Wednesday, November 4, 2015

November Book Review Club: THE BOOK OF SPECULATION

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@Barrie Summy

We have exactly one tree left with leaves on it, so I guess it's time to admit that the Reading Season is upon us. Not to mention the Festive Holiday Madness. Here's a possibility for either or both, although with some reservations. 

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By Erika Swyler
St. Martin’s Press, 2015

First-person narration can be a risky business.  The narrator has to do more than just tell the story—he has to share bits of himself along the way, endear himself to us even if he’s a villain. A reader has to be willing to invest a chunk of time in this person.

Never in all my days did I expect to enjoy a novel with an essentially bland protagonist/narrator who learns next to nothing from events. THE BOOK OF SPECULATION is just such a novel—rife with good stuff that I really loved, but a struggle to get through at times because the narrator was just so colorless.

My man bought it for my birthday, having listened to it on tape while painting. “This is what you would write if you wrote for adults,” he told me.

Thank you, schnookums. I think.

In many, many ways, this is a fascinating, beautifully written book. When we meet Simon Watson, he’s a lonely reference librarian in a small town far out on Long Island. He’s about to lose his job and erosion is about to send his lifelong home tumbling into Long Island Sound. He is stymied, unwilling to move because the house is the only place his younger sister, an emotionally unstable itinerant circus performer, can really call home. But he can’t afford to shore up the bluff and save the place.

Out of the blue, an antiquities dealer in Iowa sends him a 200-year-old book, the diary/financial ledger of a traveling circus owner called Hermilius Peabody. Written in it is the name of Simon’s grandmother, a circus performer who apparently had the book in her possession for a while.

Simon’s curious but not that fascinated until he sees the 1816 notation of a woman’s drowning—on July 24, the exact date when his mother left her children in the bluff-top house and walked into the Sound, never to return. 

Curiosity becomes obsession, and we follow Simon as he does what a research librarian does best, tracking down names and dates and making connections between them. We learn that the women in his family have always had an uncanny ability to hold their breath under water, and for generations have worked as water-tank “mermaids,” sideshow attractions in traveling circuses.

Simon’s mother was a mermaid when his father fell in love with her. He and his sister, Enola, inherited the ability. 

Enola works as a fortune-teller rather than a mermaid.  Nevertheless, Simon is horrified when she unaccountably is drawn to revisit their seaside home in July.  He finds evidence of more drownings on the 24th. The clock starts ticking—can he figure out what’s going on before the fateful date?

The book alternates Simon’s narrative with the tale of Hermilius Peabody and his circus, told in third person. Hand-drawn tarot cards come into play, along with infestations of horseshoe crabs and weird meteorological events. The metaphysical logic never gets spelled out, but who cares. It’s marvelous.

Here’s the  thing: I found myself heaving a resigned sigh whenever Simon took back the narration. The chapters set in the 1800s are as textured and richly colored as a Persian rug. The modern chapters are beige vinyl floor tiles.  

There are stirring events all over the place, and Simon’s modern situation gets worse and worse in lively fashion. He tells us he’s upset and worried about it all, but we never feel it, or at least I didn’t. He does stuff, but his actions seem vague and indirect, never precise in their attack.  As a result, even the July 24 situation lacks the suspense it should have.

The other characters in Simon’s life are interesting, especially his sister and her circus boyfriend, who can turn lightbulbs on by touching them. But you never get deep enough, or even glean enough facts, to understand them or root for them.

In the 1800s, I rooted for everyone—I kept wishing the whole novel was back there.  Swyler may be more comfortable and interested writing about the past.

I hope her next novel stays there.

(Dear FCC: As stated above, I got this book for my birthday. For the record, I don't actually call the man "schnookums".) 

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

October Book Review Club: THE NIGHT GARDENER

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@Barrie Summy

I just spent a fun and funny week touring Oklahoma and Arkansas with Book Review Club members Barrie Summy, Jody Feldman, and Stacy Nyikos. And, boy, was it a hoot! (Pix are here.) 
Now I'm home, the leaves are turning, and Halloween's around the corner. Here's a book to scare you silly.

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By Jonathan Auxier
Amulet Books, 2014

First sign of a stellar middle-grade novel: You find yourself wanting to reach in and give the main character a good shake. “Wise up!” you whisper, hoping she hears.

I’m looking at you, Molly.

In Jonathan Auxier’s amazing THE NIGHT GARDENER, red-haired Irish waif Molly and her younger brother Kit have lost their parents at sea, stolen a fish cart and a horse called Gallileo, and set off across cold, wet rural England seeking employment. Molly is fourteen, but has lied about her age to get a referral to the Windsor household.

We learn on page one that the Windsors live in a place called “the sour woods,” and that everyone has been telling the waifs that they’re “riding to their deaths.” We feel this might be ominous.  
But Auxier instantly establishes Molly as A Girl Who Handles Things. Her younger brother is sick and they’re both starving. Despite the elaborate kidnapping tale Molly tells Kit, their parents are almost certainly dead. They need this job to survive, and Molly’s more than a match for any evil influence.

Or so we think.

The Windsor mansion proves to be a sagging wreck covered in black moss, with a giant, ill-favored tree growing right into its walls. The denizens—Constance, Bertrand, and their children Penny and Alistair—have dull, dark hair, pale skin, and dead-soul eyes. Constance has to be strong-armed into hiring Molly and Kit—“This house is no place for you,” she says—and in the end she insists that Kit, at least, will sleep in the stable rather than the house. Is she being snooty, or does she have their best interests at heart?

Well, let’s see. There’s an ominous locked door at the top of the stairs which proves to have one of the tree’s knots imbedded in the wall. Every morning, muddy footprints and dead leaves cover the house—Molly wakes from a nightmare to find them in her room.

The nightmares plague her every night. If she wakes up, she hears the moans of the house’s other sleepers, trapped in their own torments. Also thudding footsteps.

Hey, is her red hair getting darker and duller?

Molly! Wise UP!

This is one of the creepiest books I’ve read in a while. But it’s also lovely, dark, and deep, examining the nature of greed, the benefits of death, what stories do for us, and the difference between stories and lies. “A story helps folks face the world, even when it frightens ’em,” Molly figures out. “And a lie does the opposite. It helps you hide.” 

I got a little tired of Molly and Kit’s constant droppin’ of terminal “g’s,” and I could take or leave the fact that they’re Irish immigrants—it seems like an extraneous detail, inserted here and there for no particular reason.

Otherwise, this is a near-perfect book, the kind of rich reading experience that makes me glad there are middle-grade novelists like Auxier. I never read his first book, PETER NIMBLE AND HIS FANTASTIC EYES, and now I plan to. You should too.

Dear FCC: I got this book out of the Blue Hill Public Library. I had to reserve it, because people in Blue Hill, Maine, still are clamoring to read THE NIGHT GARDENER even though it’s been out for more than a year. Nobody paid me to read it. In fact, I bet somebody would have bribed me for my place in line.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

June Book Review Club: One Crazy Summer

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@Barrie Summy

The only thing crazy about summer this year is how long it's taken to arrive, at least here in Maine. Ah, but 1968--that was a summer. Reading about it has eased the wait. 

Speaking of summer, the Book Review Club is taking a couple of months off. See you in September, and have a sane one. (Unless you'd prefer otherwise.)

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By Rita Williams-Garcia
Harper Collins/Amistad, 2010

The year after it came out, ONE CRAZY SUMMER won a National Book Award Nomination and three of the American Library Association’s top awards: A Newbery Honor, the Coretta Scott King Award, and the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction.

This gives rise to two questions: 1. Is the book worth all the hoopla? And 2. When did my teen years turn into historical fiction?

Answers: Yes, and I’m going back to bed now.

When I was a kid in New England, somebody said “Black Panthers” and you thought of a raised fist. In recent years, starting (for me) with Kekla Magoon’s THE ROCK AND THE RIVER, the Panthers have gotten more credit for the community service work that went hand-in-hand with their political activism. ONE CRAZY SUMMER is welcome in that respect, but it’s a gem because of its story and its richly varied cast of characters.

Our narrator, eleven-year-old Delphine Gaither, is the oldest of three girls. She’s the only one who has even hazy memories of their mother, Cecile, who walked out on her Brooklyn, NY, family just after the birth of Fern, now seven, and when nine-year-old Vonetta was a toddler. Supposedly, Cecile was upset that she wasn’t allowed to name Fern “Afua”—at least, that’s the family mythology.

Names are important in this book. Delphine is disturbed that she doesn’t really know where hers came from. Her story makes it clear that you can always choose your own.

In the summer of 1968, over his live-in mother’s objections, Delphine’s father decides that his three girls should get to know their mother, a poet who now lives in Oakland, CA. Mindful of her grandmother’s strictures, Delphine does her best to make sure her young sisters behave well on the plane—white territory—lest they disgrace their entire race.

Cecile, it turns out, has no desire to get to know her daughters and certainly no desire to behave well. Grudgingly leading them from the airport with her “man-sized strides,” she takes them home to an empty house whose kitchen is off limits to everyone except her. Sent out to buy Chinese take-out, the kids eat on the floor and next morning are bundled out the door to find their own way to the Black Panthers’ community center, where they and other kids get fed and learn about the Panthers’ philosophy.

Delphine is her mother’s match. One day, worried about her sisters’ health, she uses the take-out money to buy chicken and vegetables, and barges into her mother’s kitchen to make a real dinner. She finds a kitchen table covered with printing equipment—Cecile, known to the Panthers as “Nzila,” is their printer as well as a poet. The police have their eye on her, and the situation is about to become even more uneasy for the three girls.

Delphine is an observant, sometimes lyrical yet cool-eyed narrator, only occasionally losing her sang-froid. She has all a young girl’s preoccupations and fears—even a charming little crush—and doesn’t completely understand everything she’s told. Her rendition of her little sisters is a wonderful meld of annoyance, love, and insight—those two little girls are lucky to have her looking out for them.

We only learn at the end of the book how much Delphine has yearned for the mother whose toughness she inherited.

Cecile is not a nice mother, and if you’re hoping she becomes one you should read something else. She’s tough for good reason, and she had good reasons for leaving her family, although a nice mother might have ignored them. Her daughters, especially Delphine, have not fallen far from the tree—each has her own version of Cecile’s stiff back. And yet by the end of the story they begin to look into one another’s eyes. And that’s more than enough.

The one bumpy spot (for me) is the moment when seven-year-old Fern takes the mike at a “free Huey Newton” rally to recite a poem she wrote outing Crazy Kelvin, an unpleasant Panther she saw hobnobbing with the police. I had trouble believing a seven-year-old would have that kind of political insight, although maybe I just don’t hang around enough seven-year-olds who’ve spent weeks being schooled in politics.

I did love the poem, though. Here’s my favorite line: “The policeman says, ‘Good puppy.’/Crazy Kelvin says ‘Arf. Arf.’”

ONE CRAZY SUMMER now has two much-celebrated sequels: P.S. BE ELEVEN (2013) and GONE CRAZY IN ALABAMA (2015). I can’t wait to catch up with the Gaither girls.

Dear FCC: I got sick of not having read this book. So I bought it. Nobody cares.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

May Book Review Club: The Silkworm

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@Barrie Summy

I'm sure the rest of you are outside soaking in the sun, but here in Maine we're only just starting to think about retiring the storm door and putting up the screens. Nevertheless, it's never too early to think about beach reading. So here's a likely candidate.

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By Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)
Mulholland Books, Little Brown & Co, 2014

No matter what she calls herself, J.K. Rowling knows how to write a page-turner. She can wield a stiletto, too.

Even back in the Harry Potter years, it was clear Rowling had no use for the press. (Looking at you, Rita Skeeter.) She made that clear yet again in THE CUCKOO’S CALLING, the first crime novel she wrote as Robert Galbraith. This time around, she skewers the publishing industry—with humor and perhaps a tad more fondness. Perhaps. A tad.

Like all her other books, THE SILKWORM is rich in intriguing, compelling characters, starting with the protagonist, private detective Cormoran Strike. An Afghanistan vet who lost half a leg to an IED, he is the illegitimate (but acknowledged) son of a mega-rock-star and lives in a low-rent but scrupulously tidy room over his office. He’s tormented by his ex-girlfriend, a gorgeous party girl who’s about to marry a lord.

It’s not exactly groundbreaking for a crime novel to feature a crusty, damaged, slightly soggy gumshoe who’s perpetually short of cash. The thing is, though, Strike’s a nice guy. Despite its best efforts, life has made him only a skeptic, not a cynic. He fires clients because they’re creeps, takes them on because they need him. He’s a terrible businessman. I’d have a beer with him in a heartbeat.

Nor is it unusual for a gumshoe to have an admiring gal-Friday. But Cormoran’s sidekick, Robin, is as endearing as he is. Taken on as an office temp in the first book, she succumbs to a lifelong, latent fascination with crime detection and stays on for good. This time around, she’s trying to persuade Strike and her unpleasant fiancĂ© that she should be less of a secretary and more of an assistant detective. She’s a marvelous combination of clear-eyed realist (except about the fiancĂ©) and pie-eyed enthusiast.

Of course, there’s romantic tension between Strike and Robin. Part of you knows how cheesy that is. The rest of you is on tenterhooks.

Populating the rest of the book is a rogue’s gallery of waspish publishers, editors, writers, and agents, each of them happiest when someone else gets a miserable review. Our corpse is one of them—Owen Quine, a formerly ground-breaking novelist looking for a comeback with a satire on his industry, his disagreeable characters standing in for real rivals, friends, and lovers. Quine’s murder reflects the bizarre fate of his protagonist, and since the novel isn’t published yet that narrows the field of suspects to those who might have seen the manuscript.

The book’s title is Bombyx Mori, after a silkworm that is boiled alive in its cocoon in order to produce silk. (Side note: I’m never buying silk again.)

The police arrest Mrs. Quine, who already had hired Strike to find her missing husband. Our man feels sorry for her and her mentally disabled daughter, so sets out to prove her innocent.

In the best tradition of crime novels, huge complications end in satisfying simplicity. The murderer’s revelation is a surprise (at least to me, and I have to admit I’m easy), yet makes perfect sense afterwards.

With beach-reading season coming on, this one belongs in your sandy satchel.

(Dear FCC: This was a Christmas present. Sadly, J.K. Rowling doesn’t give two hoots what I think of her book.)

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Book Review Club: April 2015

By Rachel Hartman
Random House Children's Books, 2012 & 2015

The cover of SERAPHINA has been haunting me ever since the book came out in July 2012. A wood-block print in oddly lovely colors! With a gracefully swooping dragon!  And a medieval-looking city! What was stopping me?

Time, inertia, and brain-cramp, apparently. Also good luck, because if I’d read it in 2012 I would have had to wait two and a half years for the sequel. A couple of weeks ago, someone reminded me of SERAPHINA just as I was feeling mournful about not having an all-absorbing fantasy to read. When I finished it, mournful yet again, I discovered that the sequel came out this very month.

SHADOW SCALE came to a conclusive end for Seraphina, so now I'm worried that there won't be another book set in this world. Talk about mournful.

To state it plainly, I adored these books. I'm not alone: SERAPHINA earned a gazillion starred reviews, won YALSA's Morris Award for best debut novel, was long-listed for the Carnegie Medal, and was a finalist for the 2012 Governor General's Award (the author is Canadian).

Trouble with reviewing the two books is that the surprises emerge early and often. Watching them unfold is such a tremendous pleasure that I don't want to spoil it for anyone. So I’ll be vague.

The first book is set in the nation of Goredd, which has a decades-long but uneasy truce with the dragons of Tanamoot, the mountainous country just to the north. The dragons have learned to assume human form, and some of them live side-by-side with the humans in Goredd.

Factions in both human and draconic society are trying to undermine the peace, and human-shaped dragons (called saarantrai) often are harassed in Goredd. They're made to wear bells so the natural humans can tell the difference. (Brrr. )

Our heroine, Seraphina, is an extraordinarily gifted musician, assistant to the court composer in Goredd's capital city. She has a dangerous secret, which we learn early on so we can suffer with her as she tries to keep it under wraps. After a member of the royal family is killed, apparently by a dragon, she becomes enmired in the effort both to find the murderer and to save the human-draconic treaty. 

SHADOW SCALE takes Seraphina out of Goredd to explore neighboring states—I won't say why—in a magnificent feat of world-building. This world is diverse in every way I can think of: Various skin colors,  religions, and sexual preferences, various national penchants for racism, tolerance, gloom, joy, math or music.

My favorite state, Porphyria, has six genders in its language: naive masculine and feminine, emergent masculine and feminine, cosmic neuter, and point neuter. (Cosmic neuter is for gods, eggplant, and strangers.) (Yes, there’s humor.) At one point, we meet a woman who started life as a man, requiring Seraphina to follow Porphyrian custom and ask “How may I pronoun you?” Emergent feminine, she's told. I want to live in Porphyria.

On the other hand, gays in Goredd are called Daanites, after a saint who was martyred for that reason, along with his lover. They're not closeted, but they're not entirely accepted, either.

Inhabiting this complex, exciting world are characters to match, starting with Seraphina herself. She’s necessarily cautious and secretive, but also feisty and smart, with an inner life complicated and enriched by the demands of her Big Secret. She makes big mistakes. She has an unwise love interest. But her spirit and courage keep her moving forward anyway.

Her music tutor, a dragon, is a gorgeous character (as are all dragons, actually). Dragons are analytical and emotionless in their natural form, but when they’re human they’re subject to human tastes and emotions, which upsets and fascinates them. Obviously there’s comic potential here, but also the potential for insight: What is emotion, other than an inconvenience? What is its function in our lives?

A further insight: The villain who controls minds is far more terrifying than any monster that threatens us physically. I will say no more.

Because you gotta read these books.

(Dear FCC: I bought these books with my own money. You should, too.) 

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Book Review Club: March 2015

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@Barrie Summy

Sorry I missed last month--there was the small matter of a slip on the ice and a broken hip. This month, feet up, my only recreation is reading. There are worse fates. 

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By Jacqueline Woodson
Penguin/Nancy Paulson Books, 2014
Ages 10 and up

Whatever you do, don't tell a potential young reader that BROWN GIRL DREAMING is a book in verse. (WHY do so many of us think poetry will be boring?) If the kid picks up the book and freaks out at the unusual amount of white space, say “Just read one page.” You'll probably end up with a poetry fan on your hands.

From page one:

I am born not long from the time
or far from the place
my great-great-grandparents
worked the deep rich land
dawn till dusk
drank cool water from scooped out gourds
looked up and followed
the sky's mirrored constellation
to freedom.

I am born as the South explodes ….

Seriously, kid, how can you resist? Give this book a chance.

BROWN GIRL DREAMING won the National Book Award and a Newbery honor—with good reason. It's gem-like, heartwarming, funny, sad, sneaky, inspiring, and addictive. You may very well read it in one sitting, although you'll want to re-read it. These poems live and breathe.

Full disclosure: There's not a lot of action, and as I read I kept wondering if I would have objected to that at age 10.  (I so hope I wouldn’t have.)

Nor is this a polemic on race relations in the '60s and beyond, although it certainly offers insights. (Most chilling: If you were leaving South Carolina and your skin was brown, you had to go at night to avoid being stopped and beaten.) I’m praying the book's title won’t relegate it to the sixth grade civil rights unit—kids should be free to love it in its own right.

BROWN GIRL DREAMING is the epitome of “show don't tell”—not so much a factual memoir as a direct experience of American girlhood, regardless of race and almost regardless of era. Being sketched in verse somehow heightens the impact.

It's got everything: sibling rivalry, hair, school troubles, an uncomfortable religion, the pros and cons of a dominant family, the death of a beloved grandfather, the fear that your best friend has found someone she likes better.

Also a mother sneaking out in white gloves to sit at a segregated lunch counter. But the best friend makes more of an impression.

The first controversy in young Jackie's life is that her father wants to name her “Jack,” after him. “Name a girl Jack/and people will look at her twice, my father said.” (To his annoyance, the women insist on Jacqueline.) Also, she's the family's second daughter: “... My older brother takes one look/ inside the pink blanket, says,/ Take her back. We already have one of those.”

Later, when mother and children have gone to live with the South Carolina grandparents, leaving Jack behind in Ohio, the father's absence is “like a bubble in my older brother's life,/ that pops again and again/into a whole lot of tiny bubbles/of memory.”

The South Carolina poems are idyllic—breezes are fragrant, the family so strong that its members simply rise above the fact that it's not safe to shop at Woolworth's or ride in the front of the bus, regardless of the law. When the scene shifts to Brooklyn, Jackie begins to experience universal growing pains: difficulties in school (especially following a brilliant older sister), a mother who's just a tad stricter than most, a church (Jehovah's Witnesses) that makes the Woodson kids walk out on birthday celebrations at school.

But also there are joys: A Puerto Rican best friend whose family absorbs Jackie and feeds her arroz con pollo; the dawning realization that, despite her school troubles, she is destined to be a writer.

Sprinkled in between the longer poems are numbered three-liners called “How to Listen.” Here's #9:

Under the back porch
there's an alone place I go
writing all I've heard.

Thank heavens for that alone place, and for this beautiful book.

Dear FCC: I got an autographed copy of this book because I donated to We Need Diverse Books. Which we do.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Book Review Club: January 2015

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@Barrie Summy

Happy New Year! Barrie Summy, fearless leader of the Book Review Club, reports that as a group we published NINETY reviews last year. If you're looking for a good book to while away the winter nights, click the icon above and all will be well.

By Christina Baker Kline
William Morrow, 2013

The past leaves its taint, but it can offer redemption.

Also, move over David Copperfield.

Tough call, which of my Christmas books to read first. I ended up going with ORPHAN TRAIN simply because I’d been seeing it around for a full year and it had been nagging at me. It was the right choice for post-holiday recovery—absorbing, harrowing in its quiet way, not GAME OF THRONES but not—praise heaven—“It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Molly Ayer, 17, a prickly goth, has gotten used to being abandoned on the rock-hard face of the world. A serial foster child, her father dead and her mother a drug addict, she’s now in the Spruce Harbor, Maine, home of Ralph and Dina, who argue loudly about whether to keep her.

Vivian Daly, 91, also knows the world’s rocky face. An Irish immigrant, she lost her impoverished family to a New York tenement fire in 1929, and was sent west on a train full of orphans to be handed over to anyone who wanted them. Her future, like that of her fellow travelers, was a craps shoot: Maybe she’d find a nice family who treated her like a child, or maybe she’d be a nine-year-old hired hand, over-worked, unloved, barely kept alive.  She lost the bet at first, facing first a sweat shop, then a desperately poor, abusive household before finally finding a safe (if constrictive) home.

Having attempted to steal the local library’s third and most ragged copy of Jane Eyre, Molly has been assigned to fifty hours of community service. Her boyfriend gets her a gig with Vivian, his mother’s employer. After school and on weekends, Molly will help Vivian sort through the eighty years’ worth of memorabilia in her attic.

The story alternates between third person for Molly’s story and first person for Vivian’s recollections, which dominate and horrify. For all the sadness and mistreatment Molly has experienced, her troubles pale before the often Dickensian fate of an orphan in the 1930s. Like David Copperfield, Vivian sees humanity in all its cruelty and degradation before finally landing in a caring home, where a change of name signals a new destiny.

Vivian’s troubles are not over, however. Scarred and numbed by her past, she can’t embrace life. Like Molly, she’s built walls that protect but also isolate.

We benefit from her tale, and so does Molly. The book’s ending is a bit tidy for my taste: Loose ends tied up, everyone is content. But there’s a great deal of satisfaction in seeing two damaged women find solace. Kline gave us the ending we wanted, despite our better judgment.

Dear FCC: Ho ho ho.