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Monday, August 22, 2016

YA Review: Sophomore Year Is Greek to Me

Sophomore Year is Greek to Me by Meredith Zeitlin

Published: April 21st, 2015 by G. P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers which is a division of Penguin.
Genre: Contemporary YA.
Binding: ARC
Page Count: 328 in my ARC, plus the acknowledgements, and goodreads says there are 336 in the finished version.
Part of a series? As I said in my review for that book, this is the companion to Freshman Year and Other Unnatural Disasters. About 50 pages in, Kelsey from the last book shows up, which is nifty. There are a couple spoilers for that book, but you could honestly read them as standalones. Nothing in this review will spoil that book.
Got via: It was sent to me for review consideration. Last year. Before it was out. I'm still terrible, and still sorry. But less terrible than I've been?

Amazon / Book Depository / Indiebound

Summary (from goodreads): High school sophomore Zona Lowell has lived in New York City her whole life, and plans to follow in the footsteps of her renowned-journalist father. But when he announces they’re moving to Athens for six months so he can work on an important new story, she's devastated— he must have an ulterior motive. See, when Zona's mother married an American, her huge Greek family cut off contact. But Zona never knew her mom, and now she’s supposed to uproot her entire life and meet possibly hostile relatives on their turf? Thanks... but no thanks.

Review: Holy cow, this was awesome. It was like little elves read my review of the other book before I even wrote it and fixed almost all the things I had problems with in that one in this one. You know, this one just worked way better for me. And I did like the first one, even with my issues! This is just... wow. I am so surprised and impressed by it. It's so funny I actually hurt my throat and my jaw laughing at one point, but there are parts that also legit had me tearing up and needing to take a minute because I was crying.

Plot Talk: Girl goes to Greece for six months. Girl makes friends, meets family, has some romance, big plot stuff that's kind of spoiler-y. It's straight-forward, but works well for the story, and doesn't try to do too much. I really liked the pacing of the book only taking place over about six months, as it's a bit quicker than a full year. You have lots of time for character growth and stuff to happen, but it doesn't feel slow, or like you're missing too much of the story because so much time has to pass between the beginning and the end of the book. It works well. No complaints.

Characters: Remember I talked about Kelsey and her friends being relatively privileged white girls? Well... Zona kind is too. She's a relatively well-off teenaged white girl. At one point she says that she and her father are considered "poor" at her school. Sweetie. Your father is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, and you live in an apartment in New York. That you can afford to keep while living in Greece. GREECE. You aren't poor. And you kind of have to work with that for a bit, because honestly it takes a minute to not be a little jealous about the girl who gets to live in Greece for half a year and keeps complaining about it.

But the growth works really, really well. Zona has her world view challenged, including her views about her family and herself, and she really has to think about how she's going to react to things. There are a lot of very interesting characters, and Zona's large Greek family is amazing, and lovely, and they really do shine. Zona's relationship with her father is super sweet, and I really adored how much time was spent on her relationship with family. Zona is also so, so funny, and I really liked the newspaper aspect. She's very passionate about it, but she's also experiencing some writer's block, and that is so relateable.

For the most part, the characters are pretty strong in this. Some fall down a little, but some are amazing. I would read like eight books just about Zona spending time in Greece with her family. The author is great at writing a large cast of characters without them blending together.

And (this is a bit of a spoiler so just skip to the next section if you don't want to see it) I really liked that the romance in the book is generally a bit casual. Zona has lots of crushes on boys, but family is more important to her, and it's shown that just because you like a boy doesn't mean you date them forever. It works so well, and I love that message. It's not treated as a bad thing that dating doesn't last forever, either, or even something to really be sad about. It just is. (End spoiler.)

PG-13 stuff: There's some underage drinking, and I like the way it's handled. The drinking age in Greece is 18, but the attitude is very different than in the US, and it is not strictly enforced at all. That attitude is reflected in the book, and Zona talks a lot about how since it's not as big of a deal, her Greek friends don't feel the need to do it as much. It's a really interesting concept to see a character be basically allowed to drink freely without consequences, and... decide that that's kind of boring, and they're okay sticking with moderation. The discussion of the forbidden fruit aspect is really mature and interesting, and I really liked it.

Zona does now and then think about safety type stuff - not accepting drinks from strangers, being nervous about hitchhiking even though everyone said it was safe - and there is a subplot about a character with an eating disorder. (Which I promise isn't a spoiler - it's very clear the direction it'll go the first time you meet the character.) I wouldn't say that there's anything that a mature young teen couldn't handle, and a lot of it is really great conversation starters, or things that they might be seeing in their friends.

For the record - I never want to say that those things are bad (cursing is not a moral failing), but if you're an adult reading my reviews for teens, your teens may not be ready for certain things and that's okay. Books should never be banned, or taken away from kids, but not all kids are ready for things at the same time, and we should be aware of them when we recommend books.

Cons, complaints, bad stuff, etc.: I do think that there could have been more main characters who weren't white. A few side characters are POC, but the ones who are generally just show up for one scene and then disappear. Most of the characters are white. And it is Greece, but still, she goes to a school where the whole thing is that the students come from all over the world. There could be more than one vaguely not-white character who has more than one scene. The world is not that white.

Also, I like that the author seems to always have at least one queer character, and I appreciated the discussion Zona had with her Greek friends about the different cultures regarding that, but. But. At one point one of her Greek friends calls Matty "your gay friend" and Zona argues against that. The problem is, he has basically no personality besides being the gay best friend. Literally the book tells us nothing about him besides that he's gay and he has a crush on a guy. When Zona talks about missing her friends, she only talks about things he does for her, not who is is, or what he's like, or anything. It's disappointing especially because the other characters are really good.

Also, nobody is fat, and everybody is able-bodied. The discussion of the cultural attitudes regarding eating disorders and sexuality is good, but more representation would be nice besides characters who basically are very tokenized because they're the only ones in the book who represent those things.

Cover comments: I was so disappointed that this doesn't have Zona's ugly suitcase on the cover! In all seriousness, this is an adorable cover. It fits very well with the companion book so they look uniform overall, and it suits the book very well. It is perfect for reading when it's warm out, even though not all of the book is like, super fluffy or anything. (Seriously. I cried.) It feels like a perfect summer book.

Conclusion: This was so much fun to read, honestly. I loved the setting so much, and I feel like I learned a ton about Greece. The discussion, also, of some of the politics of modern day Greece is so smart and maturely handled. I thought the eating disorder subplot is also handed incredibly well, and the depth of many of the things in the book really surprised me. It's going to lose a rose for the cons I mentioned earlier, but overall, I liked this so much.

I feel like I'm always better at pointing out problems than I am at telling you the good things. The funny moments in this, guys, my neighbours were seriously about to start yelling at me because I was laughing so hard. There are a lot of (white, straight) girls in this, and they are all very different and unique. The setting is so amazing, and the description of that is so good. It's just so, so much fun to read.

Since we have two books and two years of high school, there better be two more! Junior and Senior, right? I look forward to those if they're going to happen, and I think the author has nowhere to go but up. I would read all four books if it went that long. This one gets a strong three and a half roses, and a strong recommendation as long as you take into mind the things I mentioned.

Other Notes:

- Did I mention I got two wisdom teeth taken out recently? That's a thing. Doing well, though.

I think that's it!

Peace and cookies,

Monday, August 15, 2016

YA Review: Freshman Year & Other Unnatural Disasters

Freshman Year & Other Unnatural Disasters by Meredith Zeitlin

Published: March 1st, 2012 by G. P. Putnam's Sons, with the edition I read released in 2013 by Speak.
Genre: Contemporary YA
Binding: Paperback
Page Count: 282
Part of a series? There is a companion to this called Sophomore Year is Greek to Me, which I will be reviewing net week. That is not a direct sequel, but does take place the year after this one, and has a few spoilers for this book.
Got via: The library.
Amazon / Book Depository / Indiebound

Summary (from goodreads): Kelsey Finkelstein is fourteen and frustrated. Every time she tries to live up to her awesome potential, her plans are foiled – by her impossible parents, her annoying little sister, and life in general. But with her first day of high school coming up, Kelsey is positive that things are going to change. Enlisting the help of her three best friends — sweet and quiet Em, theatrical Cass, and wild JoJo — Kelsey gets ready to rebrand herself and make the kind of mark she knows is her destiny.

Things start out great - her arch-nemesis has moved across the country, giving Kelsey the perfect opportunity to stand out on the soccer team and finally catch the eye of her long-time crush. But soon enough, an evil junior’s thirst for revenge, a mysterious photographer, and a series of other catastrophes make it clear that just because Kelsey has a plan for greatness… it doesn’t mean the rest of the world is in on it.

Review: This was absolutely hilarious. The running gag about the school newspaper publishing horrible pictures of Kelsey is probably one of the funniest things I've read in a long time. There is a lot of humour, and it was a really good decision to read this while I'm still a little fuzzy from being sick. (Getting better. It probably doesn't matter by the time you read this, since I'm probably going to post stuff out of order.) For the most part, this is light and sweet and funny, and I enjoyed it a whole lot. Definitely pros and cons, but we'll get into that in the later bits of this review.

Plot Talk: Basically the plot is Kelsey Finkelstein's freshman year at high school playing soccer and growing up and fighting with friends and stuff. There isn't really a huge event that everything builds up to, but I quite enjoyed that. It's just a year in a girl's life as she gets used to being in high school.

Characters: Kelsey is really funny, but she can be really annoying at times. She is very, very fourteen, and it is a very honest fourteen. Fourteen is a terrible age, let's be real. Kelsey is an incredibly dramatic girl at times who takes everything very seriously a lot of the time. Her parents are terrible, the hot guy she likes is basically a god, bad pictures of her are a disaster. Part of the book's arc is her growing, but there are definitely moments where my notes just say, "Poor baby. Your life is so hard." And that's about things like not being allowed to use her mother's credit card freely, or text in class.

Kelsey's friends, and Kelsey herself are mostly upper-class, slightly-spoiled, probably white girls. (Nobody is really well-described - I honestly have no idea what anyone looked like.) Kelsey is Jewish which is awesome, and absolutely lovely to see in YA. But she is also very privileged, and so are her friends. They can be a little mean and judgemental, and that is somewhat addressed. Realistic because they are very privileged fourteen year old girls. But I did like seeing their friendship, and the struggles they go through as they grow and spend their first year in high school.

Another thing I appreciated was that I don't have to say everyone is straight. There were non-straight characters, and mostly they weren't stereotyped or anything. (The music teacher and drama teacher being queer and dating is kind of cliche, though, but it's treated mostly as a rumour/not especially interesting, so, you know, not a huge deal.)

The characters are strong in this. Some of them can be surprising, even, and go against who you would expect them to be. Like the super hot, basically perfect, blonde, soccer star is... actually really sweet. There's a whole book/cover Aesop.

PG-13 stuff: Probably a little more than you'd expect considering the character's ages, but they do live in New York. For the most part, I think it's realistic and well-handled. Not all consequences are life-ending, but there are consequences for most things. Like, getting careless with alchohol gives you a headache, and maybe some injuries you have to deal with. I am not a fan of underage drinking because of the issues it can cause in adulthood, but in the book, it's mostly handled well.

Kelsey thinks about sex a lot, and I really like the way it's handled. It's realistic for someone her age to be curious about it. All in all, this would probably be fine for kids Kelsey's age, around thirteen or fourteen.

Cons, complaints, bad stuff, etc.: The mean girl thing and girl hate bothers me. There's a bit of slutshaming here and there, and that is really uncomfortable. It would also be nice if they'd mentioned that, you know, gay and straight are not the only options. There's also some really uncomfortable moments that are... kind of racist. Kelsey and her friends dress up as the Village People for Halloween and there's more than a few lines about her friend being an "Indian Princess", wearing makeup and a headdress, and that is not cool. If it weren't for that, this would probably be full-rose rating higher.

Nobody in this book is fat, as far as I can tell, and there are some cracks that I don't really like. What's wrong with weighing three hundred pounds, Kelsey?

Last, it's predictable. Not as badly as other books I've read recently, but it's a lot like other books in this genre. Certain tropes are exactly what you expect them to be. It's not the worst thing ever, but it's there. It's more fun than anything, I think, to have those familiar tropes, but if that's a thing than bothers you, now you know.

Cover comments: It is so cute. It's perfectly suited to the book. The colours are gorgeous, and the little clouds and rain drops are just perfectly adorable.

Conclusion: This is really cute, and hilarious. It's a lot of fun to read, but the cons I mentioned did bother me both while I was reading, and afterwards. I would hesitate to recommend this to certain kids (First Nations/NA kids do not need that stereotype thrown in their face), even though it is really fun. It's really fun if you know that those things are going to make you cringe, not hurt you. If those things would hurt you, don't worry about passing. So. Mixed review, mixed recommendation. I really enjoyed this because it was cute and funny, but that comes from a place of privilege in some aspects, so take that into consideration.

This is going to lose a rose for the racism (and it is only that Halloween scene), and the girl hate, so this is coming out at three roses. I am, however, very much looking forward to starting the other book by the author that I have.

Other notes:

- There may have been a guy named Ned who gets called Nedward and I can't tell if it was a joke or serious.

- What phones are they flipping shut in 2012? Like Blackberries or something?

- There's a moment with a strong anti-rape culture message, and I kind of appreciated that.

- Favourite character: Valentina.

I think that's it!

Peace and cookies,

Monday, August 1, 2016

Things I've Read Recently (36): Random Canadian Books!

If you're new around here, Things I've Read Recently is a series of posts I do that are basically mini-reviews of books that I either forgot to review, didn't have enough to say for a full review, or just didn't want to do a full post about for whatever reason.

Dare by Marilyn Halvorson

Published: Originally published in 1988, this edition was released in 1990 from General Paperbacks which I think is an imprint of Gemini Books, but don't test me. There's a more recent printing that I'll be linking to, released in 2014.
Genre: Realistic YA.
Binding: Paperback.
Page Count: 191
Part of a series? Nope, but a whole lot of her books are kind of cowboy/Western Canada themed.
Got via: It's a library reject.
Amazon / Book Depository / Indiebound / AbeBooks

Summary (from goodreads): Dare, almost 16, is big, tough, street-wise kid, always in trouble at school and around the town of Crossing, Alberta. His 12-year-old brother, Ty, is just the opposite: quiet, studious, at the head of his class.

When their grandmother dies, the two are faced with the prospect of going to a foster home - until Laura McConnell, a part-time teacher, invites them to her ranch.

If it weren't for Ty, Dare would be long gone... a desire that intensifies into white-hot rage as he clashes with Laura and faces the pain of his past.

Thoughts: This is set in Alberta and that was kind of neat. I'm not from Alberta or have ever been there, but I enjoy reading about different places in Canada. There's something that's fun about reading about places in your country, especially when a lot of books are US-centred. You've probably noticed that I have a soft-spot for even not very good Canadian books because they are Canadian. Now, the book itself is... fine. It's not the most amazing thing in the world, but it was fine.

It is a touch dated in the details like an AC/DC concert in Calgary being the cool thing for teenagers to do, but it is also kind of dated in its tropes. It kind of reads like something a teacher would make you read in like grade eight to make you learn something. This would make a good, like, Lifetime inspirational movie. Like the appeal of an emotional story of two brothers, one of whom isn't making the best choices, going to live with a pretty awesome woman who pushes them to be their best ad how they all learn to love each other is definitely there.

The writing is good, and in researching the author a bit, I think I've actually read another of her newer books. I think she only has upwards to go when it comes to the quality of the writing. I can honestly say I enjoyed this one. The questions I have to ask myself are, would I read this again, and am I going to keep it? Those answers are linked in - no, I would probably not read it again, and because of that, I'll probably be passing it along. My copy is also in pretty rough condition, so it's not like I'm oohing and awwing over the prettiness. Fly free, little bird.

Props to this cover, though, for actually depicting a scene in the book. I like when that happens. I do not personally think I would re-purchase this, but if this appeals to you, you can buy a new edition released in 2014. Cover to the right. Nice new cover.

A Bird in the House by Margaret Laurence

Published: This edition was originally published in 1987 by Bantom Seal. This collection was first published in 1970, and versions of some of the stories were published in various magazines as early as 1963. There have been many editions of this released, with the most recent being 2010.
Genre: Adult fiction.
Binding: Paperback.
Page Count: 179 plus an excerpt of another book, an about the author, a list of other books in this series, and a listing of other books from the publisher.
Part of a series? This is the fourth book of five in the Manawaka sequence, but as far as I can tell, they are only loosely connected by all being set in the fictional same town. I read this as a standalone.
Got via: Library reject.
Amazon / Book Depository / Indiebound

Summary (from goodreads): In eight interconnected, finely wrought stories, Margaret Laurence recreates the world of Vanessa MacLeod – a world of scrub-oak, willow, and chokecherry bushes; of family love and conflict; and of a girl’s growing awareness of and passage into womanhood. The stories blend into one masterly and moving whole: poignant, compassionate, and profound in emotional impact.

Thoughts: This was a hidden gem! There are probably a lot of people who are chuckling at me realizing this, though. But I hadn't ever heard of this besides seeing it on my shelves. The format of this is really interesting, as the timeline jumps around at times, and everything is being told by adult Vanessa about her childhood self and family.

(Hence why this is an adult novel about a young character, not a YA novel, which I initially thought it would be because of the cover.)

Things don't have happy endings all the time, and not everything is resolved. Sometimes characters just die, or leave, or other things that happen in life. It's very slice-of-life in a way, but also everything makes Vanessa who she is. The fact that it's set in the thirties and the Great Depression, and Vanessa is an aspiring writer, and the peeks you get of her older self are all really, really cool. The family is complicated, frustrating, and fascinating. They are by far not perfect, and an overreaching theme is about how Vanessa has relationships with those imperfect people.

I liked this one so much more than I ever thought I would. If you ever find this one, guys, check it out. I will definitely be keeping this one. I would probably even buy a used copy of one of the new editions in slightly better shape if I ever ran across one (they seem to be fairly pricy to buy new). Mine looks fairly old. Although I have to say, I do like the cover, even for its datedness. I really like that the model isn't like fashion model thin. She's got a bit of a tummy, and it's cool to see that.

Side note: I read this on Canada Day weekend watching Pirate's Passage. Very Canadian weekend, apparently. It also amuses me that they'll occasionally mention something like Jergens hand lotion, or other brands that you still see today. Considering the setting of the thirties, it's cool.

Out of the Dark by Welwyn Wilton Katz

Published: Originally published in 1995 by Groundwood Books, there was a reprint in 2001. Mine is probably the 1995 one because there's a library stamp from 1996.
Genre: Contemporary MG.
Binding: Paperback.
Page Count: 179 plus the author's note.
Part of a series? No.
Got via: Library reject.
Amazon / AbeBooks

Summary (from goodreads): Faced with the tragic loss of his mother, Ben Elliot is forced into a move he hates. He has had to give up his home and friends in the city to move with his father and younger brother to the tiny village of Ship Cove on Newfoundland's isolated northern peninsula.

The only thing that makes the place bearable is its nearness to the Viking settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows, where he finds comfort in the ancient myths and sagas his mother loved. He also revives his childhood game of imagining he is Tor, a young Viking shipbuilder. But when the Tor game becomes increasingly real and harder to control, Ben discovers that the lines between past and present, fantasy and reality, are beginning to blur - with dangerous consequences.

Thoughts: I'm a little conflicted about this. The writing is really quite good. The Newfoundland setting isn't something I run into a lot in books, and it's vibrant and wonderful. Basically, the only thing that I really didn't like was the Viking stuff. Like actually in the story, it was well worked into the setting and the character's interest, but the random italics got really distracting. Honestly, if they had formatted the Tor stuff (the character Ben pretended to be, not the publisher, ha) differently, it probably would have worked better. There was also some Norse mythology told in italics, most of which Ben's mother had told him at some point. But the thing is, Norse names plus italics make word soup, honestly. I would have preferred hearing it from Ben, not just having the mythology told to me out of the narrative.

Honestly, it's not even that those parts were badly written or anything. But you'd be reading these really interesting scenes about Ben and his family and even just Ben talking about the history of Newfoundland and then bam, suddenly Vikings. Like (and I'm making this up as an example) it'd be Ben and his dad getting in a boat, switch, Tor making a boat for the Vikings or something, switch, Ben picks up the oars. I get the idea behind it, that he's escaping reality and stuff, but it really interrupts the flow of the novel at times. When it's integrated into the story, and thread into what's actually happening to Ben, it's really cool. When it's just thrown onto the page, it's a bit clunky.

And honestly, I spent a lot of time really worried about this kid. He's kind of hallucinating or dissociating or something, and this is obviously because of the loss of his mother. Someone should probably talk to the kid about that! Like, that's a little too glossed over.

However, though, I still liked this one. Again, the writing is good, the setting was awesome, and it's interesting. I just wish the bits that weren't Ben's story had been blended in a bit better. I think that kids who are interested in Norse mythology would really like this, and I would definitely be interested in checking out other books from the author. I even have one on my to-read pile that I'm excited about reading, since the writing will probably continue to improve. Even with this being a bit older, I think most of it still works well. Kids may ask why they don't have computers or internet, but honestly I wouldn't be surprised if rural Newfoundland lacks in a bit of technology - like my aunt in Northern Saskatchewan can only get one internet provider on her farm - and a mention of video rentals raising questions about a lack of DVDs, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. You could have a good conversation from that.

I complained a lot, but I don't think this was a bad book at all. It was a good book, and I can definitely see kids enjoying this. The only thing is, I don't think the cover is the best choice. It reminds me of The Other Elizabeth, which is a book I read about eight hundred times as a kid and I should do a blog post on some day (and can't find a cover picture of online - I'll take one and put it next to this post). But this only has two stamps from people checking it out. Maybe it had an index card that was stamped instead, but the stamps are from 1996 and 2001, so that's a bit of a gap. And the book looks brand new - I thought it was from the mid-2000s, not the 90s. I don't think this cover makes kids look at it and want to read it.

Which is a shame! If you come across this, I'd say go ahead and check it out if you're into kid books. It's worth giving a chance.

Castle Tourmandyne by Monica Hughes

Published: First published by HarperCollins Canada in 1995, my edition was released in 1996.
Genre: I'm gonna call this middle grade fantasy. I don't think it's YA. I think if it was published today, it'd be put out as middle grade.
Binding: Paperback
Page Count: 157 plus a handful of pages of other books the author wrote.
Part of a series? Nope.
Got via: I think honestly this is the copy I had as a kid. I ended up with two copies at one point, and kept the one in better shape, but one I had since I was nine or ten.
Amazon / AbeBooks

Summary (from goodreads): Marg is thrilled that her cousin Peggy is coming to stay for the summer. But Peggy - prickly, sarcastic, and downright mean - has no time for her "baby' cousin"... until Marg receives a beautiful Victorian dollhouse for her birthday. Strangely drawn to Castle Tourmandyne, Peggy insists on assembling the dollhouse in spite of its printed warning: "Be careful to make this house with love".

Soon Peggy is haunted by terrifying dreams in which she is trapped in the dollhouse, a place without love or protection from evil. Marg alone can save her. But first, Marg must enter Castle Tourmandyne herself - and confront the spirit within.

Thoughts: I was so nervous to re-read this. This was one of my favourite books as a kid, along with another of the author's books. (My Name is Paula Popowich - I should talk about that some day, too.) Reading this was super nostalgic for me, since I read it so many times as a kid. It's one of very few books I brought with me when we moved from Ontario to Saskatchewan. And I'm glad to say it has held up pretty well. There's a few dates aspects - video tapes, green and pink plastic roller blades - but I don't think it affects it badly, and the writing has held up well.

The idea of a haunted dollhouse is just delightfully creepy. (And seriously, check out this list when you're done reading this post. Look at all the creepy doll books.) The scare factor is definitely kid-appropriate. While I still think it's creepy and appreciate that, it's not going to give me nightmares or anything. It's kind of like Goosebumps or Fear Street. Scary for kids, but in an appropriate way.

One thing I noticed as an adult was that occasioanlly Marg's dialogue sounded much older than a twelve year old. I don't think twelve year olds in 1995 said "shan't". I woner if part of that was that the author wasn't published until fairly late in life, and also that she was British. I could see a British kid saying "shan't". But honestly, I know from reading this as a kid that it didn't bother me. I loved this as a kid.

I like the relationship between Marg and Peggy, how they fight, and how complex they are. Peggy is kind of a jerk! And yet she is also presented as a sympathetic character, and her growth and emotions are so important to the story. The message is good, I adore two girls fighting evil together through love, and it's just creepy enough. It's a little old, but I still enjoyed re-reading it, and it will be staying on my shelf.

So, two are staying, one is a maybe, one will be passed along.

Don't forget to enter the contest! Ends on Friday!

Peace and cookies,