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Saturday, April 25, 2015

NEW SERIES: Shelly Laurenston: CALL OF CROWS

Author:  Shelly Laurenston  
Plot Type:  Soul Mate Romance (SMR)
Ratings:  Violence4; Sensuality4; Humor—3   
Publisher and Titles:  Kensington
          The Unleashing (3/2015)

Laurenston also writes the PRIDE series featuring sexy shape shifters. Click HERE to read my reviews of books in that series.

     This world is built on a modified Norse mythology and revolves around two Viking Clansthe hot-chick Crows and the macho-man Ravens. Laurenston explains in an opening note to readers that she introduced this world back in 2005 in Hunting Season, but that The Unleashing "is me taking the whole thing to the next level, and it's a definite stand-alone." She goes on to explain that she has "taken some liberties with these gods and their histories" because she found multiple interpretations as she did her research.

     Odin is the top deity in this mythology, with Freyja, Thor, and other familiar Norse gods just below him in the hierarchy of power. Nine Viking Clans serve as representatives of the gods in the mortal world. As one Clan member explains, they are the hammers of the gods. Each Clan member is marked by a magical rune tatto specific to his or her Clan's god or goddess. 

     Eight of the nine Clans come from pure Viking (Scandinavian) blood lines. The ninth Clanthe Crows, Daughters of Skuld (one of the Norns)is very different: "Unlike the other Nordic Clans representing different gods, the Crows weren't born into this life. They weren't raised in the Old Way or the New Way. They didn't worship the well-known gods like Odin or Thor or Freyja. None of them had last names like Magnusson or Bergström. Most Crows came to this life knowing so little about Vikings that they thought what they saw in movies was accurate...And yet, here these mostly non-Nordic women were part of one of the most feared Viking Clans. Feared because they didn't rescue, they didn't work to prevent Ragnarok, they didn't actively care about anything that the other Clans cared about. Instead, the Crows were known for their rage, for their hatred, and for their loyalty to each other." (from The Unleashing, p. 17) 

     The Crow Clan is the only racially diverse, multi-ethnic group among the nine Clans so the other Clans call them "Crow Mutts" and look down on them because they don't have pure Viking blood. Each Crow was saved by Skuld at the point of her death by her promise to become one of Skuld's warriors. The Crows' motto is "Let rage be your guide," and they follow that motto as they spend their nights slicing and dicing various enemies identified by Skuld, always living up to their reputation of being the harbingers of death. They also stand up for one another, always having each other's backs both on and off the battlefield. Each Crow has a particular special talent that is connected with her emotional state at her time of death. All to them can fly, and they all have the ability to communicate with real crows, who are their allies. The Crows use their wings during battle, so they do all of their fighting at night to keep their identities hidden from human view. During the day, they have normal human careers (e.g., lawyers, bankers, actresses). 

Here is an annotated list of the other eight Clans:
    Ravens: They are fierce warriors who frequently fight alongside the Crows. They, too, can fly.  

    Giant Killers: They are headed by Freida and loyal to the god Thor. Their weapons are hammers (just like Thor's).

    The ValkyriesThey are nicknamed Choosers of the Slain. They are all females, and their job is to take heroic warriors who die in battle either to Odin or Freyja to await the final battle of Ragnarok.

    The Isa: They are ruled by the goddess Skadi and live in the mountains and national parks among nature and wild animals. They are good skiers.

    Claws of Ran: They are headed by Rada and are loyal to the goddess Ran, the goddess of sea and storms. The Clan includes both males and females, most of whom are surfers and/or fishermen.

    The Protectors: They are led by Ormi and loyal to the god Tyr. They keep the world in balance by ensuring that no Clan ever becomes too powerful. Historically, they have been enemies of the Crows and Ravens. They are the thinkers and scholars of the Clans.

    Holde's Maids: They are the best healers. They call themselves hags and like to cause pain.

    The Slient: They are loyal to the god Vidar. They are led by Brandt Lindgren, and they never speak to the other Clans. They are peacemakers who work for the UN and other world peace organizations. They loathe the Crows (useless whores), Ravens (dangerous thugs), and Protectors (intelligent bullies).

     The cast of characters is HUGE, with most of them being Crows and Ravens, along with the heads of some of the other Clans. Here is an annotated character list that I am including for my own benefit so that I can look back on it for review before I read the next book in the series.  

    Kera Watson: She is the heroine of book 1, a former U.S. Marine with a penchant for organization and efficiency. Her special skill is massive strength. 

    Chloe Wong: She is the excitable head of the Crow Clan and the bitter ex-wife of the head of the Raven Clan. 

    Tessa Kelly: She is Chloe's calm second-in-command and the leader of Kera's Strike Team.

    Erin Amsel: She is Kera's mentor, as well as being a tattoo artist and shop owner who loves to antagonize people, including her fellow Crows. Her skill is shooting fire out of her hands. She is a member of Kera's Strike Team.

    Maeve Godhavi: She is a hypochondriac who makes a fortune off her medical blog, which tracks deadly diseases across the world. She hoards medications and medical equipment in a huge medical fortress. 

    Leigh: She was a bank robber before she became a Crow. She is now a well-known painter and is a member of Kera's Strike Team.

    Annalisa Dinnapoli: She was a sociopath before she became a Crow and is now a forensic psychologist. She is a member of Kera's Strike Team.

    Alessandra Esporza: She owns a Spanish-language TV station and is a member of Kera's Strike Team.

    Jacinda (Jace) Berisha: She is a shy loner who is member of Kera's Strike Team. Her special skill is that she is a berserker.

    Betty Lieberman: She is an abrasive, cut-throat Hollywood agent who is a Seer. She is Erin's mentor.

    Paula: She is the Crows' no-nonsense business manager and financial expert.

    Josef Alexandersen: He is the head of the Raven Clan and the bitter ex-husband of Chloe Wong.

    > Ludvig (Vig) Lundström: He is the hero of book 1, a skilled blacksmith and weapons maker, known for his "thousand-yard stare," which tends to scare everyone away (but not Kera). He has a sister (Katja"Kat") who is a Valkyrie. 

    Rolf Landvik: He can read runes and seems to be attracted to Erin.

    Stieg Engstrom: He is a cranky, chronic complainer who spends a lot of time gaming and watching TV at Vig's house and giving him cynical advice. 

    Siggy Kaspersen: He is the Clan's accountantgreat with numbers and hand-to-hand combat, but otherwise kind of a good-natured loser. He spends a lot of time gaming and watching TV at Vig's house with Steig     

                       NOVEL 1:  The Unleashing                       
     In the opening scene, Kera is murdered by a street thug behind the coffee shop she manages. One of her customers (Vig) calls for Skuld to save her, and Kera agrees to become a Crow as long as she can bring along her beloved pit bull, Brodie Hawaii. Almost as soon as she arrives at the Bird House (the Crow residence facility), Kera is attacked by Freida and her Giant Killers. After the Crows save her from Freida's warriors, Kera begins a very rough introduction to her new life. 

     Kera is used to a military life with its organization, rules and regulations, instruction manuals, training sessions, and hierarchy of command. She expects to be trained for her new position, but that's not how the Crows operate. They like to throw the new girls into the action without preparation or explanation, letting them sink or swim. This, of course, drives Kera crazy, and she and her mentor (Erin) get into some major fights (both verbal and physical) before Vig steps in to teach Kera the ropes. Much of the snarky humor comes from Kera's failed attempts to get the Crows organized into a sleek, well-organized military unit. Kara is used to working with serious warriors, but now her battle buddies are a bunch of cackling, gossiping, squabbling, party-hearty women. Kera also has some Brodie-related problems when some of the Crow girls fall in love with the dog and take her out on walks, buy her a pink tutu, and spoil her so much that Brodie spends more time with them than with Kera.

     Another problem facing Kera is her resistance to killing. In the Marines, Kera was taught to try to defuse situations and not to kill unless absolutely necessary. Now, she is being ordered to slay a series of enemies without understanding what crimes those people have committed. Soon, her Crow sisters begin to think that she is a wuss who can't be counted on to follow through during a battle. To help her work through this difficult moral problem, Vig takes her on a trip to another realm for a talk with the ancestral Crows. 

     This book is STUFFED with expositional material, mostly world-building details and introductions to the huge cast of characters. In the background, the plot simmers along at low heat until it inevitably boils up at the end. That plot begins when someone begins stealing jewelry and precious metals from various Clans, all of whom believe that the Crows are the thieves. (That's what Freida's raid was all about.) Then the Protectors begin to find an increasing number of human sacrifices surrounded by mysterious runes. Meanwhile, Chloe has to deal with a rich and venomous neighbor who keeps suing the Crows because she wants them out of her neighborhood. Who is behind the sacrifices? What is their end game? What do the runes mean? Will the Crows and the Ravens solve the mystery? Why are the Clan leaders having debilitating nightmares? Will the neighbor succeed in ejecting the Crows from their mansion? All of these questions are answered by the end of the book.

     As Kera learns the ins and outs of her new life, she and Vig find their friendship turning into lust and then love. Although Vig is a scary guy to most people, he is a gentle giant with Kera. The scene in which he teaches her to fly is especially touching. The lead characters are well developed and multi-faceted. Kera, especially is a fully formed character with whom we can empathize. Vig leans, perhaps, too much toward being a tough-guy-with-a-heart-of-gold stereotype, but he is such a great match for Kera that I didn't mind that very much. The other characters are mostly just sketched in at this point, but I'm assuming that we'll learn much more about each one as they take their turns in the romance spotlight.

     I always enjoy reading Laurenston's books, with their snarky humor, quirky characters, and straightforward plots. This time around, though, I have to admit that the extremely large set of characters bogged down the pace, particularly when some characters (like Erin, for example) are sometimes called by their first names and sometimes by their last names. I think that Laurenston gives the Crows last names because she wants to emphasize their cultural diversity, but really, it just adds to the confusion. Now that I have all of the people and personalities sorted out, I'm hoping that I can sail right through the next book with minimal references to the lists in this review. 

     Note to the author: Readers would benefit from an annotated character page and a mythology page on your web site. Better still...include this information as an appendix to the next book.

     Click HERE to read or listen to an excerpt from The Unleashing on its page. Just click on either the cover art or the "Listen" icon on that page.

Friday, April 24, 2015


Author:  Nicole Peeler  
Plot Type:  Urban Fantasy (UF)
Ratings:  Violence4; Sensuality2; Humor—2   
Publisher and Titles:  Orbit
          Jinn and Juice (e-book11/2014; paperback4/2015)

     This is Peeler's second urban fantasy series. She also wrote the JANE TRUE series. Click HERE to read my reviews of the books in that series.

     The series is set in Pittsburgh, which Peeler describes again and again as "steel-soaked" or "steel-stained" or "steel-corrupted." Pittsburgh lies at the confluence of three rivers, two above ground and one underground, and the moving water indicates the presence of magical ley lines. When ley lines converge, they form a powerful Node of magic, pulsing with magical "juice." A century of industrial development and its accompanying pollution have permanently polluted the ley lines and the magical Node under the city. Most magical beings cannot draw on the Deep Magic of the Pittsburgh Node because its magic will poison them.

     In this mythology, supernaturals can live either in the human world or in Sideways (which is similar to the Fae realm found in other mythologies). They can also create pockets of Sideways in the human world. For example, many supernaturals have Sideways pockets in their clothing in which they hide their weapons, making their guns and swords invisible to the human eye.  

     This supernatural world has two general types: Purebloods and Immunda. Purebloods are powerful, purely magical beings, like Jinn or sidhe Lords that use Deep Magic that runs deep in the ley lines and the Nodes. The Immunda are "everything else, really. Including creatures like sirens, vampires, gaki, succubi…anything that gathers its magic parasitically off humans…also things with mixed human-and-magical blood, including shape shifters. Those..creatures can skim off the surface of the Node and ley lines, but they can't use the Deep Magic." (Jinn and Juice, p. 55) Purebloods need Deep Magic to survive, so they cannot live in Pittsburgh because they can't pull magic from the Node. That is why Pittsburgh has become a haven for the Immunda.

     The two main characters in the series are a Jinn and a Magi, two supernatural entities who are almost always fierce enemies. The Magi are "a race of humans taught that another species of being existed simply to serve them, whether they liked it or not. Magi had no problem yanking Jinn away from their…families and friends. And powerful Magi tribes would keep a Jinni forever if they could, passing down a binding from parent to child." (Jinn and Juice, p. 193)

     Jinn have Fire power (black flames) and can change shape and size at will. Powerful Jinn can teleport. They survive by drawing power from the Deep Magic of Nodes. According to their own origin myth, Jinn were originally created from the heat of the universe, but in real life, two Jinn can meld together and reproduce. They stay as far away from Magi as they possibly can.

     Magi are born with latent abilities, but their true powers don't kick in until they are initiated by another Magi. During the initiation ceremony, the mature Magi Calls an unBound Jinni, who then says a different set of magical words to initiate the immature Magi. Immediately, the new Magi's eyes turn silver and his/her magical powers are activated.

      A Magi captures a Jinni by speaking magical words in a See, Call, and Bind sequence. Once a Magi Binds a Jinni, that Magi becomes the Jinni's Master. The Jinni must do the Master's bidding and never lie to him/her until the Magi either dies or rescinds the Binding spell. In this world, Jinn are almost always bound to Magi. They can sense one another, so it is difficult for a Jinni to remain free. Most Magi are power-hungry, cruel Masters who use their Jinn for selfish purposes. 

     The series heroine is Lyla, a thousand-year-old Jinn who is a belly dancer at a magical nightclub called Purgatory. Lyla is unique in that she began life as a human and was changed into a Jinni after being cursed by a powerful Jinni named Kouros. Other Jinn view Lyla as an abomination who deserves to be killed, which is why she is hiding out in Pittsburgh, where other Jinn cannot tolerate the steel-soaked, poisonous Node. Because Lyla is a Jinni in a human body, she is the only Immunda who can draw on Pittsburgh's Node without being poisoned. As the first novel opens, no one else knows about Lyla's curse or that she can access Pittsburgh's Node, except for her tight circle of friends.

                      NOVEL 1:  Jinn and Juice                      
     As the story begins, Lyla is very close to the end of her curse. If she can get through the next few days without being Bound by a Magi, she will become human again for the first time in a millennium. She and Charlie have been living in Pittsburgh for a long time because it is a place where they feel safe from predatory supernaturals. Although Charlie and Lyla are considered Immunda, they are different from the others. As Lyla explains to Oz, she and Charlie have something extra: "Charlie has gods inside of himhis magical channels are about as wide and well-worn as you can get, And I'm just…different…I'm decently strong for a Jinni…When I'm Bound, I'm a lot stronger, And when I'm Bound to a strong Magi…I'm even stronger."

     Layla has never seen a Magi since she moved to Pittsburgh. As the end of her curse gets closer and closer, she is having nightmares about Kouros, the treacherous Jinni who changed her from a human woman to a Jinni. She has dreamed about him for many years, but these recent dreams seem almost real.

     Lyla has a small group of close friends who support her throughout her various trials and tribulations:
   Charlie: He owns Purgatory and is an immortal oracle possessed by gods.
   Rachel Divide: She is a humana psychic gay drag queen and Charlie's lover. 
   Yulia: She is a will-o'-the-wisp and Lyla's best friend.  
   Aki: He is a kitsune, a shape-changing fox (from Japanese mythology).

     One night, as Lyla is performing at Purgatory, she senses the presence of a Magi. Determined never to be enslaved again, she tries to escape, but to no avail. Soon, she finds herself Bound to a Magi named Ozan (Oz) Sawyer, who inherited his pale features and sandy hair from his Irish father and his Magi abilities from his Turkish mother. Lyla has been bound many times during her life (but never in Pittsburgh), and she knows from experience that Magi are cruel Masters who never give a thought to the well-being of the Jinn they enslave. 

     As it turns out, Oz has only been a mature Magi for a month, so he is quite unsure of his abilities. All he wants is for Lyla to help him find an Afghan girl named Tamina. Oz was an American aid worker on assignment in Afghanistan when he was befriended by Tamina's relatives, a Magi family who realized immediately that he was an immature Magi. Recently, Tamina and her family left Afghanistan and resettled in Pittsburgh, but when the Afghan relatives learned that Tamina's parents had been murdered and that Tamina was missing, they arranged for Oz to be initiated so that he could return to America, Bind a Jinni, and command the Jinni to find Tamina. Oz promises that he will unBind Lyla in time for her end-of-curse deadline, but she doesn't believe himat first, anyway.

     The story follows Oz, Lyla, and Lyla's friends as they search for Tamina, investigate an infestation of obnoxious magical creatures from Sideways, and learn the truth about Tamina's disappearance and her connection with Kouros. As you would expect, Oz and Lyla move well beyond a Master-Slave relationship, although they only get as far as a few passionate kisses in this book (much like the hero-heroine relationship in Peeler's JANE TRUE series).

     The first book in a series is always packed to the gills with world-building, and this book is no exception. Unfortunately, there is so much exposition that both plot and characterization suffer terribly. Some details (like the poisonous Node) are repeated over and over again, while others (like the Blood sect and the Crypt) pop up suddenly with little or no explanation. Another problem is that the plot relies on several "Aha!" moments to carry it alongepiphanies in which the heroine has implausible flashes of insight based on nothing but a few flimsy clues and some questionable assumptions. 

     The relationship between Lyla and Oz is weak and lacking in emotion. Even though we learn Lyla and Oz's back stories, they are thinly developed characters with a definite lack of human qualities. I could never truly connect with either of themthe same problem I had with the characters in the JANE TRUE novels. Another problem is the stilted dialogue and the lack of emotional bonding between the hero and the heroine. Their romantic scenes always feel forced. The secondary characters are entertaining, but I always question the wisdom of dumping lots of different types of supernatural creatures into a seriesparticularly into the first book. It's difficult enough to introduce a new mythology and to flesh out a cast of characters, so why add a host of weird supernatural beasties to the list, each of which must be described in some detail. That just slows down the pace, overwhelms the plot, and adds little to the story.

     One last quibble: The paperback version is full of copy-proofing errors in spelling and word-use, mostly the kind that slip past auto-spell-checks. Orbit should have done a better job with this.

     In the final analysis, I always judge a book by its ability to keep me engrossed. This one didn't have me glued to the page, but I was interested enough to read it through to the end just to find out what happened with Kouros. If you enjoyed Peeler's writing style in JANE TRUE, you'll probably like this series as well. Click HERE to read an excerpt from Jinn and Juice on the Orbit web site.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

UPDATE! Caris Roane: "Savage Chains"--Set in MEN IN CHAINS World


I have just updated an ongoing post for Caris Roane 
with a review of Savage Chains, a novel set in her MEN IN CHAINS world.

Click on the pink-link book title above to go directly to the new review.

Monday, April 20, 2015



I have just updated an ongoing post for Diana Pharaoh Francis' DIAMOND CITY MAGIC SERIES 

with a review of Edge of Dreams, the second novel in the series. 

Click on the pink-link series title above to go directly to the new review.

Saturday, April 18, 2015



I have just updated an on-going post for Molly Harper's  HALF MOON HOLLOW SERIES 
with a review of The Danger of Dating a Rebound Vampire, the third novel in the series. 

Click on the pink-link series title above to go directly to the new review.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Daryl Gregory: "Harrison Squared"

Title::  Harrison Squared 
Author:  Daryl Gregory  
Plot Type:  Science Fiction (appropriate for YA and adults)
Ratings:  Violence4; Sensuality2; Humor—3   
Publisher and Titles:  Tor

Just to give you a taste of the book's spooky tone, here are the first lines of the Prologue and Chapter 1:
Prologue: "What I remember are tentacles. Tentacles and teeth." 
Chapter 1: "The building seemed to be watching me."

Harrison Harrison—H2 [H2] to his mom—is a lonely teenager who’s been terrified of the water ever since he was a toddler in California, when a huge sea creature capsized their boat, and his father vanished. One of the “sensitives” who are attuned to the supernatural world, Harrison and his mother have just moved to the worst possible place for a boy like him: Dunnsmouth, a Lovecraftian town perched on rocks above the Atlantic, where strange things go on by night, monsters lurk under the waves, and creepy teachers run the local high school. On Harrison’s first day at school, his mother, a marine biologist, disappears at sea. Harrison must attempt to solve the mystery of her accident, which puts him in conflict with a strange church, a knife-wielding killer, and the Dwellers, fish-human hybrids that live in the bay. It will take all his resources—and an unusual host of allies—to defeat the danger and find his mother. 

     Although the story has its roots in the mythos of H.P. Lovecraft, you don't have to be a Lovecraft fan to enjoy this book. The small seaside town, the weird characters, and the imaginative monsters also put me in mind of Ransom Riggs' entertaining "Peculiar Children" novels. (Click HERE to read my reviews of the "Peculiar" graphic novel and the first and second novels.) 

     Harrison Squared is set in a strange Massachusetts seaside fishing village populated by a weird cult, a community of fish people, and a few major monsters. The town and its people are immediately, unmistakably sinister. As the story begins, Harrison and his mom arrive at Dunnsmouth Secondary School. The early scenes at the school are a perfect parody of a reluctant teenager's first day at a new school: hostile classmates, haughty teachers, and a strange curriculum. From the beginning, the author emphasizes the creepiness of the school and the teachers: "It looked like a single gigantic block of dark stone, its surface wet and streaked with veins of white salt, as if it had just risen whole from the ocean depths. The huge front doors were recessed into the stone like a wailing mouth. Above, arched windows glared down…This was like no school I'd ever seen before. I didn't know what it wasa mausoleum maybe? Something they should have torn down. Yet some lunatic had looked at this hulk and said, I know, let's put kids in here!" Harrison's mom agrees with him that the school is "kind of…tomb-y." Harrison soon learns that his daily schedule includes classes in fishnet weaving and cryptobiology (where the students attempt to reanimate dead frogs with electrical shocks).

     Rosa Harrison is a workaholic who focuses on her research and leaves Harrison on his own much of the time. Over the years, Harrison has developed a sardonic attitude toward life, and he isn't shy about standing up for himself. He thrives on asking questions and making comments about touchy subjects no matter what reaction he gets from his teachers and his fellow students. These scenes sparkle with lively, witty dialogue that is sprinkled with humorous pop-culture references. Unfortunately, Harrison also has a hair-trigger temper that frequently explodes without warning, a personality trait that has gotten him into all sorts of trouble in the past and which becomes a problem in this school as well. Harrison also has a physical disability that dates back to his misadventure with the sea monster when he was just three years old. The monster bit off the lower part of his right leg, so he wears a prosthesis. 

     Although Harrison misses his sunny California home, he is determined to remain in damp, dreary Dunnsmouth with his mother, even with no access to the Internet, no cable TV, and no cell phone towers. Harrison's life goes from strange to tragic when Rosa is lost at sea on the day after their arrival. She is presumed dead by everyone except Harrison, who is quite sure that she is still alive and is determined to find her. 

     The story follows Harrison's adventures as he makes friends with a handful of his odd schoolmates, befriends a boy who breathes through gills in his neck, discovers an underwater community of fish people, learns (the hard way) that some of Dunnsmouth's respected citizens are involved in some very dangerous activities, and tries very hard to avoid being killed by a fiendish, knife-wielding killer. Together, Harrison and his new allies go into action to find out what's going on and gather clues as to what exactly happened to Rosa. Although one of those allies is a girl, she is definitely not a love interest. As Harrison muses, "I wasn't even sure Lydia liked me. She was so grim, so serious, it was like trying to cozy up to Batman."

     Harrison is such a likable kid that you root for him all the way and enjoy his frequently hilarious verbal exchanges with his peers. When his Aunt Selena arrives on the scene, things get even more lively. She is a 21st century Auntie Mame whose ideas of child-rearing have the quality and depth of a sit-com mom. The scenes with Selena and her cab driver, Saleem, are just plain fun to read.

     The audience for this book includes both teenagers (YA) and adults. Teen readers will be entertained by the spookiness of the story and will empathize with Harrison's loneliness. Adults will enjoy the story even more because they will "get" the many cultural and literary (sci fi and horror) references that are scattered throughout the book. For example, Rosa's research buoys are named after horror writers: Steve (Stephen King), Pete (Peter Straub), Edgar (Edgar Allan Poe), and Howard (Lovecraft). This is not a typical YA novel in that there are no angst-filled love triangles, no mean girls, and no geek-vs-jock drama. In fact, the stakes are high: a parent gone missing, a murderer at large, and a cult running amok. 

     Gregory is a great story teller who excels in characterization and dialogue. His well-developed cast of eccentrics lead us effortlessly though a highly entertaining, if creepy, plot. Just when you think the story can't get any stranger, it does…and then it does again. Once I started this book I couldn't stop reading, mostly because the story moves along so quickly and with so much dark humor that you just want more. The epilogue guarantees that there will be a sequel to tie up some unresolved loose ends. Click HERE to read an excerpt.