What Are You Reading? Plus Meditations on Cliffhangers, and This Week’s Selection of Giveaways

“But Krymov was now in the grip of new impressions; he was walking on the earth of Stalingrad.”

Stalingrad

So ends Vasily Grossman’s magnificent Stalingrad, the “prequel,” as it were, to his even more magnificent Life and Fate. He originally intended them as a two-part work that would tell a complete story; due to the vagaries of publication, Stalingrad was published in the Soviet Union (under the title For a Just Cause) in the 1950s, while Life and Fate was published in the West in the 1980s. Stalingrad finally appeared in English translation for the first time this summer, in what was the Russian translation event of the year. So naturally I had to read it.

I could go on and on about how good it is, but I recommend reading it for yourself instead of taking my word for it. It’s a war novel, and a production novel, and a family drama, and a picture of Soviet life during the first part of WWII, when things were looking truly bleak for the USSR. Stalingrad ends, as you can see from the quote above, just as one of the main characters, finally sets foot in the city after retreating all the way from Kiev and receiving the “Not One Step Back” order to stop the Soviet retreat and hold the line at Stalingrad.

I’ve always loved this kind of ending, especially as, in this case, it concludes an early installment in a series. It’s very Romantic-with-a-Capital-R, as we see in the delightfully fragmented works of Pushkin, Lermontov, or “Odysseus’s Fate,” my favorite poem by Konstantin Batyushkov. I love the sudden opening of the narrative, the feeling that, just as you think the journey is over, a hidden vista has suddenly appeared on the horizon. They give so much space for the reader to create their own meaning, just when it seems that the author is about to collapse the storyline into one interpretation.

In other words, I’m an unashamed fan of what are commonly called cliffhangersadore encountering them in the novels that I read, and I love to incorporate them in my own books.

That being said, they have to be used with care. In the above example, it works so well in Stalingrad because 1) Krymov has been striving the entire book to get to Stalingrad, so his arrival is the resolution of that storyline as well as the beginning of a new storyline, about the actual Battle of Stalingrad, and 2) there’s a sequel.

Since I write stories that combine elements of mystery/thriller/suspense and romance, cliffhangers have to be approached with especial care. Both of those genres require a very specific kind of plot resolution. Mysteries have to end with the protagonist solving the main mystery, otherwise they’re not mystery stories, and romance novels have to end with the two main protagonists ending up together. No exceptions! Romance readers are very strict about this, as they should be. I mean, you can write a story about a failed romance, but it’s not a romance novel.

Of course, if you’re writing a series, the rules can be a bit looser, in that the resolution can happen at the end of the series rather than the end of each book. So in Robert Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike books, each book ends with a specific mystery being solved, but the ongoing romantic tension between the two characters only grows from book to book, without (yet) being resolved. In fact, the third book, Career of Evil, ends on a devilishly suspenseful moment.

In case you haven’t guessed, I’m a huge fan of the series. Have you read it? How do you think it compares with Harry Potter? I may actually prefer it to HP, although Harry will always hold a special place in my heart…

So in my own writing, I specifically sought to borrow techniques that I particularly enjoy from authors I particularly admire. Which means I resolve the main suspense/thriller/mystery conflict at the end of each of my Doctor Rowena Halley books, but then leave a little transitional moment at the very end that provides both resolution of the romantic subplot, and a cliffhanger-ish moment leading into the next book.

So in Campus Confidential,

(you see what I did there?)

Campus Confidential Front Cover Small

Speaking of Campus Confidential, KU subscribers should check out the Mysteries & Thrillers on Kindle Unlimited book event. Dozens of mysteries & thrillers, all free on KU, have been gathered together in one place for your perusing pleasure!

the main mystery and action scene are resolved, but I end with the hint that my protagonist Rowena *may* be starting a new romance.

In Permanent Position, the second book in the series, I up the cliffhanger stakes, ending with the following words (SPOILER ALERT!):

Permanent Position Front Cover

And if you haven’t yet picked up a free Advance Review Copy of Permanent Position, you can find it and dozens of other mysteries and thrillers in the Page Turning Mystery/Thriller Giveaway.

“But there, in amongst all the junk mail, was an email from Dima. Both the subject line and the body had the same, two-word message:

Forgive me.”

Like Krymov’s arrival in Stalingrad I quoted at the beginning of this post, this ending serves both as an end point and a beginning. A theme that runs through the entire novel is forgiveness and redemption. Dima’s request for forgiveness thus acts as the culmination of that thread of the story, while simultaneously opening up possibilities that until that moment had seemed closed. It’s literally a pivotal moment, causing the overall storyline of the series to pivot in a new direction at the “hinge” between two books.

Summer Session, the novella that comes right after Permanent Position, has a slightly less cliffhanger-y ending, but also has a kind of “hinge” moment in its final scene.

Summer Session Cover Small

If you haven’t yet gotten a free Advance Review Copy of Summer Session, you can get it and loads of other mystery shorts in the Summer Shorts! Giveaway.

Summer Session ends with the following conversation:

“Is that a promise?” I asked.

He grinned. “You bet.”

Again, it’s a resolution, but it’s a resolution that leaves a lot open. The juxtaposition of the words “promise” and “bet” suggest both certainty and uncertainty. The future, as Tom Petty would tell us, is actually wide open, even as the characters appear to be closing it down.

Wow! What a lot of writing! It’s fun to apply my carefully honed skills in close reading to my own works–until this moment I had never even *thought* about the “promise” and “bet” thing 🙂

But enough about that–what do you like to read? What are some books/series you’ve read recently that have really knocked your socks off?

And now for this week’s selection of giveaways:

Summer Thrills and Chills

The Summer Thrills & Chills Giveaway is still going strong!

Damsels who cause distress

Want to find a whole host of kickass heroines? Check out the Damsels Who Cause Distress Giveaway on StoryOrigin!

Back to School Special

School doesn’t have to be boring! Swing by the Back to School Special Giveaway to stock up on all your school-related reading.

 

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The End! The First Draft of “Trigger Warning” is Finished :) Sneak Peek Enclosed

It is finished! Despite some setbacks with my health, I typed those all important words “THE END” on the first draft of “Trigger Warning,” the 3rd book in the Doctor Rowena Halley series, Friday morning.

The End Trigger Warning

It seems like “Trigger Warning” has taken a very long time to write, even though I think I only spent about two months cranking out the bulk of it. But I’ve been planning it for over a year, and at 112k words, it’s a bit longer than the previous books, plus darker and scarier.

But never fear! Not only is there darkness and fear, there’s also ludicrousness and farcical humor. My goal for the series all along has been for it to be a kind of chiaroscuro piece, with humor and tragedy intertwined.

The particular inspiration for “Trigger Warning” was a semester last year at my own college, when several students died, including one in a gang shooting incident at a party. (For the record, my college is an upscale, elite institution where gang violence is a huge shock. But it still happened). At the same time, the thing that really got the administration’s undies in a bundle was a blog post by an anonymous group complaining about injustices on campus such as the disgraceful pay for janitorial staff. Special walk-in counseling sessions were set up in case students felt threatened. Add in some stuff about sorting students into Houses a la Harry Potter, as one place I interviewed at did, and the controversy about having faculty act as bellhops when students move in, as various places have started doing, and voila! Instant laugh/cry material.

It’ll be a while before I’ll have “Trigger Warning” ready for release, even in ARC form, but in the meantime, here’s a sneak peek of Chapter 10 to whet your appetite.

10

At 7:45 the next morning I was trotting across campus from the faculty parking behind the back quad to the main entrance in front of the front quad. In full regalia. It was a mere 75 degrees now, but temperatures were slated to rise another 20 degrees at least by noon. So a fine day to stand outside in ankle-length polyester robes and a velvet tam.

I stopped to adjust my hood. A purely ceremonial item, it was supposed to drape across my shoulders and hang down below my waist in the back. There was a little claspy thing in the front to hold it together and in place. But the little claspy thing was totally inadequate for the brisk pace I was setting, and the hood kept twisting around and slipping off.

“Rowena, right?” A middle-aged man in green Tulane robes stopped beside me to do some similar adjustments.

“Um, Keith, right? History?”

“You remembered! We must not be working you hard enough yet.”

“I suppose by some standards, standing around in academic regalia and welcoming incoming first years to their Hogwarts House wouldn’t count as ‘work’ at all. Not compared with cutting timber in a Siberian labor camp.”

Keith looked startled. “Oh, right, you’re the Russianist, aren’t you. I suppose that gives you a very…unique take on a lot of hardships. And you’re right, but my God. I voted against this nonsense when it came up last semester, and so did everyone else with even a grain of sense, but somehow we got overruled. I don’t even know how. I don’t know any faculty members who thought it was a good idea. But seems like our power is being eroded more and more every year. I’m sure a fiat came down on high from Recruitment and Admissions or Student Development or the Office of Babysitting and Spoonfeeding or whatever it’s called now, so here we are. I don’t see any of those people out here at the crack of dawn, prepared to spend the morning humiliating themselves and getting heatstroke.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Funny thing. And thanks, by the say. For agreeing to be Slytherin.”

Keith shrugged. “Whatever. I’ve never actually read the books, although my kids made me take them to one of the movies. But I have no emotional involvement in this BS.” He looked at me sideways. “I suppose you’re going to tell me they’re your favorite books in the world?”

“I’m a Russianist,” I said. “My favorite books in the world were all written in Russian. If you’re looking for something with magic in it, I recommend Master and Margarita. But these books are pretty good too, and the kids might get a kick out of this.”

“Yeah,” said Keith. “Too bad they’re here for a rigorous liberal arts education, not to get a kick out of seeing their professors cavort around in garish costumes. Oh, hey. Is this all of us?”

Mel, in her sky-blue Tar Heel getup, and Daniel, a gangly man from Political Science in bright yellow Johns Hopkins robes, were hurrying towards us. Mel had a stack of posterboard in her arms.

“Call me an overachiever, but I thought if we’re gonna do this, we should do this,” she said. “So I stopped by the store last night and got posterboard and markers. I figured we could make posters for each of the houses, with—and this is why we want to do this—instructions for how to find the correct entrance to the dorm that they’re supposed to use.”

“Oh, right,” said Keith. “We’re supposed to working as traffic cops as well. Does anyone remember where the little buggers are supposed to go?”

I pulled out the instructions that had been emailed to me, and which I had printed out on my own dime, since the email had come in after dinner the night before and I didn’t have access to the department printer/copier yet anyway. Somehow I had ended up in charge of this ill-advised venture, which was probably supposed to make me feel good about myself as a go-getter who was fitting in well with the campus community, but actually boded very ill for me as someone who was going to get press-ganged into doing this kind of stuff every semester, while getting harassed about my lack of productivity, or something like that.

“All first-year students are housed in Jackson Hall,” I said. I wondered if Jackson Hall was named after Andrew Jackson. So not a Confederate general, just a slave owner. Of course, in the US, as in Russia, pretty much anyone who had done anything worth naming a building after had been a slave owner. I wondered what future generations would say about us, and which of our actions would trigger outrage and furious revisions of history. I had my guesses, but there was just so much to choose from.

“Yeah, poor little kids,” said Keith. “That place has no air conditioning, and there are constant complaints about mold. But it’s tradition. Plus the college doesn’t have the money to renovate anything. It’s all going to hiring more Deans of Donations. Oh shit. Is that our first customer of the day?”

A car was pulling up to the entrance. It was decorated in crimson and cream streamers and balloons. A teenage face, barely visible behind all the braces and acne, stuck itself out the passenger side window.

“Whoa, this is awesome!” he said. “I’m Michael. Wait, am I supposed to tell you my House? That’s sooooo cool. Gryffindor.”

I bounded forward. “Great to meet you, Michael! I’m Professor Halley, the head of Gryffindor House, here to welcome you to Crimson College. First years are housed in Jackson Hall, and Gryffindors should check in at Entrance A. Which is, um…” I looked over at the others.

“Drive straight ahead and take a right at the T,” said Keith. “There will be signs leading you straight to Jackson Hall from there. Entrance A is the first entrance you’ll come to. There will be people there to direct you and help you unload your things.”

“Wow, really? This is incredible! Thank you guys so much! I think this is the best day of my life! Hey, are you professors? Any of you from Math?”

“No, but when you get to the dorm, ask around for Professor Irving and Professor Arlington. Oh, and I think Professor Li will be there too. They’re all from Math,” Keith told him.

“Whoa, thanks so much! Man, college is overfulfilling all my expectations already! Did you get that, Mom?”

Michael’s mom nodded, and, with an almost equally manic grin as her son, pulled past us and headed in the direction of Jackson Hall.

“Does anyone else feel like Goofy welcoming the kiddies to DisneyWorld?” asked Keith.

“Maybe a little,” I said.

“The sad thing is that this isn’t even the most humiliating thing I’ve ever done,” said Mel. “Not by a long shot. And hey, as I was telling Rowena yesterday, at least it’s not actual panhandling, which was what I thought I was going to be doing this fall. Still got me some extra posterboard, though, just in case I need that ‘Homeless Iraq Vet, Please Help’ sign after all. I figure if nothing else, this’ll be good practice for that. Okay, who likes to draw?”

It was quickly ascertained that the only person who liked to draw, or was even able to draw, was Mel herself. In short order she had turned out four very creditable posters, with the House logos and directions for check-in on each one.

“Yeah, whatever,” she said, when we remarked on how good the posters were. “I’m lefthanded and a lesbian. Of course I have artistic talent. Oh shit. Is that another student?”

An SUV large enough to raise the global temperature by at least half a degree all on its own was pulling through the gates. It, too, was decorated with crimson and cream streamers and balloons, but the excited teenage face looking out the passenger window was holding up a Ravenclaw sign that was almost as good as Mel’s.

“Guess this one’s mine,” she said. “Wish me luck!” And she danced up to the side of the car, waving her poster with enthusiasm that almost seemed real.

Stay tuned more more updates!

And now, this week’s selection of giveaways:

Summer Thrills and Chills

Check out a wide variety of free thrillers, suspense, fantasy, and horror in the Summer Thrills & Chills Giveaway, and register for a $25 gift cart to your favorite online retailer!

Sunshine & Smiles

Pick up some humorous women’s/contemporary fiction in the Sunshine & Smiles Giveaway!

Page Turning Mystery:Thriller

Get your thrill on with the Page Turning Mystery/Thriller Giveaway!

Women's Fiction Beach Reads

There’s still another week left in the Women’s Fiction Beach Reads Giveaway!

“Bloody Creek Murder” by Susan Clayton-Goldner #Mystery #NewRelease #BookReview

Bloody Creek Murder

Bloody Creek Murder

I’ve been following along the Winston Radhauser series since the beginning, and have been enjoying it more and more. In this, its sixth installment, the author does a particularly excellent job of combining mystery with family drama. The mixture both brings out the pathos of the interpersonal situation the characters find themselves in, and raising the tension surrounding the mystery.

In “Bloody Creek Murder,” Detective Radhauser is called in to investigate the death of prominent local actress Blair Bradshaw. The investigation seems to be going nowhere–except into a cold case that Radhauser has been trying to solve for the past ten years. I don’t want to say more in case of spoilers, but there are multiple crimes and tragedies in the story, all of which come together, one way or another, in the figure of Blair.

As in the previous books in the series, “Bloody Creek Murder” is a murder mystery, but one with a lot of heart. It will appeal to many fans of detective stories, although it is neither gritty nor cozy, so readers who demand a strict adherence to those genre tropes may not enjoy it. Because it’s also a family story, it will likely appeal to many fans of family dramas, as well as contemporary literary fiction. Recommended for readers who are looking for a well-written mystery story with a bit of a difference.

My thanks to the author for providing a review copy of this book. All opinions are my own.

Pick up a copy on Amazon here.

On Accidents and Accents: Narrating My Books

I hope everyone is enjoying the hot weather! Unless you’re Down Under, in which case I hope you’re enjoying the cold weather. I’ve always wanted to go Down Under and spend a while visiting Australia and New Zealand. Maybe someday I’ll get that chance. Maybe as part of the round-the-world trip by boat I keep fantasizing about. Crossing the oceans by boat would be a way of circumnavigating the globe while significantly reducing the carbon footprint of doing so, plus I’ve developed a significant aversion to flying in the past decade or so. It recently occurred to me that maybe it has something to do with the fact that planes are full of chemicals (I have multiple chemical sensitivity) and probably also mold (because they’re carpeted). Not sure if boats would be much better, but…

Wait, what does this have to do with writing? Nothing, so let’s move on.

As you know if you’ve been following along with these posts (and if you’re new here, then welcome!), I’v been podcasting my stories from the Doctor Rowena Halley series.

Listen to the latest episode on iTunes here.

The plan is eventually to make audiobooks out of them. The podcast has been a good, if occasionally frustrating, way to figure out the technical aspects and try out different narration techniques.

Recording studio

One iteration of my home recording studio, shortly before it collapsed, terrifying my Chihuahua and nearly taking out my computer–hence the “accidents” in the post title.

At the moment, I’m trying to rest up my voice after accidentally messing up my throat yesterday by trying to do voices for the male characters. I always found it annoying when narrators did silly (in my opinion) voices for the different characters, with their parodic accents and (shudder!) that horrid high-pitched, breathy sound when male narrators affect a female voice. As I say in Campus Confidential, that sound pretty much always marks the person being imitated as an idiot.

But, I discovered, it is very helpful to do something to mark the different characters as different while narrating dialogue. Doing the Russian characters was no problem: one thing I certainly do know how to do is a Russian accent, although it’s rather better in Russian than in English.

Things got more complicated when I started narrating other characters. The one that’s given me the most trouble so far is Rowena’s brother John. Obviously he should have some kind of a markedly masculine voice. And a bit of a Southern accent.

Well, I thought, I should be able to do a Southern accent. After all, I am from the South. Once upon a time I even had an accent, before I, like Rowena, suppressed it ruthlessly. Now it’s firmly repressed, and my regular accent is standard educated American, with a side of English (I used to live in England). My regular speaking voice has become quite posh, as I discovered with surprise when I started listening to recordings of myself.

But, lurking under all that, there is, it turns out, a Southern accent, one that was more than ready to come out once I had coaxed it to the surface. Now I’m finding it bursting forth at unexpected moments. Once I’m done narrating Permanent Position

Permanent Position Front Cover

If you haven’t yet picked up a free Advance Review Copy of Permanent Position, you can snag one in the Fierce Feminist Fiction book giveaway on Bookfunnel.

I’m going to have to go back to suppressing it ruthlessly.

Unfortunately, my native Southern accent is from Western Kentucky. So while John should have a Georgia drawl, what keeps coming out is more of a Midsouth twang. But whatever. At least it is a more or less authentic Southern accent, which is more than I can say about a lot of the “Southern” accents you hear on TV. But don’t get me started on that…

Next stop: Arabic and Persian accents! Now that will be a challenge!

You can listen to the podcast (with some but not all of the glorious accents I plan to deploy for the actual audiobooks) on iTunes, SoundCloud, Stitcher, and TuneIn.

And here’s this week’s selection of book giveaways!

Women's Fiction Beach Reads

Make an escapist getaway with the Women’s Fiction and Chick Lit Beach Reads giveaway!

Satire Giveaway

Get your rebel on and tickle your funny bone with the Politically Incorrect Satire giveaway!

Sizzling Suspense Banner

Celebrate the heat with the Sizzling Summer Suspense Stories giveaway!

“Y is for Yesterday” by Sue Grafton

Y is for Yesterday

Reading “Y is for Yesterday” was a bittersweet experience. Having recently rediscovered my love for the Kinsey Millhone series, which was foundational for my discovery of the mystery genre back in the 90s, it was hard to read what I knew would be the last book in the series. But at the same time, I could be grateful for having gotten 25 of these delightful stories.

The good news, especially given that there will be no Z book, is that Grafton wraps up an important plot thread here. The story with Ned Lowe, which started in “X,” comes to its creepy conclusion here, so if you’ve been waiting with baited breath to find out what happens there, wait no longer. It’s truly scary, so be warned.

Some readers may not be fans of Grafton’s comparatively slow-paced plotting and use of detail, but for those of us who do enjoy it, “Y is for Yesterday” continues with the excellent character development and worldbuilding (to borrow a term from fantasy) that have so marked out Grafton’s series. Kinsey and her friends (and enemies) feel like real people inhabiting a real place. There’s not a lot of fantasy or wish fulfillment here–Kinsey is still single and, despite having a fair amount of money in the bank, taking on low-level PI jobs while living in her same old studio apartment–but there is an intense sense of reality and groundedness that make the series irresistible.

Grafton’s prose style is, as always, deceptively spare and straightforward, so that she builds a real world with some well-chosen details, simply described. If you’re a long-time fan, you’ll probably enjoy this book, and if you’ve just discovered the series, I sincerely hope you will too (otherwise I’ll have some grave doubts about your literary taste), although you might want to do yourself a favor and go all the way back to “A is for Alibi.”

Buy it on Barnes and Noble or Amazon.

“Fardwor, Russia!” by Oleg Kashin

Fardwor, Russia!

Oleg Kashin is one of those people you’d probably only find in Putin’s Russia. An ardent opposition journalist who was severely beaten for his statements and who has subsequently spent much of his career abroad, Kashin walks a line somewhere between freedom and non-freedom, between bravely standing up for his convictions and just being a crank. The existence of writers like him shows both how far freedom of the press has come in Russia over the past few decades, and how far yet it still has to go before becoming truly free.

“Fardwor, Russia!” which was completed shortly before Kashin’s infamous assault, also walks some kind of a line. It’s a bizarre tale of contemporary political satire, with a side of science fiction and magic realism. Fans of Russian literature will recognize it as being one in a long line of such works produced by Russian authors struggling to describe the surreal situations in which their society found itself. “Fardwor, Russia!” is more than a little reminiscent of Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Fatal Eggs,” but if anything even zanier.

The plot is simple–but it isn’t. Karpov, a scientist, has created a serum that causes creatures to grow. He uses it on a couple of human midgets before branching out into agricultural animals, and then finally human children. The consequences for all are disastrous.

The writing style of the book is somewhere between exuberant and…over-exuberant, let’s say. The plot moves at a breathless pace, hurried along by Kashin’s use of incredibly convoluted sentences. Although Russian sentences tend in general to be rather more interesting than the bland, over-simplified structure that has become the stultifying rage in American prose over the last century, Kashin’s style is particularly unrestrained. English-language readers unused to the experience of reading in Russian may feel as if they’ve been whacked in the head as they try to follow along.

Speaking of stylistic things, the translation varies between brilliant and wobbly, and the editing of the book leaves a little to be desired. While I’m thrilled to see all these small presses putting out translations of contemporary Russian authors, I’ve noticed that the production values of these editions tends to be on the low side. “Fardwor, Russia!” isn’t terrible in that regard, but it could have used another round of close reading by a copy editor to pick up the occasional stray typo and make decisions about the consistent use of Russian vs. Ukrainian spelling for the Ukrainian names in the book.

Those nitpicking issues aside, I do recommend this book to anyone interested in reading some contemporary Russian fiction and trying to understand the current zeitgeist of a certain aspect of Russian society. Russian literature has expressed itself and its society through the use of the absurd at least since the time of Gogol; in “Fardwor, Russia!” Kashin is continuing that line.

Buy it on Barnes and Noble or Amazon.

“The Innocence of Father Brown” by G.K. Chesterton

The Innocence of Father Brown

I recently began watching the “Father Brown” series on Netflix and was utterly charmed by it (I *do* have a fondness for British detective stories, both cozy and gritty), so when I saw that there was a deal on the audiobook version of “The Innocence of Father Brown,” I snapped it up.

Father Brown, for those of you who don’t know him, is a rather unprepossessing Roman Catholic priest who happens to be brilliant at solving mysteries. While the TV show has been transplanted to the 1950s, the original stories must take place sometime in the 1920s, and are full of period charm–and what these days we would call the “problematic” nature of that period’s characterizations. But such is life. If you only read works from your own era, you’ll never really challenge yourself and your mindset. If nothing else, reading things from earlier eras should make you ask yourself what will horrify people fifty or a hundred years down the road when they read *our* cultural artifacts.

The mysteries themselves have that slightly over-the-top coziness and cunning of early British mystery stories, in which the hero makes incredibly clever deductions to solve wildly improbable and extremely complicated mysteries. While there’s plenty of murder, the actual gore quotient is low. So if you’re a fan of that style of mystery, you’re likely to enjoy these.

The mysteries are good fun, and Father Brown is a singular character, but what really sets these stories apart is Chesterton’s way with words. The stories are sprinkled with sparkling gems of poetry or pithy humor. Reading them in textual form would no doubt be delightful, but I also enjoyed Frederick Davidson’s narration, which allowed the underlying brilliance of the text to shine through, while adding to it through the use of different accents and character voices. A charming mystery experience all around.

Buy the book at Barnes and Noble or Amazon.