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Giants Beware!

8 Oct

GiantsBeware!When your life goal is to battle giants, the existence of a baby-feet-eating giant in the nearby mountains is cause for celebration. Upon hearing a story from a village elder about said giant, Claudette answers the call to adventure and heads out to slay the giant. Her trusty pup, Valiant, joins her on her quest, and she also tricks her timid younger brother Gaston and her best friend Marie to join her. Tricking her friends into joining her, stealing a map and weapons from her father’s secret chest, and sneaking out of the guarded town walls is the easy part. Once on the outside, Claudette and crew then must make their way through the Forest of Death, across the Mad River, and up the Giant’s Peak to find and slay the baby-feet-eating giant. Phew!

Giants Beware! has plenty of action, solid pacing, an imaginative setting, and funny, clever dialogue. The characters and themes of friendship and bravery are especially well developed. As the village elder tells Claudette at the beginning of the story “you never know what you’re truly made of until you’re staring eyeball-to-eyeball into the face of fear.” (p. 9) This story of adventure gives the reader plenty of opportunity to learn just what our characters are made of. The characters’ faces are quite expressive and Claudette’s red hair stands out on each page, just as her personality and rambunctiousness makes her stand out in life. Yeah, you heard me right – red hair. We have a full color comic on our hands. There’s a bit of gross-out humor throughout the book – dog poop, stinky feet, nerve-induced-barfing – that will attract some readers, but may feel immature to others (I made it through just fine). Overall, Giants Beware! is a fun, exciting, and sweet adventure story with a cast of characters that you can’t help rooting for. Much love for this one.

Em’s Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Author: Jorge Aguirre
Illustrator: Rafael Rosado
Publisher: First Second (April 2012)

I love Giants Beware! I suggest it to all the cool kids at the library and some of the adults too. I can’t wait for the next adventure with Claudette, Gaston, and Marie, Dragons Beware!, coming in May 2015. See description below!

dragonsbeware

Scrappy Claudette sets out once again with her pal Marie and her little brother Gaston to right wrongs and fight evil. And this time, it’s personal. Claudette is out to get the dragon who ate her father’s legs…and his legendary sword. But as usual, nothing is as simple as it seems, and Claudette is going to need Marie and Gaston’s help more than ever.

Funny, fast, high-energy storytelling in an inventive and perilous fantasy landscape makes Dragons Beware! a fantastic follow-up to 2012’s middle-grade hit Giants Beware!

Sisters

8 Sep

SistersI love Raina Telgemeier’s graphic novel memoir, Smile, a coming of age story that explores the impact of years of dental work caused by a fall in sixth grade as well as typical middle school stuff: crushes, changing friendships, school, pimples, self-confidence, and family. In the follow up to Smile, Raina revisits her childhood years and explores her relationship with her younger sister, Amara. With Sisters, rather than dental drama, a family road-trip provides the framework of the story. Raina, Amara, their baby brother, and their mom head off to a family reunion in the family van, traveling from their home in San Francisco to Colorado. Along the way the family survives life on the road with crazy storms, van issues, unwelcome creatures, and changing relationships. The story jumps in time between the road trip adventures and various memories from Raina and Amara’s childhood, showing the sisters at their best and at their worst.

In one of the flashbacks, we learn that as a child Raina wanted a baby sister (and playmate) more than anything, but then Amara arrived and she wasn’t quite what Raina had in mind. Amara was a grouchy baby and cried all the time, which is perhaps normal for a baby, but her mood didn’t seem to improve much as she grew older. The girls are very different from one another and though they share a love of art, they fight over art supplies and Raina feels some stress about her art skills being compared to her younger sister. But even with all the nagging, fighting, and angry glares, Telgemeier also presents some sweet moments where the sisters come together as a team.

SistersSarahEm

Here’s me and my big sister, Sarah, being especially cute together.

While my sister and I generally got along growing up – I would even go so far as to say we were friends – Sisters brought back plenty of memories from family road trips, both the good and the bad. Telgemeier’s “Anatomy of a Road Trip” illustration offers a great reminder of times past for anyone who grew up taking road trips with family in a mini-van. Many readers will relate to the dynamic between the siblings, and between Raina and her other family members, but even those who don’t will find much to enjoy here. And while technically Sisters is a follow-up to Smile, both books work well as stand-alones, so those who have yet to read Smile will not feel lost. (Though why haven’t they read Smile yet?).

Sisters is written for a young audience and I’m curious if young readers will pick up on some of the plot developments before they are announced – some family issues and a surprise road trip visitor – or if they’ll be surprised at the turn of events. The foreshadowing wasn’t especially subtle, but it didn’t negatively affect my enjoyment of the story or make the “big reveals” any less impactful. Telgemeier strikes a fine balance in her visual story telling offering both subtle details and exaggerated expressions, mixing quirky humor with emotional depth. Sisters covers some emotional territory, but never forgets the light moments along the way. Telgemeier’s artwork is expressive and she brings warmth and a sense of humor to the story of battling siblings who figure out how to get along…well, when it matters at least.

Em’s Rating: 4 out of 5
Title: Sisters
Author/illustrator: Raina Telgemeier
Publisher: Graphix (August 2014)
Note: Review copy received from publisher.

Middle Grade Read: Diary of a Wimpy Kid

1 Aug

DiaryOfAWimpyKid
I decided to finally read Diary of a Wimpy Kid because all the young men who spend time at my library can’t seem to get enough of the series and I wanted to know what all the hubbub was about. There was one young man last summer who would come by my office each day and read a few sentences from this book to me. He would do the whole finger traveling under the words as he read thing and it was just so sweet being read to by this young and eager reader from this super goofy story.

In Diary of a Wimpy Kid, sixth grader Greg Heffley chronicles his experiences during his first year in middle school with stories and sketches. In this first volume of the popular series, Greg and his friend Rowley navigate the sometimes-scary middle school hallways and their changing relationship. The reader is also introduced to the wonderful world of being a middle child. Between Rodrick, Greg’s older brother and frequent tormentor, and Manny, Greg’s younger brother who gets away with everything because he’s three, Greg just can’t seem to win.

Greg isn’t a perfect person, and things don’t always go his way. I doubt many kids would strive to be more like Greg Heffley, but they may recognize some of their own flaws or tough luck in this character and feel a bit of relief that they are not alone. Kinney does a great job of depicting life at this age—when you’re not quite a kid anymore, but you still want to go trick or treating and your parents infuriatingly monitor your media use.

After reading the first volume, I can understand why these books are rarely on the shelves. The stories are quite funny and are fairly accessible for struggling or reluctant readers. The diary format with short entries and the inclusion of cartoons makes for an especially quick and fun read. While these books are definitely geared towards children, they’re cute and clever and readers of any age could easily enjoy them. I can’t say with any certainty that I’ll continue on with the series, but I’m glad that I gave the first book a chance, and not only because I now know what the deal is with “the cheese touch”.

Em’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Author: Jeff Kinney
Publisher: Amulet Books (2007)

The Shadow Hero

22 Jul

ShadowHero-Cov-final2Back in the 1940s, a new superhero was introduced who defended American Allies in China during World War II. He was called the Green Turtle and some speculate that the comic’s creator, Chu Hing, intended the Green Turtle to be Chinese-American and therefore the first Asian American Superhero. It’s further speculated that the publisher feared a Chinese superhero would not sell and so insisted that the character appear white. The Green Turtle’s run in comics was short-lived and so the audience, and his sidekick Burma Boy, never learned his true identity nor saw the Green Turtle unmasked.

Enter Gene Luen Yang, 70 years later, who offers both an identity and an origin story for the Green Turtle. In Yang’s story, a first generation Chinese-American named Hank Chu transforms from a neighborhood teen working in his father’s grocery store in 1930s Chinatown to a crime-fighting superhero who is invulnerable to bullets. It all starts when his mother is saved by The Anchor of Justice and becomes obsessed with the idea of her son becoming a great superhero. She signs him up for fighting lessons with Uncle Wun Too, makes him a costume, and gives him a superhero name (Golden Man of Bravery). While he does gain some fighting skills, throwing a few good punches in a costume does not make someone a superhero. Sadly, it takes a tragedy to give Hank both the super powers and motivation he needs to be a true masked crime-fighter.

One thing I appreciate about The Shadow Hero as an origin story is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. While there is some heartbreak to help spur our hero into action and the racism of the era is not ignored, there is also quite a bit of humor as Hank survives his mother’s many efforts to have him stumble upon some super powers and as he figures out how to work with the ancient turtle spirit who is always just over his shoulder sharing his input like it or not.

ToxicSludgeIsGoodForYou

Hank’s mother and Uncle Wun Too are wonderfully entertaining supporting characters who offer the story a good dose each of humor and heart while also having a strong impact on the storyline. We’re introduced to a love interest for Hank – a beautiful, young woman named Red Center with special skills and family issues of her own. We also meet Detective Lawful, a lawman who isn’t quite up to the challenge of fighting a fight he cannot win, and the real “law” of Chinatown – Ten Grand, Mock Beak, and Big Cookie – who collect taxes from the people of Chinatown and deliver punches and bullets to those who disobey. And then there’s the ancient Chinese turtle spirit who inhabits Hank’s shadow, who is part sidekick, part guardian angel, but really neither of these two roles quite describes the relationship between him and Hank.

In addition to the strong ensemble, Yang and Liew offer action, romance, humor, suspense, and a desire for more adventures to follow. Whether there will be more Green Turtle adventures from Yang and Liew or not, I do not know. The end of The Shadow Hero suggests that the Green Turtle will be heading off to war soon (i.e. the adventures featured in the 1940s comics), so perhaps the idea is that what comes next has already been written and so need not be written again. All I know is that I would gladly read more from Yang and Liew and would be thrilled to see more Green Turtle stories in their (and my) future.

Em’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Author: Gene Luen Yang
Illustrator: Sonny Liew
Publisher: First Second (July 2014)
Note: eGalley received from publisher for review

Not So YA: Vegan Cookbook Edition

6 Jul

This is a YA blog and these books aren’t YA. I could make the connection to my teen years – that I went vegetarian when I was 15 and vegan when I was 18. I could talk about how much I would have loved these books as a young vegan and how glad I am that vegan teens today have so many more options in restaurants, grocery stores, and on the bookshelves. This is all true, but I also just wanted to highlight these two books because they’re awesome. The recipes are delicious, creative, and easy to follow. The design is eye-catching and informative. These two books are two of my new go-to cookbooks that I’ll be revisiting time and time again in the years to come. I can’t wait to see what my next great recipe is!

afro-vegan
Afro-Vegan: Farm-Fresh African, Caribbean, and Southern Flavors Remixed by Bryant Terry

Bryant Terry creates amazing cookbooks and delicious flavor combinations. His book Vegan Soul Kitchen is one of my all-time favorites. There are few dishes in my life that I have loved as much as his Cajun-Creole-Spiced Tempeh Pieces with Creamy Grits. But boy do I have a new favorite in Afro-Vegan with his recipe for Texas Caviar. mmmmMMMM. It is fresh and decadent and reason enough to buy this book (though there are plenty of other reasons).

In Afro-Vegan, Terry offers over 100 delicious recipes organized by staple ingredients such as “Grits. Grains. Couscous.”, “Greens. Squashes, Roots.”, and “Okra, Black-Eyed Peas. Watermelon.” Each section’s intro and each recipe’s blurb ties back into the central themes of the cookbook – building community around food and around the table, honoring personal history and food history, and celebrating the food and the people of ancient Africa and the African-diaspora and their contributions to New World cuisine and agricultural practices.

As he does with every book, each recipe comes with a suggested music track. For example, Texas Caviar is paired with Frank Ocean’s “Super Rich Kids”. This recipe is absolutely divine and I feel like a super rich kid when I eat it. Other dishes from Afro-Vegan that I have made and enjoyed include Glazed Carrot Salad and Sweet Potato and Pumpkin Soup. The suggested tracks for these two recipes: “Sweet Bite” by George Duke and “Africaine” by Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers.

The Glazed Carrot Salad is a delicious warm carrot salad with cilantro, mint, and peanuts. I’m always excited to find dishes that give me a reason to appreciate the mint that grows like a weed in front of my house. This recipe is a bit time-consuming prep-wise for a side dish, but the resulting dish is beautiful and offers diverse textures and flavors that I appreciate. The Sweet Potato and Pumpkin Soup recipe uses a great trick that I first learned in Vegan Soul Kitchen – soaking cashews and blending them with water to make a nice protein-rich alternative to heavy cream. I made this recipe for Christmas dinner and my non-vegan family members thought the creamed cashews idea was genius and the resulting recipe delicious. They were correct.

IMG_2551
The book design is also lovely, with food photography by Paige Green, artwork by Nick James and Keba Konte, and a textured cloth pattern along the spine. I literally pet the book when it showed up at my library and thought to myself “this will look great on my cookbook shelf”. Then remembered that the copy belonged to the library, not me. Oops! I quickly remedied that situation and bought a copy of my own. Doesn’t it look so cozy with its friends?

Em’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Author: Bryant Terry
Photography: Paige Green
Publisher: Ten Speed Press (April 2014)
Note: eGalley received from publisher.

“If A People’s History Of The United States and Joy of Cooking had a baby, Afro-Vegan would be it!”
—Isa Chandra Moskowitz, author of Veganomicon and Isa Does It

Isa-Does-It
Isa Does It: Amazingly Easy, Wildly Delicious Vegan Recipes for Every Day of the Week by Isa Chandra Moskowitz

What I love about Isa Chandra Moskowitz’s recipes is that they’re really easy to follow and the resulting dishes are always delicious. What I love about her latest cookbook (in addition to the tasty dishes she introduces) is that almost every recipe is accompanied by a mouth-watering photograph. While the photography doesn’t technically make the recipes any better, aside from offering a reference for what the dish should/could look like, it does help build the excitement for trying out new dishes.

With Afro-Vegan I offered Texas Caviar as the recipe that is reason enough to buy the book. Here I suggest Jerk Sloppy Joes with Coconut Creamed Spinach as the recipe that alone is worth the price of the book purchase. I’ve had several vegan sloppy joes over the past 20 years, but this one is by far the best and I will never go back. The Coconut Creamed Spinach is a delicious addition that I never would have thought to add to a sloppy joe. Other recipes that have become go-to recipes for me in this book are the Meaty Beany Chili and the Cornbread Muffins; both are simple recipes that offer a lot of flavor. Here’s a video of Moskowitz making her Meaty Beany Chili and Cornbread Muffins (the video is by Breville, so she uses their slow-cooker and toaster oven – I use a good old fashioned pot and oven for these recipes at home, but hey, options are always good):

Other recipes that I have tried include Norah’s Lemon-Lemon Cookies and Curried Peanut Sauce Bowl with Tofu & Kale which were both delicious. I’m excited to try out more recipes this summer with all the fresh local produce available! Yum! The only trick is trying to narrow down which recipe to try out next. They all look so good!

Em’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Author: Isa Chandra Moskowitz
Photography: Vanessa Rees
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company (October 2013)
Note: eGalley received from publisher.

War Horse (Audio)

7 Apr

War Horse
I’ve never been that into horses. Don’t get me wrong, horses are great. I mean they’re basically superheroes – they can run shortly after birth, they can see nearly 360 degrees, and they can sleep standing up (ok, maybe that last one isn’t the greatest super power, but it’s still very impressive). I know horse personalities vary, but in my limited experience with them, I’ve never met a bad egg. They’re beautiful creatures. And whenever I watch a battle scene with soldiers on horseback at the movies, I’m more sad to see the horses fall in battle than the soldiers. But somehow, I’ve never been drawn to horse stories and if I’m honest, would probably even go so far as to respond to them with a “this one’s not for me”. So it comes as no surprise that I was late to the party when it comes to Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse. I still haven’t seen the stage performance or the Spielberg film adaptation, but I can now put a big check mark next to “read the book”.

War Horse follows Joey, a bay-red foal, from farm life to the war on the Western Front. As Joey is transferred from owner to owner, we see war from his point of view as well as from the perspectives of his various caregivers, on both sides of the war in England, Germany and France. The story is narrated using fairly simple language to match Joey’s limited awareness and the way he sees the war. Still, plenty of people talk to Joey, sharing their thoughts and concerns, asking things of him, and Joey communicates with people in his own way. While Joey has a job to perform at each stop along his way, it’s also clear that his value to his caretakers goes far beyond his contributions as a work animal. Joey also has some horse companions, Zoey and Topthorn – one a farm horse, the other a war horse. Unlike with many animal stories, the horses themselves do not have some special, secret horse communication, yet Joey still feels a strong connection with these two horses.

Morpurgo had several inspirations for War Horse, including conversations with World War I veterans and a haunting painting of horses charging into a barbed wire fence during battle. In a piece written for The Telegraph titled “War Horse: When Horses Were Heroes”, Morpurgo also shared a particularly touching inspiration for the story – an encounter he once witnessed between a boy with a debilitating stammer and a farm horse:

As I came into the stable yard behind the house I found Billy standing under the stable light, talking freely to one of the horses. He spoke confidently, knowing he was not being judged or mocked. And I had the very strong impression that the horse was listening, and understanding too. It was an unforgettable moment for all three of us, I think. It was that extraordinary moment that gave me the confidence I needed to begin writing War Horse.

That story alone moved me to tears. War Horse also moved me to tears several times. I’m sure if I ever get around to watching the movie, Spielberg will make sure to have the music swell just right at all the tearjerker moments. The story is moving, war is harsh, and the themes of family, friendship, courage, and communication across language barriers are explored in interesting ways. But it is the uniqueness of Joey as a narrator and protagonist that makes War Horse really stand out.

Through his performance on the audiobook recording, reader John Keating distinguishes between Joey and his various owners, giving each a distinct voice and accent. The audio recording is well paced and overall a short listen at just over four hours. I’m glad I finally gave this “horse story” a listen.

Em’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Author: Michael Morpurgo
Reader: John Keating
Publishers: Scholastic Audiobooks (2010)

Hilda and the Midnight Giant

3 Feb

hilda
Hilda can make friends with just about any creature, which is a good thing seeing as the valley where she and her mother lives offers frequent sightings of unusual beings. But not all creatures love Hilda back and one night she and her mother receive an eviction notice from an army of elves who don’t want them living in the valley anymore. Her mother thinks they should just move to the city, but Hilda wants to remain in the one place she has ever called home. So she sets off to try to work things out with the leaders of the elf community and at night she also catches glimpses of a mountain-sized giant.

While the first Hilda tale, Hildafolk, is quite small, with Hilda and the Midnight Giant Nobrow Press went large-scale (approx. 8.5 x 12 inches), which allows Pearson to utilize several different panel layouts from single panel pages to 17 panel pages. He even lets elements escape the panels altogether or lets panels overlap one another. Its both playful and purposeful and complements the story well.

image from Nobrow Press site.

image from Nobrow Press site.


 
Hilda is a spunky, brave, and resourceful girl.  The look Pearson has designed for her is eye-catching with her blue hair, pointy nose, large eyes, big red boots, and stick figure legs, and the creatures she encounters are diverse and imaginative. With the story, I especially appreciate the way Hilda’s issue with the elves and the mystery of the giant tie together. The conclusion is sweet, unites with the theme of home and homeland, and mixes emotion and humor quite well. While the Hilda stories would be accessible and enjoyable for younger readers, Pearson’s thoughtful layout, engaging visuals, and imaginative characters will be attractive to just about anyone with an open mind. I can’t wait to read Hilda and the Bird Parade, the next in series, which I’ve heard is even better!

Em’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Author/Illustrator: Luke Pearson
Publisher: Nobrow Press, 2012

Battling Boy

24 Jan

Battling-Boy-cover
The monster-infested city of Arcopolis finds itself without a hero when the vigilante monster fighter, Haggard West, is killed in battle. Luckily for them, there’s a 12-year-old demi-god, known as Battling Boy, in need of a little hero initiation (his “rambling”), and his parents have picked Arcopolis as his training ground. Armed with magical, totemic t-shirts, Battling Boy answers the call to adventure and begins battling the city’s monsters. Meanwhile, Aurora West, daughter of the late Haggard West, trains to take over her father’s mission, and the city’s monsters respond to the news of the city’s new hero.

Battling Boy is the first installment in a new series from Paul Pope; the only downside to this is that I don’t have the second book in my hands at this very moment. Paul Pope’s artwork is brilliant, eye-catching, and like nothing I’ve seen before; while this is not the first Paul Pope comic, it was my personal introduction to his work. The artwork alone is reason enough to enjoy this graphic novel, but in addition, the story is engaging, the characters are memorable, and the themes of fear of failure and the pressure of living up to parents’ expectations are ones that many young readers will relate to.

Pope_Humbaba

While Battling Boy is clearly our main hero, he’s still learning the ropes, making mistakes, and calling in for help when needed – he’s in training after all. Aurora West doesn’t get nearly as much attention, but we see enough to feel invested in her character and to hope for a partnership between these two young heroes as they continue to fight, learn, and grow in future volumes. Both Battling Boy and Aurora West are genuinely unique and likable, so there was no wishing the story would focus more attention on one or the other, as I’ve found at times with other dual hero stories. And let’s not forget the monsters! The main villains/henchmen throughout are Sadisto and his gang of schemers, kidnappers, and murderers, and they are plenty entertaining and evil, but the giant car-chomping Humbaba is just about my favorite comic book monster that I’ve ever seen!

I can’t wait to dive into this world again, and thankfully won’t have to wait too long as Fall 2014 brings us a prequel, The Rise of Aurora West! More more more more more. Please.

Em’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Author/Illustrator: Paul Pope
Publisher: First Second (Oct. 2013)

Doll Bones

20 Jan

Doll Bones
Zach may be too old to play with dolls, but he doesn’t let that stop him. He and his friends Alice and Poppy have been acting out an adventurous storyline with dolls and action figures for almost as long as they have been friends. When Zach’s dad throws all his toys away, it looks like their storytelling days are over. Only, there’s still one great adventure to tell, and it stars the friends themselves. Poppy claims to be haunted by a dead girl, a ghost who claims that The Queen (a bone china doll that’s off limits from game play) is made from her ashes. The ghost demands that the children bring the doll to the cemetery in the town where she lived and give her the burial she deserves. Otherwise, the dead girl will haunt the friends forever.

Focusing on Zach’s experience of events and performed by Nick Podehl, this story is more about growing up, friendship, and creativity than it is a ghost story. There is plenty of adventure and some creepy moments with the doll, but the story always comes back to the three friends navigating the transition between childhood and adolescence. Nick Podehl skillfully captures the story’s pace and the changes that the characters, both male and female, go through during their adventures. Doll Bones is a great choice for young readers who want to read something scary, but can’t quite handle a real horror story yet. But other readers will also find much to love here, from the solid character development to the friends’ quest to find their way to the doll’s burial ground.

Em’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Author: Holly Black
Reader: Nick Podehl
Publishers:Listening Library and Margaret K. McElderry Books (2013)

Sumo

5 Jan

Sumo
Scott’s dream of making it to the NFL didn’t come to fruition, and then his girlfriend of four years dumped him. When we first meet Scott, however, he’s in a much different place: he’s sporting a new look and training in a sumo heya in Japan. The story then jumps back and forth between his time training for and participating in an important bout, his departure from the States, and his arrival at the sumo training quarters and meeting Asami, the daughter of Scott’s trainer. The different time periods are marked by color – blue for his last moments in the States, green for his initial time at the sumo heya, and orange for his training and the important match that will determine whether he stays or returns home. His trainer tells him that the three most important things in sumo are the body, mind, and spirit. He clearly has the body advantage, but will he be able to find the center that he’s been missing for so long? Does he have what it takes?

Thien Pham’s minimalist artwork and the calm pacing of the story make for a rather poetic read. The quiet, slow, gracefulness of sumo wrestling comes across through the visual storytelling. While there is a calmness to the storytelling there is also a bit of action during the training scenes. On first reading, I was drawn to the subtle and efficient style and the overall mood of the book. However, I found Sumo even more enjoyable and interesting upon reread and after learning a bit about sumo wrestling.

Em’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Author/Illustrator: Thien Pham
Publisher: First Second (Dec. 2012)

Between readings of Sumo my super fabulous cousin Liz became an amateur sumo champ! She competed in her first tournament over the summer representing the USA in the World Games, where she became the first female American to ever win a match! Later in the year she won both the Middleweight Gold and Openweight Gold at the US Open. You can watch her kicking butt in the video below (starting around the 1:40 mark).