IN Sidney Sheldon's latest blockbuster, the underlying plot has a familiar ring: a multi-millionaire dies, mysteriously drowned from his yacht. The international press has a field day, and as the lawyers and members of the family gather to take stock of the situation, they uncover a web of corruption, dodgy financial deals and blackmail. The millionaire, everyone finds, was a more unpleasant character than they could have believed; which was quite an achievement. In Sheldon's fictional world, Harry Stanford was a man who could drive his wife to suicide, who pursued women when he couldn't have them, and dropped them when he could, who told his daughter she had a face like a horse, and his sons that they were useless. He was also involved in the criminal underworld. Hardly surprising then that his three legitimate children are unhappy and confused; their father has rejected and belittled them since they were young. The oldest, Tyler, is a high court judge, Kendall his daughter is a fashion designer, and Woody a drug-addicted drop out. At the funeral, they realise what strangers they are to each other. Stanford's other child is Julia, daughter of his former governess, who left in shame and had not been seen since. Not knowing that she has been left a quarter of his fortune, she decides, once her father is dead, to find her other family. Needless to say not all the Stanford offspring welcome her coming to pick up the fourth share of their inheritance. The story moves swiftly, taking in glamorous destinations, the high life and the low life. If his characters are somewhat stereotyped, at least the speed of the plot, and an occasional humorous insight, like the chief of police in Corsica who tries to keep the body for as long as possible so that he can sustain all the media attention, make the novel very readable. As the book cover proudly boasts, Sheldon is known for his 'ultimate surprise endings'. But, here the 'ultimate ending' in Morning, Noon and Night is less a twist in the tale than the lazy belly flop of a whale turning as it follows its inevitable direction. The protagonist in Ken Follett's latest book, set in the 1760s, is a far more sympathetic character than Sheldon's. A Place Called Freedom is the story of slavery - a sort of white Roots. Mac, a young, handsome, coal miner in Scotland, rebels against the conditions in which he and his family are forced to work the mines from the age of seven, when their parents sign them as indentured labour. He discovers from a sympathetic London lawyer that, if he leaves the mine in his 20th year, before his 21st birthday, the owners have no legal rights to call him back - or keep him prisoner in neck shackles as they have done to some of his neighbours. Mac goes to London, starts an early trade union - men protesting against a cargo unloading system which forces them to spend three quarters of their income in drink - and is framed by the employers and sent to Virginia in a convict ship. There he has to serve for seven years as a slave before he can become a free man in America. As well as being a persuasive argument for labour solidarity, this is also a good old-fashioned romance, and an exciting adventure story as Mac and his lover escape to the west over the mountains. The offering from Winston Graham, author of the Poldark series, has, as its main character the shifting movement of the earth's unstable crust. Tremor is about an earthquake in Agadir in Morocco in 1960, when the town was levelled and 12,000 people were killed. Graham weaves a story around some of the 2,000 or so foreigners who were victims to the quake - which seems a little unfair on the many Moroccans who also died. It is a winding, curious form for a book that is clearly intended to be best-seller material. The characters are introduced slowly - Matthew Morris, failed husband and failed novelist; Nadine Deschamps, an actress who didn't sleep with the director so is out of work; three ex-prostitutes taking a holiday together; a not-quite couple from America (he wants to, she doesn't) and a criminal from London who broke the rules, and ran away with all the money from a bank heist. As the tectonic plates rumble unheard beneath them, approaching their historical deadline for mass destruction, the characters follow their lives as if they've got forever - falling in love, out of love, looking in their various ways to secure their futures. I liked this book, despite Graham's maddening habit of slipping between present and past tenses. There was a sense, however, that all his fun was in creating the separate, rambling scenarios of people's lives, and the earthquake chapters, when they arrived at the very end of the book were rather rushed as if, having enjoyed creating his characters, he was rather reluctant to tie up all the ends in the final catastrophe in which all their destinies were decided.