This hilarious parody of a thriller is a mash-up of The Perils of Pauline: Centennial Edition, Inspector Clouseau, and Michael Frayn’s classic farce Noises Off. It starts with Michael, happily married, answering the door to find his ex-wife (whom he hasn’t seen for ten years) standing there demanding he come with her to find his missing daughter, a daughter he never knew he had and which he doubts is his. Every chapter thereafter ends with a cliffhanger moment, someone in danger, a gasp-inducing big reveal about to happen, only to cut to another scene – a running gag that made me chuckle every time. Not a single action by any character makes any sense, but then, it’s a farce and it’s not supposed to. At the end of every chapter I tried to guess what the craziest thing someone could do at that point, and every time I was wrong. The author thought of something even wackier. The only mystery here is whether the author knew he was writing a parody. All I know is I got a kick out of it.
This textbook has positioned itself as a mainstream general audience book. The content is much the same as you would find in any history or geography course. There are many factoids, i.e. nuggets of information about geography or history I didn’t know, and most of those were interesting to some extent, but overall about 80% of the content is stuff almost everybody knows (although too many don’t). Facts like: Russia is huge and cold; China and India don’t like each other but are protected from each other by the Himalayas; the United States is fortunate to be in a temperate climate zone and have access to both major oceans. Once it departs from pure geography, it deteriorates into what always turned me off about history class – it becomes the author’s own opinion about history and why countries, either populations or governments, do what they do. The 80% you already know drags and the other 20% irritates. It’s also a bit of a bait and switch. I thought from the subtitle it would show some interesting maps, but it’s almost all text with a few rather small, simple maps.
If you liked The Firm, John Grisham’s first (and worst) novel, you’ll like this one, and vice versa. Grisham could probably win a copyright violation case, the plots are so similar. The story is told from two perspectives, alternating every other chapter. One set is told by Sara Hall, a brilliant, virtuous, and beautiful young woman who just obtained her MBA from a good business school, but for some reason we are told is virtually unemployable except as a waitress or bartender. Even so, she lands a job at prestigious investment banking firm, Stanhope, in New York, where she is treated well at first and is making good money. It looks like a dream job which she believes she absolutely cannot leave no matter what. (Shades of The Firm). The only difference so far from The Firm is Mitch was a lawyer and Sara an investment banker.
Sara’s thread takes place in the past. The current day thread takes place in an elevator. Four members of the Stanhope team where Sara, now dead, worked, have been summoned there by Human Resources for a compulsory team building exercise. They enter the out-of-the-way building late on Friday night and are directed to take the elevator up to the 70th floor. When they do so, the elevator comes to a grinding stop and the monitor over the door welcomes them to The Escape Room. Their job is to get out alive.
As we soon find out, Stanhope is rotten to the core. Things soon go badly for Sara in her thread and things go even worse in the elevator for her former coworkers. Plot-wise I’ll leave the rest to your imagination, but it isn’t hard to figure out where this one is going right from Chapter 1. It’s pure preposterous schlock, but a quick read and entertaining enough in its way.
I could find some major criticisms, but I’ll just pick a couple of nits that struck me. First, like Grisham in The Firm the author has done a shoddy job of research in many simple easy-to-check matters. For example, there is no building anywhere in the Bronx with 70+ floors or even close, and if one were to be built in the Bronx, it wouldn’t be in the South Bronx. Another example is one puzzle, a [spoiler alert] Caesar cipher almost anyone could figure out instantly, yet these supposedly brilliant Ivy League MBAs and lawyers took hours to solve and then called it a simple transposition cipher. It’s not; it’s a substitution cipher. Transposition ciphers are anagrams. Secondly, all the characters are totally over the top to the extent of becoming caricatures. Sara is a complete milquetoast, her teammates arrogant, venal, condescending jerks (in the absence of more appropriate R-rated words). Still, it’s an acceptable beach read if you can find a beach above 40 degrees. Take this one with you to Hawaii.
This non-fiction account of one of America’s (and France’s) true heroes is excellent reading. American Virginia Hall was a polyglot with an adventurous streak and a burning love for France, her adopted country. Spurned by the U.S. Diplomatic Corps for being a woman, and sometimes because of her wooden leg, she joined the British SOE to help organize (or organise if you’re British) French resistance fighters during WWII. Her exploits are truly amazing, characterized by courage, intelligence, and selflessness. Most importantly, she got the job done and earned the respect, even devotion, of those men and women she led or worked with.
The book is deeply researched. The acknowledgments section is almost a third of the book. The writer does seem to have a detectable feminist bias. She gives Virginia credit for everything and blame for nothing. No doubt there was rampant sexism back then that kept Hall from reaching the roles and ranks she deserved, but as fate would have it, she probably ended up in a role that not only best suited her talents and desires, but was the best possible one for the Allied war effort as well.