Reading Railroad: January’s Reading


At the beginning of the year, I decided I would cut down on my reading so I could write more. And then I read 10 books in January — oops! Oh well. Professional writers are always saying writers needs to read a lot. 🙂

Novels

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson. Published in 2012. Adult Urban Fantasy. Winner of the 2013 World Fantasy award, Alif the Unseen is a fun mix of tech and magic, hacking and djinn. I loved the setting — contemporary Middle East — and wish there were more fantasies set there published in English. The plot’s a little hand-wavy, and I didn’t always believe character arcs, but it was a solid read.  3.5/5

 

Hogfather by Terry Pratchett. Published in 1996. Adult Fantasy. I read this during Christmas, though I finished it in January. Discworld is one of my favorite fantasy series, and I definitely recommend reading it if you haven’t before, but this isn’t the book I’d recommend starting with (check out Wyrd Sisters, Guards! Guards!, or The Wee Free Men instead). For those of you already familiar with Discworld, Death is the Hogfather — Discworld’s version of Santa Klaus. Awesome, right? And definitely my favorite scenes in Hogfather featured Death handing out presents to all the kiddos of Discworld. However, the numerous side stories weren’t as interesting or funny as Pratchett usually is. Still, it’s a good seasonal read, as those go. 3/5

In Calabria by Peter S. Beagle. To be published February 14th, 2017. Adult Contemporary Fantasy. Another new book by the famous Peter S. Beagle, famous for writing The Last Unicorn. Claudio Bianchi owns a farm in the small Italian village of Calabria. He’s grumpy, likes his privacy, and writes poems he shares with no one. In his late forties, his only friend is a young postman who comes a few times a week to deliver the mail. Oh, and his goat. Two things converge to break his comforting privacy: a pregnant unicorn appears on his farm, and the postman’s younger sister starts delivering the mail on Friday. Suddenly, his comfortable, isolated existence crumbles. Word spreads of the unicorn on his property, and soon the media begins to hound him, and then a mafia-type group — the ‘Ndrangheta — shows up, wanting the farm. The unicorn scenes are the most powerful. It’s Bianchi’s romantic relationship with Giovanna, the young postmistress, that gives me pause. I read Summerlong last year (full review here), where a similar middle-aged man and a just out of teen years woman form a romantic relationship. I was more receptive to the relationship in Summerlong because the girl ends up being a goddess. But…another book with this relationship dynamic? Um. And Bianchi constantly bemoans how he doesn’t deserve such a young girl, how she should leave him, and how it’s her that instigates the relationship, not him. Uh huh. ‘Sure.’ I hear you. The ending also felt…wrong for the novel. It felt like the novel was trying to be longer than it was meant to be, so the ‘Ndrangheta were added to create length and a more thrilling plot. But I enjoyed the quiet moments, and for me, the main plot was about Bianchi trying to rediscover who he is, and how he can interact with the world and rejoin society. I would’ve loved to see him publish some of those poems! Thanks to Netgalley and Tachyon Publications for providing me with an advanced copy in exchange for an honest review. 2.5/5

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. Published in 2011. YA Contemporary Fantasy. Get the tissues ready, because you are going to cry a lot, unless you’re an unfeeling weirdo. Seriously, this book is so good. It’s a modern infusion of the green man (in the form of a yew tree), the power of stories, and modern pre-adolescence. I love this book.  I want to reread it just by writing up this synopsis. It’s the 2nd book I’ve read by Ness, and the 2nd one to make me cry (the first was The Crane Wife, though it did not make me cry as much as A Monster Calls). Guess I’m going to have to test a third. Will his power over my tear ducts hold???? P.S. The illustrations are great. I haven’t watched the movie yet, but even if it’s only half as good as the book, I’m going to need the tissues again. 5/5

The Boy Who Lost Fairyland by Catherynne M. Valente. Published in 2015. Middle Grade Fantasy. This is book #4 of Catherynne Valente’s Fairyland series. For the first time, the main character isn’t September. Hawthorn the troll is whisked from Fairyland by a cheeky wind, and brought to Chicago and switched out for Thomas Rood, a very human child. Hawthorn eventually makes it back into Fairyland with the help of another changeling child and an adorable, magically-sentient yarn wombat. Though I love Fairyland, I actually enjoyed Hawthorn’s time struggling being human in Chicago over the Fairyland scenes. This is one of my favorites of the series. 4.5/5

The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home by Catherynne M. Valente. Published in 2016. Middle Grade Fantasy. This is book #5 and the final book in the Fairyland series. Valente returns to September, who is now Queen of Fairyland (well, she actually chooses the title of Engineer). But in order to hold on to her title, if she even wants to, she has to compete in a race with the previous rulers of Fairyland. It’s a fun close to the series, though not my favorite. I’ll miss September, but it ended perfectly. 4/5

 

Into That Forest by Louis Nowra. Published in 2013. Young Adult. After a boating accident in Tasmania, 2 young girls — Hannah and Becky — are stranded in the bush. But they’re soon rescued by tigers. For the next four years they live with two tigers, learning how to hunt and speak the tiger language. Meanwhile, they forget much of what it means to be human. Hannah narrates this experience of being raised by tigers from the future, in dialect. Overall, it’s a good read, though it just didn’t move me overmuch. Not for any particular reason, though. 3/5

Nonfiction

Richard Hittleman’s Yoga: 28 Day Exercise Plan by Richard Hittleman. Published in 1969. This was my first attempt at yoga. Exercises are sectioned into 4 day increments, with a review every 4th day. After each day is a section called “Thoughts for the Day,” which were often quite funny, as they assumed I was a housewife. Though the written sections are dated, this is a solid primer on yoga, it seemed to me. While I will not be continuing with yoga — it exacerbated my heart problem — I did learn some stretches that I’ll incorporate into my exercise routine. Overall, the moves were easy though enough of a stretch to feel it. A few of them I never could do, and I think would be better with a partner. 4/5

Short Story Collections

The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales edited by Navah Wolfe and Dominik Parisien. Published in 2016. Speculative Fiction Short Stories. In the introduction, editors Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe express their desire to revisit the wonderful, strange, and alien of fairy tales. “In keeping with that original model of composite storytelling,” they say, “we decided to run fairy tales through a prism, to challenge our authors to look at stories from an unusual angle, to bring them back into different genres and traditions, to — if you will — return them to their cross-genre roots.” And they’ve certainly done that in this collection. Genres range from Western, to Science Fiction, to Romance, to Fantasy, to Postmodern, and each tale takes an unusual look at a single fairy tale. My favorite stories were “Seasons of Glass and Iron” by Amal El-Mohtar and “Spinning Silver” by Naomi Novik, with close runner-ups in “The Briar and the Rose” by Marjorie M. Liu and “Reflected” by Kat Howard. Three of these are perhaps the least innovative, since they use the fantasy genre for their fairy tale settings (the closest to the original settings); however, these stories are innovative in other ways, combining tales, reconstituting romance, and especially in reinterpreting happily-ever-afters. “Reflected” is the only non-fantasy of my favorites, and is a science fiction retelling of “The Snow Queen.” This is a great short story collection for fairytale and speculative fiction fans. I’d already read stories from every single one of these authors, so I knew I was likely to enjoy this collection, and I’m glad I wasn’t disappointed! You can see my review of each story on Goodreads. 4/5

Uncanny Magazine Issue 13: November/December 2016 edited by Lynne M. and Michael Damian Thomas. I think this is my favorite issue of Uncanny Magazine as a whole. All the pieces have strong social justice themes or center around voices that rarely have a chance to speak in fiction. That’s what makes this magazine so special. My favorites were “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies” by Brooke Bolander, a flash fiction piece about whose stories are told; “Seasons of Glass and Iron” by Amal El–Mohtar, which was also in A Starlit Wood; and “Rose Child” by Theodora Goss, a lovely fairytale poem. But there were no misses in this issue. You can read my review of each story on Goodreads. 4/5

Individual Short Stories

“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce. Published in 1890. During the Civil War, a man stands on a bridge about to be hanged. And that’s all I can say without spoilers. 🙂 This is the first time I’ve read Ambrose Bierce, and apparently I should amend that. This is a fantastically written short story. If I taught a creative writing class, I would use this story as an example of how to write thick, evocative descriptions that are still fast-paced and full of tension. So good! 5/5

“Fable” by Charles Yu. Published in The New Yorker, May 2016. A therapist asks a man to retell his life story as a fable. This short story explores how stories shape a life, and how if we’re able to tell our stories — allow ourselves to tell them — then we can find a path to living. 4/5

“See the Unseeable, Know the Unknowable” by Maria Dahvana Headley. Published in Lightspeed Magazine, September 2016. A woman and a cat live on the outskirts of society, escaping something. And then circus flyers fall from the sky, and her name’s on them. I’m pretty sure I didn’t understand what was happening in this one. Oh well, happens sometimes. I do enjoy the author’s fiction usually. 2.5/5

“Little Widow” by Maria Dahvana Headley. Published in Nightmare Magazine, September 2016. 3 sisters who were in a cult live in a small town after their cult commits suicide. And then a circus comes to town with a pterodactyl. I mean, this is weird, but I liked it. 3.5/5

“Hungry” by Shveta Thakrar. Published in Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, 2016. After centuries of being a statue, a rakshasi awakens in the contemporary world, and she’s hungry. 3.5/5

Did you read anything good in January?

Happy reading in the month to come!

 

Reading Railroad: December’s Reading


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Here’s everything I read in December: 4 novels, 1 memoir, 1 short story collection, and 10 individual short stories.

Novels

The Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish. Published in 1666. Feminist Utopian. This is considered the first science fiction novel written by a woman. As such, I expected it to be a little more exciting, but I forgot that most Restoration literature is steeped in its political context, thus making it a bit boring for those of us not living in the 17th century. An English lady travels to another dimension. There, she finds that each animal is its own cognizant, speaking society. Thus, there are Bear-men, Worm-men, Bird-men, etc. All these societies are ruled by a single ruler, and soon the lady becomes their empress. As Empress, she investigates scientific, philosophical, and religious thought, and each of the animal species specializes in individual areas of investigation. Ultimately, Cavendish argues that it’s better to have a single head and a single entity making decisions for the whole, so there won’t be any strife. I guess she doesn’t believe in tyrants. My full review is on Goodreads. 3/5

Thorn by Intisar Khanani. Published in 2012. Fantasy fairy tale, could be YA as well. A retelling of “The Goose Girl,” Thorn examines abuse against women in its many forms. The beginning is immediately engaging; Princess Alyrra is stranded in both an emotionally and a physically abusive family and I desperately wanted to see her get out of her situation. However, once Alyrra is in a new city (I’m trying not to give any spoilers here), the plot really slows down, and it feels like a lot of nothing particularly important happens. It picks up again here and there, but overall, the pacing felt off. However, if you enjoy fairy tale retellings, particularly of “The Goose Girl,” then you should check this out. 3/5

Kalpa Imperial: The Greatest Empire That Never Was by AngĂ©lica Gorodischer. Published in 2003. Argentinian Fantasy, translated by Ursula Le Guin. Kalpa Imperial is a history of a fictional empire as told by a storyteller. The storyteller takes different periods of history and moves from broad descriptions to personal histories. Each chapter describes an entirely different period of history with all new characters. Certainly, this is a unique way of telling a story, but typically characters are what keep me engaged, and the second I finally became engrossed in a character’s story, it was a new chapter and a whole new part of the empire’s history. I never sank into the reading. But I also see that’s the whole point of the novel: how the individual stories intersect into the broader history of the empire, and how it’s made up of many singular identities, and each identity contributes to the character that is the empire. Maybe if I’d read this when I wasn’t so busy I would’ve enjoyed it more. 3/5

Nutcracker by E.T.A. Hoffmann. Published in 1815. Middle Grade. A cute Christmas classic. The ballet cuts much of the plot, which has a story within a story. Like many fairytale inspired fiction of its time, it can be weird. Some people in the group I read it in found it too disturbing to be a children’s classic, but it didn’t seem too dark to me. I really enjoyed Maurice Sendak’s illustrations. 3/5

Nonfiction

The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts by Maxine Hong Kingston. Published 1975. The Woman Warrior combines Kingston’s memoir of growing up in the U.S. the daughter of Chinese immigrants with her mother’s story and Chinese folklore and history. My favorite chapter, “Shaman,” tells the story of how her mother became a doctor of midwifery in China and battled ghosts in a women’s dormitory. It was hard to relate this independent ghost-fighting doctor with the mother Kingston describes, who belittles her daughters, though she’s a warrior throughout. Both Kingston and her mother are warriors in very similar ways, though they never see the similarities in one another. A unique memoir. You can read my full review on Goodreads. 4/5

Short Story Collections

A Wild Swan: And Other Tales by Michael Cunningham. Published in 2015. Adult fairytale short stories. This collection modernizes eleven fairy tales. These retellings circle around love and relationships: what it means to have someone that’s always by your side, that ‘happily ever after,’ for better and for worse. But these are not romanticized versions. The first story — “Dis. Enchant” — gives a clue as to how Cunningham approaches fairy tales — he disenchants the romanticized notion of happily ever after. Excellent endings to all of these, and the illustrations by Yuko Shimizu are gorgeous. It’s a super fast read; I read this in a single sitting. You can read my more detailed review on Goodreads. 4/5

Short Stories

I read a lot of individual short stories in December. I’ve briefly summarized all of them, and every single one is free to read online, so click and read away.

“Cottage Country” by David K. Yeh. Published in Apex Magazine, May 2016. Alternates between when a man’s dog goes missing and he suspects the sidhe, to the same man as a child learning about the sidhe while playing chess with his father. 3.5/5

“Left Foot, Right” by Nalo Hopkinson. Published in Strange Horizons, May 2016. After a car accident that killed her sister, a teen girl struggles with grief, and part of that process involves buying shoes for her sister and chugging them into the water where her sister died. Then she meets a faceless child by the water. 3/5

“The Limitless Perspective of Master Peek, or, the Luminescence of Debauchery” by Catherynne M. Valente. Published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, May 2016. This one almost defies description. Master Peek is born a girl, but poses as a boy to run the family glassblowing business. And then, as Master Peek, starts making glass eyes. This is written in 19th century style prose, highly stylized and very unique. Novelette in length, I believe. 4.5/5

“The Consultant” by Catherynne M. Valente. Reprinted in The Center for Fiction, originally published in The Bread We Eat in Dreams. A noir detective tells the story of her practice serving fairytale women. Love it. 5/5

“Her Mother’s Ghosts” by Theodora Goss. Reprinted in Mithila Review, originally published in The Rose in Twelve Petals and Other Stories. A piece about Goss’s mother told through a fictional character. 3.5/5

“Four and Twenty Blackbirds” by JY Yang. Published in Lightspeed Magazine, June 2016. This story describes an earth where bird aliens pass a virus to women that impregnates them with birds. 3.5/5

“The Men from Narrow Houses” by A.C. Wise. Published in Liminal Stories, 2016. A great, weird fox shapeshifter story. 4/5

“The Red Thread” by Sofia Samatar. Published in Lightspeed Magazine, June 2016. Sahra writes letters to Fox (one of her mother’s students) as she and her mother wander across a post-apocalyptic land, from settlement to settlement. 4/5

“Cookie Jar” by Stephen King. Published in VQR, Spring 2016. A 13-yr-old interviews his 90 yr. old great grandfather, and hears a strange story about another dimension, and an endless supply of cookies. 4.5/5

“Songbird” by Shveta Thakrar. Published in Flash Fiction Online, April 2016. A girl is told to give up singing and become a good lady, but no one can be someone they’re not forever. 4/5

Happy reading in the month to come!

An Unusual and Murder-y Father Christmas Story


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I came across this Dorset mummers’ play while reading The Leaping Hare (for research on my latest writing project), in which Santa murders his wife over….how to cook a hare. Yep. I can’t imagine why we don’t tell this story at Christmas! I unfortunately cannot find the complete play (source is listed as Dorsetshire Folklore by J.S. Udal), but I thought I would share the brief passage from the play in The Leaping Hare.

Enter Old Bet

Here comes I, Dame Dorothy,
A handsome young woman, good morning to ye.
I am rather fat, but not very tall,
I’ll do my best endeavors to please you all.
My husband he is to work, and soon he will return
And something for our supper bring,
And perhaps some wood to burn.
Oh! here he comes!

(Enter Jan or Old Father Christmas)

Old Father Christmas
Oh, Dorothy!

Old Bet
What have you been doing all this long day, Jan?

Old Father Christmas
I’ve been a-hunting, Bet.

Old Bet
The devil a-hunting is it! Is that the way to support a wife? Well, what have you catched today, Jan?

Old Father Christmas
A fine Jack hare, and I intend to have him a-fried for supper; and here’s some wood to dress him.

Old Bet
Fried! No, Jan, I’ll roast it nice.

Old Father Christmas
I say I’ll have it fried!

Old Bet
Was there ever such a foolish dish!

Old Father Christmas
No matter for that, I’ll have it done; and if you don’t do as I bid I’ll hit you in the head.

Old Bet
You may do as you like or all I do care,
I’ll never fry a dry Jack hare.

Old Father Christmas
Oh! you won’t wooll’ee?

(He strikes her and she falls.)

Oh! what have I done! I have murdered my wife!
The joy of my heart and the pride of my life!
And out to the gaol I shall quickly be sent,
In a passion I did it, and no malice meant.

     But the outcome was not as tragic as it appeared: there was magic as well as a hare about; and the Doctor soon put Bet on to her feet again. For this was simply a rehearsal of the old symbolic ritual, celebrating the eternal cycle of life when the death of winter is followed by the rebirth of spring. And in this kind of context it is not surprising to find the hare.

— pages 100-102 of The Leaping Hare by George Ewart Evans and David Thomson

Happy Holidays!

Book Gift Ideas for Reading Fiends


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Last week I wrote about non-book gift ideas for book lovers, so this week I’ll give some book ideas, because what else is there to want? But if they read a ton, it can be difficult to know which books to buy. Here are some ideas.

New Releases.

Do they buy most of their books used? Then it’s quite possible they’ve missed out on some of the great books 2016 has offered. The Wolf Road by Beth Lewis is a post-apocalyptic thriller about a girl who finds out her adopted father is a serial killer and sets out across the wilderness to escape him (reads like a Quentin Tarantino movie). This Census-Taker by China MiĂ©ville is another post-apocalyptic novel about a young boy who has witnessed a murder. All the Birds in the Sky (full review) by Charlie Jane Anders mixes witchcraft and AI in a quirky and, um, apocalyptic novel (I’ve apparently read a lot of good apocalypse novels this year). In the fantasy/magical realism department, I really enjoyed Roses and Rot (full review) by Kat Howard, about 2 sister artists at an exclusive artist’s retreat that turns out to be run by the fae. Peter S. Beagle also released a new novel this year, Summerlong (full review), about a middle-aged couple who takes in a young girl that’s something more than she seems. In the non-speculative department, Faithful (full review) by Alice Hoffman is about recovering from trauma by finding love in animals.

Under the Radar.

Not all great books get the attention they deserve. These are all books with less than a thousand ratings on Goodreads, but really deserve to be read. Bohemian Gospel by Dana Carpenter takes place in 13th century Bohemia about a girl who has special powers, but they may not be powers for the good. Songs for Ophelia by Theodora Goss is a lovely fairytale poetry collection. The Native American magical realism novel Sacred Wilderness by Susan Power switches between the modern day and the 17th century US in a mystical examination of what it means to be Native American (everything by Susan Power is amazing). Myths of Origin by Catherynne M. Valente collects her first four, mythic novels. The Poets’ Grimm: 20th Century Poems from Grimm Fairy Tales is another great fairytale poetry anthology by various authors.

Short Story Collections. 

A lot of readers mainly read novels and miss out on all the fantastic short story collections out there.  Ludmilla Petrushevskaya is a famous Russian author of absurdist fairy tales  who’s rarely read in the US. I recommend There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales. Bone Swans: Stories by C.S.E. Cooney collects fairy tale retellings and fantastical short stories. Roofwalker by Susan Power is a combination of short stories about the modern Native American experience and autobiographical essays. Of course Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances by Neil Gaiman is great, but he’s one of the rare authors that can sell short story collections, so the reader on your list may have already read this one. Dreams of Distant Shores (full review) by Patricia McKillip is a lovely, fantastical collection released earlier this year. The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu mixes sci-fi, fantasy, and magical realism in a literary, somber collection of stories.

Young Adult and Middle Grade.  

In MG, Grace Lin’s Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is so fantastic and cute, and I think the series is now complete (Starry River of the Sky and When the Sea Turned to Silver). Catherynne M. Valente’s fantastical Fairyland series is also complete. Charles de Lint has 2 cute, connected middle grade novels–The Cats of Tanglewood Forest and Seven Wild Sisters: A Modern Fairy Tale. All of these have great illustrations as well.

For YA, Maria Dahvana Headley’s Magonia has space pirates(!!), and she released the second and last in the series, Aerie, earlier this year, though I’ve yet to read it. The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black is a stand-alone YA about two teen siblings who share a town with the Fae, and both have a crush on the soon-to-be-awakened horned boy that lies in a glass coffin. Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire explores what happens to teens after they go through magical doors and are thrown back into the real world, and is the first in a trilogy (the others have yet to be released).

Collectible Books. 

Another possibility is to buy the reader on your list books you know they love in pretty editions. Folio Society has some really lovely books, as does Easton Press. You could also go with the fancy Barnes and Noble editions, which are a less expensive but still pretty option.

Books on My Christmas List. 

This is the book list I gave my husband: The Found and the Lost: The Collected Novellas of Ursula K. Le Guin (because she’s the best); The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales edited by Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe (short story anthology); A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (YA, coming to theaters); The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home by Catherynne M. Valente (because I still haven’t finished this series); Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology by David Abram (I always put at least 1 nonfiction on my list and this one looks really interesting); and Beyond the Woods: Fairy Tales Retold edited by Paula Guran (another recent short story anthology. I try to read all fairytale short stories.).

I could honestly go on and on recommending books! But I’ll stop here.

 

Holiday Gift Ideas for Book Lovers and/or Writers (that aren’t books)


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I’ve gathered a random assortment of bookish presents for the bookish people on your holiday gift list. It always helps to have an idea of some authors they like. Next week, I’ll blog about books you can give, though that’s much trickier if they’re a book fiend like me.

Chicozy Housewares pillow cover. For the cat loving readers, $8

 

 

 

Literary Tea Collection. For the tea drinkers, more options with that seller, $12

 

 

Bookish Mugs. Amazon has a bunch, this one is from Awesome Librarians. Usually $10-$20.

 

 

 

Sainted Writer Candles. Yep. Much better than the generic scented candles. $15-$20.

 

 

 

 

Literary Tights. Love these! Many options. $23.

 

 

 

 

Out of Print Tees. $20-$25.

 

 

 

 

 

Hogwarts Door Mats. More options with the seller. $35.

 

 

 

Bookends. Bookriot already put together a huge list of bookends, so I linked to that. Wide variety of prices.

 

 

Jewelry. Faerie Magazine has pretty, fairytale inspired jewelry (I especially like their bracelets), Etsy has plenty, here’s the one from the image. It may help narrow your search on Etsy if you look for specific books and authors you know the person likes.

 

Art can also be a unique gift, and doesn’t have to be expensive. Most of these artists are inspired by fairy tales and fantasy, since that’s what I’m into, and have prints under $30. Julianna Swaney (shown), Isobelle Ouzman, Christian Schloe, Kelly Louise Judd, C. Welz-Stein.

 

If you’re looking for an expensive gift for a writer, writing workshops can be a great gift. Gotham Writers has online classes for just under $400, The Brainery does as well, though it looks like nothing is open right now. You can also look up writing retreats in their area. Another great idea for writers is to purchase an edit from a published writer or editor. Kat Howard does edits (I really like her fiction), and I have a friend who used Nicole Tone and got some great feedback. There a lot of options out there, so it will take some research.

For readers, book box subscriptions could be a great, expensive gift idea. Book Riot has one, and here’s a list of eleven more.

Happy Holidays!