Posts Tagged ‘children’s literature’

Cannonball 39: Brian’s Return by Gary Paulsen

Brian's Return (Hatchet, #4)Brian’s Return by Gary Paulsen
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The Lakers recently acquired Jason Kapono, a former Bruin who was, at one point, the most accurate three-point shooter in NBA history. So what happened? He got more playing time is what happened. While Kapono is undoubtedly one of the best three-point shooters in the game, it’s just common sense that, the more shots you take, the harder it’ll get for you to maintain that percentage.

jason kapono

Jason Kapono in Laker purp & yella.

This is kind of what happens to Gary Paulsen with Brian’s Return, the fourth book about Brian Robeson. Paulsen is a prolific writer, with over 200 titles to his name, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that all of his works are of the same quality. Like even the best professional basketball player, if you take too many shots, you’re bound to miss a few.

Brian Robeson has survived a plane crash and being stuck in the woods alone for a long time. This book deals with Brian’s attempt to reassimilate into civilized life, which ends with Brian seriously injuring a boy who picks a fight with him at a pizza parlor. Forced to see a psychologist after this violent act of self-protection, he realizes that he misses the wild, and decides to take a trip back into the woods.

Whereas the series’ first book, Hatchet, focused on Brian’s struggle simply to stay alive and adapt in the forest, Brian’s Return is filled with an affected air of mystery surrounding Brian’s inexplicable and irresistible connection with Nature. And I write “Nature” as a proper noun because that’s how Paulsen treats nature in this book, as though it’s a deity with whom Brian has a nebulous relationship. The whole “Mother Earth” vibe of this book made me keep rolling my eyes. Brian goes from a hardy kid who’ll never say die to a pretentious, sanctimonious tree-hugger who somehow has this mysterious connection with Nature after having lived in the woods for a mere three years.

house

Hugh Laurie as Dr. Gregory House and Andre Braugher as Dr. Darryl Nolan, his psychologist.

If Paulsen had focused a little more on the survival side of the story instead of Brian’s mystical ear for hearing the pleas of Mother Earth, the book might’ve been more compelling. And the whole psychologist storyline was very “House,” Season Six. In fact, I was picturing Andre Braugher in my head in the role of Caleb the Psychologist. Meh.

But don’t get me wrong. I actually really like Gary Paulsen. I think a lot of his books are solid (especially the original Hatchet and his semi-autobiographical The Cook Camp, and anything he’s ever written about dogsledding). It’s just that this one was an airball. But I’m sure that Paulsen’s already jogging downcourt, waiting patiently for another shot opportunity.

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Cannonball 12: The Red Pyramid (Kane Chronicles, #1) by Rick Riordan

The Red Pyramid (Kane Chronicles, #1)The Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This book is lame.

I don’t want to waste anyone’s time, so I thought I’d get right to the point. In the spectrum of Rick Riordan, there’s the good (e.g. The Battle of the Labyrinth) and the bad (e.g. The Maze of Bones). The Red Pyramid, unfortunately, follows in the vein of Riordan’s contributions to The 39 Clues series.

The plot is pretty standard fantasy fare: two kids find themselves embroiled in a race to save the world. They find that they have mystical powers and that saving the world is their destiny. In this case, the Kane kids find that they are Egyptian royalty descended from the Egyptian gods. Looks like Riordan is trying to take the corner market on EVERY mythology. What’s next? Norse? Indian? Native American?

The story is told from two characters’ points of view: Carter Kane and his sister, Sadie. I don’t generally object to stories being told from multiple points of view (About a Boy, for example, is a great example, although I suppose it isn’t fair to compare Rick Riordan to Nick Hornby), but Riordan’s use of the trope was tired and poorly done.

Okay, so, after their mother died, Sadie was raised in England by her grandparents while Carter went globetrotting with his American archaeologist father. So, of course, whenever we hear the story from Sadie’s point of view, Riordan has to stick in some obligatory English slang because, oh, right, Sadie’s English. But is she English or a bad stereotype? Really, Riordan, could you have been any more ham-fisted with your portrayal of the Brits? They don’t all talk like back-alley chimney sweeps who watch too much BBC America.

chimney sweeps

'ello, guvna!! CHEROO!!!

The other problem I had with the dual points of view was that the voices weren’t exactly distinct. I often read several pages into a chapter and was startled to read that Carter had a crush on Anubis, only to find that this particular chapter was being told from Sadie’s point of view. I just don’t see the point of telling a story from multiple points of view when one will suffice, and adding a second viewpoint won’t enhance the storytelling in any way.

Finally, I’m really starting to get tired of characters in fantasy books who find that they have supernatural powers, and then respond to them with unnatural aplomb. If I find that I can suddenly interpret hieroglyphics despite the fact that I have never studied them, I’m not going to shrink back modestly and keep this information to myself — especially if I just saw my father imprisoned in a golden coffin and swallowed by the ground. I’m going to be, like, “HOLY CRAP, I CAN READ HIEROGLYPHICS!!!” and freak out.

omg

That’s what I disliked most about this book, and I’m finding it more and more often in the genre: the characters reactions to the situations in which they find themselves simply don’t ring true. Their reactions are just so false; it’s a glaring reminder that THIS IS FICTION!! Sure, I know that I’m not likely ever to discover that I’m descended from ancient Egyptian gods, but that doesn’t mean that I want to be reminded at every turn that I’m dunking myself into a work of fiction. No, I want to immerse myself in it, lose myself in that fictional world and, for the time that I’m there, forget that there is any world but the one I’m reading about. It’s hard to do that when the characters are so paper-thin.

Wait, I lied: there is one thing about the book that I dislike even more than the false tone of the characters. It’s the fact that this whole book is supposed to be a transcript of a recording. The book is supposed to be a tape that was left behind for someone to find it, and the reader is supposed to have been meant to find it. While I appreciate Riordan’s attempt to make the reader feel as thought they’re a part of the story, this gag wears thin after the first two chapters.

The Kanes are leaving an urgent message for whoever finds it. They keep prodding at each other to hurry up; the reader is given the impression that they don’t have much time, and that someone may be after them.

So how the heck did they find time to leave 516 pages-worth of transcribed notes?? That’s a pretty long recording. And where the heck did they hide the tapes?? It must have been hidden in, like, the biggest hollow stump of all time.

If I had actually found the tapes and listened to them, the bad guys would have caught up to me and chopped my head off before I was done listening to Tape #1, and the Kane kids would be out of luck.

Look, Riordan, I’d appreciate it if you thought your literary gimmicks through before deciding, “Hey, this would make the story more compelling!”

I spent more time on The Kane Chronicles than it deserved (especially if you include the time it took to write up this review, which I won’t, since it was rather cathartic), and I hope that this review will spare you the same ordeal.

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Cannonball 11: The Lost Hero (The Heroes of Olympus #1) by Rick Riordan

The Lost Hero (The Heroes of Olympus, #1)The Lost Hero by Rick Riordan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ahh, here it is: the continuing saga of the half-bloods. I thought the Percy Jackson series was decent, and I did think Rick Riordan found some clever ways to incorporate Greek mythology into a children’s fantasy/adventure series. And I was also ever-so-grateful when he stopped his series at a definitive five instead of dragging it out for ten when it was better told in five.

So when I found out that he was planning a new series that would cross over with the Percy Jackson series, my curiosity was piqued. And I knew that I could count on my buddies JN and BN to lend me the books when they came out.

The Lost Hero is the first installment of The Heroes of Olympus. The hero of our story is not the one who is lost; it’s Jason Grace. He finds himself sitting in the back of a bus, holding hands with his girlfriend, Piper McLean, and joking with his best friend, Leo Valdez. The only problem is that Jason has no idea how he got there or who Piper and Leo are. He can’t remember a thing.

It’s unfortunate that Riordan felt the need to start his book on such a false note because the rest of it was plenty of fun, and filled with adventure. But this was a lame, lame way to start a series.

Look, if I suddenly found myself on a bus with an unexplained case of amnesia, I wouldn’t just sit there and yammer about what to do. I’d FREAK OUT. I’d start go nuts, and I’d certainly draw the attention of whatever authority figures were nearby. And if my boyfriend suddenly couldn’t remember who I was, then I wouldn’t just look crestfallen and try to speculate about ways in which this could have happened. Once again, I’d FREAK OUT. I’d demand that he be taken to a hospital right away so that he would REMEMBER ME. Then, maybe we could go back to holding hands.

jason bourne

Mmm, Bourne.

But, no, the kids on the bus just keep things under wraps until, of course, the monsters show up. Jason (are you sure your last name isn’t Bourne?) seems to instinctively know how to handle himself in battle, and he’s good with his weapon. But not good enough, apparently, because it takes a li’l deus ex machina in the form of Annabeth Chase, a son of Iris named Butch, and some pegasi to get them out of their mess.

As it turns out, Annabeth’s boyfriend, who is none other than Percy Jackson, the hero of Percy Jackson and the Olympians, is missing.

As usual, Riordan drops plenty of broad hints to his reader along the way. By the time that we actually find out the truth about Jason’s heritage, we’re like, “I GET IT. Just spit it out, already!!”

Riordan does a decent job of incorporating mythology into his story; that’s really where the strength of these series lies. Apparently, he decided to write this series because there was still so much mythology that he hadn’t explored in his first series.

This book was a fun li’l adventure, aside from the lame beginning. I’d be willing to read the rest of the series.

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Cannonball 50: The Rescue (Guardians of Ga’Hoole #3) by Kathryn Lasky

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole: Guardians of Ga'Hoole Books One, Two, and ThreeLegend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole: Guardians of Ga’Hoole Books One, Two, and Three by Kathryn Lasky
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Book Three: The Rescue

In some ways, the third installment of the Guardians of Ga’Hoole series provided many of the same annoying tropes that plagued the first two books.

But, then, the ending of this volume, I must admit, threw me for a loop. I should have seen it coming, but, still, I must give credit where credit is due.

I wish Ms. Lasky has condensed Book Two into the beginning of Book Three. It would have made for one fun volume instead of two mediocre ones.

The Rescue picks up where The Journey left off. (SPOILER!!) Orensay’s istersay, Eglantineyay, ashay eenbay escuedray, utbay ishay entormay, Ezylrybyay, ashay onegay issingmay.

I can’t say much about this volume without spoiling the book, but we do get some vital background information about Soren’s mentor, Ezylryb, and more information about an evil plaguing the land that is even worse than the owls of St. Aegolius. And the book ends with a pretty exciting battle. It looks like the author is finally starting to warm up.

However, it still rankles me that she insists upon summarizing all of the major plot points in each of the books. This was especially irritating because I read all three books in the same volume, so there were certain parts of the book that I had to relive three times in a week.

I also don’t appreciate the obvious Hogwartsian quality of life in the Great Ga’Hoole Tree, complete with punishments for misbehavior, mean teachers, and even a prissy, know-it-all Hermione character whom the gang initially hates, but later comes to appreciate.

hermione granger

Nobody likes a know-it-all. Not even me, and I am one.

Finally, the only thing more annoying than all of the summarizing is all of the explanations of the owl jargon that Lasky has created for the owls. Okay, I get that giving the owls their own vocabulary and slang makes it seem like more of its own culture. But I think that Lasky overdoes it, as is evidenced by the fact that she has to explain all of those words every time she uses them in a new installment of her series. Used correctly, creating a unique and complete culture for your characters can ground the reader in your fantasy world (see: Tolkien, J.R.R.). But it needs to serve a purpose, and if you don’t know how to wield that weapon, you’ll end up hurting yourself.

That’s exactly what happens with Lasky’s owlspeak. It ends up becoming more tedious than it’s worth because it doesn’t add all that much to the story.

I do have to admire the author, though, for her thorough research of owls. She understands their physiology and habits. I know more about owls now than I ever did, and I think that’s valuable (what? You won’t be rolling your eyes when I win “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” with an owl question).

I still plan to read the rest of the books, as long as JN keeps lending them to me. But I hope that the plot starts developing a little faster.

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Cannonball 49: The Journey (Guardians of Ga’Hoole #2) by Kathryn Lasky

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole: Guardians of Ga'Hoole Books One, Two, and ThreeLegend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole: Guardians of Ga’Hoole Books One, Two, and Three by Kathryn Lasky
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Journey

The second book of the Guardians of Ga’Hoole series fell rather flat for me. The book follows our quartet of heroes on their journey to the Great Ga’Hoole Tree, where they hope they will find a noble band of warrior owls to join.

My biggest problem with this volume is that there’s nothing here than couldn’t also be included in the next book. Yet, we still have to bear with all of the tedious summarizing that tends to happen at the beginning of serialized books (See: Babysitters Club, The and Sweet Valley High). First off, if you’re going to make me sit through all of that summarizing, then you’d better make it worth my while with something interesting. Second, if you want people to read your series, then you should stop assuming that people will start reading midway through. Once again, kids aren’t stupid; they’ll remember all the major plot points from the previous volume. Unnecessary summarizing was a big pet peeve of mine growing up. I hated having to read a whole chapter full of information I already knew.

Also, in this volume, Soren and his compatriots (notice that I didn’t list them or explain their backstories! That’s because I trust that you read my last review!) reach their destination, which turns out to be a cheap Hogwarts retread. I admit that I have issues with J.K. Rowling’s writing, but even I have to concede that the woman has an imagination that can’t be beat. If you can’t think of a setting for your fantasy novel other than a school for [insert subject of series here], then it might be time to keep thinking.

All in all, there wasn’t much in this volume that couldn’t have been deleted or compacted and tacked onto the beginning of the next book.

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Cannonball 48: The Capture (Guardians of Ga’Hoole #1) by Kathryn Lasky

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole: Guardians of Ga'Hoole Books One, Two, and ThreeLegend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole: Guardians of Ga’Hoole Books One, Two, and Three by Kathryn Lasky
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My good buddy JN let me borrow this one. He said it was decent, and, since he has exquisite taste for an eleven-year-old boy, I decided to give it a shot.

The tales of the Owls of Ga’Hoole begins where every owl begins: a hatching. But Soren Alba, a Barn Owl from the Forest of Tyto (Tyto Alba is the scientific name for barn owls. Nice one, Ms. Lasky), is not the one hatching; he’s awaiting the birth of his sister, Eglantine. His older brother, Kludd, is a bully, but his parents, Noctus and Marella, are loving owl parents who patiently and gently teach their young owlets all about being an owl.

barn owl

Barn owls are scary, yo.

But when Soren is only a few months old, his life is changed forever when he falls out of his family’s tree and is abducted by the owls of St. Aegolius. St. Aggie’s is a mysterious institution: the owls here spend their days working and their nights sleep-marching — that is, they march around in the bright moonlight, trying to sleep, and are subsequently hypnotized by the moon’s rays. Soren is assigned a number to replace his name, but he is determined to remember his family and get back to them.

Along the way, he makes friends with Gylfie, a smart Elf Owl, who immediately sets to work trying to figure out a way to escape St. Aggie’s so that they can return to their families.

elf owl

Elf owls are kinda cute, on account of their big heads and naturally angry eyebrows.

As fantasy series go, this one’s not terrible. It’s fun enough to engage your attention, and I found myself wanting to know what would happen next. I do have a few nitpicks, but these are common problems that I have with children’s literature today.

First off, the characters tend to swing back and forth between extremes of emotion. Look, authors, kids aren’t as dumb as you think. They can pick up on subtlety, so you don’t have to have your characters constantly on the brink of despair in order to get kids to sympathize with your characters.

Also, the exposition is a little clunky. The way that Soren and Gylfie arrive at certain conclusions can be a little cheesy.

Finally, what’s with all the martyrdom? I don’t want to spoil those who haven’t read it yet, so I won’t elaborate, but I did find the martyrdom in the story to be a little over-the-top. So, yeah, St. Aggie’s is a dangerous place and these owls are ruthless. I get it.

Last week, JN came up to me at church and asked if I’d started reading the book yet. I replied that I had, and that it was good so far. He smiled, and then sighed a world-weary sigh. “I’m having trouble finding a good author,” he explained.

I feel you, JN. There’s a lot of dreck out there for kids, these days. I guess you could do a lot worse than Legend of the Guardians.

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Cannonball 44: Catching Fire (Hunger Games #2) by Suzanne Collins

Catching Fire (Hunger Games, #2)Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The second book in the Hunger Games Trilogy was a touch disappointing, but still a relatively fun read. It deals with Katniss Everdeen’s return home to District 12 after (SPOILER FROM THE HUNGER GAMES) eythay inway ethe Ungerhay Amesgay ogethertay.

She knows that the Capitol is angry with her for undermining the purpose of the games, which is simultaneously to act as an opiate of the masses by keeping them too entertained to think about rebelling, and to remind the citizens of Panem that the Capitol will react with swift vengeance if they dare to rebel.

The first book hinted (heavily) that there would be some sort of love triangle between Katniss, her best friend Gale (who’s a boy, by the way), and her fellow competitor (andyay ellowfay Ungerhay Amesgay Ampionchay) Peeta Mellark. Collins fleshes this out a bit, but not in any kind of satisfactory way. Her handling of the love triangle is a bit ham-fisted, but there’s still enough fun in the rest of the book to make it a worthwhile read.

Because the upcoming Hunger Games is the 75th, it means that they will be special. It’s called the Quarter Quell, and it happens every twenty-five years. This year, what makes the Quarter Quell so special is that the competitors, instead of being reaped from the usual pool of eligible candidates, will be reaped from the existing champions.

After just having survived a brutal Games, the last thing Katniss and Peeta want to do is re-enter the ring, especially since they know that the same tricks won’t work this time around. But they’ve got to compete if they want to protect their families and the people they love.

As with the first book in the series, the actual Hunger Games are the most interesting part of the book. Collins’ imagination really shines when it comes to making up brutal, gladiatorial games.

The relationships are decent, but nothing to scream about. I wasn’t nearly as invested in the new characters she introduced this time around as I was by the characters in the first book.

Ultimately, this book was a decent read, but I can’t help but to wish that Collins had stuck to a single volume instead of making it a trilogy.

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Cannonball 42: Betsy-Tacy (Betsy-Tacy, #1) by Maud Hart Lovelace

Betsy-Tacy (Betsy-Tacy, #1)Betsy-Tacy by Maud Hart Lovelace
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book took me back to a simpler time.

Back before kids told their parents regularly that they hate them because they didn’t grant the kids permission to do something or go somewhere.

Back before kids were driven to drugs and suicide by playground bullying.

Back before kids were so filled with angst before they even started attending school that they arrived with chips already firmly on shoulders.

Lovelace bases most of her book on her own childhood, and what a charmed childhood it was. Betsy lives in a nice house, has an annoying older sister, and lives with both her parents. A new girl moves in down the street, and they become best friends and have adventures like climbing the big hill behind Betsy’s house all by themselves.

Betsy and Tacy become so inseparable that people start to refer to them collectively as Betsy-Tacy.

Some might complain that it’s unrealistic or too idyllic or just fluff because nobody gets murdered or abused. The most serious part of the book is when (SPOILER!!) Acytay’s infantyay istersay iesday. And even that event is handled with a pretty light touch.

But you know what? I appreciate that there’s no over-the-top drama. These girls are supposed to be five years old. I like believing that, somewhere out in the world, some lucky girl is enjoying an uneventful childhood, filled with happiness and adventures, where climbing a hill without requiring the assistance of a grown-up is about as exciting as it gets.

This book was a sweet reminder that, sometimes, kids are just kids.

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Cannonball 41: The Hunger Games (Hunger Games, Book #1) by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games (Hunger Games, #1)The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I used to think I hated sci-fi. Truthfully, though, I’d never even read a single sci-fi book. I just assumed that it was boring because everyone I knew who read it was a geeky boy.

I was twenty-four years of age by the time I read my first sci-fi book. A coworker was raving about her favorite sci-fi book and, one day, out of the goodness of her heart, she brought a copy to work and made me borrow it.

ender's game

My introduction to sci-fi. If you haven't already, go read this book immediately.

The book was Ender’s Game, and I absolutely loved it.

Ever since then, I’ve learned to embrace my inner geek and read a little sci-fi from time to time. I really enjoy how it takes basic themes of humanity and sets them against a fantastic backdrop, like outer space or even a dystopian society in our own future.

When my good friend Jane told me that I had to read The Hunger Games, I was perfectly willing. I hadn’t read any sci-fi in a while, and I was ready for a new book.

The book’s protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, is a sixteen-year-old girl who is fighting for survival in a dystopian society. The nation of Panem is all that’s left of humanity on Earth, and the iron rule of the Capitol is felt through all of the remaining twelve districts, although Katniss’ home in District Twelve enjoys a little more laxity than the other districts, since they’re so far away from the Capitol.

But, as a reminder of the Capitol’s power, every district is required to send two tributes, one male and one female, to fight in the annual Hunger Games, which are televised from the arena for the duration of the Games. When Katniss’ beloved sister, Prim, is randomly selected as a tribute, Katniss does the only thing she can to save her sister: she volunteers to go in her place.

She and her fellow tribute, Peeta Mellark, must go to the Capitol an fight for survival against twenty-two other tributes, some of which are older and bigger, and some of whom have been training for the Games since birth. There can only be one winner of the Games, so Katniss knows that she will eventually have to kill Peeta if she ever wants to return to her family and her best friend andd hunting partner, Gale (who’s an older boy, by the way. Love triangle, anyone?).

Collins’ writing is decent, and the story is ossomly compelling. As a reader, I could feel Katniss’ confusion over what to do: kill Peeta, trust Peeta, refuse to bow to the Capitol’s games, give up, become a monster that her family wouldn’t recognize in order to survive.

Collins is no Steinbeck, but she does a decent job of conveying the hunger and desperation that drive Katniss to clutch at survival.

This book is an amazing beginning to the trilogy. It’s too bad that (SPOILER!!!) ethay estray ofyay ethay ooksbay on’tday ivelay upyay otay ethay irstfay unway.

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Regular Read: The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleischman

The Whipping Boy (HarperClassics)The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleischman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I remember reading this book as a child and comparing it to other Newbery Award winners and thinking it fell short. After re-reading it, I have to say that my ten-year-old self was right on the money.

Fleischman’s story is about two boys: Prince Horace, a spoiled, selfish prince, and, Jemmy, a poor orphan who is the prince’s whipping boy. Since no one is allowed to harm the prince, every time he misbehaves, Jemmy is whipped. But “Prince Brat,” as he has been nicknamed, simply tries to misbehave more often in an effort to make Jemmy cry out in pain and to get his father’s attention.

One day, Prince Horace decides to run away and makes Jemmy accompany him. Along the way, the two boys are kidnapped by two highwaymen. Jemmy tries to secure Prince Horace’s freedom by pretending to be the prince, but Horace’s arrogance and stupidity reveal the truth of his identity to the highwaymen.

It could be an interesting little morality tale, and the friendship between the two boys does grow through their adventures together. But, all told, it’s a pretty flat and dull book. I know it’s children’s lit, so I’m not expecting The Grapes of Wrath, here. But 1988’s winner was Sarah, Plain and Tall, and that was a masterfully written book.

1989 was just not a good year for children’s literature. Makes me want to write a children’s book even more. 2011 could be my 1989.

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