Book Review: THE ESCAPE ROOM, a psychological thriller set in the cutthroat world of finance

Goldin, Megan - The Escape Room 3The Escape Room
Megan Goldin

At the Wall Street firm Stanhope & Sons, employees are expected to be completely committed, working 100 hour weeks, missing family events, and forgoing any semblance of a life outside their job. Their orientation indoctrinates them into the ideology of the firm: make money. In return, they are handsomely rewarded with astronomical salaries and bonuses.

Still, the downturn has touched the firm, Vincent’s team in particular, and they’ve lost several key accounts in the past six months. He, Jules, Sam, and Sylvie fear that they may be soon terminated. So, when they receive an invitation to participate in a mandatory “escape room” activity on a Friday evening, they all arrive at the strange skyscraper that is still under construction even though none want to be there, just in case their performance might save their jobs.

Reluctantly, they filed into the elevator to rendezvous at the specified floor. Not too far into the journey, the elevator car stalled, the lights were cut, the heat blasted, and emergency services silenced.

Only Sam has ever participated in an escape room before–he and his buddies went to a warehouse for a bachelor party and after an introduction were put in a simulated Learjet with the goal to find a bomb. Although they found clues in the cabin, the “bomb” exploded, and an hour later, they were released by the staff. Right away, he realized something was different. No escape room staff had provided an introduction or given them an objective. And where in an elevator could clues be hidden?

Though the quartet had worked together for years, spending more time together than they did with their loved ones, they still harbored secrets. Yet, to escape the confines of their captivity, they needed to work together, something that the cutthroat Stanhope & Sons didn’t prepare them to do. They had all expected to emerge, perhaps with a career advantage, but as time passed, they wondered if they would leave the escape room at all as long-simmering resentments and buried secrets boiled to the surface.

The Escape Room has two points of view that alternate throughout the book: a third-person narrator relating the events in the elevator and an employee from the firm recounting the history of the team inside. While I don’t know how accurate Goldin’s depiction of a Wall Street firm’s culture is, if they are anything like Stanhope & Sons, they are even worse than I imagined: cynical, sexist, and opportunistic. How the different women handle the male-dominated working environment is an interesting aspect of the book.

While the suspense in the elevator begins immediately, the action taking place from the other point of view is a slow burn, at times too slow for my taste, and I didn’t always like moving from the psychological chess game and sometimes literal danger in the elevator to the more mundane activities represented by the employee narrator. However, at the end of the book, the activity picks ups in a surprising way, and though it strains credulity, it is also quite satisfying.

If you are looking for a psychological thriller that introduces some new tropes, The Escape Room is a fair bet. Set against the already high-stakes world of high finance and confining a group of less than moral people in a small space, the book takes a new approach. Definitely an entertaining read.

Thank you to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: BENEATH THE TAMARIND TREE, an account of 276 kidnapped girls

Sesay, Isha - Beneath the Tamarind Tree
Beneath the Tamarind Tree:
A Story of Courage, Family, and the Lost Schoolgirls of Boko Haram
Isha Sesay

On April 14, 2014, terrorists from the Islamic group Boko Haram invaded the small town of Chibok in northeastern Nigeria. There, they found 276 girls in the dorms at the Government Girls Secondary School who were inadequately guarded. Boko Haram spoke out against Western education, education for girls, and democracy, and the Chibok school wasn’t the first they’d targeted, but the poor students there were determined to climb out of the poverty of the region not just for themselves but for their families. Their very dreams made them enemies of the Islamic group.

During a multi-day trek, the militants led the girls, some on foot some on vehicles, through the Sambisa Forest. Some of the girls were able to escape by jumping out of the transport trucks while others bravely fled when they were supposed to be taking bathroom breaks. The rest were taken to a camp and left under a tamarind tree which would be their home for months.

Back in Chibok, families were beside themselves with grief, but didn’t have the resources or political savvy to pressure the government to engage in a search for the missing girls. Instead, president Goodluck Jonathan claimed the kidnapping was a hoax designed to damage his reelection campaign.

Ibrahim Abdullahi, a corporate lawyer, first used the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls, and Obiageli Ezekwesili, a former vice president of the World Bank for the Africa region, was the first to publicly proclaim the four words. The theme became popular on social media, and, for a time, national and international media were focused on the story. Isha Sesay, a CNN anchor and native of Sierra Leone was one of the first journalists to cover the event, and even when other journalists and networks lost interest in the girls, her attention never waned. She was on site when the first group of thirty-one girls was released (two years after their abduction), and she developed relationships with them as well as with the families of the missing girls.

In Beneath the Tamarind Tree, Sesay’s narrative centers on four of the kidnapped students, and she provides harrowing details from the confusion of the first moments Boko Haram stormed the compound to the fear of beatings and hunger, the bonds of friendship, and the solace of faith. She also recounts the Nigerian government’s sobering inaction, with President Jonathan and later administrations using the kidnapping as a political tool rather than trying to rescue the girls. Sesay also interjects her own experiences as a journalist covering the story and the pressures she was experiencing in her own life and from the network that made covering the story challenging.

I had some technical quibbles with the book: I thought there was some unnecessary repetition and I was less interested in Sesay’s personal narrative than that of the girls’, but I think this is an important account to read. We should be witness to what these girls experienced and how they have been shamefully used as pawns in a war between the Boko Haram and legitimate governments. Their story also underscores the importance of educating girls and giving them opportunities to thrive outside of communities where they have only a single option for their future. Even more critical is the fact that 112 girls are still unaccounted for. It’s unlikely that a group of 112 wealthy or Western girls would have been abandoned as these have seemingly been.

Thanks to NetGalley and HarperCollins for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: BLACK DEATH AT THE GOLDEN GATE, the plague invades San Francisco

Until reading Black Death at the Golden Gate, I didn’t realize that San Francisco suffered not just one but two plague outbreaks in the early 1900s. Yet, efforts to eliminate the scourge were hampered by multiple factors. Joseph Kinyoun, the first doctor posted by the Marine Medical Service, the federal agency then with jurisdiction over health matters, alienated local politicians with his arrogant attitude. Plus, at this time, the germ theory of medicine was just beginning to be accepted.

City and state leaders resisted the diagnosis of plague when residents of Chinatown began dying with the telltale symptoms, including buboes, because they didn’t want to inhibit the city’s growth. Residents of Chinatown refused to cooperate because they feared officials would raze their neighborhood. Meanwhile, ordinary citizens believed whites were immune.

Only when Dr. Rupert Blue replaced Dr. Kinyoun, a more amiable administrator—and when whites also started falling victim to the disease—did officials cooperate to rid the city of the plague. Thought safe from the crisis, Dr. Blue was reassigned, but the earthquake of 1906 created a new emergency.

David Randall’s book is a well-written, well-researched, and engaging book that reveals this hidden pocket of medical history while showing how powerful political interests, greed, and racism can undermine attempts to save the public.

Book Review: TURBULENCE, a literary relay race around the globe

Turbulence: A Novel
by David Szalay

A woman in her seventies takes a plane ride from London home to Madrid after visiting her son who is being treated for prostate cancer. Normally reticent on flights, the woman, terrified of flying, drinks bloody marys and keeps to herself. However, after ten minutes of extreme turbulence, she and her row mate begin to talk. When she passes out, he quickly goes to the flight attendant who calls for a doctor’s help.

The unexpected turbulence that causes the woman and her row mate, Cheikh, to interact creates ripples that initiate what amounts to a literary relay race as readers follow a figurative baton around the world. Emphasizing the connectedness of today’s society, the book is structured around flights. Whereas the first chapter ended in Madrid, the second picks up there following a character that somehow had contact with whomever enjoyed the point of view of the previous chapter in a type of benign contagion. In some author’s hands, organizing around flights might be gimmicky, but here, it feels a natural reflection of how accessible travel has become.

Crossing the globe as it does, Turbulence contains a diversity of characters in different settings, socioeconomic conditions, and internal and external conflicts. Although characters come from a range of countries and within those countries live in different environments, to my mind, the prose rang authentic and often eye-opening.

Personally, I love books that have separate but slightly connected chapters so I was biased towards the book, but as with all books of this structure some characters are so interesting they seem short-changed and as if their story is incomplete and some characters aren’t as interesting or as well-developed as others.

While most of the characters are named, a few aren’t, and I’m not sure there is a significance to that if any, and what is says about these characters, both women, regardless. Also, throughout the book, the impact of privilege born of wealth weaves into each chapter. Although not all of the wealthy are white, all of the poor are people of color.

A quick but impactful read with an interesting structure, Turbulence should be on the reading list of any fan of literary fiction.

Thank you to Scribner and NetGalley for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: THE GONE DEAD, Racism’s Long Legacy

The Gone Dead
Chanelle Benz

In The Gone Dead, set in 2003, Billie James inherits her father’s Mississippi Delta dilapidated shack from her grandmother and returns for the first time in thirty years. Her father Cliff, a poet and civil rights activist, had died in 1972 from an accidental fall. She was a young child staying with her father the night he died, and in speaking with denizens of the town realizes her memories are incomplete.

As she attempts to uncover the truth, she is stonewalled by the McGee family, white landowners who have long employed the Jameses as tenant farmers and domestic laborers, the sheriff’s office, and even her own uncle. But with the help of an academic writing a biography of Cliff and a woman who was dating him at the time of his death, Billie ignores warnings and threats to her personal safety in her quest to uncover what she is sure is a conspiracy around her father’s death.

The point of view shifts among a range of characters including even a shuttered juke joint, some getting a single chapter, some several. The gains of revealing information known only by that character comes at a cost of a patchwork narrative where several strands are introduced never to be discussed again or other storylines having various degrees of completion or extraneous information. For me, the result was feeling removed from the characters and events. The primary narrative, of Billie uncovering what happened to her black activist father in a small Mississippi town mired in racism was horrific, especially seeing how these attitudes persist into the present. At the same time, it’s a story familiar from other books and movies. The book is strong, though, in its style, with lovely writing and distinctive voices.