The title of Ryan's second novel (after Black Gravity, not reviewed) is all too apt: the story's occasional bursts of power are undermined by its rickety structure. Martin Oakes, a professional poker player, has set up a poker school for teen-age misfits. The seven kids he is currently tutoring have learned concentration and discipline; but on page seven one of them is accused of cheating, though we won't find out who the cheater is until page 184. During the wait, Ryan entertains with flashbacks showing how Oakes set up a poker school, and providing portraits of each of his seven students—angry Aaron Simon, who wants to kill his father; glamorous Erika Jaagstrom, mourning her grandmother; precocious Carl Rice, who wants to be a spy; math-whiz Brian Willoughby, a sometime supermarket shopping consultant; plain-jane Penny Gunn, whose estranged parents are reunited when her father trains her mother for the Boston Marathon; slum-kid Finn Collins, who once spent the money for what would have been a lucky lottery bet on wholesale chocolate bars; and Jimmy Vitagliano, a casual thief whose brother Sal has taken one favor too many from thugs. But this narrative strategy is like showing a string of trailers when the movie projector breaks down at your theater. Patient readers will eventually learn, however, that although Oakes' power couldn't be broken by Smooth Jake Warner (the best poker player in America), it can't survive the solidarity his students make with the cheater when they close ranks against Oakes and walk out. In between, though, they'll get what's essentially a collection of loosely related short stories about troubled teens—none of which is nearly as gripping as the frame-story that Ryan cavalierly abandons for them. Ryan's chapters about poker and poker-players are arresting but a little self-impressed. Readers expecting a novel about card-playing will end up feeling cheated.
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