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Sunday, December 31, 2017



I have just updated an ongoing review post for Faith Hunter's SOULWOOD SERIES by adding a review of Flame in the Dark, the third novel in the series.

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

Sunday, December 24, 2017



I have just updated an ongoing review post for Kim Harrison's HOLLOWS SERIES by adding a review of The Turn, the prequel novel for the series. What a treat!

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

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

NEW NOVEL: "When the English Fall"

Author: David Williams
Title: When the English Fall  
Publisher: Algonquin Books (7/2017)

     A riveting and unexpected novel that questions whether a peaceful and non-violent community can survive when civilization falls apart.
"Again, all are asleep, but I am not. I need sleep, but though I read and I pray, I feel too awake. My mind paces the floor.
There are shots now and again, bursts here and there, far away, and I cannot sleep. I think of this man in his hunger, shot like a rabbit raiding a garden. For what, Lord? For stealing corn intended for pigs and cattle, like the hungry prodigal helpless in a strange land.
I can hear his voice."
     When a catastrophic solar storm brings about the collapse of modern civilization, an Amish community is caught up in the devastating aftermath. With their stocked larders and stores of supplies, the Amish are unaffected at first. But as the English (the Amish name for all non-Amish people) in the cities become increasingly desperate, they begin to invade nearby farms, taking whatever they want and unleashing unthinkable violence on the gentle communities.

     Written as the diary of an Amish farmer named Jacob who tries to protect his family and his way of life, When the English Fall examines the idea of peace in the face of deadly chaos. Should members of a nonviolent society defy their beliefs and take up arms to defend themselves? And if they do, can they survive?

     David Williams’s debut novel is a thoroughly engrossing look into the closed world of the Amish, as well as a thought-provoking examination of how we live today and what remains if the center cannot hold. 

     Although this novel can be classified as post-apocalyptic fiction, it does not overflow with violent blood-and-guts confrontations, although there is some mostly off-the-page violence. Instead, this is a two-and-a-half-month diary written by a deeply religious Amish farmer who, a decade or so ago, left behind his father's harsh and rigid religious group and started anew in the Pennsylvania heartland near Lancaster. Jacob (aka Jay) and his wife, Hannah, have two teen-age children: Jacob, who helps his father do the heavy work, and Sadie, who appears to have a touch of the "sight." 

     Since childhood, Sadie has suffered from seizures, which is worrisome to her parents, but she also is sometimes able to predict events in the near future, which is worrisome to the community at large. In the very first chapter (September 2), Jacob describes the seizure Sadie had during the night: "Her eyes are wide and unseeing, and her arms lash out, a dress on the clothesline before a storm." Lately, Sadie's episodes are filled with shouts "about the lights, and about the darkness. The skies are bright with angel wings, she will shout, suddenly. The English fall! The English fall! Again and again she says this." For a long time, Jacob has been troubled about Sadie's condition, and he writes frequently of praying for his daughter.

     Along with his worries about Sadie, Jacob fills the early chapters of the diary with the ordinary details of his family's life: constructing furniture in his workshop, milking the cows, picking apples, going to church, repairing his house and a neighbor's house after a storm, harvesting various crops, planting other crops. His entries can also be quite introspective as he explores his religious beliefs and worries about his friend Mike, and "English" (i.e., non-Amish) man who serves as a middleman for Jacob's furniture business. 

     Mike is completely non-religiousa profane heavy-drinking man who has divorced his wife and is now involved with another woman. Although Jacob and Mike maintain a friendly relationship, Jacob's bishop has warned him not to get too close to this particular English man because of his moral shortcomings.

     Day by day, Sadie speaks more and more about the angels and the falling English, and finally, towards the end of September, her vision comes true when a solar storm short circuits all electrical lines and brings an end to modern technology through the destruction of the global power grid. Across the globe, airplanes fall from the skies ("the English fall"), computers and cell phones stop working, city water distribution fails, fuel delivery stopscivilization as we know it comes to a halt.

     Jacob's life, though, does not change because his family is off the grid and relies only on their own food production, but for the English, the situation soon becomes dire. On his diary pages, Jacob writes down his thoughts about why his isolated, close-knit community is unchanged by the solar storm while the English society is quickly falling apart.

     Joseph meets a young National Guardsman when he delivers produce and canned goods that will be distributed to people in Lancaster, and the man explains the difficult situation in the cities. Credit and debit cards don't work. Pay checks can't be cashed. Retail stories are closed because people have no money and because stores have no inventory. Families who had only stored away enough food for a week or two have run out and are now going hungry. Winter is coming and there is no fuel to heat homes. Jacob thinks about his own family's situation: a larder and a root cellar full of food for the entire winter, a wood pile to fuel the fireplace and the stove, cows and chickens for daily milk and eggs, and neighbors to help with the final harvest. He muses that, "Our community is, to me, what all the English had built was to him. But now, for him, all of that is gone."

     In the cities, conspiracy theorists begin to spread rumors that "the Sun storm was really just a secret weapon to give the government an excuse to take away guns." Others are calling it "Lucifer's Night" or the "second Flood""God's judgment on man." As the days pass and the food supplies become depleted, the situation, predictably, becomes violent, with gangs of violent, armed men roaming the countryside in search of food from outlying farms and leaving wrecked homes and dead bodies in their wake.  In response, equally violent groups of armed neighborhood militias spring up to defend their property and their lives. Almost every night, Jacob hears the far-away sounds of shots being fired—"a faint tapping on the door of the night." Jacob and his fellow Amish must decide whether to hide behind the local militia, knowing that starving people are being killed as looters just to keep the local residents safe or whether it is more important to save their souls by coming to a different solution.

     Although the book begins at a slow pace and drops down to a plod in some chapters, the suspense gradually builds up in a crescendo during the second half of the book. Jacob must wrestle with many questions of faith as he decides what is best for his family and his soul. Should he allow Mike and his family to move in so that he and his sons will be safeeven if it means that his own family's food supply will be stretched to the limit? Should he give aid to the starving people from the cities who begin to stagger along the near-by roads, which would further decimate his supplies. 

     As I read Jacob's diary entries in which he discusses the past and present moral questions that plague him, I was reminded of two classic movies that deal with the theme of pacifism versus confrontation. Both are set during the American Civil War, In Friendly Persuasion (1956), Gary Cooper plays a Quaker whose family gets pulled into defending their Indiana farm from advancing Confederate troops. In Shenandoah (1965), Jimmy Stewart plays an isolationist Virginia farmer who gets drawn into the conflict when his youngest son is captured by the Union Army. Both films deal with the same issues that trouble Jacob. Because of its Quaker characters, Friendly Persuasion, in particular, tries to answer the toughest question of all: Is it ever right for a Christian to engage in violence against fellow humans?

     If you want a more recent parallel, look no further than AMC's The Walking Dead and the characters Carol and Morgan, both of whom continue to struggle mightily with all of the killing they have done in order to survive. And don't forget Glenn, who did not kill a human until the end of season six, shortly before he lost his own life. It may seem like an impossible reach to compare a book about the Amish with a TV show about zombies, but in the TV show, the real "walking dead" are not the zombies, but the survivors, who must compromise their pre-apocalypse morality by killing predatory humans in order to survive. If they don't they will surely die. At that basic level, Jacob's situation is no different.

    This would be a great book club selection because it poses so many fascinating moral questions that could be debated forever. What would you do if you were Jacob? What does it really mean to be "safe"? Is the physical safety of yourself and your family more important than the safety of your soul? Can you have both, or do you have to choose between them? Where do you draw the line when you are the only one left with food supplies? Do you share, or do you hoard? Is it morally right to kill a looter who is only stealing because he and his family are starving? Is it acceptable for a Christian to kill another person in self defense? Once? Twice? As often as necessary? Where is the line drawn?

     Click HERE to read or listen to an excerpt from this novel on its page, where you can click on the cover art for print or on the "Listen" icon for audio. Click HERE to listen to an interview with the author. Click HERE to read an article about the Carrington Eventa huge solar storm that took place in 1859 and which was the inspiration for Williams's premise.

     David Williams, a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church, lives in northern Virginia with his wife and sons. His stories and articles have appeared in publications as diverse as Omni, the Christian Century, and Wired. He is the author of one previous book, The Believer's Guide to the Multiverse, an exploration of theology and the cosmos. When the English Fall is his first novel.

Friday, November 3, 2017

NEW NOVEL! Daryl Gregory’s “Spoonbenders”

Author: Daryl Gregory 
Title: Spoonbenders
Genre: Literary fiction with a large dose of magic
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf (6/2017)

     Teddy Telemachus is a charming con man with a gift for sleight of hand and some shady underground associates. In need of cash, he tricks his way into a classified government study about telekinesis and its possible role in intelligence gathering. There he meets Maureen McKinnon, and it’s not just her piercing blue eyes that leave Teddy forever charmed, but her mind—Maureen is a genuine psychic of immense and mysterious power. After a whirlwind courtship, they marry, have three gifted children, and become the Amazing Telemachus Family, performing astounding feats across the country. Irene is a human lie detector. Frankie can move objects with his mind. And Buddy, the youngest, can see the future. Then one night tragedy leaves the family shattered.

     Decades later, the Telemachuses are not so amazing. Irene is a single mom whose ear for truth makes it hard to hold down a job, much less hold together a relationship. Frankie’s in serious debt to his dad’s old mob associates. Buddy has completely withdrawn into himself and inexplicably begun digging a hole in the backyard. To make matters worse, the CIA has come knocking, looking to see if there’s any magic left in the Telemachus clan. And there is: Irene’s son Matty has just had his first out-of-body experience. But he hasn’t told anyone, even though his newfound talent might just be what his family needs to save themselves—if it doesn’t tear them apart in the process.

     Harnessing the imaginative powers that have made him a master storyteller, Daryl Gregory delivers a stunning, laugh-out-loud new novel about a family of gifted dreamers and the invisible forces that bind us all.

     Teddy Telemachus meets Maureen McKinnon when they take part in a classified government study about ESP in 1963. Teddy is just a con man, a charismatic cardshark with a huge heart. Maureen, however, is the real deal—a full-on psychic. Together they have three gifted children and become the Amazing Telemachus Family, performing incredible feats on national television—until a tragic event takes the magic away.

     Decades later, the Telemachus children are in disarray. Frankie who once moved objects with his mind, is in debt to the Mafia; Irene, the human lie detector, can’t trust anyone; and Buddy, who can see the future, has inexplicably dug a giant hole in the backyard. Life as they know it may be over, until Matty, Teddy’s grandson, discovers a little bit of the old Telemachus magic in himself, which might just save them and make the Telemachuses amazing once again.

     Compassionate, rollicking, and just a bit magical, Spoonbenders is a welcome reminder of the importance of family and the supernatural power of love. It’s a hilarious, tender, extraordinary novel about the invisible forces that bind us.

     In a podcast interview, Gregory explains that he used John Irving’s early novels (Hotel New Hampshire, The World According to Garp, A Prayer for Owen Meany) as models. For each character, he wanted to be sure "that the emotions were all real," and to "get the heart of it right," but he also wanted the story to end like one of Shakespeare’s plays, where all of the story threads come together in the final actwith everyone milling about the stage, doors slamming, and action erupting everywhere. To get us to that point, Gregory has his main characters take turns telling the story from their separate perspectives, flashing back and forth from past to present—and even to the future (in Buddy’s chapters). The story begins in the present—June 1995—and ends on Labor Day, which may or may not be the day the world ends for one or more (or all) or the Telemachus family.

    In the first four chapters, Matty, Teddy, Irene, and Frankie introduce themselves and submerge us in their complicated lives. In July, we meet Buddy, who lives in a world in which past, present, and future time constantly swirl and mix in his mind. Buddy knows that something terrible is going to happen on Labor Day (aka Zap Day), and it’s up to him to save as many lives as possible.

     Gregory takes us inside each of the characters’ minds. Teddy struggles with the fact that he can no longer pick up a deck of cards, much less shuffle them in a way that will trick a mark into handing over his money. (The full story of Teddy’s tragic injuries to his hands is, tantalizingly, left untold until well into the story.) And then there’s Frankie, who has only a few vestiges of his former telekinetic powers and who is over his head in debt to the local mob. Irene, the human lie detector, has met a wonderful man, but she knows that he will eventually lie to her and she’ll know it immediately, so how can she make any romantic commitment to him? Fourteen-year-old Mattie, Irene’s son, is keeping a huge secret. Under certain erotic conditions, he can become an ephemeral spirit that can fly around looking down on his unconscious physical body and at anything and anyone else in the vicinity. He has no idea what’s going on and is terrified to ask any of his family members about it—mostly because he doesn't want to admit to anyone what triggers the episodes. 

     Buddy’s chapters are written in a stream-of-consciousness manner because that’s how Buddy thinks: “Buddy was in his own world, a high-gravity planet he left only with great difficulty.” The rest of the family has come to view Buddy as being on the edge of madness, but the truth is that he is living within three timelines—past, present, future—all at the same time, which would make anyone act a bit crazy.

     As each character’s story line meanders through the novel, it begins to connect with other characters’ story lines until all of the conflict is resolved during the crazy, action-filled final showdown scene that meets every expectation that Gregory had for it. By that time, the cast has expanded to include secretive, middle-aged government agents; a squad of Mafia goons; an ancient, pizza-making mob boss whose wardrobe and hair style still live in the 1970s; an attractive, run-away widow; and a gang of inquisitive kids. Add some explosives, and you’ve got yourself a finale that is definitely Shakespearean in scope. Can you think of another novel plot that hinges on a green cartoon lunch box and a plastic box containing a dead man's teeth?

     The rollicking plot, which can switch in the blink of an eye from pathos to hilarity to terror—travels along at a compelling pace, pulling the reader along from one catastrophe to the next. But what makes the book so readable is Gregory’s deep dive into the emotional effects of the psychic “gifts” (or curses) of each family member: Teddy's yearning for revenge, Irene’s bitter loneliness, Matty’s embarrassed confusion, Buddy’s surreal terror, and Frankie’s sweaty desperation.

     Gregory writes with crispness and snarky humor. Here are a few examples:  Teddy, an inveterate womanizer, explains why he picks up women in Dominick’s (a high-end grocery) rather than Jewel’s (a working-class store): “You go to the Jewel on a Tuesday afternoon…you get old women in shiny tracksuits looking for a deal, holding soup cans up to the light….In Dominick’s…it was still possible to find classy women, women who understood how to accessorize.” Later in the book, Irene has a job interview with “Amber the HR rep, a twentysomething nymph constructed entirely of freckles and positive attitude.” Irene drives a Festiva, “a car that won the award for most ironic distance between name and driving experience.”

     This novel has it all: charming, well-explored, layered characters; a quick-paced, exciting plot with just enough complexity to make it interesting, but not confusing; and a slam-bang ending that ties together all of the disparate story lines. It’s a winner that you shouldn’t miss.

     Click HERE to go to this novel’s page to read or listen to an excerpt by clicking in the clover art for print or the “Listen” icon for audio.

Daryl Gregory is the author of AfterpartyThe Devil’s Alphabet, and other novels for adults and young readers. His novella “We Are All Completely Fine” won the World Fantasy Award and the Shirley Jackson Award. He lives in Oakland, California. Click HERE to go to Gregory’s Wikipedia page for a bibliography of his works.

     Gregory also wrote the novel, Harrison Squared, which I reviewed back in 2015. The author is now working on the second and third novels in this trilogy and plans for them to hit the market in 2018. Click HERE to read my review of Harrison Squared. Here is an excerpt from that review: “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."

Monday, October 16, 2017


Author: Katherine Arden
Genre: Fantasy (based on Russian fairy/folk tales)
Publisher:  Del Rey 
     The Bear and the Nightingale (6/2017)
     The Girl in the Tower (12/2017)

This first entry in my ongoing review of the WINTERNIGHT TRILOGY begins with a brief overview of the series world-building followed by the publisher's blurb for The Bear and the Nightingale along with my review. I will add to this post as the remaining novels are published.

    The first thing you need to know is that Arden uses many Russian terms in her storytelling. Luckily for the reader, she includes a glossary to explain each one of them. Whenever I use any of those Russian words in this post, I will highlight it in orange. Whew, what a relief it was to find that glossary at the end of book one! 

     The series is set in the 14th century in northern Russia and focuses on the family of Pyotr Vladimirovich. Pyotr is a boyar—a member of the aristocracy  second in rank only to a prince—but he lives the same humble life style as his tenants. Arden includes extensive descriptions of the natural features of Pyotr's lands, particularly the forest, which is the favorite place for his youngest daughter, Vasilisa (aka Vasya) to wander. 

     Vasya is the heroine of the series—at least that is the case in the first novel, which follows her from her birth to her teen-age years. But Pyotr also provides a large group of richly developed secondary characters, both human and mythical/magical, with whom Vasya interacts. In fact, magic plays a major role in the series in the form of various creatures, including helpful spirits and guardians, evil demons, and even the dreaded upyry (Russian vampires). Although most of the villagers believe that these mythical creatures exist only in an invisible form, Vasya alone can actually see them and interact with them, a fact that she tries to keep hidden from her family and neighbors for fear of being labeled a witch.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Born in Austin, Texas, Katherine Arden spent a year of high school in Rennes, France. Following her acceptance to Middlebury College in Vermont, she deferred enrollment for a year in order to live and study in Moscow. At Middlebury, she specialized in French and Russian literature. After receiving her BA, she moved to Maui, Hawaii, working every kind of odd jobs imaginable from grant writing and making crêpes to guiding horse trips. Currently she lives in Vermont. For more information, click HERE to go to the "About" page on Arden's web site.

     Click HERE to read an online interview on the Unbound Worlds website in which Arden answers questions about Russian literature and The Bear and the Nightingale

                      NOVEL 1: The Bear and the Nightingale                   
   A magical debut novel for readers of Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, and Neil Gaiman’s myth-rich fantasies, The Bear and the Nightingale spins an irresistible spell as it announces the arrival of a singular talent with a gorgeous voice.

     At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasilisa doesn’t mind—she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil.

     After Vasilisa’s mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout and city-bred, Vasilisa’s new stepmother forbids her family from honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows.

     And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent.

     As danger circles, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed—this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.   

    The book begins in the depths of the Russian winter. Here is the opening sentence: "It was late winter in northern Rus', the air sullen with wet that was neither rain nor snow. The brilliant February landscape had given way to the dreary gray of March, and the household of Pyotr Vladimirovich were all sniffling from the damp and thin from six weeks' fasting on black bread and fermented cabbage." 

     As the family members huddle around the huge oven trying to keep warm, Dunya, the children's elderly nurse, tells them the tale of Frost, who is both an evil demon (called Morozko) and the god of death (called Karachun). Dunya's story is a folktale in which a villainous stepmother hates her husband's young daughter, Marfa, so much that she wishes her dead. After mistreating Marfa badly, the stepmother forces her husband to take Marfa deep into the snowy woods and leave her as an offering to Morozko, hoping that the girl will freeze to death. But Marfa charms Frost and he sends her home with many rich gifts. The stepmother is enraged and jealous so she insists that her husband take her own daughter, Liza, out into the woods and leave her in the snow, just as he did with Marfa. But Liza is rude to Frost so he leaves her to freeze to death. When the husband goes to retrieve Liza and brings back her frozen corpse, the wife drops dead with grief. This story comprises the entire first chapter, and you can be sure that it plays a huge part in the overall plot of the novel. You'll see it coming when Pyotr's wife, Marina, dies in childbirth early in the story only to be replaced a number of chapters later by a very unlikable stepmother.

     We soon learn that Vasya, the child who survived the birth that killed her mother, has inherited "the sight" from her mother's side of the family. In this rural, isolated countryside, people leave offerings of food and drink to the spirits or guardians of various places (for example, the hearth, the stable, the woods, the lake). But Vasya is the only one who can actually see those spirits and converse with them. By the time she realizes that people don't know who she is talking to when she speaks aloud to the spirits, most of the villagers believe that she is a witch (which, actually, she is). Vasya loves the forest and spends much of her childhood running off to talk with the spirits who live there, including the leshy (woodland spirit and protector of animals) and the rusalka (female water nymph).

     The story takes us through the seasons, with Arden providing enchanting descriptions of the natural changes of the land and life styles as the weather transitions from frigid to warm to hot and back to cold. She describes the many changes in the fields and forest as the years and the seasons pass and how those changes affect the lives of Pyotr Vladimirovich's family. 

     Arden divides the story into three parts. The first part introduces Pyotr's family, their complicated history, and the importance of the ancient spirits to the daily life of his people. Arden's realistic and touching descriptions of the interactions among the members of Pyotr's family are impressive, particularly the relationships among Vasya and her siblings: three brothers and a sister. Vasya's bond with her brother Alyosha is particularly close. Although they have their differences, they stand up for one another and have a deep familial bond.

     The second part adds complications to their peaceful life when Pyotr and his two oldest sons go off to Moscow, and he returns with a deeply unstable new wife named Anna. Soon thereafter, another new arrival adds even more turmoil: an arrogant new priest named Konstantin. Tension begins building as soon as they arrive when Anna immediately takes a deep dislike to Vasya. Then the priest begins to preach against the ancient spirits in emotional, hellfire-and-brimstone sermons calculated to frighten them into turning all of their attentions to the single God to whom he prays. Vasya refuses to join the other villagers in bowing only to Konstantin's God. She sees that the ancient spirits are fading away from neglect and that the crops are failing and the storms are destroying the land, so she speaks out against the priest's fear-mongering: "I am only a country girl...I have never seen...angels, or heard the voice of God. But I think you should be careful...that God does not speak in the voice of your own wishing. We have never needed saving before."

     Meanwhile, deep in the forest, Frost learns that a demon that he bound a century ago has awakened and is on the verge of breaking free. In the final section of the book, magic plays a much bigger role as Arden accelerates the action, amps up the suspense, and resolves most of the conflicts. Although there are some light-hearted moments in the first two sections, it is in the final section that Arden adds several truly funny moments (mostly in the form of snarky dialogue) to the drama and violence of the major showdown that brings the book to a close.

     This book doesn't exactly have an HEA ending. It's not sad (well, except that a few characters don't make it through to the end), but for Vasya, it's more like a question mark—a what's-coming-next kind of ending.

     Arden does a magnificent job of weaving together Russian folklore with the everyday elements of life in feudal Russia. Her descriptive language allows the reader to feel the cold and the rain, to smell the earth in the spring and summer fields, and to hear the leaves blowing in the wind. Here is a lovely description of the coming of fall: "Fall came at last to lay cool fingers on the summer-dry grass; the light went from gold to gray and the clouds grew damp and soft."

     Also impressive are Arden's realistic and touching descriptions of the interactions among the members of Pyotr's family, particularly Vasya and her siblings, three brothers and a sister. Vasya's bond with her brother Alyosha is particularly close. Although they have their difference, they stand up for one another and have a deep familial bond.

     I confess that I am not a big fan of fairy-tale fantasies set in ancient times, but this book drew me in immediately with its fantastical plot, layered characters, and slowly building suspense. Vasya is a terrific heroine—an independent young women in a culture that does not reward free-thinking females.

     Click HERE to read excerpts on Arden's web site with comments from the author. Click HERE to read or listen to excerpts on the novel's page by clicking either on the cover art for print or the "Listen" icon for audio. Click HERE for a reading guide to the novel on the publisher's web site.