Friday, October 22, 2010

Play Dead - Harlan Coben

Play Dead
Harlan Coben


The first thing to know about this book is that it’s the author’s very first book. This is the first time it’s been published, and to his everlasting credit, the author declined to rewrite it and issue it as something ‘new.’ He tells us this on the very first page. It’s a kind of a time trip back to 1989, when cell phones were futuristic devices and coming up with phone or hotel records involved looking through a stack of papers. This, children, was a time before the entire world was computerized.

It’s clear that this is a first novel because the main character, Laura Ayars, is perfect in practically every way. She’s gorgeous; the world’s foremost supermodel until she retired at age 23. She’s smart; after retiring from the modeling biz, she started up a multi-million dollar designer clothing business. And she’s unbelievably kind and brave; coming to her sister’s rescue when she needs it desperately. The main character, David Baskin, is also just about perfect. He’s handsome, a pro basketball player who loves the game, wealthy, intelligent, and does charity work with handicapped kids. The point is, there is nothing at all relatable about these people. It helps to remember that this novel was written during the “Dynasty” and “Dallas” period.

The book begins with Laura and David on their honeymoon in Australia, after they eloped. It’s all picture-perfect for about the first chapter. Then Laura goes to a business meeting and David goes swimming and never returns. Laura is left to deal with David’s tragic death. She can’t quite believe that someone who was such a strong swimmer would drown, but she’s told about the dangerous currents off the coast, and begins to accept it.

Once she returns home to Boston, where they lived and David played for the Celtics, there’s the funeral, a memorial, a statue unveiling (David was a beloved star player) and various other events to occupy her time, if not her mind. At the will reading, Laura finds that one of David’s smaller accounts (roughly half a million dollars) is missing. The money was transferred to Switzerland, and that’s all anyone can tell her. From there, she begins to doubt everything about David’s disappearance and determines to find out what really happened.

For longtime readers of thrillers, the outcome is fairly obvious from the set-up. We read about “the patient” having plastic surgery. Then someone comes out of nowhere to try out for the Celtics. It’s not hard to figure out at all. There’s a string of murders going on in Laura’s circle, and despite some heavy-handed misdirection by the (first time, remember) author, the identity of the killer is pretty easy to suss out, too. There’s a lot of filler and prose that verges on the purple. It’s pretty much what you’d expect for a first novel. It’s not great, but it’s probably a lot better than most. For fans of Harlan Coben (LONG LOST) it’s interesting to see how he got started, and how much he’s honed his craft over the years.

Rating: 6
October 2010
ISBN# 978-0-451-23174-1 (paperback)

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Memories Of Envy - Barb Hendee

Memories Of Envy
A Vampire Memories Novel #3
Barb Hendee


If you haven’t read the first two novels in this series (BLOOD MEMORIES and HUNTING MEMORIES) you’ll most likely feel that you’ve missed out on some key plot developments. And, truth be told, you’ve not only missed the plot developments, you’ve missed a couple of novels with a very interesting take on vampires. You’ll also find a few unavoidable spoilers in this review if you’re new to the series, so read at your own risk.

Long ago, vampires lived among human, following a few simple laws that allowed them to feed without killing and drawing attention to themselves. They all shared a talent for telepathy, giving them the ability to alter the memories of the humans on which they fed, removing memories of the feeding. It was a good system, and each elder vampire taught the very few children he or she made to live within it.

Then came Julian. Julian became a vampire with no telepathic abilities. Over time, he feared that this lack made him vulnerable to attack by other vampires. His plan is to find as many elder vampires as he can and destroy them. His theory is that the younger vampires were created without knowing the laws, and they live in frightened isolation, so they’re no real threat. The problem he faced was how to go about tracking down the remaining vampires.

Enter Eleisha. She’s a relatively young vampire, created with no knowledge of the laws or her real talents. Over the first two novels, she discovers her latent telepathy and conceives a plan to gather vampires together in a safe place, where they can live under the old laws. For Julian, this works out quite well. All he has to do is track Eleisha and her followers to the next vampire. At the moment, that vampire is Simone. Julian is disappointed to find that she’s not an elder. Eleisha wants to bring Simone into the fold, despite Simone’s clear disdain for the whole concept. Philip, one of Eleisha’s group, finds Simone fascinating because of the way she hunts. He’s done his best to live by the laws, but something in him enjoys killing. Simone recognizes a fellow predator in Philip, and a potential rival in Eleisha. Simone loves playing with her prey, and this game promises to be the best yet.

The author does a really wonderful job of giving each vampire his or her own background. Since they’re telepathic, they can ‘see’ each others’ memories. These sections of the books really shine. In this case, Simone is clearly a ruthless hunter with a lot of issues. But, after reading her story, it’s completely clear why she behaves the way she does. Simone is, quite possibly, the most complex of the vampires to date.

Each book builds on the ones that came before it. As each new character joins the story (including vampires, mortals and ghosts) the plot becomes more intricately woven and gains depth. Each of the characters has grown and changed over the course of the novels. It must be a complex balancing act, but the author manages quite nicely. Readers of the series will be glad to know that we learn more about Philip’s past in this installment, too. This is the best yet, and there’s still clearly more to come.

Rating: 8
October 2010
ISBN# 978-0-451-46353-1 (trade paperback)

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games
Suzanne Collins

Thriller/Young Adult

When I started this novel, I thought I’d read a chapter or two and then turn out the light. I was honestly unable to put this book down until I finished it.

Every year, each district must send one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 to the Hunger Games. They are called “tributes.” The winner of the Hunger Games is richly rewarded and guaranteed a life of ease for him/herself and his/her family members. For some districts, this is simply a show of athletic prowess. In other districts, it’s the difference between eating and starving to death. The Games are televised live and are required viewing. The twenty-four tributes are dropped into an arena empty-handed and must survive. It’s kill or be killed. The last tribute standing is the winner. Refusing to participate is not an option.

Every year is different. If things get too boring – say, the tributes simply try to avoid one another instead of attacking and killing each other – the Gamemakers are ready with some twist or event (a fire, a flood) that pushes everyone back into the same place where they are forced to fight. This is what the audience (and, more to the point, the government) wants.

The main character, Katniss, is a girl of 16, made tough by circumstances. Just to put a little food on the table for her sister and mother every day, she hunts illegally, risking brutal punishment. The day the tributes are chosen is called ‘the reaping.’ It’s a holiday of sorts, except for the two families who must mourn the loss of their children. In District 12, where the people almost always go hungry, it’s a virtual certainty that the tributes will not come home alive. In the seventy-four years of the Games, only one tribute from District 12 has survived and returned home.

When Katniss hears her sister’s name called as the girl tribute, she immediately volunteers herself instead. Her hunting abilities may give her an edge. Besides, her younger sister would never survive the Games. The second tribute from her district is Peeta, the baker’s son. He and Katniss grew up together. Now they’ll be forced to try to kill each other. Unless someone else does it first.

This is a young adult novel, but can be enjoyed on many different levels. As an action thriller, the writing is virtually flawless. The pace never lets up, making the reader feel hunted, just as Katniss does. She clearly doesn’t want to have to kill anyone, especially for the amusement of others. But there are other tributes who have no such problems. Katniss must make some exceptionally hard choices at almost every point in the story. For her, it’s all about her family, even as she comes to realize that larger issues are in play. Read this as an action adventure story. Read this as socio-political commentary. Just read it.

Rating: 9
ISBN# 978-0-439-02352-8 (trade paperback)

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Bones Of Empire - William C. Dietz

Bones Of Empire
William C. Dietz

Science Fiction

This is a sequel to AT EMPIRE’S END, but it’s not at all necessary to have read the first book to enjoy this one. The author does a great job of hitting the highlights of what has come before while still telling an engaging story.

Jak Cato is a Xeno Corps officer on a mission. Since the events of the previous novel, he and his slave/partner Alamy have returned to the planet Corin, the capital of the Uman Empire. Legate Isulu Usurlus is back in the capital as well, and ready for some political advancement. He has a difficult time, however, since the Emperor has been acting very out-of-character lately. He’s become reclusive and refuses to discuss pressing matters or see visitors for weeks at a time. He can’t avoid being on display during a celebratory parade, though, and that’s when Cato spots the imposter.

Like all Xeno officers, Cato is bio-engineered to be an empath; a sort of living lie detector. Like his fellow officers, he can also ‘see through’ the efforts of shape shifters. What he sees masquerading as the Emperor is Fiss Verafti, a shape shifter Cato thought he’d taken care of months ago. Clearly, something has to be done. Not only because of day-to-day operations of the Empire, but because another alien race called the Vord have recently taken a planet at the edge of the Empire’s boundaries. It’s obviously the prelude to a war, and the Empire needs an Emperor who can deal with the situation.

All of this barely scratches the surface of the plots and subplots in this novel. I’m always amazed that this author (WHEN DUTY CALLS, latest of the long-running Legion of the Damned series) so skillfully weaves so much into one novel. There’s plenty of action, political intrigue, military maneuvering, the search for the shape shifter, dealings with the Vord, and even the relationship between Cato and Alamy. The plot moves smoothly and swiftly from one plot to another, never getting bogged down, yet never seeming to skimp on detail or motivations. This is science fiction for anyone who enjoys action, politics, and character-driven stories.

Rating: 8 ½
October 2010
ISBN# 978-0-441-07922-9 (hardcover)