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Posts from August 2006

Tilt A Whirl: Chris Grabenstein

Today I have a review of an adult mystery for you (though it does feature a child as a semi-major character). Chris Grabenstein's Tilt-a-Whirl is a non-stop adventure that repeatedly confounds expectations. Grabenstein uses realistic details to paint the portrait of a small New Jersey beach town in Technicolor. Tilt A Whirl's narrator has a self-deprecatory, wise-cracking sort of voice that I enjoyed, and occasionally found laugh-out-loud funny. Here are two examples:

"It's 8:30 P.M. and I'm out on the deck with a few of my buds (most of whom are drinking Buds) watching the sun slip down behind the docks and sailboats on the bay side of the island." (page 80)

"I always wonder about these unarmed, white-shirt security guards. If they look at your driver's license and decide you're a bad guy, what can they do? Whack you in the head with their clipboard?" (page 179)

Grabenstein's plotting is also masterful. I didn't anticipate the ending at all. However, when I looked back, I could see that the author absolutely played fair in planting clues and keeping characters consistent.

Tilt A Whirl is told from the perspective of Danny Boyle, a 24-year-old part-time cop assigned to partner and chauffeur the much more experienced John Ceepak. Ceepak is a former MP, recently back from Iraq. He has a strong moral code, and more than a few traces of shell-shock. When a billionaire is murdered on the Tilt-A-Whirl at the local playland, Ceepak is on the trail. Danny, who grew up in the town, has many local insights to offer, but Ceepak is the star of the show. In fact, Ceepak and Danny fall in line with a long tradition of quirky but competent primary detective and likable but relatively clueless sidekick.

Overall, I found Tilt A Whirl to be a highly entertaining and occasionally thought-provoking ride. I read it in 2 days, and I look forward to reading the next book in the series (Mad Mouse).

Book: Tilt-a-Whirl
Author: Chris Grabenstein
Publisher: Carroll & Graf
Original Publication Date: 2005
Pages: 321
Age Range: Adult
Genre: Mystery

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.

Read for the Record on Thursday

This Thursday, August 24th, is Jumpstart's Read for the Record day. The idea is to get everyone reading and thinking about books, and to increase children's literacy. Here are the details (from the Jumpstart website):

  • "Tens of thousands of adults and young children will read The Little Engine That Could together in their homes, libraries, parent groups, preschool centers and major public venues on August 24 to show support for early learning, engage in the very practice that helps young children thrive, and set a world record.
  • A special edition of The Little Engine That Could, custom published by Penguin and generously printed gratis by Pearson, will celebrate Jumpstart’s Read for the Record campaign and share with you important tips for making the most of reading time with young children. The custom limited edition of The Little Engine That Could is available exclusively at Starbucks from August 1 – 28."

If you're interested, you can register to read The Little Engine That Could (by Watty Piper) with a child on Thursday. Many local libraries will be participating (see stories here and here for just two examples).

UPDATE: You can see a report of a Starbucks visit for this program by Jennifer at Snapshot, and also in the comments of this post. She notes that her local Starbucks manager is considering adding a regular story time, because the response to this program has been so great. Isn't that cool?

The Goose Girl: Shannon Hale

The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale is a re-telling of the classic Grimm's fairy story about a princess who must become a goose girl before she can become queen. Anidori-Kiladra Talianna Isilee, Crown Princess of Kildenree (known to her friends as Ani, or sometimes Isi) has trouble fitting in, and taking on her expected role of Crown Princess. She loves listening to old-world stories, and she learns from her aunt how to communicate with birds. She has more difficulty communicating with people, and she is a bit of a disappointment to her powerful mother, the Queen.

After her father's death, on her sixteenth birthday, Ani's mother sends her away to the far-off land of Bayern, having promised Ani's hand in marriage to an unknown prince. Ani encounters treachery and danger, however, and eventually finds herself taking on the new role of goose girl, rather than her ill-fitting role of princess. As the goose girl, she hones her own strengths, and makes friends who like her for herself, rather than for her position. Eventually she learns to stand up for herself, and finds her place in the world.

The Goose Girl is a fantasy novel that feels as though it could be real. Yes, Ani talks to animals, and talks to the wind. But her more important attributes are her awkwardness, determination, and self-doubt - surely emotions that are felt by all teenagers. Shannon Hale's writing makes the reader feel deeply for the characters, yet also keeps one turning the pages quickly, to see what will happen next.

I found, despite having no conscious memory of the goose girl fairy tale, that the major plot points were fairly predictable to me (a reader of many, many books). But this in no way turned me off from The Goose Girl. I cared about Ani, and I wanted to see how she would react to the things that were happening to her. I found Shannon Hale's writing to be lyrical, and sympathetic. I look forward to reading the companion novel, Enna Burning, and future books about Bayern and Kildenree, and the people who live there.

The paperback edition that I read included a lengthy interview with Shannon Hale, as well as a reading group guide. I was already a Shannon Hale fan before reading The Goose Girl, because I love Shannon's blog, especially her impassioned defense of kids being able to read books that they enjoy. Having finally read one of her books, I'm a fan through and through.

Book: The Goose Girl
Author: Shannon Hale (see also her excellent blog)
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Original Publication Date: 2003
Pages: 400
Age Range: 10-14

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.

Children's Literacy Round-Up: August 21

Here are some children's literacy-related new stories of interest:

  • There's a nice guest commentary in the August 14th Greeley Tribune (Colorado) from a long-time literacy advocate and volunteer. Dr. Jerry Weil noticed, when his first grandchild was born, "the tremendous attention span she showed when looking at pictures and being read to." It occurred to him that not all children had such opportunities (from being read to at a very young age), and he decided to start volunteering to change the situation. It's an inspiring story.
  • I also enjoyed an August 16th article in the Elmira Star-Gazette about a summer reading camp. "The six-week summer school program that focused on improving children's literacy skills also had a recreational, camp theme." Now that sounds like a camp that I would have enjoyed as a kid!
  • Earlier this month, the Kansas City Reach Out and Read program (by which pediatricians give books to children at each of their well-child visits) gave out it's 250,000th book. You can read more in this August 18th article from the Kansas City Kansan.
  • There's a nice August 20th article by Dr. Jacob K. Felix in the Elmira Star-Gazette (New York) about the local Books at Birth program. "Books at Birth is a literacy program started this spring by the Family Reading Partnership of Chemung Valley, the Comprehensive Interdisciplinary Developmental Services Agency, nurse practitioners from Southern Tier Pediatrics and RSVP. It provides a free book to everyone who gives birth at the Arnot Ogden Medical Center." The idea is for parents to have at least one book as soon as they bring their baby home, and to encourage them to read to the baby starting right away.
  • Finally, a very short piece in the August 19th Molokai Island Times (Hawaii) describes two volunteers whose mission is to "get outside and read." Two local senior citizens "recently re-started the once popular "Reading Partners Program," and are volunteering their time and wisdom to the children." They sit outside of the library with a pile of books, and encourage kids (and adults) to stop by to read with them. So very Hawaii, isn't it? Way cool!

That's all for now. My Google Alerts seem to have stopped showing up for some reason, but I'm sure that I'll be back with more soon. Happy reading!

Wizards at War: Diane Duane

I've just finished reading the eighth installment in Diane Duane's Young Wizards series: Wizards at War. Weighing in at a hefty 560 pages, this book is not for the faint of heart. I don't recommend that you read it unless you've read the previous books in the series, because the author makes many references to previous books. However, if you are a fan of the series, you should run, not walk, to get yourself a copy of this book.

The Young Wizards series supposes that magic takes place behind the scenes on our world, and on the many other populated worlds in the universe. Only a very tiny percentage of people are chosen to be trained as wizards. These wizards have the responsibility of protecting (as much as possible) the people on their planets from evil forces. They use magical spells that are relatively scientific in nature, relying on the understanding of physical coordinates, and concrete and true descriptions of people and objects.

In Wizards at War, Nita and Kit (a pair of teenage wizard partners), along with their friends and relatives (especially Nita's wizard sister Dairine and Kit's non-wizard sister Carmela), are called upon to save not just the world, but the entire universe. Their mortal enemy, the Lone Power, has started sprinkling areas of space with Dark Matter. The Dark Matter is causing space to expand, which will over time lead to a breakdown in wizardry. If left unchecked, it will also have dangerous emotional consequences for the hearts and minds of non-wizards, and will eventually cause the end of everything.

The breakdown in wizardry starts to affect the adult wizards first, causing them to not even be able to remember that they are wizards, let alone use any magic. This leaves the young wizards in charge. They have to keep thing safe on their own planets, while trying to find the cause of the Dark Matter expansion, and eliminate it. Soon Nita, Kit, Dairine, and their friends from other worlds are on a quest for a secret weapon that the Powers That Be have promised can help. Kit's magical dog Ponch plays a key role in tracking down the secret weapon.

One fun thing about this book in is that because all of the young wizards from across the universe are called into action, Kit, Nita, and Dairine have the opportunity to re-visit a number of their old friends from previous books (especially Ronan from A Wizard Abroad and the three houseguests from Wizard's Holiday). Some of these visits are mere cameo appearances, while others are central to the plot. Dairine also re-visits the race of silicon creatures that she created in High Wizardry, and it's nice for the reader to see how they turned out.

Various feelings and tensions besides friendship come into play between the characters in this installment, heightening the emotional impact of the book considerably. One caveat: if you haven't read the other books recently, you may find some of the interactions with the secondary characters difficult to follow. As with the Harry Potter books, serious fans will want too re-read the previous books in the series before starting this one.

Beyond that, I don't want to give away too much and spoil the book for you. So I'll just say that the young wizards encounter dangerous and unprecedented situations. They have to reply on themselves, and on one another, displaying ingenuity, bravery, and loyalty. There are surprises, victories, tragedies, and grievous losses. Wizards at War made me laugh in places, and made my eyes tear up here and there, but it always kept me turning the pages. Fans of the series will not be disappointed. And if you're not a fan of the series yet, I recommend that you start at the beginning, and read the whole series in order. Here is the complete list:

  1. So You Want to Be a Wizard
  2. Deep Wizardry
  3. High Wizardry
  4. A Wizard Abroad
  5. The Wizard's Dilemma
  6. A Wizard Alone
  7. Wizard's Holiday
  8. Wizards at War

This is an excellent series, filled with a science-based approach to magic, and a very human-based set of relationships. Kids who like magic will enjoy them, but kids who prefer science, adventure, or comedy should enjoy them, too. I recommend, especially if younger kids are reading these books, that parents try to read them also. There are larger themes to be discussed, like the nature of good and evil, the meaning of life and death, sibling rivalry, and ways of communicating with people from different backgrounds (imagine, for example, offering a salad to a person who is a tree). And they're just plain fun, too. Nita and Kit are on the Cool Girls and Cool Boys lists, of course.

Book: Wizards at War
Author: Diane Duane (see also her blog, Out of Ambit)
Publisher: Harcourt, Inc.
Original Publication Date: October 1, 2005
Pages: 560
Age Range: 12 and up

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.

Sunday Afternoon Visits: August 20

Here are a few things that I noticed in my web travels this weekend:

  • A recent post at PlanetEsme, by Esme Raji Codell, has a nice explanation of why Esme doesn't include negative comments in her reviews. She says, "I think criticism is overrated in our culture... I don't think people need help knowing what not to read, so I direct my energy towards recommending what I consider to be the cream of the crop." I agree, and I try to do the same thing: highlight great books, and quietly not mention the ones that I find less than great. And I'm constantly amazed at how many wonderful books there are that are worth talking about. Hat tip to Finding Wonderland for this link. Esme also has a nice list of teacher resources posted today.
  • Via Gail Gauthier's blog, Original Content, I learned of an interesting post at Rick Riordan's blog. Rick writes about his son Patrick's summer reading blues. Patrick apparently took a strong dislike to Newbery-award winning Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes (which I don't recall ever having read). This set Rick to thinking about whether or not adults who choose books (especially the Newbery committee) are alienating kids, by picking books that kids don't enjoy reading. He has some strong thoughts on the matter. He concludes "And please God, grant me the wisdom to remember that I am writing for children, not golden stickers. If children don’t enjoy my books, I haven’t done my job." Yay, Rick! Camille at Book Moot was inspired by Rick's post to put up some of her thoughts on award-winning books. (Coincidentally, she quoted Rick's concluding words, too).
  • Susan Taylor Brown is inviting all of you to attend her Hugging the Rock (my review is here) book launch party, to be held on September 27th, in Mountain View, CA. I was pleased to receive a lovely evite to the party last week, and you can receive one, too, if you email Susan. Susan lists several incentives for attending on her blog (meeting her, getting your book autographed, refreshments). And if you go, you can meet me, too, because I'm planning to attend, and you can meet Wendy from Blog from the Windowsill. So many reasons to attend. Liz B., sadly, had to decline, not being so close by. But if you live in the Bay Area, and you like children's books, then you should come on by! And if you want to learn more about Susan first, check out Little Willow's recent interview with Susan Taylor Brown.
  • The cool teacher's list at A Year of Reading is now up to 71. I think that Mary Lee and Franki will get the list up to their goal of 100 soon. I also enjoyed Mary Lee's post about the twin author signing held recently by Jennifer Roy and her sister Julia DeVillers. Jennifer Roy is the author of Yellow Star, about which I and everyone else have been raving of late.
  • The great or infamous librarians list over at TheBookDragon is now up to 28 (see the right-hand sidebar).
  • Kelly Herold from Big A little a has been making great progress with adding reviews to the Children's Book Reviews site. Children's Book Reviews is a collaborative website by which bloggers from the kidlitsophere can post links to their reviews of children's and young adult titles. It's well worth checking out, even if you've visited previously, because new titles are being added all the time. 
  • The weekend dialog question at Buried in the Slush Pile asks for readers' opinions about author websites and blogs. I included my two cents in the comments over there, but I do think that this discussion topic could be useful reading for published and aspiring authors.
  • Wendy Betts has a new annotated bibliography of bedtime stories at Notes from the Windowsill. I also like her adoptions and orphans bibliography. I'm not sure why it is that so many great children's books are about orphans, but it's certainly notable.
  • Michele at Scholar's Blog gives advance notice that she'll be hosting the Eighth Carnival of Children's Literature on Halloween. She says: "I invite you to start thinking about witches, pumpkins, vampires, ghosts and ghouls, and anything else that might be related to Hallowe'en." Kind of makes me want to go on a vampire reading binge (I'm eagerly awaiting my copy of New Moon from Amazon). Carnival number seven will be held, I believe, at Wands and Worlds in September.
  • Michele also has an interesting post asking "why do you read?". This is in response to an essay that she read that said that "Losing oneself in a fictional world is the goal of the naive reader or one who reads as entertainment." Given that Michele is a tremendous reader and reviewer, she naturally took offense to this statement, as do several of her commenters. Personally, I'm happy to count myself as naive, if that means that I get to enjoy the books that I read.
  • I think that I've mentioned this before, but Sherry's Saturday Review of Books posts at Semicolon have really taken off. Each Saturday, she publishes a handy little form by which visitors can include a link to a book review written during that week. It's a neat idea, well-executed.

And that is quite enough for one day. In fact, many of these bullets probably deserve a post of their own. But I kind of like having all of the things that I noticed this weekend in one handy post. Thanks for visiting with me!

Happy Kid!: Gail Gauthier

Gail Gauthier was kind enough to send me a review copy of her recently published novel, Happy Kid!. I found it to be a quick read, with realistic middle school interactions and experiences. At the same time, I found it to be a remarkable book, incorporating universal truths about self-help and relationships in a kid-friendly, non-preachy manner.

Happy Kid! is about Kyle Rideau, a pessimistic and inadvertently notorious boy about to start seventh grade. He's had a rough sixth grade year, feels separated from all of his friends (due to having been placed in some 'special' (advanced) classes, and he ended the year with a distressing incident. He's not looking forward to seventh grade. His psychologist mother buys him a self-help book called Happy Kid! A Young Person's Guide to Satisfying Relationships and a Happy and Meaning-Filled Life. He is naturally embarrassed by this, but she offers to pay him a dollar per chapter, and the chapters are very short. So, in a weak moment, he starts to read it. Kyle finds himself strangely compelled to follow the advice in the book, and experiences unintended consequences (unintended by Kyle, anyway) in response.

Kyle soon notices some curious facts about the book. First of all, the chapters that he reads bear an uncanny relevance to whatever is going on in his life. Second, until he acts on a piece of advice in some way, the book will only open to that page, and not allow him to move forward. At one point, a girl in his class reads from the book, and finds that it offers her completely different advice, specific to her needs. Although these are rather unexpected attributes to find in a book, Kyle takes it more or less in stride. And gradually, the book does help him to improve his life and relationships.

There's a lot of subtle humor to this book. I can relate to Kyle's wry, pessimistic voice. Here's a small example that struck me, from Chapter 5.

""So there I was, in these two 'special' classes, and the only I could get out of them would be to join two classes that weren't special but that I was a month behind in, so I'd have to work extra hard to catch up. What was the point? Work hard in one class or work hard in the other."

"Wow, talk about irony," Jared said, nodding his head in appreciation.

None of Lauren's other boyfriends ever used words like "irony." Jared definitely is a step up for our family."

I also like the character of Mr. Kowsz, a teacher who isn't entirely what he appears to be, and of the determined-to-do-the-right-thing Melissa Esposito, who sets out to right a wrong, under difficult circumstances. There's also Jake, a school rebel and bully who has decided that he wants to be friends with Kyle, much to Kyle's chagrin. All of these characters, and their interactions, make the book a fun, realistic window into middle school life.

However, it's the aptness and wisdom of the Happy Kid! advice that makes this book unique. I think that anyone could benefit from some of the book-within-a-book chapters, such as: It All Begins with Hello ("Make a point every day to speak to the people around you. Before long, you'll be doing it without even thinking!"), Does Your Life Stink, or Is It YOU? ("Does your life actually stink, or do you just think it does?"), or Kick-Start Your Life with Something New! ("Being a different person can only be a good thing since whatever you were before wasn't working for you now, was it?"). A couple of them really resonated with me - I actually found myself repeating one of the pieces of advice to someone a couple of days after reading the book. Which is a lot more than I would generally expect from a novel written for children. I especially like the way the old-fashioned, peppy self-help speak (as above) is interlaced with Kyle's humorous, slightly sarcastic tone. I don't know why these two voices work so well together, but they do.

I recommend this book. I think that middle schoolers, and their parents, will enjoy it. And maybe they'll even find a little tidbit that resonates with them, and helps them to improve some relationships.

Book: Happy Kid!
Author: Gail Gauthier (Gail also has a great blog, Original Content)
Publisher: Putnam Juvenile
Original Publication Date: December 31, 2005
Pages: 192
Age Range: 9-12

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.

The Velvet Room: Zilpha Keatley Snyder

I was inspired by a recent comment on my blog from Miranda to write about one of my favorite authors of all time: Zilpha Keatley Snyder. Miranda pointed out that she had some difficulty finding a copy of Snyder's The Velvet Room a couple of years ago, but that it's now back in print. The reprint edition actually came out a couple of years ago, and there's no telling how long it will be available. I wanted to bring it to your attention now so that you can snag a copy for yourself if you're interested.

The Velvet Room is about twelve-year-old Robin, who lives with her family in a series of tents, and their Model-T Ford, during the depression. She longs to live in a real house, and is hopeful when her father takes a job at Mr. McCurdy's ranch, one that comes with a house to live in. Alas, the house is little more than a shack, and she and her siblings are expected to work hard on the fruit ranch.

However, Robin soon makes friends with a mysterious old woman who lives in a stone house in the woods, and receives some comfort. She also finds a secret way into the boarded up old McCurdy mansion, and there discovers the wonderful, unforgettable Velvet Room. "From the first glimpse, from the first minute, it was more than a room—more even than the most beautiful room Robin had ever seen... It was as if she had been there before, or at least known it was there. As if she had always known that there would be a place exactly like this." The Velvet Room is filled with books and other treasures, and features a velvet-lined alcove with window-seats, perfect for reading.

The Velvet Room becomes Robin's haven, where she escapes from the difficulties of ranch work, the awkwardness of the local school, and the demands of her family. She also learns about a long-ago girl who lived in the house, and is befriended by the daughter of the current ranch owner (who lives in a new, modern house). Eventually she solves a mystery, but is forced to choose between her family and her precious Velvet Room.

Although Robin's story is set during the Depression, her struggles to fit in and to remain loyal to her family while holding on to what is important to her, are timeless. The Velvet Room, and the old woman, Bridget, render the story magical, while Robin's other relationships and experiences feel (sometimes painfully) real. I can't recommend this book highly enough. I loved it the first time I read it (when I was probably 10 or 11) and I love it still.

According to the Zilpha Keatley Snyder's website, The Changeling, Black and Blue Magic, and the Green Sky Trilogy (Below the Root, And All Between, and Until the Celebration) are also now available in reprint editions. The website says that "Zilpha received so many letters and emails from devoted fans looking for these books, that she made arrangements through The Authors' Guild with iUniverse to republish them." Black and Blue Magic is one that I enjoyed, but it's not one of my special favorites. But The Velvet Room, The Changeling, and the three Green Sky books are all books that I adore, and have read and re-read throughout my life. In fact, although I have at least one used copy of most of these books (three copies of The Velvet Room, no copy of Below the Root), I've just taken advantage of generous birthday Amazon certificates sent to me by two of my favorite people to buy nice new copies of the reissue editions. If any of you have Amazon gift certificate balances burning holes in your pockets, you could do a lot worse. Thanks, L and L!!

Book: The Velvet Room
Author: Zilpha Keatley Snyder
Publisher: / iUniverse (June, 2004)
Original Publication Date: 1965
Pages: 226
Age Range: 9-12

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.

Poetry Friday: Every Time I Climb a Tree

In need of a poem this week, I consulted my trusty The World Treasury of Children's Literature, compiled by Clifton Fadiman. And I discovered a new (to me) poet of children's verse: David McCord (1897 to 1997). I believe that his work is still under copyright, but here is an excerpt from a particularly charming one:

Every Time I Climb a Tree

Every time I climb a tree
Every time I climb a tree
Every time I climb a tree
I scrape a leg
Or skin a knee
And every time I climb a tree
I find some ants
Or dodge a bee
And get the ants
All over me

-- David McCord

The Sixth Carnival of Children's Literature

The Sixth Carnival of Children's Literature is now available at Castle of the Immaculate. I think that Mary did an excellent job of putting this one together. She includes thoughtful comments on each post, and clearly enjoyed reading all of the entries. So, waste no more time here. Head over to the Sixth Carnival of Children's Literature, and learn about some new blogs.

A Few Thoughts for August 16th

Just a couple things that may be of interest:

  • Today is the 29th anniversary of Elvis Presley's death, which also makes it my birthday (no, not my 29th). I remember hearing about Elvis' death on my little red plastic radio, in my bedroom in Lexington, Mass. Today is also Madonna's birthday, and my friend Christina's.
  • I read today in the Duke alumni magazine that all incoming freshman will be required to read My Sister's Keeper, by Jodi Picoult, before arriving on campus. My Sister's Keeper is the story of 13-year-old Anna, who was conceived as a genetic match to be a marrow donor for her older sister, and what happens when she later rebels against being a donor. It's a story about medical ethics, family responsibilities, and relationships. It's a truly excellent book that I highly recommend for adults or mature young adult readers.
  • Duke is also now offering a course titled: Fairy Tales: Grimms to Disney. How cool is that? If they'd offered that class when I was there, maybe it would have been just what I needed to pull me back from engineering. Oh well. Better late than never.
  • If you've been following the book meme recently in play across the kidlitosphere, you might be interested in this post at Here in the Bonny Glen. Melissa Wiley deconstructs the question: "Name one book that you wish had never been written", and summarizes many of the blog responses to the topic. One point that I found interesting was the idea that if Mein Kampf hadn't been written, perhaps the Holocaust wouldn't have happened. Wow! But check out Melissa's full post on the topic.

That's it for now. Friends and a nice bottle of wine await. Happy August 16th!

A New List: Great Antagonists of Children's Literature

A new blogger on the scene, nrkii at Journey Woman, has been inspired in part by the Cool Girls and Cool Boys lists on this site (and the Teachers and Librarians listed on other sites) to start a list of Great Antagonists of Children's Literature. She's broken them into two categories: the true villains and the ones who are perhaps more misguided. I sent her a bunch of suggestions. And if you can think of any bad guys, you should send them over to nrkii, too. Happy reading!