Play Dead is what happens happens when trends go unchecked. Ryan Brown's debut novel taps into the zombie zeitgeist and combines it with high school football. The result is a goofy, mercifully-quick read.
Bad boy (but good-hearted) Cole Logan is the star quarterback of his small town's football team. His teen delinquency days are behind him, as he tries to earn a ticket out of Texas with a scholarship. Their local rivals (from the right side of the tracks) are out to punch his ticket in a completely different sense. After a brutal prank goes awry, all of Cole's teammates are killed in a bus crash. Fortunately, a local fan (and practicing witch) brings them back...
The zombie trend is becoming a slow-moving, stupid, brain-eating, shambling monstrosity and need to be removed with the proverbial editorial shotgun.
As entertaining as the "Friday Night Lights" x "Dawn of the Dead" premise is (for about 15 seconds), it doesn't hold up past the second page. Just like we're (hopefully) learning from steampunk, a trendy premise alone isn't enough to make a book any good.
In the case of Play Dead, the book falls down early and often.
Cole is ludicrous. He's a lazy caricature of a small-town bad boy, with the obligatory ear piercing, criminal record, motorcycle & alcoholic mom. There's also a coach-with-a-guilty-secret, a tough-but-fair sheriff and a spunky-young-reporter-who-doesn't-really-like-football. None of them, for the record, stray an inch from their predictable roles.
If anything, the entertainment value comes from the rival team - a group of steroid-crazed thugs. Between perpetually botching their alibis and desperately trying to get laid, they're actually a fairly funny crew. And, although completely unsympathetic, Brown does try to give a little background on why they're so deranged.
"A little background", by the way, is the key to Play Dead. Most of the book goes completely unexplained. Although I'm never a fan of world-building, Play Dead takes story-telling to the opposite end of the spectrum. Stuff just... happens... generally without any explanation whatsoever. When the reader is treated to the courtesy of an explanation (e.g. the rival team are so obsessed because their boosters beat them with meathooks when they lose a game), it is thrown out there to be admired, and then promptly ignored.
This is true for the larger plot points as well. The climactic football game is important... why? A witch tells us that the zombies have to play and win, "or else". We never know why. Or for what. And the fact that the two teams weren't even going to play one another in the first place is swept under the carpet. A few "zombies are like teenagers" and "small town rivalries are really weird" jokes go a (moderately) long way, but not far enough.
The whole book - from concept to cover to "character" and "plot" - feels like a quick win. This is a triumph of marketing over matter, and will, I suspect, be quickly gracing the shelves of bargain bookshelves all over the English-speaking world.