High Stakes by Rebecca Brandewyne
(Mira, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 1-55166-430-5
I really wanted to be able to recommend this book. It has a complex plot, an interesting cast of characters, and neatly developed heroine. But it also has some of the worst writing that I have come across in a long time. This is why High Stakes warrants a warning from this reviewer.

First, let's look at what is good about the book: the story. Thirty years ago, Roland Marlowe, son of billionaire eccentric Merritt Marlowe (think Howard Hughes) was murdered along with his young wife Natalie. He was killed because he had become suspicious that all was not well at his father's company and apparently he was right. Greedy and ruthless subordinates had used his father's eccentricities to seal the magnate away from all contact. When his son started asking questions, they murdered Roland and his family without compunction.

The world thinks that Roland's infant daughter Angelina was also a victim of the accident. Not so. Rather, Roland's trusted Native American chauffeur and his wife had spirited Angelina away to keep her safe from the killers. Sixteen years later, we meet Angelina (now called Leah) again. She and her parents have led a most nomadic life, moving frequently and keeping a low profile. And we also meet the hero, Hawk Bladehunter. Leah sees Hawk in all his impressive maleness as he fights a bully. Both are impressed with the other, but Leah's parents summon her and the moment is lost.

Fourteen years pass and Leah now knows who she really is and what happened to her real parents. She is determined to unmask the men who murdered her father and mother and to rescue her grandfather from their clutches. To this end, she has taken a job as assistant to the head of research and development at MMI Hawk Bladerunner.

Both Leah and Hawk recognize the other as that almost acquaintance of so many years ago, since neither has forgotten that brief encounter. The attraction is still there. But Leah doesn't know if Hawk is one of the bad guys.

Leah is an interesting creation. On the one hand, I kind of admired Brandewyne's take on her heroine. Leah is a very real person, filled with doubts about her ability to achieve the task she has set for herself. On the other hand, Leah's lack of any plan other than getting hired at MMI made her seem just a little TSTL (too stupid to live). Hawk is the prototypical Native American Director of Research and Development at a major US corporation.

But while I might have been able to live with the coincidences and contrivances of the plot, what leads to my "think twice" warning is the writing. Perhaps I can best get my point across by providing a couple of examples.

Imagine, Leah has overslept (she was up late hacking into computers) and Hawk arrives at her door to see if she's all right. The sexual tension is building; Hawk tells her to get dressed while he fixes her breakfast. This scene follows:

In her bathroom, Leah turned on the taps in the shower so the water would get hot while she divested herself of her robe, her nightgown and her French cut panties. With her brush, she swept her hair back from her face, then haphazardly twisted it up loosely and secured it with pins. Opening her large jar of Pond's Cold Cream, she generously slathered the thick white cream all over her face. Then she stepped into the steaming shower, knowing from experience that the combination of heat and cream helped to keep her skin moist and soft in the hot desert heat.

The sexiest man she has ever met is making her breakfast and she's thinking about keeping her skin moist and soft with Pond's Cold Cream?

Or take this inspired dialogue. Let me set the scene. The villain has just seen his plans fall through as Merritt Marlowe has been rescued. He is fleeing and has shot at least one policeman. He kidnaps Leah/Angelina, and is driving away at a high rate of speed. The following exchange ensues:

"You'll never get away with this, Pryce," Angelina warned him desperately.

But much to her distress, he only smiled wolfishly, a supercilious smirk. "Oh I think I will. I'm extremely daring and intelligent, and most people, including the police, are extremely timid and stupid. So I've 'got away' as you put it with a very great deal for an unbelievably long time. Further, unlike most men in my position, I never permitted myself to become so hubristic that I considered myself invincible."

Yep, this is just the way a man fleeing from the scene of a crime would talk. And I fear that these all too typical examples of the writing in High Stakes.

I know I have read at least two other books by Rebecca Brandewyne and I am pretty sure that I did not find the writing so tedious and inelegant. Well, if I had, I wouldn't have ever gotten to the second book. So I am puzzled and kind of sad that High Stakes is so poorly written. Could have been a fun book, but I'm afraid it isn't.

--Jean Mason

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