investigation, once his artwork is discovered. Is there meaning in these shocking portrayals?

Broken into chapters about each passenger and with descriptions of Scott’s paintings, Hawley’s story allows readers to develop their own theories. Many answers lay hidden in the airplane’s two black boxes and the truth will come out if they are recovered.

Before the Fall is not just about a plane crash. It’s a commentary on heroism, personal strength, wealth, power, the media and the question of “information versus entertainment.” It’s described as an international thriller and suspense novel, but I think it’s just a great story about how the truth is often obstructed by the human tendency to jump to conclusions. Heroes and happy endings are also hidden, but they’re in there somewhere.

Before the Fall is the winner of the 2017 Edgar Award for Best Novel and the 2017 International Thriller Writers Award for Best Novel. I recommend this book to readers who like big stories, with each character contributing to the plot surrounding a single event, and to readers who enjoy books that represent our society’s mishmash of beliefs, values and questionable morals.

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