Aphrodite's Kiss

Aphrodite's Passion

Aphrodite's Secret

Carpe Demon

The Cat's Fancy

Intimate Fantasies

Nobody Does it Better

Reckless

Silent Confessions

 
The Manolo Matrix
by Julie Kenner
(Downtown Press, $13, PG-13) ISBN 0-7434-9614-0
****
Julie Kenner's latest novel has a catchy title, but it's not entirely appropriate. The Matrix (one, two or three) is not the work that came to mind as I made my way through this stomach-churning quest. With an online game spilling into reality and puzzles that must be solved before poison takes effect, it's more Spy Kids meets 24 meets Rule of Four, with a strong dash of Chick Lit's favorite foot fetish thrown in. The Manolos, you see, aren't purely decorative.

Jennifer Crane watched when her roommate's life was turned upside down as she raced to avoid certain death. She never expected to be flung into the same situation. She's an aspiring actress with a Julie- Andrews voice, not a code cracker. But when Jennifer receives an odd little e-mail from playsurvivewin.com, an online game revolving around a hunter, a target and a protector, she knows the chase is on. Some criminal mastermind has transposed the game from the virtual world to the real one. Either refusing to play or going for outside help means game over - in the most permanent sense. Unfortunately, failing to win also means the same thing.

The game's puppet master has assigned Jennifer to protect Devlin Brady. A former child actor turned FBI agent, he helped Jennifer's roommate when she was in the same jam. Since then, he has sunk into a deep depression. Soon enough, the two of them are sprinting around New York City, trying to make sense of cryptic messages involving Broadway musicals.

I expected something more steamy, but the few love scenes take place behind closed doors, and what little sexual tension there is quickly dissipates as soon as Jennifer and Devlin chase after the next clue. Watching them put their heads together to outwit the hunter nevertheless went some way in reassuring me that their relationship is on solid grounds.

Very often in face-paced novels like this one, character development gets sacrificed for action and adventure. Not so with Jennifer and Devlin. He shakes off the guilt he has been feeling after shooting down his dirty partner; she vows to become as proactive in pursuing her Broadway career as she is when solving clues. Nothing groundbreaking or outstanding here (heroines who discover their secret depths are as ubiquitous as tortured FBI heroes), and yet Jennifer's and Devlin's inner conflict make them into characters whose survival I actually cared for.

I was surprised to discover how much I enjoyed solving the clues. They were accessible for someone (like myself) who hums the occasional Broadway tune without being a big buff, but also difficult enough to take the characters' task serious. More importantly, the solutions never seemed contrived or outrageous - even when they depended on the Manolos. And I must confess that though I'm no fan (sorry Carrie!), I appreciate how the shoes feed into a recurrent, good-hearted wink at girlie things and why they matter. More than once, Jennifer's keen fashion sense saves the day.

Second in a trilogy that features the online game gone live, The Manolo Matrix stands alone, but it needs propping. There is an annoying tendency to refer to events in the first installment (kind of like friends who talk about the delightful Spring Break holidays which you didn't go on), and there is a major enticement to read the last of the lot. How else are we going to find out who is behind these wicked, wicked games?

--Mary Benn


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