Mind Game

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When Ben Ashurst agrees to participate in a study of the biology of human emotions for this charismatic Oxford tutor, he can't begin to imagine what lies ahead. With a luxury resort on a beach in Kenya as the site of the experiment and his beautiful new girlfriend along for company, it seems the perfect way to spend the Christmas holidays.

But paradise starts to lose its luster when Ben runs afoul of the local police and discovers that his girlfriend may have another agenda in ...

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When Ben Ashurst agrees to participate in a study of the biology of human emotions for this charismatic Oxford tutor, he can't begin to imagine what lies ahead. With a luxury resort on a beach in Kenya as the site of the experiment and his beautiful new girlfriend along for company, it seems the perfect way to spend the Christmas holidays.

But paradise starts to lose its luster when Ben runs afoul of the local police and discovers that his girlfriend may have another agenda in coming to Kenya. Without warning, Ben finds the experiment veering from abstract scientific theory into terrifyingly real danger. Snared in a carefully crafted web of deceit, he scrambles to learn who is controlling his fate. His tutor's obsession with game theory suggests a possible course of action, but every time Ben thinks he's discovered the winning move, he finds another level of deception and betrayal…

About the Author:
Hector Macdonald was born in 1973 in Nairobi, Kenya, then educated a Eton and Oxford. He received his degree in biology from Merton College and his MBA from INSEAD in Paris. He divides his time between London and Africa. The Mind Game is his first novel.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
First-time novelist Macdonald delivers twists and turns with the ease of an old pro in this brainy, exotic suspense thriller. Oxford undergraduate Ben Ashurst is smart but impressionable, and this reputation earns him the opportunity to be a guinea pig in a study his biology professor is directing, funded by a multinational drug company. If Ben and his beautiful new girlfriend, Cara, agree to have tiny experimental emotion-sensors sewed to the back of their heads, they'll be sent on a free beach-resort vacation in Kenya, designed to stimulate their emotions and thoroughly test the sensors. For the first few days, the vacation is all Ben had hoped for. But then a case of food-poisoning, suspicions about Cara, incarceration in the local jail and a possible drug-trafficking frameup make Ben wonder what is going on. It becomes clear that he has not been let in on the full nature of the experiment, and he begins to question who is actually behind it. Tangled in a web of deception, Ben watches as his life falls apart around him, but refuses to go down quietly. Right up to the very end, we are kept guessing: how high are the stakes of the experiment? And who among Ben's friends is involved? Macdonald, a 27-year-old Oxford graduate born in Nairobi, Kenya, convincingly depicts Ben's cliquish, upper-crust partying at Oxford and hedonistic African adventuring. The novel's maze-like plot may take a few turns too many, but straightforward prose and a well-developed protagonist buoy this promising first effort. (Mar.) Forecast: A touch of intellectual macabre, la Secret History, gives this thriller a sexy twist. With foreign rights already sold in 14 countries, film rights sold to Heyday Film and a five-city author tour in the offing, the book is poised to score. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Oxford student Ben Ashurst can't say no to participating in preeminent scientist James Fieldhead's research project. The biologist's study involves attaching a tiny emotion sensor to Ben's head, which will measure the electrical impulses in his brain as he experiences a spectrum of emotions. Then (and this is what Ben cannot resist) Fieldhead sends him off to the beautiful beaches of Kenya for a tropical vacation--with lovely, charismatic Cara. As the experiment unfolds, Ben gradually recognizes that he is enmeshed in a cleverly constructed plot of deception. Macdonald, who was himself born in Nairobi, Kenya, and educated at Oxford, does a masterly job with his first novel. The writing style is much better than that of most medical/scientific thrillers, and the story is wonderfully interesting and intelligent. Five stars for this one, which is recommended for all fiction collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 11/1/00.]--Linda M.G. Katz, Florence A. Moore Lib. of Medicine, MCP Hahnemann Univ., Philadelphia Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Imagine The Magus written by Michael Crichton during a busy week when he was paying even less attention than usual to the niceties of logic and motivation: that's the essence of Macdonald's ambitious but ultimately unconvincing debut—a thriller based on the potential uses and abuses of the emerging science of emotions. At the request of his brilliant and charismatic neuroscience tutor Fieldhead, naive Oxford student Ben agrees to participate in an experiment to map the brain waves of specific emotions via a small sensor attached to the back of his skull. The experiment is to be conducted over a week's time at a beach resort on the coast of Kenya, all expenses paid, and Ben is encouraged to bring his mysterious, sexy, and oddly mercurial new girlfriend Cara. The first half of the story deals with the experiment itself, as Ben enjoys and then endures a series of unforeseen and increasingly dramatic events that put him through an intense emotional gamut ranging from ecstasy to sheer animal terror. This much of the narrative is straightforward and engaging, if somewhat predictable. The second half deals with the aftermath of the experiment: angry and increasingly paranoid, Ben sets out to discover who's behind the development of the sensor and what their true purposes are. The plot twists become convoluted, contradictory, and illogical, as if the author were desperately seeking to produce one surprise after another, however implausible. Ultimately, the reader's willing suspension of disbelief is exhausted. Still, the science that pops up now and again throughout—game theory, neurobiology, evolutionary psychology—is interesting stuff, wellpresentedfor lay readers. Astrong concept spoiled by overly complex plotting that strains commonsense and credibility. Film rights to Heydey Films; author tour
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781575110875
  • Publisher: Publishing Mills, Inc., The
  • Publication date: 4/1/2001
  • Format: Cassette
  • Edition description: Unabridged, 6 Cassettes
  • Product dimensions: 4.28 (w) x 7.08 (h) x 1.71 (d)

Meet the Author

Hector Macdonald was born in 1973 in Nairobi, Kenya, then educated at Eton and Oxford. He received his degree in biology from Merton College, and he divides his time between London and Africa. The Mind Game, his first novel, will be published in fourteen countries in 2001.

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Read an Excerpt


DATE: 15 December  TIME: 7:30 am

SITUATION: Coral headland overlooking ocean

SENSORY CONTEXT: Visual: magnificent seascape, early morning sun;   Auditory: waves breaking on reef; Olfactory: fresh salt

COGNITIVE CONTEXT: Minimal cognitive activity

EMOTIONAL CONTEXT: Happiness, sense of peace, relaxation


FACIAL RESPONSE: Musculature relaxed

GLOBAL VIEWPOINT: Optimistic, unconcerned, free


A Chinese guy once told me that deception is like boiling a frog. Drop it in scalding water and it will leap out immediately. But start cold and it will never notice the rising temperature. You can fool all the people all the time if you do the groundwork slowly. It just takes patience: inching the temperature up, degree by degree, until the victim is cooked.

Cara knew how to boil a frog.

The first thing I ever heard her say was just one small piece of the groundwork: “I have never stayed with the same guy for more than a week.”

How do you answer that?

“Hello,” she added, looking up as I walked through the door. A quick smile, almost colluding, crossed her face. It was a finely balanced smile, drawing warmth from chestnut eyes and raising delicate muscles around her cheekbones. None of the others seemed to notice me. Piers’ face, marked in devilish black-white patterns by the flicker of the candle, was fixed on hers. He was desperate to come up with some clever remark. But his creativity failed him and he simply said, “Challenge.”

“Aren’t you going to welcome yourguest first?”

Piers flicked his head round briefly and nodded at me. Irritated at the interruption. Captivated, for sure. “Well?”


The girl leaned across the table and helped herself to two red chips from the pile in front of the host. There was a brief silence. Duncan broke it.

“You shouldn’t admit to that kind of thing. I was about to invite you to dinner, but it hardly seems worth it for a mere week.”

The girl smiled, her eyes laughing at the joke but acknowledging the serious message behind it. “Maybe I’m just waiting for the right man,” she said.

I left my bottle on the drinks trolley and filled a glass from the jug. Piers had been mixing cocktails again. In five years he wouldn’t remember a single one of his tutors, but he’d still be on first-name terms with every off-license manager in Oxford.

“Sorry I’m late,” I said, aiming the apology mainly at Jenni. Leaving her alone in this company for an hour was hardly the kindest thing to do to a friend, and her face was already showing the strain. She sat two places away from Piers, holding a half-full glass and a half-empty hand of chips. I recognized the floral print dress from the last time I’d got her invited to a party. It still looked painfully cheap, even tacky in this circle of denims and pullovers. Piers was in black Versace jeans and black polo neck. When he stood up and held out a stack of chips I noticed an unusually strong smell of aftershave.

“Thirty quid. Reds are one pound each, blacks are two.”

“You’ve got to warn me earlier next time you want to fleece me. I thought we were just going to get drunk.” I tried to make it sound light-hearted.

“You’ve got to not care about thirty quid. You’re a big boy now, with a nice big student loan.”

I grinned to show I didn’t care and went to sit by Jenni. Her mouth was already set in a defensive grimace. I whispered some hollow assurance and slipped a few chips into the half-empty fist.

“Good of you to turn up, darling,” said Sal as she leaned over for a kiss. Always more friendly than the rest, I could never decide if her style was just a subtler form of mental torture. “Have you met Cara? Piers discovered her and now she’s taking us to the cleaners.”

I waved at the girl across the table, using the excuse to glance again at the curve of her upper lip, the steep slope of her nose, the long black eyelashes that never seemed to blink. She smiled back, clearly and coolly amused by my interest.

“Good. Now you have,” said Piers. “Rules are: unchallenged truth pays one to the pot, unchallenged lie takes the pot.” He pointed to the large heap of chips in a silver ashtray. “Challenger pays two for truth, gets four for lie. OK?”

“Sure.” I smiled again to prove my enthusiasm.

“Ripper. Your turn.”

Ripper drained his glass and got up. He made his statement on the way to the drinks trolley, his back turned. Interesting tactic.

“I have personally destroyed forty-eight point three thou of high-performance sports car.” Ripper often spoke like that. I glanced at the new girl. She seemed a couple of years older than the others. I was glad to see she wasn’t impressed by the boast, true or otherwise. Her eyes remained partly on her tapered hands and partly on me, as if she didn’t need to see Ripper’s eyes to know he was lying.

“Challenge,” called Charlotte. “I saw that pile of scrap before you totalled it. Can’t have been worth more than twenty.” Ripper finished pouring his drink and walked back to the table. “Twenty-six actually.” He flicked two black chips across. So he’d been going for the swollen pot. Failed tactic.

Beside me, Jenni gave a small choke. There wasn’t much I could do to extract her from the mess I’d landed her in. A fresher among finalists. A country girl among urban sharks. Easy prey. I put an arm round her shoulder. A week ago it had seemed like a good idea to introduce her to this set. She needed social roots; they were the central pillar of college life. In my haste to try and get myself accepted, I was blind to their faults. But tonight, something was different. No amount of blindness could disguise the cruel anticipation, the impatience for blood.

True or False was not just a poker game to that crowd. Winning or losing meant nothing. The essence of the game was the elaborate, grandiose manner in which the contestants could phrase their claims. And it wasn’t just about boasting. A lie could enhance status even more than a truth, so long as it was sufficiently imaginative. The very fact that the liar was staking money on his opponents’ inability to detect the lie implied it could easily be the truth. When Charlotte claimed to have slept with a Russian prince in Mexico there was real hesitation before someone called her. All were left with the distinct impression that she might have done. Jenni couldn’t begin to penetrate this looking-glass world.

“I met the Prince of Wales last summer,” she began bravely. “He came to school in June and congratulated me on being the first Oxford entrant in ten years.”

“Challenge,” drawled Alex. “He was sleeping with my mother in June. They were in Barbados.”

“It’s true,” stammered Jenni.

“Nope, that was his double you met. Been filling in for him a lot recently.”

“Don’t call me a liar!” Her nostrils were flared wide in fragile fury.

“He’s just teasing,” I said gently, lifting a couple of red chips off Alex’s pile and handing them to her.

“It’s true,” she repeated, the sense of injustice flooding her face.

It was my turn. The atmosphere was getting aggressive. I needed something new: unthreatening to Jenni but entertaining to the rest. And of course I wanted to win.

“My tutor is working on a new sensor that detects neural impulses in the brain. It can measure emotions and he’s asked me to be the guinea pig.”

Scalding water. But in this game sometimes you want the frog to leap out.

“Challenge!” yelled everyone immediately. Perfect.

“Challenge,” repeated Piers. “I’m host, so I said it first. Even your tutor’s not that crazy. Pay up.”

“True,” I said. “You pay up.”

Piers looked incredulous. “What kind of idiots do you think we are? It’s obviously bullshit.”

I shook my head.

“OK. We’ll vote. Who thinks Ben is lying?”

I laughed. “What is this? Lie detection by democracy? A jury?”

But Piers ignored me and stared at the others. I could feel Jenni’s loyalty struggling with her honesty. Around us every arm went up. Except Cara’s. I looked at her in surprise.

“You lose. I declare you a liar and claim an extra fifty per cent as penalty,” said Piers. He reached across to seize his prize.

I was six pounds poorer. Justice had lost. But Jenni was safely forgotten for another round.

She had arrived in college two months earlier and something about her had struck a chord. Perhaps it was that sense of isolation. Or perhaps the cautious uncertainty with which she watched the swaggering, hearty student committee welcome the freshers. Whatever the link, when I drove past her in the street and saw the listless pace of her steps I stopped without thinking and offered her a lift. She had been walking back to college, she said. At that speed, you’ll never get there, I said. At first she laughed with me, then suddenly she started crying. I never found out why.

Her room was no different from any other. A few photos of favourite pets by the bed. A small stereo. A line of empty folders, waiting to be filled with the wisdom of her professors. She dipped one teabag into two mugs and told me her life story. I didn’t ask for it, but then there wasn’t much to tell, so it felt like casual conversation. Life in the slow lane. A farm in Norfolk. And now? Well, of course, this is where it all took off. Now she had this incredible opportunity. And she was going to make sure she used it to the full. A first in engineering, an athletics blue, and then the world. It was that simple. Sounds ambitious, I said. Lots of hard work. Exactly, she said. And that, together with the sharp, quiet humour, is what I liked about her. Straightforward honesty. But it was an attribute that was doing her no favours in the present company.

I looked up as I heard my name. Everyone was laughing. “What?”

“And you can’t say anything,” said Piers.

“About what? I missed it.”

“He says you’re impotent,” laughed Charlotte. “And that he’s seen it for himself.”

“That’s funny?”

“Of course,” she grinned. “Absolutely.”

Through the laughter, Cara’s voice was calm. “Challenge,” she said.

“Really?” said Piers. “You know our friend so well already?”

Cara ignored the question. “I’ll double the stakes and bet, with the chemicals you’ve probably got in your bloodstream, you have a harder time getting it up than him.”

There was an amused silence. Piers raised his eyebrows and tried to look shocked. “You expect me to admit that?”

“Unless you’re willing to prove otherwise, I expect you to pay double.”

“I think we’ll spare the guests.” Laughing, in a weak attempt at self-recovery, he passed her four black chips. “You’re a little too good at this.”

Cara nodded. She had been winning consistently. But she had also been laying the groundwork, heating the water. Each of her statements had been tailored to construct a certain impression of reality, a particular image of the girl no one knew. Now the pan was at boiling point. She leaned back in her chair and fixed her eyes on Piers.

Copyright 2002 by Hector Macdonald
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 3 )
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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 22, 2002

    Macdonald should not make this his only work!

    This psychological thriller will have your head spinning until the last page...and thereafter. You will become so in tune with the main character's emotions that you can feel what he is going through, and what he is going through is absolutly mind boggling. You will be submersed in his life, and you will think about it even while you're not reading. The suspense is incredible, as is the writing. If you do not read this book, you are truly missing out.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 19, 2001

    Out of the ordinary

    One of the few books I have ever read that you have to go back and read the last 2 chapters again to see if you have it right and then still want more.

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  • Posted December 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    exciting psychological thriller

    Oxford researcher and instructor James Fieldhead leads a team on a field experiment centering on better understanding of human emotions. James enlists his student Ben Ashurst to serve as a guinea pig to test a new device in a luxurious resort in Kenya. To encourage Ben to come, James allows him to bring along his girlfriend Cara on this all expense paid for ¿holiday¿. <P>Initially, Ben enjoys the vacation of a lifetime. However, the experiment begins to place him in danger and fear as to what will be the next twist. He turns paranoid, trusting no one including his mentor and his girlfriend. When the experiment is completed, Ben retains his anger and rage, feeling unfairly used and with a need to know whom is really behind the game he just played and lost and what is the ultimate victory. <P> THE MIND GAME is an exciting medical thriller that is at its top game when the story line revolves around modern psychology theory. As the plot veers from neurology and game theory into the chaos of a typical thriller¿s cat and mouse chase, it loses some momentum as the audience struggles with a loss of reality. In his debut Hector MacDonald has shown he can entertain and educate his audience with a great intelligent psychological thriller, but needs to show he has the endurance to stick to his prime plot without adding unnecessary gimmicks that spins away from a winner. This book is still worth reading as one of the better sub-genre entries in quite awhile. <P>Harriet Klausner

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